Well hello there, Italy. It’s good to have you back. On a taut and muggy night in Rome, a statement performance from what we now have to describe as one of the favourites: a vivid and thrilling display of smart attacking football. Five years after their last appearance in a major tournament, three decades after this country last hosted one, Italy began their Euro 2020 campaign with the impatience and resolve of a team eager to make up for lost time.
Perhaps the most important element of this performance was its emotional maturity: the way Italy regrouped after a goalless first half and reapplied themselves to their task. You wondered if, given the weight of the occasion, given the stakes involved, given their tournament history and the expectation of the limited 16,000 crowd, Italy’s stage fright might get the better of them. Instead it was the highly-fancied Turks who fluffed their lines, struggling to get any sort of foothold in the game, and ultimately powerless to arrest Italy’s irresistible second-half momentum. They will need to improve significantly in order to progress.
First, of course, there was the predictably immoderate opening ceremony to be dispensed with: a spectacularly vaudeville affair featuring some weird semaphore with bouncing inflatable balls, enough soldiers to take over North Tyrol, lots of coloured smoke and Andrea Bocelli offering a spine-tingling rendition of Nessun Dorma.
For once, though, the theatrics and the bombast felt appropriate. As the final notes of the national anthems drained away, the Stadio Olimpico was filled with a grateful, guttural, cathartic roar. Football. Nations. Lots of people in the same place. Grown adults yelling. How we’ve missed this, all of it.
And the football? After a nervy start, Italy soon took control. Roberto Mancini’s one big selection call was to leave out Federico Chiesa for Domenico Berardi, and in a restless, relentless opening half Berardi was one of the most dangerous players on the pitch: quick and elusive whether cutting in from the right wing or dropping into midfield to receive. On the other flank, Leonardo Spinazzola had licence to charge forward from left-back.
And there was something immensely reassuring about the sight of Giorgio Chiellini in defence: now 36 and playing his sixth tournament, still winning everything in the air, still looking like the dad who could beat up all the other dads. He might even have opened the scoring, his header forcing a spiralling save from Ugurcan Cakir on 22 minutes.
Italy were seriously impressive on the ball: moving it with speed and flair, pressing with urgency and organisation, switching and interchanging, running clever angles. Before long Turkey – strongly tipped as contenders ahead of the tournament – had all but retreated to the edge of their 18-yard area, leaving only the veteran striker Burak Yilmaz forward to gamely run the channels. But for all Italy’s pressure – Chiellini and Lorenzo Insigne had the best chances – as time progressed they actually looked less likely to score, not more. Half-time came and went with the Italians – both on the pitch and in the stands – just beginning to frustrate a little.
Seven minutes into the second half, the game finally broke. All night long Berardi had been cutting in on his stronger left foot, forcing left-back Umut Meras to track him. Now, with a wriggle and a dance, Berardi feinted back onto his right, leaving Meras trailing in his dust. The cross was hopeful rather than precise, and yet an off-balance Merih Demiral was unable to prevent the ball from hitting him in the chest and cannoning into the net.
With 25 minutes remaining, Berardi hung the ball up to the back post, where the excellent Spinazzola took a touch, took a shot and forced a fingertip save from Cakir. With the ball running loose, Immobile pounced: smashing it gleefully into a goal he has hit so many times with Lazio, but not once in national colours. For such a prolific goalscorer at Serie A level, Immobile has often been accused of flattering to deceive for the national team. And so as the ball hit the net, it felt like an intensely liberating moment not just for Italy but for Immobile himself: a man who had finally done it on the very biggest stage of all.
Turkey manager Senol Gunes was nothing if not proactive in trying to change things. He brought on the pacey Cengiz Under at half-time, who might easily have scored a shock breakaway goal after he robbed Jorginho after a quick free-kick. But the fluency and cogency that characterised so many of their excellent performances during qualifying was strangely absent here. And with 12 minutes left, Italy applied the flourish.
Again Turkey were the architects of their own demise. Italy’s press was again perfectly timed as Cakir skewed a horrible clearance straight to Berardi, and in a flash Italy were away again. Three crisp passes, tap-tap-tap from right to left. Insigne provided the curling finish, and Italy were back. It’s been a long five years. But it may just be worth the wait.