If Italy had the chance to get rid of one player from the opposition before the Euro 2020 final, it would choose the 12th man: the 50,000-plus English fans who are expected to attend the match at Wembley.
“In a neutral stadium, I would have chosen Italy to win hands down,” Beppe Bergomi, 57, said. The former Inter FC defender helped take Italy to their third World Cup win in 1982 at the age of 18 and is today one of the country’s most celebrated television commentators. “But it’s different in Wembley’’, he added. ‘‘Wembley is a whole other story.”
Bergomi knows the perils all too well. In 1989, he asked the coach of the national team, Azeglio Vicini, to organise a friendly match there, a stadium that was missing from his long list of grounds.
“It was my dream”, says Bergomi. “In my footballing career up to that time, I had never had the opportunity to play there. Vicini mentioned it to the Italian Football Federation and they agreed. The match was a draw, 0-0. It was an incredible experience. You can smell the storied scent of football in that arena. I had always been fascinated by English football. My heroes were Liverpool and Kevin Keegan.”
Italians know the final will not be a walk in the park – even while preparations for the match were under way, the country’s federation had to deal with a last-minute glitch. On Friday, three TV crew members from the public broadcaster, Rai, including a reporter following Italy’s national team in London, tested positive for Covid, throwing officials into panic and prompting football authorities to cancel Friday’s face-to-face press conference with the Azzurri.
But the mood of the country is buoyant. Squares and streets across Italy are filled with the red, white and green of the Italian tricolour, draped over balconies or carried on the shoulders of people riding scooters – a level of enthusiasm that has not been seen in Italy since the team won the 2006 World Cup. Italian fans remember Bergomi’s live TV reports from that tournament with commentator Fabio Caressa, who, following Italy’s victory against France in penalty kicks, shouted four times, “World Champions!”, corresponding to the number of World Cups won by the Azzurri.
Bergomi was a solid defender, not flashy but physically strong, athletic and with an exuberant competitive spirit, perhaps like the England team that Italy will face at Wembley. “England is a good team,” says Bergomi. “Not pretty, not a graceful team to watch, but polished and strong. They know just when to strike, they have a solid midfield, and they make good use of their speed along the sidelines.
“They’ve only given away one goal, which makes it clear that it will be difficult to score. They’ve got exceptional playmakers and a brilliant striker, Harry Kane. But in my opinion the real leader of the team is Harry Maguire. I can’t say he deserved what Manchester United spent to acquire him [£80m], but he is a good player and physically strong”.
The Italian press, which has praised the spectacular abilities of the England team during the tournament, didn’t hesitate to throw fire on the way Raheem Sterling won a controversial penalty in the semi-final with Denmark. La Gazzetta dello Sport, the country’s main sports newspaper, in a long article – later removed from its website without explanation – raised the unsubstantiated suspicion that Uefa is backing England for the final to please Boris Johnson after his opposition to the Super League project. The article suggested that the penalty awarded to England was a sign of Uefa’s support.
“There’s been a lot of controversy about that penalty kick and the possibility of favouritism toward England,” says Bergomi. “It’s not acceptable. We mustn’t think these things, we mustn’t believe that Uefa has a grand design. Italy must focus its attention on the match. Our team has played brilliantly so far, and since Roberto Mancini has taken over the reins as manager I’ve felt a peculiar energy that’s difficult to explain.”
“There’s no doubt that on Sunday we’ll have a stadium to contend with, full of English fans. But let’s not forget,” Bergomi adds, “that the English players will be under enormous pressure at Wembley, as their fans will be expecting nothing short of a victory.”
As the opening whistle draws near, the fate of Italy and England is in Wembley’s hands. The feared 12th man could prove to be a wild card for both teams.