In the end was the beginning. And so, from Wembley stadium to Italian homes, from the big screens in the piazze, to social-media feeds, the radio, the papers, it was all about fever, ‘delirium’. And the night and the adventure were all about Chiellini – Giorgio Chiellini, the Italy captain – who, with Leonardo Bonucci and Salvatore Sirigu were the big-brother trio in this young, Euro-champions team.
“Can I take it?” Chiellini asks about the trophy, signifying the fun, joy, brotherhood, humility that have defined the Italian journey from the under 20s, to the clubs, to the team chef bringing his own pizza oven to their camp from Naples, right to Insigne, Lorenzo Il Magnifico, with his devastating goals and less-than devastating DJing. And to Chiesa, a country’s invocation now, more than a name. Post-match he’s caught instructing his phone “Chiama Mamma”’. Call Mom. Florenzi holds his medal up to the TV camera. “Guarda Mamma. Guarda Qua”. “Look at this Mom”. It was definitely coming home.
First match, cardiac TV commentators roared “Italians, hang out your flags for Italy, like at the start of the pandemic”. And they did. Washed and ironed, the tricolore fluttered the length of the peninsula and on every Italian balcony and in every Italian window, in every part of the world, supporting a team who “got it”. They got that nobody, including the Italian mother on social media who asked her daughter if the man in pink was Them, needed to know anything about dribbling or shooting or marking or offside or aggregate goals. Because this championship was first and last about Tenderness. Capital T.
Every day, at the national-team home in Florence, Sirigu sent his motivational message to the group-chat, making the players “with tears in our eyes, want to shatter the world”. If Matteo Pessina (24) quits football, he can turn to writing; his Caro Diario/Dear Diary travelogue one of the hits of the tournament, revealing the unexpected cosa, the what and the how, of this Italian team.
In the end, their mission, and they accepted it, was not football alone. Rather, it was to take the trauma of 60 million Italians and transform it. These young fellas were no longer players but healers. Roberto Mancini, no longer manager, but Italy’s alchemist-in-chief.
Saturday morning, I call my Italian friend. All set for tomorrow? “Si, certo. Barbecue in the afternoon. Then sedation. First, I will do my husband, my father, then my children. And probably the dog. He’s a wreck.”
That morning, even the grass, the trees, the mists, the monuments, the rivers are alert to the moment. Everyone is in their Savoy blue, bars blasting the music of i grandi italiani, Vivaldi, Verdi, Morricone, Raffaella Carra fresh from her state funeral in Rome. In the sun, the waitress’s black latex gloves – usually redolent of murder – are goalie gloves. Everybody is advertising It, waiting for It.
Nobody is talking about It. Instead, iron is touched. A lot. Index fingers and pinkies are flicked in a horn-sign at the ground. Twenty-four hours to go. “Shhh. Don’t jinx it. You never know who/what might hear”. Maneskin singing their hearts out, crying their waterproof eyeliner out to win the Eurovision, was a warning and a prophecy. Zitti e buoni. Shut up, be good.
Saturday afternoon, there’s a crash on the street. A cyclist is killed outright, a motorcyclist critically injured, their plans for the Euro final obliterated in an instant. It’s lost on nobody in the vicinity that if they’d left home two seconds sooner, or walked infinitesimally faster or hadn’t stopped to take a call, they, too, would have been right there, right at that moment.
With Covid, Italians more than any other Europeans know, we live not only our own life, but the life of our times.
But equally, as human beings, all of us live as part of humanity in its continuum. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the Rinascimento Azzurri, the Azzurri Renaissance, but there’s the sense that, tempered by the virus fire, they are acutely and newly aware that we must find a way to live, better, ‘truer’, lightly but deeply. Indeed, Pessina’s diary reveals them as believing in and belonging to the Dream. The video to Notti Magiche/Magical Nights, the anthem of Italia 90 and now Italia 2021, in conjuring past, present, future and the sense we are living them not linearly, but simultaneously, is both comforting and unnerving.
Though our personal dreams might have faded, the Dream itself does not die. As we swap the Covid crisis for the Climate crisis, the healers and the alchemists and the keepers of the Dream will have their work cut out. Up here we could lose the Gulf Stream. Rome is set to become as hot as Riyadh.
On Sunday night as the Italian papers declared Europe is Ours, Chiellini posted a message to those whom the virus had “brought to its knees”; to “the men, women, children… the doctors, nurses who saved our lives, you helped us, you sang with us”. “Thank you all of you. Because in this incredible adventure we carried you inside us. You were before our eyes, you were in our hearts, your desire to come back to life.”
Before the final, Pessina wrote Caro Diario, “on Sunday the final act of of this splendid cavalcade will play out. I’d like to tell you we’re happy with however this goes. But these Euros have taught me that in life, dreaming is important and my dream is to win."
From virus fever to victory delirium, Caro Pessina, Caro Chiellini, Cari Azzurri, you did.