efore the Euro 2020 final that pitted England against Italy, English fans upped a chant that in the days before the July 11 final increased in volume if not conviction. The trophy was “coming home,” or so it went. As cheering as it might have been to the English, it wasn’t particularly realistic. The last time a major football trophy took up residence in England was after the 1966 World Cup, seven decades ago.
If something has been away from “home” for more than half-a-century, precedents might be helpful. But fans are fans.
As an Italian, my vantage point was different. Italy is my homeland and its team is my team. That team had fallen on hard times in recent years, failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. But before COVID hit, manager Roberto Mancini’s side had shown considerable improvement. Italy already had a 33-match winning streak before the July 11 final.
As a patriot, I followed my team through the qualifying rounds, the quarterfinals (they beat Belgium, the top ranked team in the world), into the semifinals (Spain), and, midsummer-like dream style, into the final against none other than England and their “coming home” fans.
Few bothered pointing out that though Italy has won several World Cup titles in recent decades, the European title had eluded it since 1968, which gave “coming home” an Italian meaning as well.
Personally, I found myself in an awkward spot. I have a strong English background. I have lived in (and loved) England, and as a former teacher of English and an avid reader of English literature, my ties to that country run deep.
Still, I’m Italian; I live in southern Italy; Italy is my nation and its team is my team.
In the days before the final, what most struck me was just how intensely English fans were already celebrating. On TV, seeing them in London, it was as if they’d already won. True, fans were thrilled just to be in the final, but all the singing, drinking, and jubilation seemed to me (to put it mildly) just a bit premature.
The long-sought Henry Delaunay European cup simply wasn’t theirs yet. This annoying little date with undefeated Italy stood in the way.
Beware hubris. Some say Napoleon was so confident before Waterloo, he boasted: “I tell you Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad soldiers; we will settle this matter by lunch time.” Things on the field of battle went differently. Wellington was not so bad, nor were the English soldiers.
As for Italian footballers, they conceded an early goal but went on to draw even and all but control the tempo of the match, eventually capturing the trophy on penalty kicks.
The extent to which ancient and modern wisdom warns against the premature counting of chickens fascinates me. Be prudent, advises many a sage, there’s even Murphy’s Law and its curse: if something can go wrong when you’re sure it won’t, it will.
Though Italy was playing within the confines of England’s ancestral football home, Wembley, it showed from the start, in particular after conceding an early goal, that it had no interest in homeland slogans.
I feel for the English. Two generations of football enthusiasts have never seen their darlings raise a trophy to the heavens. English who were lads in the 1970s are now entering middle age empty-handed.
Italy’s list of laurels is ample, including, two World Cup titles in the Mussolini twenty-year period, another in 1982, and a fourth in 2006, when Italy defeated France, also on penalties. Italy will now enter the 2022 World Cup as one of the favorites. And with COVID pushing Euro 2020 to 2021, the Italians could actually pull off the miracle of a European and world title in consecutive years, unlikely of course, but imagine that prospect as seen by an England fan.
As Jane Stockdale wrote recently in the “New York Times,” reflecting on Euro 2020, “Before every tournament, England asserts its belief that it is the team, the nation, that possesses true agency: the sense that, ultimately, whether England succeeds or fails will be down, exclusively, to its own actions. England is not beaten by an opponent; it loses by itself.” But in this case, the loss is felt like an insult played by fate, which for whatever reason is intent on insulting the pride of the people who say they “invented” football.
But even that axiom has fallen on hard times. Though the English did refine football and apply rules in the 19th century, Asian countries played something like football millennia ago, as did the Romans.
The Roman game, known as pediludium, was quite similar, with players allowed to use only their feet. A tournament was held during the Ludi Romani feast of 207 AD, and the teams even had names, Unio Ludifica Tiberis, Adsocietas Pediludii Romana, Iuventus Roma, Alba Capitolina and Consociatio Pediludii Severia. The latter was organized and funded by Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus. The final pitted Adsocietas Pediludii Romana against Consociatio Pediludii Severia. For the record, Adsocietas Pediludii Romana won, 3-1.
Pity the English but remember your history.
When English footballer Bukayo Saka botched the final penalty (Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma dove acrobatically and punched away the shot), the expected homecoming ended.
Worse still, it seems the crestfallen fans turned their backs on their beaten team. Many left, ignoring the post-game rituals. Support for the “boys” ended faster than the British Empire. Why behave this way toward your own, the second-best team in Europe?
Too often, diplomacy fails English football fans in the most abject of ways, and it happened again.
Based on this display, all the fuss about “coming home” was hollow, and one of the prouder English traditions, sportsmanship win or lose, took yet another blow.