Euro 2020: Italy, with their noise and colour, feel just as at home at Wembley as England do

Stuart Rayner has already seen Italy twice at Wembley at this tournament, bringing as much colour and noise off the pitch as they do artistry on it.

Absence has certainly made the heart grow fonder at these European Championships.

A year of sterile football in empty soulless bowls has made way for a joyous, celebratory explosion so in that respect it could not be more fitting that Italy and England are tomorrow’s Wembley finalists.

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England manager Gareth Southgate is a better politician than most politicians and a better diplomat than most diplomats, and barely a press conference has gone by in this remarkable tournament where he has not been at pains to talk about his pleasure at seeing fans enjoying their football again.

Home from home: Italian fans on Wembley Way before their second-round match with Austria. (Picture: PA)

He even slipped in a non-partisan Brexit reference at one point, talking about how a divided nation has had something to come together around.

No football tournament, not even one as good as this, not even if England actually win it, can come close to wiping out the miseries, deprivations and human losses Covid-19 has brought, directly or indirectly.

But as something to cheer those of us who enjoy our football, it has still been pretty good.

Fingers tightly crossed the increasingly packed stadia, nose-to-armpit tubes and tube queues do not prove premature, but they have done wonders for the soul.

An Italian fan enjoys prior to the start of the the Euro 2020 soccer championship round of 16 match between Italy and Austria at Wembley stadium in London, Saturday, June 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool)

There have been encouraging tasters, but still the adrenaline rush of a rocking Wembley came as a very pleasant shock.

Neil Warnock was isolating at home when Middlesbrough played a pilot game in front of 1,000 fans in September yet he kept referring to it all season. Harrogate Town’s first “tier two” game, against Forest Green Rovers in December, had even fewer but was uplifting.

There were no Sheffield United fans at St James’s Park in May, but still it made you appreciate what we had been missing, a giddy Elland Road days later even more so.

Hearing 4,500 Barnsley fans roaring their approval before, during and after their play-off semi-final home leg with Swansea City was brilliant.

Italy fans take a selfie outside of the stadium ahead of the UEFA Euro 2020 round of 16 match held at Wembley Stadium, London. (Picture: PA)

Writing as someone who has only witnessed if from Wembley and the sofa, Euro 2020 has been even better.

The numbers have been greater and the stakes higher, but also the fans have been mixed. It takes two to properly tango and if Uefa had hand-picked two sides to generate the best atmosphere for Sunday’s Wembley final, they could not have chosen better.

Just as it was at half-time against Scotland in 1996, so it was the hour before the kick-off of their game against Germany when England’s Championship went to another level.

Often in sport a song emerges as the unexpected soundtrack for a tournament or a tour, almost never the corporate official one, usually one from the distant past.

England fans leave Wembley Stadium, along Wembley Way after England qualified for the Euro 2020 final where they will face Italy on Sunday 11th July, following the UEFA Euro 2020 semi final match between England and Denmark. (Picture: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire)

The thought of Wembley matches having an official DJ gesturing inanely at the camera as he bangs out tunes still makes the eyes roll, but one pre-match rendition of Neil Diamond’s 52-year-old Sweet Caroline captured the mood. The glazed look as Harry Kane watched terraces reverberating to it spoke a thousand words.

But it has been pretty special without England too, Italy fans filling the gap brilliantly in the other two games.

Few cities in the world have as wide a spread of nationalities as London and even with tickets only available at short notice, not to mention the hassles and huge costs of getting a seat, there were blue shirts and red-white-and-green tricolours all over the tube carriages and buses, up Wembley Way and onto the terraces for Italy’s second-round and semi-final dates at Wembley.

They joyously sang Alvaro Morata’s name on the way home on Tuesday after Spain’s Juventus striker saw the deciding kick from 12 yards saved in a fabulous semi-final.

Italy’s rousing national anthem is a spectacle in itself. On the pitch, players locks arms and sway in unison as they belt out Il Canto degli Italiani. Facing them on the touchline is a line a mile long engaging in a sing- and a sway-off; albeit Roberto Mancini and his lieutenants, in black trousers, ties and light grey jackets, stand stock still.

Depressingly, England fans will no doubt try to drown it out with boos but will not succeed. Italy will be the away team on Sunday but they will make their presence heard, and the football, never mind the occasion will only be better for them.