On Friday, Italy opens the European Championship against Turkey in Rome. The Italians hope that the game is the start of a carefree summer. “Tell the Dutch they’re coming here.”
Leaning on his umbrella, Italo Felici (85) watches as five technicians screw lights into plastic plates, in a small square in the middle of the old town. They have a few days left until the exhibition on European football history is due to be completed for the thousands of Italian and foreign fans the capital hopes to welcome in the coming month.
Rome is ready, Felici says. For years he worked as a TV producer and director for one of Silvio Berlusconi’s channels, but since his retirement he spends his afternoons on the many squares in the center. ‘The city has its problems, but we can organize an event like this well.’
For a moment it is not about vaccines, mouth caps or contamination figures. The talk of the day is not the potholes in the road, the chronically congested traffic or the buses that sometimes spontaneously burst into flames. It’s not even about the fall mayoral election, and who could do better in this impossible job than the increasingly unpopular Virginia Raggi. “Let’s not talk about her,” Felici says with a dismissive gesture.
The coming month will be all about football, from 9 o’clock on Friday evening until the last minute in which the azurri compete for the European title. Well, as an AS Roma fan, Felici also looks forward to the arrival of coach José Mourinho, but even club teams have to give way now. In the shopping street Via del Corso, two boys stare at the deep blue uniforms so engrossed that they don’t even notice their friends entering the Roma fan shop ahead.
In the majestic Piazza del Popolo, workmen put the finishing touches to the official Football Village. Here on Friday evening 1,680 fans, exactly as many people as the corona rules allow on the square, watch the opening match Italy – Turkey, which is played a few kilometers to the west. The Stadio Olimpico is allowed to accommodate 16,000 tested or vaccinated spectators, one third of the normal capacity.
Francesco Muzi (7), with a melting ice cream in hand, looks up at the mega screens in surprise. He carries a racket on his back, because he wanted to play badminton with his father in the square, but there is no room for that at the moment. ‘The city will be even more chaotic than usual’, says father Ludovico (51) with a smile. “Italians are crazy about sporting events anyway, and after covid people really need this.”
Café owner Angelo Tranfa (62) can only confirm this. He catches a glimpse of the big screens from his terrace on the edge of the square, but he hopes not to have time to watch on Friday. That would mean that his business, after the most disastrous period in his 31-year career, is finally full again. “This neighborhood is alive with tourism, so we hope this is a new beginning.”
Sports councilor Daniele Frongia, special commissioner for the European Championship, also calls the tournament a sign of resurrection. He expects that Rome will recoup the investment of 2 million euros through the visitors that the city craves so much. The national government invested another 10 million euros in the four Roman European Championship matches: after the three Italian group matches, the Stadio Olimpico is also the battleground of a quarter-final.
The Turkish fans are less enthusiastic about the Italian organization. Only a few days ago it turned out that most of them can throw away their cards. Italy is rejecting all tourist visas due to the pandemic, but that was unclear until early this week for many applicants, who simply did not receive a response for a long time. By then it was already too late to invent quarantines or other goat paths.
The atmosphere between Turkey and Italy has not been optimal in recent months, says ICT player Utku Cem Sankal (31), who lives in Rome and will be one of the few Turks in the stadium. Prime Minister Mario Draghi recently called Erdogan a dictator, but an awkward meeting is not forthcoming, as neither of them will be present at Friday’s game. Sankal, on the other hand, cannot wait. “I already bought the tickets in 2019.”
The European Championship starts a year later than planned, still half in the shadow of the pandemic. But if it is up to the Romans, that will soon change and soon it will only be about football. “Italy has a nice team this year, very compact,” Felici says confidently. “We can make it difficult for everyone.” He looks at home on Friday, with his wife. She wants to sit right in front of the big screen during important matches (“she has a lot of passion”), so he grabs the laptop.
Café owner Tranfa just doesn’t know about Italy’s title chances yet. He rather puts his money on Belgium, but he really doesn’t care. As long as tourism gets going again, he will be satisfied. “Tell the Dutch they’re coming here.” After a long hibernation, Italy can’t wait to show itself to the world, on the field and off.