ROME — The last time we saw Italian flags hanging from balconies, the last time this triumphant national anthem was heard in the streets on a grand scale, Italy was on a much darker world stage.
It was spring of 2020, and the nation was the first to be upended by a national coronavirus lockdown. In the northern city of Bergamo, the military was called in to transport bodies while the crematorium furnaces burned 24 hours a day. Funerals were canceled. Police roadblocks cut off towns and families and all the simple joys of life that Italians protected at all costs. Doctors casually referred to hospitals as war zones.
At 6 p.m. on those early pandemic nights, when leaving the vicinity of your home was technically illegal without written permission, Romans gathered on their balconies and did the only thing they could: They sang. They waved their flags. They beat pots and pans and applauded their doctors and nurses and went viral for what they could do from home.
This is still an old world that lives with the memories of what nationalism can do to a continent. This is still a people wary of salutes and flags and the zealous chanting of names as the fringes of Europe steadily regress into a dark, chauvinist past. Still, it’s exceedingly rare to find flags above doorsteps. There is no national anthem played before most sporting events. Those occasions are almost exclusively reserved for national teams.
In Rome’s UEFA Fan Zone, before Friday’s Euro 2020 opener between Italy and Turkey, Italians waved their flags and sang their anthem with a different verve than those balcony renditions from more than a year ago. Beneath the skeletal ruins of the Roman Forum, fans were transfixed by a giant screen broadcasting the match, once again able to gather in droves.
Light blue medical masks muffled the anthem’s words, making it clear that Italy wasn’t quite beyond the horrors of the pandemic just yet. But there was an understanding that a moment that seemed so normal not long ago was worth commemorating, even if the limited-capacity crowd was nothing compared to the estimated one million people who gathered to watch the Euro 2012 final in an ancient Roman racetrack.
For a city that has seen it all, from plagues and wars to popes and emperors, for a place that is known as much for what it has built as for what has crumbled, one story continues to be told: How it carries on, embedded in its past, always among its ghosts and ruins.
When Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the Jazz-Thunder game on March 11, 2020, the gravity of the pandemic began to seep from sports into greater society. The NBA immediately suspended its season. MLB and MLS followed suit the next day. Concert venues, churches, cities and classrooms all took their cues from March 11, potentially saving countless lives.
There was no such instantaneous moment of reckoning in European sports. Rather, there was a single event that became a catastrophic regret in hindsight, one that cost more lives that can ever be officially counted. On Feb. 19, 2020, an estimated 40,000 Atalanta fans traveled from Bergamo to Milan to take in the biggest match in club history. Being a smaller Serie A club, Atalanta chose to host Valencia at Milan’s famed San Siro for its first-ever Champions League knockout match while its own stadium was under construction to meet UEFA capacity requirements.
Former Atalanta captain Papu Gómez said that a third of Bergamo’s 120,000 population traveled to Milan to watch the game—Atalanta confirmed a home attendance record of 45,792. Two days later, the first locally transmitted case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Italy. Experts point to that game as one of the main factors why Bergamo became Europe’s first epicenter and likely the reason why more than a third of the visiting Valencia team contracted COVID-19, unknowingly bringing the virus back to Spain with them. Now, the match is known as “Game Zero”, or as one Italian doctor called it: “a biological bomb.” Less than a month later, Bergamo was the deadliest city in Europe.
“If it’s true what they’re saying that the virus was already circulating in Europe in January, then it’s very probable that 40,000 Bergamaschi in the stands of San Siro, all together, exchanged the virus between them,” Bergamo Mayor Giorgio Gori said in a live Facebook chat with the Foreign Press Association in Rome. “… Unfortunately, we couldn’t have known. No one knew the virus was already here. It was inevitable.”
It was a lesson that was felt all across Italy, Rome in particular as politicians and sporting officials were hesitant to welcome crowds of any sort. But 16 months after Game Zero, and six weeks after easing lockdown restrictions, Rome had a stage to prepare, one that would be viewed by the entire continent and beyond.
While Rome was selected to host the opening game of the Euros before it was postponed for a year, it was almost serendipitous that the first game and grand opening ceremony—Europe’s first showcase to the world that it was ready to open its doors—was held in the country that was once the epicenter of the pandemic.
“The whole world is watching us,” said Daniele Frongia, Rome’s UEFA EURO 2020 commissioner. “It’s a big responsibility, but it’s also a duty. There is a certain amount of Roman pride coming from our history, but we are also an integral part of Europe. This an event for the world. Rome is a welcoming city, an appreciated city. We are still standing. We are still here, and now we are ready to welcome the world.”
Frongia was put in charge of organizing Rome’s fan zone experience and cultural exhibitions. This tournament was already going to be a challenge by its unique nature. The Euros had never been hosted by more than two countries; this time, to honor the tournament’s 60-year anniversary, it was being held in 11 countries all across Europe, ranging as far north as Scotland and as far east as Azerbaijan.
Typically, tens of thousands of fans descend upon Euro host cities not only for the games, but for the cultural experience. Fan zones become portals into breaking down complex cultural barriers, a sort of home base welcome to everyone. But with COVID-19 restrictions still in place across Italy and much of Europe, Frongia’s arduous task became an even bigger challenge: How to accommodate the masses and mitigate the risk?
The solution wasn’t one fan zone but multiple spread miles across the city, with capacities limited to 1,000 and mask-wearing mandatory. One screen was set up in the middle of Rome’s most hallowed monuments: between the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, in the shadows of the Roman Republic’s sprawling ruins and the imposing Altar of the Fatherland built to commemorate Italy’s unification.
An entire fan village was constructed in the Piazza del Popolo, Rome’s renowned protest site and gateway to the city. In the past year alone, it has hosted rallies against COVID-19 restrictions, sit-ins for more COVID-19 protections, demonstrations supporting circus workers, marches by neo-fascists, International Women’s Day celebrations and vigils for George Floyd . On Friday, there was only a celebration: beer tents and soccer pitches, and two Jumbotrons flanking a concert stage.
Like many laws in Italy, social distancing and masks were considered optional, similar to stop signs or waiting in line. But while the turnout was measured, fans eagerly lined up at the gates simply to experience a sanctioned assembly. Babies born during the pandemic were wrapped in Italian flags. Children ran through the square as strangers offered them Italian flag-themed face paint. And while Italy won 3-0, the ensuing celebration was much less a result of the win as a celebration of what was once taken for granted.
“For me personally, it’s an honor to work on something of this scale, to leave something behind for the city,” Frongia said. “It’s a gift for the city. Like most of us who work in politics, I come and go. But what’s important is that our citizens, our visitors have a beautiful experience here that they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Before Friday’s Euro opener, Giovanni Poggi stood outside his bar just off Piazza Navona wearing a retro Italy shirsey, chatting with patrons and locals like he has done for the past 30 years. On a Friday evening of all nights, he has time to linger without being whisked away or called to work behind a bar that's usually packed, overflowing onto the cobblestone streets.
Poggi, 52, spent his childhood years in Canada before his family moved back to Rome when he was 16. Rome was missing a classic bar to watch the big game, he said. At 22 years old, he opened La Botticella, and it stayed open until last spring. Poggi said he dipped into his savings and cut a deal with the landlord to keep the bar.
“It’s like I took a sabbatical, that’s what I think,” Poggi said. “For me, I was forced to slow down, and I needed to slow down. But things are picking up again. People want to be outside and have fun. All these young kids want to be back in the streets.”
Over the years, Poggi’s bar has become a fan zone in itself. Poggi is beloved by ex-pats, tourists and sports fanatics in Rome who seek a taste of home in their sports teams. On any given day, one can hear upwards of 10 languages being spoken in the bar while multiple hockey games run at random on the television screens. La Botticella is also known as the official Steelers bar of Italy—next week, the team is sending a film crew to document the bar’s reopening.
On Friday, Poggi was prepping the bar for a Euro watch party, albeit one limited by local restrictions. Two weeks ago, despite his diligence in keeping to the seemingly inexhaustible list of measures to run a bar during a pandemic, local police fined the bar for not separating the tables by more than one meter. And his main clientele was still mostly absent; Americans were slowly coming back to Rome, he said, but it’ll take time before the numbers return to normal.
“The silver lining was people got to rediscover the city,” Poggi said. “All the local kids, not being able to go to discotheques and bars on the river, they all came back and frequented this area.”
For all the talk of a return to normal, one thing appears certain: Normal is still a ways off. Only 22% of Italy is fully vaccinated. The country still has yet to lift its national curfew. Normally, June is the beginning of bedlam in Rome. Millions of tourists descend upon the city. The weather takes a turn toward sultry and insufferable with 90 degrees and 90% humidity the norm. Yet the streets were eerily empty and thunderstorms threatened the festivities. But Rome carried on, as it has always done.
“We’re rebounding,” Poggi said. “We’re surviving, but we’re proud.”
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