There was a moment in Rome on Wednesday night that seemed to capture the unusually fevered pitch of Euro 2020’s opening week. As the TV camera crawled along the faces of the Italian players before kick-off against Switzerland, the feed lingered, sensually, on the magnificent spectacle of full-bore, mid-anthem Giorgio Chiellini.
Chiellini is both a very bad and a very loud singer. But his performances of Il Canto degli Italiani are still the stuff of legend: eagerly awaited and jealously ranked and pored over by Chiellini ultras, Chiellini stans.
It helps that he has such an adorably open face. Chiellini looks like he could skin a deer with his bare hands. But he has that softer quality too: bristly and brutish beneath the heavy brow, then also delicate and refined and full of feelings, the face of a lighthouse keeper who writes poetry. The Italian anthem repeats the line “We are ready to die” four times in its second verse. At the Stadio Olimpico Chiellini sang it like it was something beautiful and impossibly tender.
He clapped his chest. He had a goal disallowed. He got injured. He walked off showered in feelings, nudges, clasps, pats. And this has been the defining tone of these Euros so far. It has, let’s face it, been intense. Not to mention thrilling, breathless and surprising too.
Usually the early part of a tournament is spent trying to read the tactical weather fronts, picking out the deeper gears behind these jousts. There have probably been trends and gambits this week, and no doubt some notable stats. But the most striking part has been the depth of feeling. This has above all been an emotional trip. Who knows where it might take us?
Before these delayed summer Euros, the talk was of fatigue and jaded minds. Instead we have this, a passion play, teams kicking off their early group games as though contesting the final exchanges of some rage-fuelled injury time hate-defeat. Against Turkey Aaron Ramsey and Daniel James seemed to be running through a haze of light, drunk on the air, the moment, the noises – and doing all this in the opening 30 seconds.
The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson has already pointed out that the high-pressure tempo is an extension of the dominant patterns of elite tier European club football. This explains pressing, the tightness of the space. But there has also been something uncontained out there, peaking out through those learned movements.
International football is often stately and composed, prone to periods where it just loses its internal pressure. These teams have run from start to finish, covering Premier League-style distances, forcing mistakes, crashing into one another. In the TV closeups, the players don’t look like billboard icons or sportswear mannequins. They look flushed and angry.
Watching the faces during Hungary v Portugal was almost painful, the whole spectacle consumed by fire, desperation, noises. We remember Finland’s Raft of the Medusa desperation at scoring a (disallowed) goal against Russia. The Netherlands have looked agreeably wild. In the most unreal of times, it feels agreeably real.
Mainly it’s quite clear the players are enjoying this, a significant turn in itself. The oddest part of the plague season just past was a kind of numbness at the edges. Rolled out across every time slot, cheered on by robots, at times it felt like mechanised human athleticism, product cranked out to order. This was football as the sporting equivalent of American cheese, a plasticised, throat-clogging substance, crammed in great smothering hunks across every surface.
There was a fear these Euros would be more of the same. Instead the players seem engaged, hungry, energised. And it makes sense. This is the football they play for love, powered by family and friends, wrapped up in colours and shade that go beyond whoever their current employers happen to be. The bruising style, the tears on the pitch, the yodelled anthems: there is perhaps an element here of people falling back into this game.
It might also be a significant turn for international football itself. There has been a tendency to dismiss these summer interludes as an annoyance, some low-throttle beta-version in danger of being consumed by the club game. But right now these Euros of All Over the Place feel like the real thing, a statement of life.
There have been helpful details, most obviously the presence of supporters in the grounds, desperate to simply gorge themselves on this stuff. The same goes for most of the media which has, in this country at least, looked wide-eyed and a little giddy.
Traditionally coverage of summer tournaments has featured some slot-mouthed Alan or Trevor delivering half-time insights in the style of a middle-aged man bitten by a toxic spider who is now bravely forcing himself to talk about dead-ball situations and following the runners. Instead we have giddy people in satin shirts, unspooling in a blather of superlatives. On ITV we have Emma Hayes urgently dissecting every tactical and technical turn, Roy Keane blinking in the light like an angry uncle slowly realising he’s going to be forced to dance at a wedding.
Even the sponsor-driven multi-city format, which was supposed to emphasise that we are all the same now, one big mobile branch of Starbucks, one hop away across the Ryanair-sphere, has had the opposite effect. Instead we have 11 utterly distinct, cabin-fevered venues.
And probably countries have something to do with this sense of urgency. We have, all of us, spent the last year and a half enclosed within these borders and flags, hearing about daily tolls and lockdown schedules, going through an odd, shared captive grief. Now we get to cheer for them.
It isn’t clear where this will end. Perhaps the surge of adrenaline will pass, fatigue and basic sporting caution start to bite. For now it seems enough just to feel something.