‘We heard it day in and day out since Wednesday night after the Denmark game, that the trophy would be coming to London. Sorry for them but actually the cup will be taking a nice flight to Rome to celebrate with us.’ In this manner, Leonardo Bonucci, Italy’s star centre-back, summarised Italy’s attitude to the final against Southgate’s England. The final served as a reminder that, in spite of being a smaller and often overlooked nation, Italy could still be at the centre of the European sporting stage – receiving a further boost by Berrettini’s historic second place at Wimbledon, the best Wimbledon result in Italian tennis history. Unfortunately the pride and jubilation of the victory in the European cup is generally seen by Italians as having been met with contempt and arrogance by our friends across the channel. Bonucci’s words summarise this arrogance, with England fans continuously chanting about football coming home – although, as Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel noted, was it ever home to begin with?
The Italian press has suggested that this arrogance was displayed across the footballing world, reflected in Rio Ferdinand’s claim that England was ‘superior to both Italy and Spain, whilst Gary Neville affirmed that ‘Italy is not at the level to play with England in Euro 2020’. A myriad of English commentators continued this rhetoric by talking about Mancini’s Italy being made up of footballers from ‘farm leagues’ – a pejorative epithet for the Italian Serie A – whilst Boris Johnson flirted with the idea of instituting a national holiday if Southgate successfully outmanoeuvred Mancini. This confidence only increased after Shaw’s second minute goal in the final. Call it arrogance or ‘just English humour’, as argued by Southgate after the defeat, such an attitude would be unthinkable in Italy. The reason for this can be explained by Italian superstition and the concept of ‘Scaramanzia’, something that no one can truly understand outside of Italy. As a nation steeped in tradition and customs, Italy holds superstition as a matter of utmost importance. As a family, we first watched Italy’s knockout matches at home with family friends, and hence we continued to watch the matches at home with the same people every week, eating the same pasta, sitting in the same seats. It may be stupid but this was so serious that if Italy had scored with one person in the toilet it is likely that they would have been forced to watch the rest of the match sealed in the lavatory. This is something practiced by Mancini’s azzurri as well. Before the first game, the bus leaving for the stadium forgot Gianluca Vialli, Mancini’s second in command, only to then realise and have to return to pick him up. Italy then proceeded to defeat Turkey 3-0. From then on, this became a ritual, with the Italian bus pretending to forget Vialli and then coming back to pick him up before every game. Call it stupid, but this scaramazia bred humility, meaning that drilling a song like It’s Coming Home or the Italian equivalent Notti Magiche into everyone’s minds would be unthinkable in Italy.
This perceived arrogance was perhaps aggravated by the behaviour of the English side during the game and after. Much like in the famous 1950 world cup, where Brazil behaved like they had some God given right to win, England seemed to think they had already won. This divine ordination was stopped by the mortal hands of Gianluigi Donnarumma, much like the Brazilians had been halted by the Uruguayan goalkeeper Máspoli. This apparent confidence was mirrored in Southgate’s substitutions. These substitutions so close to the 120th minute seemed, in Italy, to be tempting fate. Further, many saw the English defensive attitude as an affront. Much like Italy had been wrong to attempt to defeat Spain using a Spanish style of gameplay, Southgate could not win against Italy by using an Italian creation – the catenaccio. Additionally, what in particular angered Italians across the peninsula was the way in which English players took off their medals, almost to indicate no respect for their opponents. It is true that this is becoming an increasingly common practice in football, nevertheless the English players unprecedentedly left the pitch before the Italians received the cup, whilst Prince William failed to greet our President Sergio Mattarella. The combination of all of these is being seen by Italians in a very disappointing light. Italians often put England on a pedestal as the alleged inventors of fair play and sportsmanship. Instead, all we seemed to witness was a petty display of disrespect amongst the team, with only Henderson and Southgate proudly keeping their silver medal. This view was only accentuated with scenes of violent hooliganism. The prevailing narrative in Italy is that in one day, Italy showed Sua Maestà – the term ironically used to refer to Queen Elizabeth – how to win in style at Wembley, and how to lose in style, with Matteo Berrettini’s defeat to Djokovic at Wimbledon. The parallel is now being used to show how Italy won in both sport and conduct. This does raise an important point – when Italy lost to Spain in the Euro 2012 final, the players did not behave in such a way. Further, can we imagine athletes in other competitions, say the Olympics, refusing to keep a silver medal? In Italy, the English behaviour is being overwhelmingly compared to the way in which the Spanish behaved after the semi-final. Louis Enrique, the Spanish coach, hugged Italian players, praised Italy, and consoled his players in defeat, before wishing Italy good luck in the final. The Italian press has therefore contrasted Enrique to the defeated English with a view to showing that Mediterraneans do it better. It shows that it is not only possible to lose with dignity, but that you can actually win even when you lose.
Ironically, this English confidence appeared to succeed in uniting not only the Italian resolve, but also the world against England. Even the Germans – noted for a strong sporting rivalry with Italy – supported Italy, a sentiment captured by the picture of the EU commissioner Ursula von der Leyen (a figure generally despised in Italy) with an Italian jersey. For Italy, football becomes a tool to unify the country, and is one of the few collants of the nation. It is one of the few things which can unite Neapolitans like Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne, with the Sardinian Salvatore Sirigu, or the Tuscan Giorgio Chiellini. This unity was mirrored in Mancini’s group, which had humility instilled in it. It is for that reason that the arrogance with which many English fans, commentators and players seemed to deal with Italy before, during, and after the final, filled Italians with anger. The English modus operandi – from the royal heads of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, to the footballing feet of Southgate’s men – represented an affront which only emboldened us. It showed that, as Bonucci remarked, England ‘still has to eat lots of pasta’: a reminder that in order to win you need more experience, hard work, respect, and, most importantly, humility. The humility to realise that football does not have a home, but rather chooses one.
Image Credit: Gustave Deghilage via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).