ROME (AP) — Italians celebrated the European Championship soccer title as a new beginning not only for their youthful national team but for a country that’s been yearning to return to normalcy after being hit hard and long by the coronavirus pandemic.
A cacophony of honking cars, fireworks and singing fans filled the night in Rome as thousands of people took to the streets after Italy beat England in a penalty shootout Sunday to win its first major soccer trophy since the 2006 World Cup.
“We are coming out of a difficult year and a half which has left us exhausted, like other countries in the world,” said Fabrizio Galliano, a 29-year-old from Naples who watched the match on a big screen in downtown Rome. “This means so much. Sports is one of the things that unites us, among all the things that separate us. But to finally be able to feel that joy that we’ve been missing, it goes beyond sports.”
Many Italians saw the European Championship as a relaunch for a country that spent much of the past 16 months in various stages of lockdown. Italy was the first country outside Asia to get hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and suffered immensely, particularly in the spring of 2020 when hospitals in northern Italy were overwhelmed with patients and the death toll soared. Italy has recorded more than 127,000 COVID deaths, the highest in the 27-nation European Union.
“It’s been a complicated year for everyone but especially for us who were one of the first countries hit. This is a signal of a new beginning,” said Michela Solfanelli, a 30-year-old event producer based in Milan.
Most virus restrictions have been lifted since the spring and those that remain were largely ignored by the mass of Italy fans who danced in the streets of the capital chanting “we are champions of Europe.”
David Bellomo, a 23-year-old from the southern city of Bari, pointed out that this was Italy’s second big victory this year, after Italian band Maneskin won the Eurovision Song Contest in May.
“Thanks to Eurovision and thanks to this game and soccer we’ve managed to come back this year,” he said. “We almost got a triple,” he added, referring to Matteo Berrettini, the Italian tennis player who lost the Wimbledon final to Novak Djokovic earlier in the day.
Shoulder to shoulder, fans nervously watched the penalty shootout on two big screens set up on Piazza del Popolo, an ellipitcal cobblestone square at the edge of Rome’s historic center. A deafening roar rose to the sky as Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma saved England’s last penalty.
Among the sea of blue Italy shirts was an immigrant family from Senegal, who came from the town of Zagarolo, an hour outside Rome, to experience the final with the crowd in the piazza.
“I am not Italian, but I can feel the emotions. I feel it, as if I were Italian,” said Falilou Ndao, 42. “We really love this country.”
His 13-year-old son Yankho, an Italy fan and soccer player, was impressed by the team.
“They showed courage. They never gave up, even when they were down by a goal,” he said. “It is so well-deserved. They have been playing great the entire tournament. Go Italy!”
Though people are still required to wear masks in crowded situations, police made no attempts to intervene as throngs of barefaced fans poured of out the piazza, singing the national anthem and lighting flares. Fireworks cracked overhead as fans cruised through the city waving Italian flags from their cars.
Dr. Annamaria Altomare, a 39-year-old gastroenterologist, watched the spectacle with a friend from a safe distance. They were among the few wearing masks.
“We want to avoid the delta variant in this mess,” she said, laughing.
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