Football did not come home as penalties return to haunt England
England suffered a penalty shoot-out loss in the final of Euro 2020 as the biggest night in the nation’s recent footballing history ended in heartbreak on the pitch and trouble outside.
Ticketless fans stormed the gates before kick-off with some forcing their way into the stands at Wembley, where the Three Lions lost 3-2 on penalties to Italy following a 1-1 draw.
Given it had already been 55 years – or 20,070 days to be precise – of hurt, England fans were determined to enjoy the experience but there would be moments to forget even before Bukayo Saka saw his penalty saved.
The beers were flowing on Wembley Way six hours before kick-off as footballs were kicked high above the assembled crowds, joining fireworks, smoke bombs and the occasional traffic cone.
Fan parks heaved and pubs were closing their doors well in advance of the teams even making it to the stadium, let alone before kick-off.
It was not all harmless fun as videos emerged of fans storming security gates to gain access to the stadium and then fighting among themselves inside the concourses.
Meanwhile, London landmarks were strewn with beer cans and supporters scaling traffic lights and road signs while the players were still at their hotel in Watford.
For the majority, this was not just a chance to toast a first final in over half a century, it was also the culmination of a journey and a reconnection between the England team and the nation that began at the 2018 World Cup.
These players have been adopted into the nation’s hearts; Harry ‘Slabhead’ Maguire, the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ Kalvin Phillips, Saka the ‘Little Chili’ and Luke Shaw ‘Shawberto Carlos’ at left-back.
Shaw would open the scoring and have England dreaming of bringing football home – but instead a tense penalty shoot-out ended with substitute Saka seeing his spot-kick saved by Gianlugi Donnarumma.
Manager Gareth Southgate has become a national treasure but was not immune from criticism in the earlier games for his perceived negative team selection but in picking Kieran Trippier over Saka here, he once again showed a ruthlessness which is sometimes lost beneath his calm, well-spoken exterior.
The Three Lions boss has spoken of his pride at bringing happiness to a nation flattened by the coronavirus pandemic and split by Brexit.
He also had to back his players at the start of the finals as their collective decision to take the knee before kick-off in a stance against racism was jeered by sections of the England support.
The fact they made the gesture ahead of the biggest game of football in over a generation will now live forever alongside pictures of Saka – as well as Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho – slumped after missing their penalties.
With some seemingly ticketless fans watching on from the concourses and standing two to a seat, England roared into life almost immediately.
They have started most games at this tournament at a frenetic pace and it was no different here as Shaw volleyed in the fastest-ever goal in a European Championship final.
As Southgate’s players controlled the tempo for the majority of the first-half, a Wembley spokesperson redressed an earlier statement claiming no fans had stormed the barriers . “There was a breach of security and a small group of people got into the stadium,” the updated statement said.
On the pitch, it was a nervy start to the second-half for England as they were pushed deeper by the Azzurri – with Jordan Pickford forced into action on a couple of notable occasions.
Rattled by Leonardo Bonucci’s equaliser, England became scrappy with Southgate making changes and the players starting to point fingers.
It also saw a shift in atmosphere inside the stadium as Italy’s fans could be heard over their counterparts for the first time.
There was more for Wembley staff to be red-faced about as a pitch invader gave a handful of stewards the slip on numerous occasions before being led from the field.
Unlike the 1966 World Cup, extra-time would not settle the final and England would go on to endure agony from 12 yards once again.
Southgate had seen a penalty saved in the semi-final defeat to Germany at Euro 96 and experienced the same result here.
The Wembley PA blared out Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ as the penalty takers were decided: “If you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted, in one moment, would you capture it, or just let it slip?”
England let it slip, the decision to bring on Rashford and Sancho in the dying embers would ultimately backfire – with Rashford hitting the post and Sancho having his effort saved.
Southgate embraced his crestfallen players and spoke passionately in a huddle as the Italy team celebrated with their supporters at the other end of Wembley.
Football, ultimately, did not come home and while Southgate and his squad will get the plaudits for going so close, the scenes beforehand would have marred the day no matter what the outcome.
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