It was nearly complete, it was nearly so sweet. But it was, lest we forget, still sweet all the same.
Italy and not England are the champions of Europe after a gruelling, draining, occasionally wild Euro 2020 final was decided by the final kick of a penalty shootout.
For Gareth Southgate and his young team defeat came in the cruellest, most operatic fashion at Wembley as England’s shot at a first tournament victory in 55 years was decided by another of those brutal little flick-books of joy and despair.
This is an England manager whose public identity has been defined for much of the last quarter of a century by failure at the same ground in a European Championship penalty shootout. As the final stretched into extra time Southgate watched from his touchline, shuffling his substitutes, trying to put a brake on this train. There were scares, bruising collisions, weary attempts to break the game open. But of course it was heading this way, a twist pulled from football’s schlockiest of scripts.
There were tears in the crowd for the three England players to miss in the shootout, Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, aged 19, 21 and 23. As Italy’s players collapsed on to the turf in spasms of joy following Gianluigi Donnaruma’s decisive save from Saka, as the white shirts slumped into a frieze of sadness, there was a feeling of vertigo around Wembley, but beneath it the sound of something else too.
Italy are deserved champions, a fine team who played some thrilling football, not least in coming from behind after England’s early goal here. England produced moments of clarity too, and were bold and unafraid in their first men’s tournament final since 1966, the Queen’s white gloves, the Empire Stadium and all that.
There will be pain in defeat. But that sound at the end was a gentle hiss of applause. Down the years moments such as these have been met with a reflex splurge of blame, hurt, recrimination, tears, hurled plastic chairs.
But this was something else. For the last four weeks, and beyond that back to the sun-drenched pantomime of Russia 2018, Southgate’s fine, likeable young team has been a tonic, his clarity, decency and willingness to speak across football an uplifting thing at a time of dissonance and weak leadership elsewhere. At times Southgate has seemed like the last sensible person left. This England iteration may or not go on to further glories from here. But when something is good it’s never gone, and this fine young group of footballers made a mark here that will not be lost. After a year and half of fear and isolation football has, for the last few weeks, provided a reminder that other things also exist, that there is also hope and warmth to be found, other stories to be written.
England’s seventh game of this tournament was a wonderfully full-blooded occasion. As the crowds streamed down Wembley way there were reports of doors rushed and fences leapt, ticketless fans seeking a spot at the table. Was it ever going to be anything else? Football can feel like an uncontainable thing at moments like these.
Wembley was a beautiful spectacle, the grass a deep lime green, the huge open tiers throbbing with bodies, flags, banners, people blinking in the lights, as though struggling to believe this waking dream.
There was a pause before kick-off as the players of both sides took the knee in the final of the world’s third largest televised sporting event, quite a moment for that pre-match ritual. Taking the knee is a nudge. It’s a note of sympathy. It costs nothing. It has no hard political outline, unless, tolerance and anti-racism seem like startling new concepts. But billions of people watched this final. The warm ripples of that gesture will be felt in unexpected places.
The anthems had already passed at a pitch of hysteria, the cameras lingering on the gorgeously soft, brutish brows of Giorgio Chiellini as Italy’s poster boy belted out Il Canto degli Italiani. We are prepared to die, the final refrain insists. But what Italy weren’t prepared for was Luke Shaw.
There was something glorious in the fact England’s opening goal after two minutes was scored by one full-back and made by two others. When Southgate picked his squad there was an idea he would be hoist by his own full-back fetish, that this was excessive, crankish caution. Well, three of those full-backs made a goal in the final. Kyle Walker’s run created space and time for Kieran Trippier to measure a perfect pass to the back post, dipping in a perfect parabola into Shaw’s stride. The volley into the corner was perfectly executed.
As the ball spun around in the back of the net Shaw leapt and waved an arm a little vaguely. As of that moment the last two England players to score in a final were Geoff Hurst and Luke Shaw, two minutes of game-time and 55 years apart on this same pitch.
England got to half-time still ahead, but paddling for the end. And as the second half dragged past its midpoint, they began to fade. Or rather, Italy began to play. And they are a wonderful team, strong in every area, coached in fine point detail.
Southgate frowned on his touchline, occasionally muttering to his assistant Steve Holland, but still collected, still with the air of a junior cavalry officer on his way to a country wedding. At 1-1 England were hanging on a little right to the end. Full-time came and went, with England looking like a young team now, stretched thin by Italy’s pressing in midfield, their ability to control the tempo. Harry Maguire showed defensive leadership when it was needed, patrolling that stricken backline like a police horse shepherding a testy crowd. Then came that grand final twist, and a defeat that felt as bad as defeat ever feels, but not quite like the end.