Of all the things I imagined falling out with new friends about, national pride was never even on the list.
As a Brit who moved to Italy last year, I’ve been at pains to never be the “little Englander”. I call myself an immigrant not an expat, speak Italian everywhere I go, and try my best to understand a political and bureaucratic system that, I’m finally starting to admit, is even more complicated than our own. I’ve spent the past 12 months trying desperately to become Italian.
Until this week, when a football-mad friend here told me that “every sportsman is against England” – the team that “robbed Denmark with a fake penalty” and was “favoured in a really disgusting manner at Wembley” on the way to the Euro 2020 final. The gloves were suddenly off.
Up until now, with England and Italy on either side of the Euros draw, there hasn’t been a hint of animosity between the two countries. England’s doing well, some people said to me early on – I returned the compliment, and we carried on as usual.
Perhaps because of our previous record, it’s as if nobody here has really been watching England as possible opponents. Here, football is still hyper-masculine, in my experience – I don’t have any female friends who are watching the tournament – so the fever over Gareth Southgate’s general loveliness has gone over Italy’s collective head, and in a country where school meals usually cost a pittance, Marcus Rashford’s campaign hasn’t registered.
Even when I went to Rome for England’s quarter final against Ukraine, I was amazed to find the capital subdued. In the stadium, I was with a handful of Italians among a mainly Ukrainian section of the crowd – but they seemed largely unbothered by who won. “I hate football,” said my taxi driver, when I asked if he’d be watching. After the match, I walked back with a friend from the Stadio Olimpico to Piazza del Popolo, home to the official Uefa fan zone – to find only one bar open, serving €10 (£8.60) drinks to three tables of relatively quiet English fans.
In fact, the only real reaction I got was at the hospital, where my friend and I ended up taking a fellow fan after his girlfriend was hit by a car while riding a scooter. No fewer than three medical staff looked him up and down in his England T-shirt, then turned to us (the translators) and suggested to us that the girl was drunk (she wasn’t). She doesn’t even speak Italian, one shrugged.
Perhaps that’s the problem with being an England fan in Italy this time round. Nobody saw us as contenders – so nobody’s paid attention to what this England team represents. While I, who shuddered with embarrassment during the era of David Beckham, John Terry and Wayne Rooney, have found a national team I’m proud to support – to people who haven’t noticed the change, we’re still the same old England. To those hospital doctors, we apparently could only be drunken hooligans.
For the final, I’ll be one of 2,500 fans watching the live feed from Wembley on the big screens in Piazza del Popolo. I’m not worried about being outnumbered – the joy when Italy won their semi-final on Tuesday was infectious, and whatever happens, I think it’ll be good-natured.
Italy already seems quietly confident – although all that talk of England being favoured at Wembley is also laying the groundwork for a dignified Italian defeat.
But the tournament has given me a painful reminder of what everyone else thinks England fans are, and it’s not pretty. Obviously I’m hoping England wins on Sunday – but as a Brit abroad, it’s not just about the trophy.
I’m hoping that if we win, the world will take a look at this England team, and see what it stands for.