ROME — Somehow it seems appropriate that Italy, the first country in Europe that was overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, is hosting the opening game of the European Championship.
Even if Euro 2020 is kicking off in 2021.
The biggest crowd to gather in Italy for a year and a half will witness an Azzurri squad aiming for the title play a Turkey team aiming to spring a surprise on Friday at Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
"We've been waiting a year for this European Championship and we can't wait to experience hearing 15,000 people singing the national anthem," veteran Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci said. "Soccer with fans inside the stadium is a different sport."
After embarrassingly failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Italy won all 10 of its qualifying matches for Euro 2020 and enters on a 27-match unbeaten run.
"We want to go all the way," Bonucci said. "Other national teams have more experience but we can play with anyone. We don't have a (Romelu) Lukaku or a Cristiano Ronaldo. Our strength is the team."
Turkey took four points off France in qualifying, including a 2-0 win over the World Cup champions, and lost only one of its matches to finish second in its group.
"Being in this tournament and playing in the opening match makes us proud," Turkey coach Şenol Güneş said. "In every opening game there are surprises and I hope we can also spring one."
The matchup also features some political undertones after Italian Premier Mario Draghi labeled Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a "dictator" in April. Turkey summoned Italy's ambassador to protest, and a presidential spokesman demanded that Draghi retract his words. Draghi, however, did not issue a public apology or retraction.
Draghi is not expected to attend the match since he'll be in Britain on Friday attending a G7 summit. Erdogan is also not expected to attend.
Wales and Switzerland, the other two teams in Group A, meet in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Saturday.
This year's tournament is being played in 11 cities scattered across the European continent.
The Italian government decided that the Stadio Olimpico can be filled to 25% capacity for the four games it will host.
That amounts to a maximum of 15,948 spectators.
Ticket-holders need to show one of three documents to enter the Stadio Olimpico: either a certificate from Italian health authorities showing they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, another document from Italian health authorities showing they have recovered from the coronavirus within six months, or a negative test result issued within 48 hours of kickoff.
While more than 2,000 tickets for the opening game were sold in Turkey, many of those fans are not expected to travel to the match.
Fans arriving at the stadium will have their body temperature measured by thermal scanners, and anyone with a fever or other coronavirus symptoms will be ushered to a quarantine area.
The protocols seem like a small price to pay after Italy became the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe in early 2020, as cities like Bergamo struggled to keep up with the sick and the dead. There have been more than 125,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 in the country and more than 4 million people infected, including many members of Italy's squad — both players and coaches.
Italy has won its past eight matches without conceding a goal and has 20 clean sheets in 32 matches since Roberto Mancini took over as coach.
While record-setting goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon retired from international soccer after the failed World Cup qualification, Italy remains solid at the position with 22-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma now between the posts. Also, Bonucci and Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini form a strong and experienced pairing in central defense.
One of Turkey's main strengths is also its solidity at the back. It allowed only three goals in qualifying and managed to keep forwards Memphis Depay and Erling Haaland scoreless in recent World Cup qualifiers.
Both sides are also strong at center forward.
Ciro Immobile won the European Golden Shoe award when he matched the Serie A record with 36 goals in 2019-20.
Burak Yılmaz is Turkey's second second highest scorer of all time, with his 29 goals putting him behind only the retired Hakan Şükür (51 goals).
OPERA AND AIRPLANES
Andrea Bocelli will sing the Giacomo Puccini aria "Nessun Dorma" during the tournament's opening ceremony preceding kickoff.
The ceremony will also feature a virtual performance by U2 stars Bono and The Edge with the DJ Martin Garrix.