England’s dreaming: Euro 2020 final offers chance to scratch 55-year itch | Jonathan Liew

After a close, tense tussle with Denmark, England are into their first major men’s tournament final since 1966

At 10.11pm on a cool Wednesday night at a febrile, fevered Wembley Stadium, Harry Kane stepped forward. It had been a tightly-knotted, impossibly close semi-final: the kind where the tension winds itself around your guts like a sickness, where the picture seems to blur a little at the edges, where everything feels real and not real at once. England and Denmark were locked at one-all. Thirteen minutes into extra time, Kane had the key.

Kane stepped up to take his penalty: sturdily, not confidently, almost as if the baggage of 55 years was tethered to him as he ran. The penalty was saved by Kasper Schmeichel but ran free; Kane buried the rebound, and in that moment England were coming home. For the first time in men’s football, they are European Championship finalists; their game against Italy at Wembley on Sunday evening certain to be one of this country’s biggest ever sporting occasions.

Mikkel Damsgaard’s scintillating first-half free-kick was swiftly cancelled out by Simon Kjær’s own goal for England just before half-time. And yet the bare facts of the evening barely scratch at the surface of this enormous shared cultural experience, watched in person by 66,000 fans and on television by an audience that will probably touch 30 million. Everyone will have their own personal memory of this game: the pub or living room they watched it in, the parents or siblings or friends or strangers they watched it with, what they were doing and thinking at the moment Kane’s shot hit the net.

For Gareth Southgate, England’s coach, this will have felt like something different entirely. Sunday’s game will be the culmination of a task that in many ways was set out for him from the moment he stepped off the Wembley pitch after missing a penalty against Germany in 1996, and which – despite everything – still remains tantalisingly incomplete. England had lost their last four tournament semi-finals. They have not won a major trophy since 1966. That hoodoo has never felt closer to being broken.

A word for the fearless, exhausted Danes, who fought to the very last second, their minds engaged even as their bodies began to flag. For Kasper Hjulmand’s team this was a pilgrimage, the end of a long and harrowing journey that has changed them all: profoundly, forever. The vision of their talisman Christian Eriksen lying lifeless on the pitch continues to haunt them; his stirring recovery continues to uplift them. Remarkably, they qualified after losing their first two games. Despite everything, Denmark leave Wembley with their faith in miracles intact.

England fans celebrate wildly at the final whistle.
England fans celebrate wildly at the final whistle. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Wembley was a noisy three-quarters full: 66,000 wedged in shoulder to sweaty shoulder for the ultimate super-spreader event. Except here it was joy and hope and longing being spread from person to person on an industrial scale. And, let’s be frank, probably Covid too. In the seconds before kick-off Raheem Sterling prayed. Kyle Walker threw some grass into the air for good luck. Together they knelt; nobody booed. At precisely 8pm, the Dutch referee Danny Makkelie began proceedings.

England began in a rocket-powered frenzy. Denmark, meanwhile, were happy to play the long game. They had begun the more cautious side, but as they settled it was England whose wind began to blow out. After half an hour a curiously powered-down England conceded two free-kicks on the edge of their penalty area. From the second, Damsgaard curled and swerved and dipped a brilliant shot through the taut Wembley air, over the wall and into the top corner.

Bukayo Saka

This was new, colder territory: the first time England had trailed in any sort of game since last November. Before they had time to panic, they were level. Bukayo Saka broke the offside trap and crossed for Sterling, who arrived at the same time as the Denmark captain Kjær, the pair just about bundling the ball in between them. Resoundingly, cathartically, Wembley shook to its hinges; albeit in the knowledge that the agony was only just beginning.

The second half was … well, let’s not mince words. The second half was horrible. A hailstorm of crunching tackles and unimaginable jeopardy and broken football played by increasingly fraying men. Denmark, frazzled and exhausted, slowed the game down to walking pace, occasionally even rolling-on-the-floor-clutching-a-hamstring pace. Crosses sailed straight out of play. Fouls were committed and gratefully accepted.

England had chances. Harry Maguire, leaping like the world’s most dangerous tuna, forced a fine save from Schmeichel. The folksy, rakish Jack Grealish appeared as a substitute and folksily, rakishly did very little. Yet sensing their superiority as extra time began, England began to lay siege to the Danish goal, set traps everywhere, barraged and bombarded it.

Then at 10.09pm, Sterling wriggled in from the right wing, went down under multiple challenges or perhaps – depending on your viewpoint – none at all. At 10.10pm, Makkelie confirmed the penalty after consulting the VAR. By 10.12pm, Wembley was ablaze: men and women and children leaping and reeling and spilling beverages all over each other (and at Wembley prices you need to be pretty damn euphoric to do *that*).

And so the chance to scratch English sport’s last great itch. The rugby union team broke their duck in 2003, the men’s cricketers in 2019. Meanwhile the child who watched England winning the World Cup in 1966 is now a pensioner. Perhaps there is something surreal about all this joy and elation taking place in a nation stalked by division and disease, a country that has never felt more straightforwardly angry than at any other point in our lifetimes.


And yes, football happiness is not real happiness. It’s fleeting, hollow, frivolous, illusory, its ability to solve real-world problems grotesquely overrated. But then, isn’t that true of most things? Sunday night will be some occasion. Italy, the best and best-organised team in the tournament so far, will be the toughest test yet, and may even start as favourites. For this country’s long-suffering fans, there are still grimmer agonies ahead. But here, now, under dark skies and bright lights, England made us happy.


Jonathan Liew at Wembley

The GuardianTramp

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