ROME — Europe's soccer champions returned home at dawn Monday to the ecstatic cheers of Italians who spent the better part of the night honking horns, setting off fireworks and violating all sorts of coronavirus precautions to celebrate their team's 3-2 penalty shootout win over England at Wembley.
Captain Giorgio Chiellini, his fist pumping the air, and coach Roberto Mancini hoisted the trophy high over their heads as they descended from their Alitalia charter flight at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport. Amid cheers from airport workers, defender Leonardo Spinazzola hopped down the steps on one foot, his other one in a cast after he injured his Achilles tendon earlier in the tournament.
"Grazie Azzurri," read a banner on the tarmac — a sentiment felt across the country after Italy took home its first major trophy since the 2006 World Cup.
The national team was being feted officially by President Sergio Mattarella and Premier Mario Draghi later Monday, joined by tennis player Matteo Berrettini, who had given Italians another reason for pride Sunday by reaching the Wimbledon singles final. Berrettini lost to Novak Djokovic, but he joined Mattarella at Wembley Stadium to watch the Azzurri finish 1-1 after extra-time Sunday and then win on penalties.
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 coronavirus pandemic.
A cacophony of honking cars, fireworks and singing fans filled the night in Rome as thousands of people took to the streets. As the sun rose 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."
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 with patients 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, 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 Italy 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.
Shoulder to shoulder, fans nervously watched the penalties on two big screens set up on Piazza del Popolo, an elliptical cobblestone square at the edge of Rome's historic center. A deafening roar rose to the sky as Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma saved England's last spot-kick.
Among the sea of blue shirts was an immigrant family from Senegal, who came from the town of Zagarolo, an hour from Rome, to experience the final with the crowd in the piazza.
"I am not Italian, but I can feel the emotions. I feel it, as if I were Italian," said Falilou Ndao, 42. "We really love this country."
His 13-year-old son Yankho, an Italy fan and young soccer player, was impressed by the team.
"They showed courage. They never gave up, even when they were down by a goal," he said. "It is so well-deserved. They have been playing great the entire tournament. Go Italy!"
Though people are still required to wear masks in crowded situations, police made no attempts to intervene as throngs of fans poured out the piazza, singing the national anthem and lighting flares. Fireworks cracked overhead as supporters cruised through the city waving Italian flags from their cars.
Dr. Annamaria Altomare, a 39-year-old gastroenterologist, watched the spectacle with a friend from a safe distance. They were among the few wearing masks.
"We want to avoid the Delta variant in this mess," she said, laughing.