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Wednesday July 28th, 2021 10:52PM

Italy erupts as Europe's soccer champions come home to Rome

By The Associated Press
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ROME (AP) — Europe’s new soccer champions were feted on their return home Monday at the Italian presidential palace and then the premier’s office, with Rome’s streets lined by flag-waving and car-honking fans.

The first Italy team to win the European Championship in 53 years knew it was in for a hectic day when its chartered flight from London arrived at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport at dawn and a banner on the tarmac read, "Grazie Azzurri.”

Airport workers cheered as the team left the plane. Captain Giorgio Chiellini pumped his fist in the air, and coach Roberto Mancini hoisted the trophy high over their heads. There was even a cheer for defender Leonardo Spinazzola, as he hopped down the steps on one foot, his other in a cast from an Achilles tendon injury.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella had been at Wembley Stadium on Sunday night cheering with Azzurri fans as Italy won the Euro 2020 final following a 3-2 penalty shootout win over England.

Then Mattarella raced back to Rome to be at the Quirinal presidential palace to greet the team. “I'm not a (soccer) commentator,” he said, "but I thought you deserved the victory well beyond whatever happened during the penalty shootout."

Coach Mancini replied, “Let me thank you for being our No. 1 fan. We saw you exult, that gave us much pleasure.”

Mattarella also generously praised another of his guests at the palace, tennis player Matteo Berrettini, who reached the Wimbledon singles final before succumbing on Sunday to Novak Djokovic. The tennis star, in thanks, gave Mattarella a racket.

From the presidential palace, the soccer players boarded the team bus to go to Premier Mario Draghi's office, applauded on the streets the entire way.

There was enough joy to go around to even reach the 10th-floor hospital suite of Pope Francis, who, even before the Italian victory, could savor the triumph of the team from his native Argentina, which won the Copa America on Saturday.

“In sharing the joy for the victory of the Argentine national and of the Italian national squads with the persons near to him, His Holiness dwelled on the meaning of sport and its values,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in an update on the pope's convalescence in Rome following July 4 colon surgery.

Bruni said Francis spoke of “that sporting ability to know how to accept any result, even defeat.”

For Italians, the championship was a new beginning for their youthful national team and a country that’s been yearning to return to normality after being hit hard and long by the pandemic.

A cacophony of honking cars, fireworks, and singing fans filled the night in Rome as thousands of people took to the streets following the final. As the sun rose on Monday, the noise had died down but not the sentiment.

“It seems to me that this victory is so good for the national spirit after all that suffering for COVID," said Daniela Righino, an Italian living in Uruguay who was back in Rome for the final. “Yesterday was an explosion of joy. I’m happy.”

Captain Chiellini told Mattarella at the palace ceremony: “This is the success of a group, who even in difficult moments never lost heart.”

Mattarella in turn lavished the athletes with compliments. “You displayed a harmony of team among yourselves and in play, and now this is an extraordinary value, the sense of sport.”

Many Italians saw the European Championship as a relaunch for a country that spent much of the past 16 months in various stages of lockdown. Italy was the first country outside Asia to get hit by the pandemic and suffered immensely, particularly in the spring of 2020 when hospitals in northern Italy were overwhelmed and the death toll soared.

Italy has recorded more than 127,000 COVID deaths, the highest in the 27-nation European Union.

“It’s been a complicated year for everyone but especially for us who were one of the first countries hit. This is a signal of a new beginning,” said Michela Solfanelli, a 30-year-old event producer based in Milan.

Most virus restrictions have been lifted since the spring and those that remain were largely ignored by the mass of fans who danced in the streets of the capital chanting, “We are champions of Europe.”

David Bellomo, a 23-year-old from the southern city of Bari, pointed out this was Italy’s second big victory this year, after Italian band Maneskin won the Eurovision Song Contest in May.

“Thanks to Eurovision and thanks to this game and soccer we’ve managed to come back this year,” he said. “We almost got a triple,” he added, referring to Berrettini.

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Nicole Winfield and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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