The English town with thousands of Italy fans

Picture the scenes if Italy win in the Euro 2020 final on Sunday: downbeat fans heading home from Wembley and the pubs; empty streets that should have held parties; and silence rather than roars heard for miles.

In Bedford, however, hundreds of jubilant, flag-bearing fans would spill into the town’s riverside area to celebrate.

Around 14,000 (one in five) Bedfordians are of Italian descent, hence the town’s nickname, Little Italy. Their community began to grow in the 1950s, when several workers from southern Italy – where unemployment was rife – migrated to Bedford to work in the town’s brickworks industry.

Bedford’s Italians took to the streets on Tuesday to celebrate after Italy beat Spain

Today, descendants of those workers – and more recent arrivals from Italy – form a tight-knit community that’s both proud of their heritage and ‘the Azzuri’ (Italy’s football team).

But how have Bedford’s Italians been supporting their squad from thousands of miles away? And how do they maintain such a strong grip on Italian culture, decades after the first migrants arrived?

‘We don’t feel like a minority’
Tina Bonadies

Tina Bonadies was born in Bedford – her grandparents migrated from Italy to work in the brickworks.

“I feel so privileged to be Italian and living in Bedford .

“There’s so many of us, we don’t feel like a minority,” she tells ITV News.

Building a large, tight-knit community didn’t come without challenges, however. Early migrants faced discrimination from locals, while being packed by unscrupulous landlords into shared accommodation.

“I’ve actually seen my grandparents’ ID cards from back in the day and it was stamped ‘alien’. They were called ‘aliens’!” Ms Bonadies says.

Conditions improved as time progressed and the Italians began to curate their own spaces, like Bedford’s Italian church, and Club Italia, a community hub.

Ms Bonadies says the Italian national team is also a unifying force and although she was born here, she won’t be cheering for England in the final.

“My country is Italy, I’ll always back Italy!” she says.

‘It’s nice to see lots of people come together as a whole’
Mr Citriniti’s celebrity clients include ex-Love islander Yewande Biala and Ed Westwick, an actor best known for starring in Gossip Girl.

Massimo Citriniti’s grandparents were also employed in Bedford’s brickworks. Mr Citriniti, however, spent his early childhood in Italy and moved to Bedford at the age of 7.

Now 34, he runs a hair salon which boasts actor Ed Westwick and ex-Love Islanders Molly Mae and Yewande Biala among its clients.

Unlike Ms Bonadies, Mr Citriniti says he’s torn between supporting England (“what with living in the UK and having all the opportunities I have”) and Italy.

If the Blues win, however, he’ll definitely head to the riverside to celebrate with his fellow Italians.

“The last win that we had, I looked around and there was someone in their eighties near me, there was a newborn in a pram…it was nice to see lots of people come together as a whole,” he says.

‘We’re very worried an Italy win will mean violence’
(left to right) Anna Clara Giancontieri, her boyfriend Roberto Forestiero and her sister Maria Giancontieri.

Anna Clara Giancontieri, whose great grandmother migrated to Bedford from Sicily, says holidays to Italy play a key part in maintaining her roots.

“I’m full Italian but when we go back, we’re seen as British.” she laughs.

“They see it as ‘the English lot are coming back’!” The 26-year-old beauty therapist admits she has ties to both countries, especially when it comes to the football. Regardless of who wins on Sunday, she’ll says be pleased.

“Obviously my roots are Italian, I’ll root for my country, but I live here, so I wouldn’t mind whoever really,” she says.

However, Ms Giancontieri adds that an Italy win would be bittersweet. After the Azzurri defeated the Three Lions in Euro 2012, Italian fans were assaulted.

She says: “The England fans burnt our flags and broke the wing mirrors off our cars.

“As Italians right now, we’re very worried that will happen again.”‘Forza Italia!’
Marika (left) in Italy with her mother, father, brother and sister

Although 70 years have passed since Little Italy was born, Marika Coluccino is confident the community’s cultural identity won’t be diluted.

“It’s just something in your blood, as silly as it sounds.”

“Its something you’re really proud of and you never want to lose that heritage,” she says.

When she was six, Ms Coluccino and her parents moved from Italy to Bedfordshire to join her uncle and Grandad, who had already settled in the county. Her parents took over a fish and chip shop, but the family still kept their passion for Italian food.

“We go down to the Italian shop to get the ham, mozzarella, pizzas…” she says.

“Even though mine and my sister’s husbands are English, we always say their stomachs are Italian!”

She says although she has several English people in her life, there’s been no animosity throughout the Euros, just “good banter”.

As her beloved Italy reach the final furlong, does she have any words of encouragement?

“Forza Italia (Let’s go Italy)!” she says.

England v Italy kicks off at 8pm on Sunday, July 11. Coverage starts on ITV from 6.30pm – it will also be available to stream live on the ITV Hub.

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