Crushed Dreams for England as Italy Victorious on Penalties

Getty Images/Facundo Arrizabalaga

Italy 1-1 England (Italy win 3-2 on penalties)

  • England were denied a first European Championships trophy as they followed up a 1-1 draw with agonising defeat through a penalty shootout
  • Italy became champions instead, adding to their 1968 title

Football can be a cruel sport. It’s much too raw and much too early for England fans to respond well to phrases like “Ah well, maybe next time.” But that is the reality. In the Wembley drizzle, it was Italy who won Euro 2020. Gareth Southgate’s England were left watching, heartbroken, as the Azzurri danced round the Henry Delaunay trophy. The infinitesimal margins only amplified the pain for the dispersing England supporters and Southgate’s young side.

Cast your mind back to the opening seconds. You had to rub your eyes and remind yourself that, yes, Kalvin Phillips — who only became a Premier League player ten months ago — really was starting in a European Championships final. Declan Rice and Mason Mount were both starting — both 22, born four days apart, and best friends since they were eight. Look how well they compared to Europe’s elite!

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Crack. Back into consciousness we all snapped. And what had brought us back? Luke Shaw’s first England goal. Three assists and just one goal against in the tournament was topped in an instant as he started and then finished off the Three Lions’ very first attack of the night. Kieran Trippier fed in a lovely curling ball on the counter-attack. There was the Manchester United full-back, arriving late as the powerhouse he is to volley sweetly into the corner, in off the post. Italy had barely got themselves set for the starting gun. England were gunning for the Italians. 1-0. Not two minutes played.

Then something happened to Roberto Mancini’s Italy that very, very rarely happens to Roberto Mancini’s Italy. A half of football passed them by where they were unable to do almost everything they wanted to do. In a typical Southgate-esque display of defending from the front, the likes of Sterling, Mount and skipper Harry Kane cut off all the passing lanes. Sterling and Mount kept rotating their heads, checking where to stand almost to the centimetre. It was like watching a well-schooled teen trying desperately to impress their driving examiner. No through road (anywhere).

Besides a missed free-kick by Lorenzo Insigne and then a run and a close miss by their livewire Federico Chiesa, Italy went into the dressing room unfulfilled and very frustrated. England were 45 minutes from a first major trophy for 55 years. But this England have thrived because they haven’t let themselves think like that. The history will sort itself out afterwards. First, they’ll try to write their own history.

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On 56 minutes, Harry Maguire — a rock at the back at this tournament — rose to head just over from a corner, but it was about as close as England came in the entire second half. Their energy slowly started to wane. Italy’s possession became more and better used. Chiesa’s mischief drew two good saves from England’s goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. This was the tipping point. Italy were now in the ascendency. England looked a bit knocked knowing that they were being so starved of the ball. They’d let their control of the game slip from their grasp.

Eventually, the pressure told. Italy haven’t lost since 2015 when their centre-back pairing has been the fierce warriors Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. For all their aerial prowess and their sheer love for defending, they aren’t half bad attacking outlets from set-pieces too. Chiellini and Stones ended up a heap on the floor from an Italy corner. The ball went popping around. Bonucci stole in to tap home. Onto the advertising hoarding he stood, taking in the celebrations from outnumbered blue sections of the ground. 1-1. England had been hurled back down to earth. Of course it was going to be one of those long nights of longing. England had sat back too deep. It was a familiar sight for England fans returning at the worst possible moment.

Bukayo Saka replaced Kieran Trippier as England ditched 3-4-3 for 4-2-3-1 and went for the jugular. Jordan Henderson replaced a visibly gutted Declan Rice, who has given everything for England in this, his first, major tournament. Invaluable experience whatever the result, for a now crucial England player.

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A few tired passes later, the whistle blew for full-time. An extra 30 minutes would be needed to separate the two best teams of the tournament.

But the best had always been Italy. England had kept the most clean-sheets and improved as they’d gone on, but it was the Italians who had touched the hearts of neutrals — and not just because Sterling was adjudged around the world to have played for the Kane penalty that got England here.

Italy had produced the best football. And so it played out — in a way that was utterly crushing for everyone who had dared to dream and believe and wrap themselves in a red and white flag and paint their face to match. It was to be decided by a penalty shootout. The likelihood that a finalist will have faced at least one shootout in the knockout stages is around 83%. England left it until the final moments of their campaign, perhaps unkind on the many millions of nail-biting viewers watching across the country and from around the world.

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Jordan Pickford saved two — he did his job. England have prepared for shootouts better and more comprehensively than any nation at the Euros. Gareth Southgate’s own personal moment of heartache will no doubt be a key reason why. But all that planning can go out the window if nerves grab a hold of the mind.

Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were introduced from the bench as spot-kick specialists. But Rashford could find only the post. Sancho was denied by the eventual player of the tournament Gianluigi Donnarumma, before 19-year-old substitute Bukayo Saka was similarly thwarted by the 6 ft 5 keeper. Saka fell into the arms of his honorary parents on this most memorable 43-day residential, Conor Coady and Tyrone Mings. He was utterly distraught, inconsolable.

And so it was Italy who partied long into the London night. It was they who could kiss the trophy and lift it with beaming grins. England fans may well go home thinking of what might have been. It felt like Denmark versus England but in reverse; England were slowly smothered to death. But how incredibly close they came to ending those years of hurt this time around.

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When will England next have a striker as complete and completely brilliant as Kane? When will they have a dribbler as difficult to tackle as Sterling? When will they have a centre-back pairing as commanding as Maguire and Stones? When will they next have a manager who gets everything quite so spot-on?

The answer of course is for their next match in September. And for the next tournament, the World Cup in Qatar in 16 months’ time. This team are going nowhere; they’re here for the long haul. Their youth was their biggest asset in this tournament, in not bowing to the pressures of past faltering England teams. Their youth will remain. They’ve brought hope, vibrancy and purpose to a nation so divided in so many walks of life.

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In the end, it was all just one tiny step too far. An Italian glove away. Yet there is a bigger picture here. Italy’s 34-match unbeaten run survives a little longer. But it won’t go on forever. The memories for England will. Saka’s penalty sent England out, but he was courageous in stepping up. That’s how Southgate should have been viewed 25 years ago. That’s how Saka will be remembered now, for being as brave as a lion.

Ask yourself this: what will be your lasting memory of Saka at this tournament? Is it his spot-kick, parried away by Italy’s excellent goalkeeper? Or is it his belting smile, flying through the air on an inflatable unicorn? These players will learn from this incredible adventure — and we’ll all have fond memories of it. They’ve done England proud.

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