Italian Reds excited for Euro 2020 final
Two nations of esteemed footballing histories and cultures will face off in this evening's Euro 2020 final and although Italy has a wonderful array of successful clubs, some fans of its national team have a deep affection for Manchester United.
In anticipation of this weekend's final at Wembley, we spoke to five Italians for whom the red of their country's Tricolore resonates with particular strength.
Like the United Kingdom and the majority of the world, Italy has suffered great pains over the last 18 months during the COVID-19 pandemic. That has made the Azzurri's achievements over the last month even more special.
Nello Cartenuto, vice-president of Uniited's official supporters club in Italy, the Italian Red Army, told us that "this final really feels like payback for what we've been through as a nation."
"We've only had bad things to care about over the past months and this has probably led us all to appreciate even more each bit of joy the Azzurri are giving us!"
A fellow Italian Red, Maria Russo, feels the same. "Never have I felt more connected to an Italian side as I feel now," she said.
"The past year and a half has deeply affected us all and simultaneously brought us closer to our roots. Even for fans of overseas clubs - as I am with Manchester United - a deepest connection to our country’s national team has been easily visible in the general mood of the country since the beginning of the Euros. All the people from different Italian regions are coming together, all as one, to support a team which represents every different aspect of Italy."
It's a sentiment that many England fans could appreciate as well. These Euros have provided weeks of joy to all of us, particularly to those who have been fortunate enough to attend games in London, Rome or anywhere else across the continent.
One such person was Michele Addante, a seasoned groundhopper who has visited 130 European stadiums outside of Italy, his home country. A Manchester United fan since our Treble-winning season in 1999, which he watched as a child, Michele was at Italy's first group-stage game against Turkey.
"It was exciting to return to a stadium after this difficult year," he said.
"It was of greater importance than in the past. It felt like it was the first time. The atmosphere was electric and the fans of Italy and Turkey were unleashed."
Riccardo Loconte, another United fan from Italy, had the same feeling. He is working and studying in North London and having watched Italy play at Wembley against Austria in the round of 16 and Spain in the semi-final, Riccardo said it was "like a taste of freedom."
One of the highlights of Euro 2020 has been the fervent singing of the Italian national anthem by coaches, players and fans.
"It's something crazy," Riccardo says. "We put all our passion on it, we scream with all our voices."
"Singing it at the Olimpico was exciting," Michele added. "The passion and strength that we Italians put in with Fratelli d'Italia is almost unique. We put 'heart and passion' into everything and football is obviously no less."
Despite their love for Italy, there will be some split loyalties for the final.
Michele has travelled to England regularly to watch United, and has also experienced British fan culture at grounds across England and Scotland. Away from Old Trafford, one of his favourites is Celtic Park.
"I love England," he said. "I've been to your country I don't know how many times.
"I love your stadiums, your fans, the old-style atmosphere that you breathe and everything that revolves around the Premier League, Championship, League One and so on. But above all, I love Manchester United. I have been cheering for United since I was a child, but Italy is my country, it is where I was born and where I live and in the final I will cheer for them. But if we were to lose, I would still be happy for England and for Rashford, Maguire, Shaw and Sancho."
Riccardo agreed that it'll be strange to be watch his team take on United's Three Lions stars.
"I was hoping all of the United players would do well," he began.
"Shaw is doing a fantastic job, I love him. He's one of my favourite players, so it's going to be really weird for me, supporting Italy and not supporting my idols.
"Italy have got the better group [of players] but England have lots of quality on the wings, and from set pieces, there is Maguire, our skipper who is always a danger."
Marco Piccoli also believes in Italy's ability to come together as a group.
"Other European teams have talented players, probably more than us, but we believe a lot in our team chemistry, our manager Mancini and in the huge Italian hearts!"
Italy's team "lacks the superstars", Nello Cartenuto believes, "but the Azzurri really showed that the collective is much more important than the individuals, and they enjoy playing football and this is what matters the most."
While England fans were singing 'it's coming home' across the country on Wednesday night and many have been humming and whistling it through the days since, Italians have begun their own version, 'it's coming Rome.'
Maria and Riccardo are confident the European Championship trophy will be going to Rome, while Michele and Marco are predicting an England win. They're all expecting a good game, with Nello saying "both the teams tend to leave some space for the opponent to play, so this final should be more enjoyable to watch.
"England have very dangerous players up front and both Shaw and Maguire have been magnificent. I think supporters will play a very important role as well, and I must admit, however it ends, it'll be a victory for all of us. I've been missing this atmosphere for too long!"
It's a great point. Euro 2020 has reminded the footballing world just how different the game is without fans in stadiums. The great moments of the tournament have been defined by supporters in grounds, by jubilant England fans dancing after beating Germany, Hungarians pushing their team on to hold on against France or Italians opening the tournament with a rendition of Nessun Dorma.
"A final of a major tournament doesn't come very often," Riccardo reminded us.
"England have been waiting 55 years. I wish good luck to all the United players, I hope they play a great game. I was 11 or 12 when Italy won the World Cup in 2006 and it was an unbelievable experience. It brings happiness to everyone. I know the English fans are looking for that - I see the passion when they sing 'it's coming home'. I think, and I hope, that the tournament is coming to Rome and not home!"