Wembley Stadium, London, July 11, 2021. The Euro 2020 soccer competition was delayed one year because of the pandemic. Now the day of the final had arrived. The noise in Wembley Stadium was deafening. The crowd was probably 5-1 for England. To withstand the competition in enemy territory, the Italian soccer team would have to focus solely on the task at hand. Yet, within the first few minutes, England scored. It wasn’t until the second half that Italy scored to tie the game. Overtime didn’t produce any goals. But the Azzurri won the shootout, 3-2. The stadium fell silent. The Euro 2020 trophy was going to Rome.
The European Championships have been held every four years since 1960 to determine the continental champion of Europe. England has never won, and Italy won once in 1968. The World Cup is also held every four years and will be held in 2022. Brazil holds the most titles at 5, but Italy and Germany each have 4; Italy prevailed in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006. But Italy didn’t even qualify for the World Cup in 2018, raising concerns that its soccer culture had grown stale. Instead, under the leadership of coach Roberto Mancini, it was transformed into a champion in just three short years. The team this year showed verve, panache, grit and sinew; its patience and persistence paid off.
Earlier in the day, 10 miles south of Wembley Stadium, the All England Club at Wimbledon was packed for the gentlemen’s tennis championship. The 25-year-old newcomer, Matteo Berrettini, was facing 34-year-old Novak Djokovic of Serbia, a seasoned champion who had already won 19 Grand Slams. The more refined audience showed plenty of support for the Italian: Chants of “Mat-te-o” could be heard continuously as fans waved signs saying “Wimblettini.” With a hammer of a serve clocked as high as 146 miles per hour, Berrettini came from behind and prevailed in the first set. However, he lost the championship in four sets. Djokovic earned his 20th grand slam to tie both Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland. But Djokovic admitted that it wasn’t easy facing Berrettini and he predicted that one day Matteo would be a great champion.
What makes his performance especially remarkable is how Matteo has grown so quickly. His forehand has always been a weapon, but until this year his backhand was weak. And he had practically never played on grass until three years ago. His coach, Vincenzo Santopadre, believes he is not only a quick learner but is also a humble young man with the right values and a good head on his shoulders. What makes his performance historical is that he is the first Italian man ever to reach the finals at Wimbledon. Nick Pietrangeli reached the semifinals 61 years ago. Adriano Panatta won the French Open in 1976, but no Italian men have been in the finals of either the Australian Open or U.S. Open, which are the final two in the Big Four.
In June 2021, the New York Times ran an article maintaining that young Italian men were taking over the French Open. Among those playing in this tournament besides Berrettini were Gianluca Mager, Lorenzo Sonego, Andreas Seppi, Fabio Fognini, Marco Cecchinato and a pair of 19-year-olds, Jannik Sinner and Lorenzo Musetti. What makes Italy so good at this moment in tennis history? The article says, “Answering that is a bit like asking for directions in Rome—plenty of possible answers, none seemingly any better than the rest.” Some players posit that Italy is holding significantly more lower-level tournaments than in the past for pros to “cut their teeth”; others credit more seasoned Italian coaches. Countries do sometimes produce waves of top players like the Germans did in the 1980s and the Americans did in the 1990s. As the article concludes, the future of men’s tennis “suddenly feels very Italian.”
Let’s not forget two other milestones. In 2015 two Italian women were in the U.S. Open final guaranteeing an Italian victory. Flavia Pennetta beat Roberta Vinci, but both tennis players celebrated in New York with the Italian Prime Minister at the time. And this year saw another victory of sorts: Although Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli lost in March to Emirates Team New Zealand in the 2021 America’s Cup, the Italian boat showed true grit and a lot of talent in the run-up that resulted in winning the Prada Cup, earning the right to challenge the incumbent.
Next stops: the U.S. Open and the World Cup 2022.