Wales and the world’s top-ranked team Belgium begin their Euro 2020 bids on Saturday after the delayed tournament finally kicked off with victory for an impressive Italy side on an emotional night in Rome.
After a year of football played largely in empty stadiums due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Stadio Olimpico was filled to a quarter of its capacity for the opening game of the European Championship and the home fans in the crowd of 16,000 were treated to a 3-0 win for Italy against Turkey.
Roberto Mancini’s side came into the tournament on a 27-game unbeaten run and laid down a marker with a comprehensive victory, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne scoring after Merih Demiral’s own goal had put them in front.
The result capped an emotional night in the Italian capital as a spectacular sound and light show preceded kick-off and tenor Andrea Bocelli performed ‘Nessun Dorma’, popularised during the 1990 World Cup held in Italy.
“It was a beautiful evening, I hope there are many more to come,” said Mancini after the Group A curtain-raiser.
“To win 3-0, and with the supporters in the stadium again at last, makes it all the more special.”
Rome is one of 11 cities across the continent hosting matches, the unprecedented pan-European format creating major headaches for UEFA during a pandemic.
– ‘Special situation’ –
The majority of the venues will only be partially-filled for matches, although Budapest is planning to fill its Puskas Arena to 100 percent of capacity.
Matches are being played from as far apart as Seville to Baku in Azerbaijan, where Wales and Switzerland meet in the first of three games on Saturday.
However, ongoing travel restrictions mean there is little of the carnival atmosphere usually associated with a major tournament when fans converge on host cities.
“We all have to adapt to a special situation,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin told AFP.
The build-up has been overshadowed by several positive Covid-19 cases among players.
On Friday Russia announced winger Andrei Mostovoy had contracted the virus and was ruled out of the tournament.
Spain’s squad were vaccinated on Friday by the army at their training headquarters near Madrid following positive tests to two players — Sergio Busquets and Diego Llorente.
Busquets will miss Monday’s match against Sweden in Seville but Llorente has now rejoined the squad after four subsequent negative tests.
– ‘Massive honour’ for Bale –
In Baku, up to 31,000 fans will be able to attend Saturday’s first game, when Wales — semi-finalists at Euro 2016 in France — take on the Swiss in Group A with Gareth Bale wearing the captain’s armband.
“It’s going to be a massive honour to lead your country out in a major tournament. It’s going to be one of the highlights of my career,” Bale said.
That match, at 1300 GMT, will be followed by Denmark’s clash with Finland in Copenhagen in Group B.
Denmark, European champions in 1992, will be spurred on by 16,000 of their own fans against Finland.
Kasper Hjulmand, the Denmark coach, said his side “dared to dream big” as they prepare to face a Finland team making their major tournament debut.
Belgium, one of the leading contenders, face Russia in Saint-Petersburg in Saturday’s late match but Roberto Martinez’s team will be without playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who is still recovering from the facial fractures he suffered playing for Manchester City in the Champions League final.
Among the other leading contenders, England enter the fray on Sunday and hope to make the most of home advantage when they take on 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia in London.
Wembley is hosting eight games in total in the 24-team tournament, including both semi-finals as well as the final on July 11.
– Ukraine shirt row –
World Cup holders France — with Karim Benzema recalled from a five-and-a-half-year international exile — are the firm favourites to add the continental crown.
Holders Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo backed up by a star-studded squad, are also a threat.
Meanwhile Ukraine’s football association said Friday it had managed to agree on a compromise with UEFA over Euro 2020 kits that feature patriotic slogans and sparked Russia’s ire.
Kiev angered Moscow after its football association unveiled kits showing the outline of Ukraine including Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
Russia criticised a slogan written on the inside of the shirts — “Glory to the Heroes”.
A UEFA spokesperson told AFP that Ukraine had agreed to cover up the slogan with a smaller map of the country.