BBC: LONDON, England – By Mark Lowen – “Do the English really put pineapple on pizza?” asks the Italian daily La Repubblica in a piece by its London correspondent. “Rarely,” it concludes, “but the real problem is adding cream to spaghetti carbonara.”

Sunday’s Euro final is not just a clash of sport, but of cultures.

“The thing about us Italians is that we are a country of beauty,” says the newspaper Corriere della Sera. “We don’t just score goals, we score beautiful goals.” It adds: “There’s no such thing as a badly-dressed Italian, just some Italians who aren’t interested in dressing well.”

But for all that divides these markedly different countries – few Italians rave about British cuisine, in case you were wondering – there are many similarities.

Football runs through the veins of both nations. While England have been waiting for international football glory since 1966, Italy last won a European title in 1968 and are also impatient for triumph (though two World Cup wins since, in 1982 and 2006, have eased the pain).

And both teams have been revolutionised by their managers, with Gareth Southgate and Roberto Mancini bringing in younger players and laying ghosts of the past to rest – England with its failure to reach an international final for decades and Italy with its non-qualification for the 2018 World Cup, labelled “an apocalypse” by the country’s leading sports newspaper.

“Mancini is the central man of this Italian miracle,” says Alvaro Moretti, the deputy editor of the daily Il Messaggero and its former sports editor.

Alvaro Moretti
image captionAlvaro Moretti says Roberto Mancini has rekindled the fortunes of the Italy team

“When he took over in 2018, he believed from the start that he would arrive at this point. He’s very charismatic, he’s very elegant. And he decided that his approach would be enjoyment, to bring happiness to the Italian team – and to the Italian people.”

That is, perhaps, the overriding feeling in Italy as it watches gli Azzurri (the Blues) go into this final – joy. The first country in the West to be crushed by the Coronavirus pandemic, whose inundated intensive care units forewarned others of what was to come, has seen infection levels drop sharply so as to be able to lift most restrictions and for Italians to watch their team’s triumphant performances in bars.

“I’m even happier about the rebirth of Italy than about the final itself,” says Gianluca Santangeli, sitting in his newspaper kiosk in the Trastevere district of Rome.

Gianluca Santangeli
Gianluca Santangeli is celebrating the lifting of COVID

“That people can go out without masks and watch it on big screens is a relief.” As for his prediction? “I believe in fate,” he says. “But I think Italy should play our classic tactics: strong defence and counter-attack, since we’re facing a good England team at home.”

The match has, of course, split loyalties among the many Anglo-Italian couples, including Elisa Sandri, who lives in Brighton with her British partner but is currently back in Rome.

Enjoying a coffee with her old friend, Anna, she jokes that she’s had the odd heated discussion over the match with English colleagues but with her partner, “we’ve been watching the games together and cheering for each other, so I think it’ll be fine”.

“In any case it’ll be a win-win for me,” she adds. “I just love the atmosphere here when Italy plays. Everyone comes together, cheers and hugs, you make new friends. I think England might win…but if it goes to penalties, they won’t!”

Elisa
Elisa Sandri (R) says Italians have come together during the Euro 2020 matches

Shopping for tomatoes at a nearby market, Morosina Zorzi has other concerns.

“The main thing I’m worried about is that my son’s wedding is happening at the same time as the match,” she says.

“He doesn’t want a big screen at the reception, so I think the guests will be watching it on their phones – and I’m sure some of them will leave to go and watch it.”

She admits she’s not a football fan but says: “If Italy win I’ll be happy because of the national spirit – though Rome will be a mess with all the partying.”

This proud nation is sure of victory over England in most respects – beaches, food, fashion. But for football-mad Italians, a win tonight might just be the sweetest of all.
  • Top Feature Photo: Flags are out all over Italy for today’s Euro 2020 final