ROME (AP) – Postponed for a year, the biggest sporting event since the coronavirus brought the world to a halt kicked off at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Friday – a milestone for European and world sports.
The opening match of the European Football Championship was played in the Italian capital, the first country outside Asia to be hit by the pandemic and the first in the world to implement a national lockdown. Italy delighted home fans wearing masks as they beat Turkey 3-0, scoring all goals in the second half.
The tournament represents a big step forward on the road to recovery from one of the darkest chapters in the continent’s history since WWII. More than a million Europeans have died in the pandemic, including nearly 127,000 Italians.
“After everything that has happened, now the situation is improving, I think the time has come to start providing the fans with something to be happy with,” said Italian coach Roberto Mancini, who tested positive for COVID-19 in November but was asymptomatic.
The tournament was postponed to last March when countries scrambled to contain outbreaks of the virus and major sporting events around the world were canceled or suspended.
Many fear that it is still not safe to assemble tens of thousands of fans in stadiums across Europe, but organizers hope measures including crowd limitations, staggered arrival times for fans, social distancing rules and plenty of hand sanitizer will help prevent a resurgence of viral infections, which have fallen sharply in Europe in recent months.
In Rome, supporters entering the stadium are required to bring documents proving that they have been vaccinated against the virus, tested negative within 48 hours before the match or have already had the disease.
The world of sport is watching. If all goes well, Euro 2020 may give confidence a boost for other major sporting events, like the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to open on July 23 – also a year late. . If not, it would be a serious setback that could have ramifications beyond football.
“Hopefully for the best,” said Alessandro Savelloni, a 36-year-old Roman having a beer with his wife in a street bar before the game. âWe are emerging from a dark period. People need freedom. To get back to a normal life.
The virus has already impacted the tournament, which for the first time is not hosted by one or two nations but is spread across the continent with matches in 11 cities.
Spain captain Sergio Busquets has tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the team’s first game against Sweden in Sevilla on Monday. Another Spanish player has tested positive, as have two Swedish players. The Spanish team was vaccinated on Friday.
Russian winger Andrey Mostovoy went on to become the first player to be banned from a national team on Friday after testing positive.
Italy’s opener brought together the largest crowd in the country since its complete lockdown 15 months ago, even though the stadium was only 25% full.
Tenor Andrea Bocelli, who recovered from COVID-19 in 2020, delivered a powerful performance of Giacomo Puccini’s âNessun Dormaâ during the opening ceremony. Bocelli touched the hearts of millions of people in Italy and beyond when he gave a solo concert in Milan’s empty cathedral over Easter last year. Milan is the capital of the Lombardy region, at the time the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe.
In Rome and elsewhere in Italy, most virus restrictions have now been lifted. A midnight curfew and the requirement to wear a mask outside of one’s home are the most tangible ways the pandemic still affects the daily lives of citizens.
Shops, restaurants, gymnasiums, museums and theaters have reopened. Roman traffic returned to its usual chaotic state, with swarms of scooters competing for space on the tracks with honking cars. Tourists are coming back too, although the historic center with its famous monuments remains less crowded than is normal for this time of year.
Metin Karagulle, a Turkish fan passing the Colosseum on an electric scooter ahead of the match, said being in Rome for the opening of the tournament was an “unforgettable” moment.
Italy still bans non-essential travel from Turkey, but many Turkish fans living in other European countries have traveled to Rome to support their national team.
The Italian fans who watched the game on the big screen in a city center square were as thrilled with the victory as they were able to share the experience with each other.
“It was very moving, very beautiful,” said Federico Riva, a resident of Rome. âThe atmosphere, the fact that we’re in the crowd, that’s something we all missed. The stadium full of supporters, we needed it all, we really needed it.
AP Sports writer Andrew Dampf and video producer Trisha Thomas contributed to this report.
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