‘And then one night in Rome we were strong, we had grown’. As David Baddiel and Frank Skinner’s famous lyrics recount, this was a night where England grew again in the Italian capital, both as a young team and an international fanbase.
Rome was awash with red and white on Saturday night as Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions and their newly-established entourage of travelling expats roared into the Euro 2020 semi-finals with victory over Ukraine at the Stadio Olimpico.
With a five-day enforced quarantine for travelling fans from the UK due to the Delta variant concerns, the English team were preparing for a nominal atmosphere at one of the great footballing arenas.
But as one fan said to me on the way to the game, ‘where water can’t get, England fans will’ – and the Eternal City bore witness as England maintained life in their hopes of ending 55 years of hurt.
The international expat community each had made their own pilgrimage to support. An Aston Villa fan from the Netherlands, a Leeds fan from Spain, a Spurs fan from Zurich – there were even others who made the trip from Abu Dhabi and New York.
It was a collection of people feeling the weight of the nation on their shoulders; feeling the responsibility to raise Gareth Southgate’s men in the absence of those unable to travel.
This was always going to be a special tournament for the Rome-based British community; with the opening game at the Stadio Olimpico and the competition drawing to a conclusion at Wembley.
From a personal perspective, following almost four years living in the Eternal City, it is a culmination of a dream Italian adventure – one week before my wife and I are due to return to England.
The Three Lions’ progression against Germany sealed a romantic storyline for us – creating a date of destiny; albeit at the cost of cutting short a weekend break to Venice and Bologna.
Having initially had tickets in August 2019 as part of a friend’s 30th birthday gift for whatever quarter-final would come, we had made the painful decision to claw back the cost with three of the party unable to join us. However, as it became clear England’s route would involve Rome, the sense of national duty intensified and the sprawl for tickets began. Fortunately, I logged into the UEFA website at just the right time; spotting available tickets and pouncing; leaving a set of train and accommodation reservations that needed to be reworked.
On our train back from Bologna, we got chatting to a father and son from Zurich making their way to see England for a first time.
Outside the ground, a gathering of fans spoke in detail about the last famous night in Rome – when Glenn Hoddle’s men escaped with a 0-0 draw in 1997 to reach the World Cup the following year.
This was a night for first-time fans as well as experienced campaigners. However, there was a sense of irony that ‘Football’s Coming Home’ was being sung by a cohort of fans that weren’t.
The Italian police had revved up its preparations to halt any quarantine escapees, with a heightened presence around the Olimpico and residency checks 100 metres from the ground. Nevertheless, the English support considerably outweighed the yellow and blue Ukranian entourage.
Even with a reduced capacity of just 25 per cent inside Italy’s Olympic stadium, this was up there with the liveliest and loudest atmospheres I have experienced. The English swarmed the Curvas, the Distinti and the Tribuna Tevere. We were at home in Rome.
No doubt the result and performance helped but you felt the optimism Southgate has corralled with his youthful crop of talented, down-to-earth stars. As the players went on their lap of honour, there was a two-way recognition of endeavour.
Now, perhaps, new lyrics are required for Baddiel and Skinner: ‘And then one night in Rome, we were strong, we scored four; pin-point set-pieces from Shaw, Kane as good as before, Maguire rising to score, and Southgate beaming...’