ROME: Postponed for a year, the biggest sporting event since the coronavirus crippled the world begins Friday at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome – a milestone for European and world sports.
The opening match of the European Football Championship will be 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.
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.
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.
Russia winger Andrei Mostovoy then became the first player to be banned from a national team on Friday after testing positive.
Italy’s opener against Turkey will bring together the largest crowd in the country since its full lockdown 15 months ago, even though the stadium will only be filled to 25% of its capacity.
In Rome and elsewhere in Italy, most virus restrictions have 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.