Euro 2020 Final
They came to celebrate football coming home, but instead the years of hurt continue.
England’s dreams of Euro 2020 glory were shattered on an agonising night at Wembley, once again by the curse of penalties. Their quest for immortality fell just short, from 12 yards, in the cruellest way against Italy’s band of blue-shirted brothers.
For Gareth Southgate, all those memories of 1996 must have come flooding back as Gianluigi Donnarumma dived to turn away Bukayo Saka’s spot kick.
As Italy celebrated a first Euros crown since 1968, Saka looked away in agony, his face filled with tears. His colleagues, drained and devastated, immediately went to console him.
Who can imagine what was racing through his mind? Southgate could.
It was why, once he had congratulated Italy’s bench, he walked over, seeking out Saka, hugging him, offering words of compassion.
How it hurt for England – the experience of 55 years and counting not lessening the anguish.
It had all started so well, Luke Shaw firing England in front inside two minutes.
But Italy, fortified by a long unbeaten run that now stands at 34 games, found their feet, with Leonardo Bonucci finding the net in the second half.
And so to penalties, where the ghosts of 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2012 continue to haunt England.
When it was done, their players went on a slow lap of the pitch, applauding the fans, before the walk to collect their runners-up medals. It was through tear-filled eyes that they watched Giorgio Chiellini, stride forward to collect the trophy, lifting it into the night sky as the clock passed 11.15pm.
That trophy has eluded England but in so many other senses they leave here as winners, drawing so many admirers.
There is a genuine bond between fans and players, a world away from the bitterness that flowed from the stands after their last Euros defeat to Iceland five years ago.
So much is embodied by Southgate, who ends this tournament with the status of statesman.
Gary Neville, one of the game’s more enlightened observers, said after England’s win against Denmark: “The standard of leadership in this country the last couple of years has been terrible, but Gareth Southgate has shown the nation how to do it, with honesty and decency.”
It was why, at the end, Southgate’s first move was to seek out Roberto Mancini, hiding all his hurt to congratulate the Italian coach.
It was a bitter, bitter end for England to a night that had started so well, with so much hope and so much expectation.
As fans assembled for England’s day of destiny, there were chaotic scenes outside, with tens of thousands – many without tickets – gathering through the day.
By 6pm it was bedlam, with events taking a sinister turn as some tried to gatecrash the stadium.
Inside, the pre-game soundtrack flipped from Nessun Dorma to Vindaloo to the reworked Atomic Kitten ode to Southgate.
To a thunderous roar, battle commenced. Just 117 seconds later, England were in front.
It had started from an Italian corner, nervously conceded by Harry Maguire. From it, England flew forward, Harry Kane leading the charge. He spread to Kieran Trippier on the right, who floated the ball to the back post, where Shaw arrived to score.
An already feverish atmosphere was raised another level. Up in the posh seats, David Beckham was fist-bumping Tom Cruise – the dream of glory suddenly no longer Mission Impossible.
As the stadium erupted all around him, Southgate briefly clenched his fist, applauded politely, before quickly regaining his composure.
Italy settled, and half-time came at the right time for England, but Mancini’s side carried their growing menace and momentum into the second period.
Lorenzo Insigne curled a free-kick just wide from a foul he won off Raheem Sterling, Jordan Pickford blocked from Ciro Immobile, then got down smartly to stop from Federico Chiesa.
England were conceding possession, backing off, inviting pressure. A growing nervousness in the crowd was finding its way onto the pitch.
With 67 minutes gone, Italy made it count. Pickford pulled off a fine save to turn Verratti’s header onto the post but Bonucci was there to tuck in.
England regained a level of composure but it was still Italy on top as the game headed for extra time.
As penalties beckoned, the England players gathered in a huddle, some last words of encouragement.
After Domenico Bernardi and Kane converted, Andrea Belotti missed. Advantage England, once Harry Maguire had found the net. But only briefly.
Bonucci scored, but then Marcus Rashford missed, striking the base of the post.
Jadon Sancho’s miss after Fernando Bernardeschi’s successful kick gave Jorginho the chance to win it.
Facing into a baying crowd of red and white, he found the hand of Pickford, who pushed it onto the post. But Saka’s missed kick, pushed away by Donnarumma ended the dream.
The hurt continues.