ROME: The Euro 2020 soccer championship finally got underway on Friday after a year-long delay with a colourful fireworks show and choreography featuring balloons representing the 24 teams in Rome's sparsely populated Stadio Olimpico.
Only some 16,000 fans were admitted for the opening match between Italy and Turkey, around 25per cent of capacity, after authorities kept a firm cap on attendance at the tournament due to COVID-19 concerns.
Trying to pump up excitement, which has been largely missing in Rome in the run up to the kick-off, Italian soccer greats and 2006 World Cup winners Francesco Totti and Alessandro Nesta welcomed fans at the opening ceremony.
Tenor Andrea Bocelli sang Nessun Dorma, U2 band stars Bono and The Edge performed with DJ Martin Garrix via a video link, while fireworks flared from the roof of the stadium and the pitch, leaving a trail of coloured smoke through the arena.
Although few in number, supporters cheered their return to the stands after a year when most games were played before empty terraces to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
"We bought the tickets more than two years ago, and finally we are here", said Mattia Valentini, 27, holding an Italian flag with his cousin Edoardo Valentini, 23, outside the stadium.
Fellow Italy fan Vito, 34, came from the southern region of Puglia with six friends. The match is part of his bachelor party and they all donned an Azzurri shirt saying "Vito is getting married".
Groups of noisy Turkish fans decked out in red and white also reached Rome, brushing aside coronavirus fears.
"The situation in the world is getting better, we are really happy and we are looking forward to a match with people and not in an empty stadium," said Turkey supporter Harun Kalkat.
To accommodate supporters outside the stadium, organisers have set up a soccer village at the central Piazza del Popolo, which can hold a maximum of 1,680 fans.
(Additional reporting by Antonio Denti; Editing by Ken Ferris)