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Italy gets an ego boost

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ROME — Italy is on a roll.

The country erupted in euphoria after the men’s national football team defeated England on penalties to win Euro 2020 late on Sunday night. But even in this football-obsessed nation, the victory was about more than sport.

For many Italians, it reflected a bigger surge in national confidence.

The triumph was the latest in a series of developments — some trivial, some more serious — that have dramatically lifted the national mood this year, after a horrific 2020 dominated by the pandemic.

On the political front, the appointment in February of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief credited with saving the euro, brought an instant boost in international credibility.

After years of being seen as a fiscal problem child, Italy won smooth approval from the European Commission for its post-pandemic economic recovery plan, which looks set to be waved through by other EU governments. That will unlock billions in funds from the EU.

Coach Roberto Mancini of Italy celebrates with tennis player Matteo Berrettini | Claudio Villa/Getty Images

In the sporting arena, Italians on Sunday celebrated not just winning Euro 2020 but also having a men’s finalist at Wimbledon. Matteo Berrettini may have lost to the mighty Novak Djoković but just getting to the final was a first for him — and he even managed to give the Serb a scare by winning the first set.

There has been showbusiness success too — Italian band Måneskin won the Eurovision Song Contest in May.

Economically, things are also looking up. Draghi’s presence at the head of government has helped cut Italian borrowing costs and GDP is forecast to grow 4 percent this year.

Although the coronavirus crisis is still far from over, the succession of feel-good stories is a world away from the dark days of 2020.

As Italy became the first European country to be hit hard by the pandemic, communities initially came together around a message of hope, Andrà Tutto Bene, or Everything’s Going to be Alright. Hand-drawn pictures of the slogan by children, with a rainbow, were posted in neighborhoods. At the time locked-down residents sang and played music out their windows at 6 p.m. each night.

But as the bodies piled up in the morgues, and the economy went into freefall, the singing stopped and only children still believed that everything was going to be alright.

A year on, the triumph of the Azzurri in Wembley supercharged a feeling among Italians of normality returning, and of being able to enjoy life once again.

‘Kickstart to life’

For some older people, the Euro 2020 final marked the first time they had gone out for months. For younger Italians, the tournament coincided with the end of a 10 p.m. curfew.

Simone Piacentini, a student, told me on Sunday this was the first time he had seen Italy win a major tournament. “We needed this win, this gives a good kickstart to life again,” said Piacentini, who watched the match in a fanzone in the Forum.

A country that sometimes feels like it has an inferiority complex, berating itself as corrupt or chaotic, seems to have a renewed sense of its own potential.

Football has a particularly redemptive quality in Italy. It is no accident that one of the country’s political parties, Forza Italia, is named after a football chant. (Another is named after the national anthem, Fratelli d’Italia, sung with gusto during Euro 2020 by the Italian team.)

And the victory may also bring more tangible benefits. Some economists have predicted a boost to GDP, with wild estimates varying between €4 billion and €12 billion.

Some have compared 2021 to 1982, when Italy’s victory in the World Cup started a new chapter in the country’s history after the so-called “years of lead,” when Italy was battered by domestic terrorism.

Politicians were quick to play up the broader significance of the moment. Draghi’s office said the Italian team had “written an extraordinary page in our history, not just sports.”

Former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Italy is at “the top of Europe”, adding “after eight months of suffering, you give us this great joy.”

Italian band Maneskin won the Eurovision Song Contest in May | Sander Koning/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Vincenzo De Luca, governor of the Campania region, said the victory was “of symbolic value that goes beyond the result: it is a great sign of hope and rebirth for our country and for all of Europe after the 16 most difficult months since the postwar period. “

Gabriele Gravina, head of the Italian Football Federation, hailed a new “renaissance” in Italian football. “We must give the Italians a new narrative,” he declared.

In sporting and broader terms, the Azzurri did just that. Under coach Roberto Mancini, they played flowing, attacking football, in marked contrast to the defensive game often associated with Italy. And they won as a collective, with extraordinary team spirit, rather than relying on single star players.

Their win also marked an amazing turnaround, just a few years after Italy failed to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Italians across the country savored the occasion, even as they acknowledged that winning a football tournament was hardly going to solve all the country’s problems.

Massimiliano Borgia, who runs a newspaper stand in Rome, said it was “the best moment in 58 years.”

“When you win, it is always a good moment. Joy is always welcome. Sport is a good place to start with our rebirth but we still have to do all the rest,” he said.

And what would the land of Machiavelli be without the whiff of political conspiracy?

Adriano Dragotta, a musician, said some of Italy’s sudden success could have been down to political maneuverings, pointing out that it suited European powers not to let England win Euro 2020 and score a post-Brexit PR victory.

“If Italy wins and the U.K. gets no points at Eurovision, that is clearly political,” he said.

The country’s success didn’t hinge on its performance on the football field, he added.

“I love Italy and I’m happy we won, but we are not in a good place … You can have all the optimism you want but it needs to be built on something, political change.”

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