July 12, 2021 1:56:10 pm
It didn’t come home, nothing’s coming home. Instead, a battle-hardened Italian team extinguished England’s delirious Euro 2020 dreams, ending their Wembley party in the cruellest fashion with a penalty shootout defeat in the final on Sunday.
As the Italian players sang and danced, kissed and cried, bathed in sparkling ticker tape, for the English it was another false dawn.
The whole of England had been brimming with hope and expectation, but the Italians had the last word, and used it well.
“It’s a unique pleasure to see 58,000 people leave before the trophy presentation,” Italian defender Leonardo Bonucci said dryly.
“Now the cup is coming to Rome. They thought it was staying here, I’m sorry for them but Italy has once again taught a lesson.
“So while Italy now have two European Championships to add to their four World Cup triumphs, England’s wait for silverware stretches into a 56th year.
Not since their sole World Cup triumph back in 1966 have the English tasted success, but they could hardly have come closer with a bunch of exciting players who have put fun and pride back into the Three Lions shirt.
CALLOW WEAK SPOTS
It was just their rotten luck that they met an inspired Italian squad whose experience perfectly countered England’s sometimes-callow weak spots.
For the hosts it had all started so brightly, when they took the lead inside two minutes through a cracking Luke Shaw goal, but they were then reeled in by a cannier, more experienced side on the night.
For all the giddy excitement and promise of England’s youthful side, ultimately it came down to a test of nerve, and three of England’s youngsters were found wanting when the stakes were highest.
Whether 19-year-old Bukayo Saka and fresh substitutes 23-year-old Marcus Rashford and 21-year-old Jadon Sancho should have been down to take penalties is a debate that will rage.
In the event, they all missed in the shootout and the dream was over.A glimpse through social media reveals the “Anyone But England” brigade has grown in number as this tournament has progressed. Unsettling footage of bare-chested men, fuelled by lager, tearing up city centre squares before the final will have done nothing to win the English any neutral fans.
The streets around the stadium were already slick with beer, with broken glass crunching underfoot several hours before kick-off, but inside the ground there had been a feeling of real optimism, and only the hardest of hearts would not feel for this England squad.
Sport can sometimes be accused of exaggerating its ability to change society. Overblown as it is, however, to suggest these footballers have united a nation riven by political and social disharmony, they have played with a joy that has lifted the spirits of a country still bitterly divided by the decision to leave the European Union, and split by the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The writers of that ubiquitous Three Lions song, which promised “It’s coming home”, referenced “30 years of hurt” in that track originally released ahead of Euro 96. You can almost double that period of sporting misery now, but England are inching ever closer.
The dark days of the 1970s — where England’s deflated footballers were left to sit at home watching the likes of Haiti, Zaire and Australia compete at World Cups for which they had failed to qualify — are long forgotten, as are more recent times when playing for England seemed an ordeal to be avoided rather than an honour to enjoy.
This young England group, and their manager Gareth Southgate, have done much to recast the English football team in a more positive light, and they will have more chances to go one step further on the biggest stages.