An in-form Italy face Turkey in Rome on Friday as Euro 2020 finally gets underway a year behind schedule and with the coronavirus continuing to cast a shadow over the tournament.
Postponed 12 months ago because of the pandemic, the European Championship — with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal the holders — is being played for the first time all across the continent, with 11 cities from as far apart as Seville to Baku hosting matches.
In Rome, the Stadio Olimpico will be filled to about 25 percent of capacity, meaning 16,000 supporters will be present to watch Roberto Mancini’s Italy face Turkey in the first game in Group A.
Mancini has rebuilt Italy, the 1968 European champions, on a 27-match unbeaten run.
London will host the semi-finals of the 24-team tournament as well as the final on July 11.
As anticipation grows, the build-up has been overshadowed by several positive virus cases affecting players.
The team even had to name a “parallel” squad of 17 reserve players, fearing a possible wider outbreak in the official 26-man squad.
Two Swedish players — forward Dejan Kulusevski of Juventus and midfielder Mattias Svanberg — also tested positive, with six reserve players called up on stand-by.
“It will be the perfect opportunity to show the world that Europe is adapting,” he said recently. “Europe is alive and celebrating life. Europe is back.”
But the majority of the 11 venues, all in different countries, will only be partially-filled for matches, even if Denmark announced it would lift mask rules and allow 25,000 fans, instead of 16,000, to attend games in Copenhagen.
– France the favourites –
On the pitch, France are firm favourites despite being one of the few traditional giants not to have any games at home. The world champions’ first match is in Munich against Germany on Tuesday.
The other likely contenders include Belgium, sweating over the fitness of key player Kevin De Bruyne after he suffered facial injuries in the recent Champions League final.
England have never before reached a European Championship final, but captain Harry Kane believes the team will start their bid in a “better place” than they were before reaching the 2018 World Cup semi-finals.
UEFA has also demanded that Ukraine make changes to its jersey after Russia complained.
However, the Ukrainian football association said it was in talks with UEFA to reverse its decision.