Euro 2020: Italy and Turkey ready to end long wait for major tournament football
After missing the last World Cup, the Azzurri will want to begin their European Championships campaign in style in front of their own fans
In Rome, the Eternal City, a wait that seemed eternal ends at 9pm Italian time on Friday night. The start of a major international tournament, with spectators in stadiums, should mark a point of optimism in the longing for ‘normality’ in a period defined by a global pandemic. The optimism will be cautious, but as Euro 2020 finally kicks off, a year late, pulses can only race.
For Italy, the four-time world champions who have the honour of staging the opening game, it has seemed an almost eternal wait just to be taking part in this scale of competition.
They missed the last World Cup because of their football shortcomings, which means the Azzurri’s last act in a senior tournament was losing a penalty shootout to Germany in a quarter-final in Bordeaux way back in July 2016, at the previous Euros.
Gianluigi Buffon was in goal, Antonio Conte was the Italy manager; Germany were the reigning world champions and had gone ahead just after half-time in the 1-1 draw thanks to a Mesut Ozil strike. It reads like a different era.
Nearly 40,000 packed into the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux that day. For Italy versus Turkey, Rome’s Stadio Olimpico will be no more than a quarter full because of Covid-19 social distancing protocols, but the eagerness will be audible. Impatience is felt by both contestants. Turkey did not make it to the last World Cup, either.
The global television audience should be huge. More than 600 million watched Portugal overcome France in the last European Championship final, evidence that international, country-versus-country football still reaches audience levels that the club game, even in its marquee events, cannot quite attain.
The challenge for national team managers is to achieve a similar standard of excellence. It is a hard task when squads train and play together for only a limited time, and there are factors ahead of Euro 2020 that further compromise standards. Players are fatigued after a relentless club season, a handful have had to suddenly self-isolate because of positive coronavirus tests.
But the prospects for a lively opener are promising. A resurgent Turkey have scored 10 times in their last three competitive matches. Italy’s renaissance since the agonising failure to reach the 2018 World Cup has been emphatic: they won every fixture in Euro 2020 qualifying, registering 37 goals in their 10 matches. “We are trying to play a different sort of football,” said Roberto Mancini, who took over as head coach three years ago.
A decade ago, Mancini was putting in place the structures for another rebirth, as Manchester City manager. He was the manager when City won their first Premier League title, in dramatic, late injury-time.
Previously Mancini had taken Inter Milan to the Serie A title after many years of Inter falling short. So Italy have an expert in uplift and he has set out his target boldly. “We want to be at Wembley for the final on July 11th," he said. "To win the title would be a rebirth for our football and the whole country.”
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Injury will likely deprive Mancini of an important lieutenant on Friday, Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti still overcoming a knee problem though it is hoped he will be available for the later Group A games against Switzerland and Wales.
Around the experienced core of Mancini’s side - the veteran defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Leo Bonucci, Chelsea midfielder Jorginho and the forwards Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile - a potential career-shaping adventure begins for the likes of goalkeeper Gianluigi Dommarumma and the gifted midfielder Nicolo Barella.
Turkey have entrusted their renaissance to the man who guided the country to their greatest past success. Senol Gunes, now 69, was in charge of the national team that surged through the 2002 World Cup to finish third. “It’s never fair to compare eras,” said Gunes, “but I would say the World Cup team and this Turkey squad are similar for the strength of their character.”
Gunes hopes successes at club level will carry over into the national cause. Captain Burak Yilmaz, defender Zeki Celik and midfielder Yusuf Yazici are fresh from Lille’s annexing the French league title, and Caglar Soyuncu from Leicester City’s FA Cup triumph and impressive Premier League campaign.
Italy’s players, mostly drawn from Serie A clubs, need no reminders of the authority of Merih Demiral, the Juventus defender likely to partner Soyuncu, or of the capacity of AC Milan’s Hasan Cahlanoglu to pick out a piercing through-ball and deliver a free-kick with pinpoint precision.
“It will be exciting to play in front of fans,” said Gunes. “It’s fantastic to have supporters again,” agreed Mancini. With the live audience comes an extra obligation to entertain.
Updated: June 11, 2021 10:38 PM