by Paolo Cornetti
Monday, 12
July 2021

Here in Italy, football is the last great unifying force

Only the Azzurris can transcend the nation's bitter divisions
by Paolo Cornetti
It’s coming Rome. Credit: Getty

Turkey, Switzerland, Wales, Austria, Belgium, Spain and finally, England. This was Italy’s hard-fought path to the Euro 2020 championship that was secured after Donnarumma’s crucial save in yesterday’s penalty shoot-out.

It was a punishing tournament, but with each win, the bond between the national team and the Italian people deepened. After all, it’s well-known that Italians and football are an inseparable pair, and the Azzurri are the living embodiment of this fact.

On occasions such as the European Football Championship, the “Tricolore” — the Italian flag — can be seen flying across the entire country, from North to South, from the cities to the countryside, in regions that often speak completely different dialects, spreading an ancestral and religious sense of unity throughout the nation. As the intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini famously said, “football is the last sacred representation of our time”.

Indeed, football has historically been capable of achieving what politics has always failed to do: inspiring a sense of national unity in a country that is deeply fragmented and diversified. One could almost go as far as saying that the Azzurri, in a certain sense, have helped complete the task began by the Italian patriot and “father of the fatherland” Giuseppe Garibaldi more than 150 years ago.

From the factory worker to the businessman, the housewife to the office employee, the village pitch to the Olympic Stadium in Rome — the national football team binds the Italian people together and serves as a representation of the Republic as a whole. Which is somewhat at odds with the fact that the blue of the national team’s shirts is actually a tribute to the colour of the House of Savoy, the royal dynasty that ruled Italy at the time the national team was created, in 1910. But this piece of trivia is yet another confirmation that the national team is a supra-political symbol, so much so that even after the fall of the Monarchy no one felt the need to change the team’s colour.

Indeed, there are several occasions in which the Azzurri transcended politics with their victories. In 1982, for example, Paolo Rossi’s goals and Italy’s World Cup victory completely overshadowed the dramatic events that had gripped the nation up until that moment — namely the bankruptcy of the Catholic bank Banco Ambrosiano, which involved the P2 Masonic lodge and the Camorra, eventually leading to the mysterious “suicide” of its president Roberto Calvi in London.

Similarly in 2006, Italy’s World Cup victory against France in the last penalty by Fabio Grosso achieved the impossible: getting Berlusconi’s supporters and opponents, which had been engaged in a bitter political struggle for years, to embrace each other in the squares. And this just a few months after the most polarising elections since the disappearance of the Communist Party and the Christian Democrats from the political scene a decade and a half earlier — won by a tiny margin by the centre-Left candidate Prodi against Berlusconi.

The Euro 2020 journey that ended yesterday in Wembley possibly had a greater social significance than any previous competition. Since March 2020 Italy has been hit very hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, an event for which the country was completely unprepared, but from which we are slowly recovering thanks above all to our public health system — one of the best in the world.

In Italy, as elsewhere, Covid-19 has torn apart the fabric of our society. The Azzurri’s extraordinary ride has helped reverse this trend, and the jubilant scenes around the country last night were a vivid testament to that fact. That’s the greatest goal we could have hoped for.

Paolo Cornetti is a policy adviser. He is head of communications for the Italian magazine and blog “La Fionda”.

Join the discussion

  • I don’t begrudge the Italians their win, they were the better team on the night, end of. And they’ve had a torrid time with Covid, as we have, and no doubt needed something to celebrate. In my local pub the fans were loud and proud and then magnanimous in defeat. No trouble at all. I imagine this was replicated across the country in the majority of cases. What strikes me though is the very crude politicisation in the media today and the way England and England fans are being demonised, as if we deserve punishment and abuse over the actions of a few. Italian fans have been badly behaved too, as have many others – but there is silence about that. Apparently only England has football hooligans, which I know for a fact is far from the truth. There seems to be this desire to showcase the worst and make that the headline, to make us hate ourselves and be looked down on by countries who have nothing to crow about. Twitter is not representative of England or English football fans and neither are those trying to force their way in. But then again, after years of being called stupid, thick, racist, gammon, a year of being cooped up inside, losing their livelihoods, being told they should be ashamed of their skin colour, their country, their history – is it any wonder some will take out their resentment this way? Gareth Southgate got torrents of abuse too when he missed that penalty years ago, why is racist abuse considered so much worse than other abuse? It’s still abuse by the same few morons who are always morons. I imagine the psychological effects on Southgate and others in that position was no less damaging and it’s no less wrong to take frustration out on them. But the vast majority will have watched those young players and wanted to hug them not hate them. Why do the haters always get the oxygen of attention?? Basically, if you treat people like animals then some will start to act like animals and I don’t like the way the media continually shows such glee in its lurid headlines ignoring the fact that 99% of English fans were perfectly well behaved despite the crushing loss and a year of soul sucking hell. The European media seem to be seeing this as bringing us down a peg or two because of Brexit but the fact is most of the rancour is whipped up by the media themselves not the public at large. But again, it’s ok apparently to be xenophobic towards the English yet the English are always painted as uniquely xenophobic. If anyone thinks racism does not exist in Italy think again. And how do we know all that racist abuse comes exclusively from English football fans and not those from elsewhere, or who want to stir up trouble?? I hate bad behaviour, racists, bullies and litterers, I have no time for them but this demonisation of the English, and particularly the English working class, needs to stop.

  • Good comment Cheryl. I’ve been similarly annoyed by the European press that are oh-so-eager to paint this loss as a kind of serves-you-right-for Brexit-and-Boris…as if one has anything to do with the other. To then say that the English are sore losers…well, one can only marvel at the irony.

  • “Only the Azzurris can transcend the nation’s bitter divisions”
    Sobriety returns soon enough and then you can get back to contemplating your divisions. It would have been the same here

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