It was not to be England’s turn at glory, after all. Another unbearably cruel penalty shoot-out defeat after 120 minutes of rain-drenched drama at Wembley saw Italy emerge victorious in the Euro 2020 final.
A nerve-shattered nation huddled together in homes, pubs and beer gardens on Sunday night, hoping Gareth Southgate’s side could bring home England’s first major football trophy since 1966.
Instead of euphoric joy, there was only the small comfort of hugging each other in commiseration and the bittersweet pride in the thrilling performance of the young England team over the past four weeks.
After almost 18 months of anxiety, uncertainty and loneliness during the Covid pandemic, England’s adventures at this summer’s Euros went a long way in exorcising some of the nation’s pent-up frustrations.
Prince William described the final defeat as “heartbreaking” – but told the team they could “all hold your heads high and be so proud of yourselves – I know there’s more to come”.
Boris Johnson also praised the England squad for “playing like heroes – they have done the nation proud”. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the team represented “the very best of our country”.
Southgate said his players had “given everything they could have,” adding: “They should hold their heads high. They have pulled together to give the country some incredible evenings … At the moment the pain of the defeat is huge.”
The evening could not have started any better for England. Supporters greeted Luke Shaw’s early opener with unbridled delight – throwing beer into the air and letting off red flares in fan zones across the country.
Supporters at Trafalgar Square erupted in elation. “Wow, what a start – Luke Shaw deserves a knighthood!” said James Caldon, a 34-year-old from Plumstead in south London. Fellow Londoner Abu Nasir, 32, said: “Amazing. This only happens around football. It feels like nothing else.”
But the nation was forced to slump back in despair after Italy’s second-half equaliser. John Hurst, 58, watching at a street party outside Wigan, summed it up: “Could see that goal coming – England are just sitting back. They should have gone for the win instead of sitting back.”
The nervous excitement of fans, many of whom watched in the rain, remained undimmed through extra time. Huge crowds formed outside the bars across London’s West End to stare at the screens inside. Some huddled together under ponchos to watch the action on mobile phones.
But it was to end in another agonising penalty shoot-out defeat. Bukayo Saka’s saved spot-kick meant heartbreak for England, and sent Roberto Mancini’s side into ecstasy, able to celebrate their remarkable victory with around 1,000 Italian fans inside the stadium.
At the PaddyPark fans’ zone in Newcastle, the defeat left many slumped on the floor. After picking herself up, 18-year-old student Millie Carson said it had been a thrilling four-week ride to the final. “We have come so far. The team has brought the country together – everyone has been loving life in these hard times.”
As the crowds trudged on home from the pubs in central London, there was a mixture of dejection and defiance. One man dejectedly removed England flags from his car before getting into it, while another was seen throwing traffic cones in the main road in frustration. Others carried on chanting Three Lions.
Not everyone was ready to reflect on the noble efforts of the past four weeks. Paul Bushell, a 52-year-old from east London, said: “It’s school boy stuff – they are supposed to be the cream of the crop and I support a team in the second division and my players could score more than that.”
Before the match, the Queen sent a message to the team, saying: “History will record not only your success but also the spirit, commitment and pride with which you have conducted yourselves.” Prince William told the players they had brought out “the very best of England”.
The historic night didn’t bring out the best in everyone, however. Hundreds of fans without tickets broke through Wembley’s outer perimeter barriers and were able to barge inside.
The Metropolitan Police said the force had worked with Wembley’s security staff to prevent most of the attempted breaches – but the ticketless fans were seen inside, blocking stairs, corridors and disabled spaces early in the game.
One fan at Wembley told The Independent: “There are hundreds, maybe over a thousand, England fans who have got in without tickets. It’s an absolute disgrace.”
Security staff were seen rugby-tackling some fans to the ground on the concourse before removing them from the ground.
Violence erupted near the fire exit: one shocking video showed a man on the ground being repeatedly kicked in the head by several England fans as he tried to cover his head.
Elsewhere, British Transport Police said there had been “multiple cases of flares being set off within the vicinity of railway stations” in London and warned that these incidents would be investigated.
The area around Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus was left littered with broken glass, discarded cans and food packaging. Some of the weariest souls were seen throwing up on the street.
Depressingly, Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford were subjected to racist abuse online after the match – prompting the FA to condemn the “disgusting behaviour”.
Many England fans rallied to support the penalty-taking players, promising to get the offensive comments reported and removed.
After the streets are swept, hangovers clear and culture war spats over what it all means calm down, there will be the lingering sense of disappointment. Another heroic failure, perhaps. England fans have had plenty of those over the decades.
Yet hope – the stuff that always kills you – springs eternal. The World Cup in Qatar in 2022 is not so far away. Southgate will surely be given the chance to lead the team to the tournament, raise aspirations and get the nation dreaming all over again.