The first thing you notice about Rome on the eve of Europe’s biggest carnival is that it does not exactly feel like a place on the verge of a carnival. Instead, like every other major city in these straitened, saddened times, it’s simply trying to survive: to get by, to salvage what’s left of what we used to call normality. The piazzas and cobbled alleys that would normally be thronged with tourists at the height of summer are populated mostly by smoking teenagers and waiters touting for business that isn’t there. If the start of Euro 2020 is intended as “a sign of rebirth and hope for all of Europe”, as the tournament commissioner Daniele Frongia insists, then in another sense it stands as a reminder of what we’ve all lost.

And so to the Stadio Olimpico on a sweltering Friday night, and an occasion that has been five years in the making. Italy’s national stadium will be only a quarter full for their opening game against Turkey, and yet the hope is that the 16,000 masked and tested fans in attendance will provide something all too painfully absent in recent months: a sense of gathering and celebration, a country and a continent slowly rediscovering their voice.

There is, naturally, a certain bittersweet irony to the fact that Italy has been chosen for the moment of renaissance. It was Italy, after all, that first indicated the true horror Covid-19 was about to visit upon Europe. Its first confirmed cases were detected in late January last year: a Chinese couple from Wuhan, on holiday in Rome. From there, accelerated by a chronically underfunded health service and the oldest population in Europe, the virus let rip. More Italians died in 2020 than in any year since the second world war.

Italy players train in the Olimpico for Friday night’s game against Turkey
Italy players train in the Olimpico for Friday night’s game against Turkey. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Perhaps over time we became desensitised to this sort of thing; burying ourselves instead in the everyday irritations of the Covid landscape – the masks, the remote meetings, the toilet roll shortages – because we could no longer process the scale of the human tragedy. And of course football’s greatest gift of all is the ability to make us forget: to bury our earthly cares in deluges of wonder and exasperation, to make this rectangle of grass feel fleetingly like the most important space on Earth.

Certainly it will seem that way when Danny Makkelie of the Netherlands blows his whistle to bring up the curtain on the 16th European Championship, after a pared-down opening ceremony starring Andrea Bocelli singing Nessun Dorma, Francesco Totti and Alessandro Nesta kicking footballs into the stands and a signature musical performance from (it says here) Martin Garrix, Bono and the Edge. Even this part has been filmed in advance and will be relayed on the big screen: a Zoom ceremony for a Zoom Euros, a hallmark of a tournament that for all its apparent ubiquity still feels somehow remote, untouchable, theoretical.

Partly, you sense, this is due to the geographical spread: a splintered competition strung ridiculously across 11 host cities, a bureaucratic nightmare and one that has given some countries (England, Denmark, Germany, Spain) a gross advantage over others. Partly, too, it stems from the relative lack of meaningful international football over the last year to provide any sort of reliable form guide. Virtually every team have had their preparations disrupted through injury, virus outbreaks or club commitments. And now, 51 games in a month under the highest pressure after an exhausting double season. In short, anyone who tells you they know how this is going to pan out is lying.

On the face of things, Italy would appear to be prime candidates for an early ambush. Their coach, Roberto Mancini, admits there is “an extra level of pressure” to being the first act on stage, and Portugal in 2004, Switzerland in 2008 and Poland in 2012 came unstuck on opening night. Even France in 2016 made life hard for themselves before being bailed out by Dimitri Payet. And for their part, Senol Gunes’s Turkey side have generated a good deal of pre‑competition buzz, unbeaten this year and with a pleasing blend of physicality and technical ability, youth and experience.

Hakan Calhanoglu is one of the leading lights of the Turkey team.
Hakan Calhanoglu is one of the leading lights of the Turkey team. Photograph: Uefa/Getty Images

Gunes’s side are based on the sort of simple formula that tends to go a long way in tournament football. Caglar Soyuncu and Merih Demiral are a high-class centre-half pairing; Milan’s Hakan Calhanoglu is one of Europe’s most underrated creative midfielders; the winger Cengiz Under has underwhelmed at Leicester this season but has pace and talent to burn. And if the veteran striker Buruk Yilmaz can reproduce the form that saw him fire Lille to the Ligue 1 title at the age of 35, Turkey could well end up punching above their weight.

Yet by the same token, this has the feel of an Italy side that have shed many of the inhibitions of their predecessors. Under Mancini they are unbeaten in 27 fixtures, using an attacking 4-3-3 that plays to their strengths: the indomitable duo of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini at the back and the creative potential of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolò Barella in midfield. “We don’t have a [Romelu] Lukaku or a Cristiano Ronaldo,” Bonucci said this week. “Our strength is the team.

For all this it is Barella, the Cagliari mezzala – or half-winger – who makes Italy work. If the job of Jorginho and Manuel Locatelli (who is likely to replace the injured Verratti on Friday) is to pull the strings, to manipulate space and to close it down, then Barella’s job is to find it. Situated nominally on the right of midfield but with a licence to tuck in or bomb forward as appropriate, Barella is so often the link between midfield, full-back and attack: tacking wide to create overloads, making late runs into the penalty area, combining with the front three to pull defences apart.

As ever, Italy’s fate lies in their ability to translate attacking dominance into goals. Their starting No 9, Ciro Immobile, has an exemplary scoring record in Serie A with Lazio but has largely failed to translate that form into international football. His work rate and movement render him largely indispensable but at this level tournaments are won by moments as much as processes. With the exciting Federico Chiesa and Lorenzo Insigne on the wings, Italy have the game to fashion multiple chances. But in what will inevitably be a tight, taut, impossibly tense game, so much will rest on whether Immobile can take them.

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And so, here we are at last. It’s been a long road to get us here: a beaten path of pain and postponement, of dashed hopes and forestalled dreams. But shortly before 9pm local time, with a little luck, perhaps the bars and cafes of Rome will swell once more. And across the continent, men, women and children will once more tether their happiness to the fate of a little white ball on a vast green pasture. It won’t solve our problems. It won’t bring back our loved ones. But for 90 blissful minutes, we may just get to feel normal again.