The prospect of Sunday’s Euro 2020 final between England and Italy is a “tragic situation”, according to a priest at the Italian church in London. With a pained expression, he says: “I’m Italian, but I live in England and love English people, but now you have become our foes.”
The priest is so troubled by the upcoming game that he refuses to give his name. Speaking after giving a mass at St Peter’s church, in the heart of Little Italy in Clerkenwell, he adds: “England is the only team we don’t want to face. If we win, you’ll be sad and I don’t want the English people to be sad. If you win, I’ll be sad and you can’t console me.”
Lots of Italians in Little Italy are similarly torn. Giovanna Gualti watched Wednesday night’s semi-final rooting for Denmark. “I just didn’t want England and Italy to be in the final,” she says, sitting behind a desk at the Holborn School of Motoring, a family business that was established in 1965 as the Italian School of Motoring and is still decorated in the green, white and red of the Italian flag.
“If England win it will be just be yap, yap, yap,” she says while miming a mouth opening and closing with her hand. “The English take it too seriously. If Italy win I’ll be happy and I’ll wear my Italian top for a couple of days, but I won’t be bragging about it.”
Gualti adds: “This is one of the best Italian teams we’ve had for a long time.” But still she expects the Azzurri to lose. “England are at home and they’ll have so many fans. It will give them the motivation to win.”
Gualti grew up in Little Italy in the 1980s and spent every Saturday as a teenager in the Italian club above the church. “Now it’s just a place for old people to play cards,” she says.
Like many of her childhood friends she moved out of the area after leaving home. She will be watching the game with her husband and two teenage children at home in Camden. “I’ve said to them if we lose there’ll be no dinner on Sunday evening.”
Next door to the motoring school, Antonio Verruto, the owner of Malletti’s Pizza, is more confident about Italy’s chances because of their togetherness as a team.
“We are lucky because we don’t have any prima donnas in the team now,” he says. “We just have 11 good, efficient soldiers who are ready to run and fight. It has been a revelation for Italy to play like that without any fear. They still dive, but that is in our DNA. We just can’t help it.”
He adds: “Of course I want Italy to win, but I’ve been living in England for nearly 40 years – it’s my second country. I’ll be annoyed if Italy lose and maybe my English friends will take the pee out of me, but that’s fine, I’ll do the same if Italy wins.
“Football is like an exhaust valve for releasing all the stress and anxiety. And it is exciting to have that after being restricted for 18 months in the horrible situation of fear of getting the disease, the fear of dying and the fear of losing jobs and businesses.”
He describes his own restaurant as “running on fumes” and adds: “It is still as dead as a dodo until people come back to work.”
But the football has been good for business at the Italian deli and cafe Terroni of Clerkenwell a few doors down. About 100 people watched Italy’s semi-final win on Tuesday on the deli’s TV, according to the co-owner Zin Sula, 48. “People love watching football with some pasta or pizza and a beer,” he says. “We were a bit lucky in the semi, but let’s see how lucky we are going to be on Sunday.”
Sula is coming under pressure from customers to open up on Sunday evening for the game. “If I can get a replacement pizza chef, I’ll open,” he says. If not, he will be watching at home in Golders Green with his England-supporting sons.
The family of Les Giovanni, 62, will also have split allegiances on Sunday.
Giovanni was baptised in the Italian church and remembers being “spoiled” by his Italian grandmother’s cooking. “Both my nans came here in 1920s – one from Sicily, the other from Naples. And they made their lives here.”
Giovanni now lives in Mill Hill, but he was taking the opportunity to visit the church again and his childhood haunts while on a break from work repairing a nearby council flat. “It’s changed so much; no doors were locked back then.”
Despite his Italian roots, Giovanni will be supporting England on Sunday.
“I’ll be getting lots of grief from the rest of the family if Italy win. It’s already been going off on text and WhatsApp with the banter. I always get stick for supporting England.”
But Giovanni will be happy whatever the outcome – at the start of the tournament he placed a bet on Italy to win “with good odds”.