Oh yikes, Italy’s back, and now let the good times roll. What happened on Friday evening at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome was seismic. An international soccer tournament began on a hot summer night, there were thousands of noisy supporters in the stadium and Italy, playing stylish, attractive soccer, scored three goals, winning emphatically. The world, the future and life itself look sunny and bright.
There is a lot riding on the delayed Euro 2020 tournament; it is literally, not just symbolically, meant to give momentum to the end of a pandemic period. It’s a European event but with much of the world watching, and being woven into the texture of a cosmopolitan Canada, the matches take on high-flown meaning – normality is in sight if players perform well, the crowds gather and there is enthusiasm viscerally alive in the air.
The worst possible outcome would have been a glum game. But this was no anti-climax. Italy, for so long the kings of Europe, went into decline a few years back and when it failed even to qualify for the World Cup in 2018, that fail was what Corriere dello Sport called “the Apocalypse.”
Never mind that now. Manager Roberto Mancini stepped in, cleared the national team of old-timers, rejected the old idea of relying on small groups of players who perform together weekly for the same club teams, blended experience with youthful vitality and, most important, abandoned the tactic of sombre possession and counterattack.
This Italy side works magnificently as a unit, pressing, passing and moving forward constantly. Slick, quick and operating as a cohesive group of units made up of three or four players, there is energy in every crisp pass. Italy’s teams of the past have often won even while being ponderous, but there was nothing lumbering or leaden about this group on Friday night.
An hour after the game you could easily have forgotten there was an opposing team on that vitally important patch of green grass in Rome. And yes, Turkey was forgettable. The team ran out of ideas after about 10 minutes and simply stuck to a tight, admirably shaped, but ineffective defensive formation. This Turkey went in to the Euro competition with very high hopes. It qualified easily. It has players from some of the top club teams in Europe, with three from Lille, champions of the French league this past season.
Turkey even has its great talisman back as manager. That’s Senol Gunes, who steered the country to a third-place finish at the World Cup in 2002. Whatever magic he used to get this team to breeze into the tournament appears to have deserted him. Italy dominated from the opening minute. By halftime Italy had accrued four excellent chances and lived solely in Turkey’s half of the field. Turkey had accumulated three off-sides and one clumsy, fumbling attempt in Italy’s penalty area.
Domenico Berardi was the outstanding light for Italy, playing in a manner that Italy’s stars rarely exhibit – he shifted position constantly, drifting in from the left to the middle, turning up on the right, playing quick triangles of passing play all the time. When the first goal inevitably came, it was an own-goal by Turkey’s Merih Demiral, but it was all Berardi’s work. The second, smashed in by Ciro Immobile, also began with Berardi.
Turkey was exhausted and dispirited, and that exhaustion was obvious when goalkeeper Ugurcan Cakir made a mess of a simple clearance, sent the ball straight to Berardi – yes, him again – and after a mere three flashing passes, Lorenzo Insigne scored Italy’s third.
If you weren’t rooting for Turkey, everything about this game was perfect, from the pared-down, but powerful opening ceremony with tenor Andrea Bocelli belting out Nessun dorma, to the wee car that brought the ball to the centre circle, to the singing fans with their flags, funny hats or masks and even one sleeping infant. International soccer is back, Italy looked sublimely skilled and confident, and now the world can embrace that spirit, too.
And that’s just the first of 51 games. It’s Wales vs. Switzerland, Denmark vs. Finland and Belgium vs. Russia on Saturday. On Sunday it’s England vs. Croatia, Austria vs. North Macedonia and Netherlands vs. Ukraine. The party’s only starting and, yikes, we need it badly.