No amount of volume the crowd could make matched the sound of millions of hearts around England simultaneously snapping. The dream had come crashing down.
The Italian players streaked over to Gianluigi Donnarumma, jubilant at their resilience while a crestfallen Bukanyo Saka looked on, his missed penalty proving the decider.
It could not have started better for the Three Lions. Within two minutes, the outstanding Luke Shaw had snuck behind the Italian defence and clipped in a superb cross from Trippier.
It seemed like everything that had been building for years now was coming to fruition. It seemed like England’s time. Italy was making uncharacteristic errors in attack and was only just repelling the onslaught of attacks from the likes of Rice, Sterling and Kane.
Sterling’s crucial antics in the box last week may have counted against him, as referee Bjorn Kuipers seemed swift to dismiss all his pleas for fouls.
Italy seemed to find a different gear in the second half and the team were beginning to click. In the sixty-seventh minute, Bonucci scored a scrappy goal that nonetheless equalised matters.
The England defence then did what they could to absorb the persistent Italians, particularly Federico Chiesi, possibly the most energetic and dangerous man on the pitch.
Controversy struck when Chiellini performed the most blatant of fouls on Saka, who looked set to be away. Using his years of experience with the dark arts, Italy’s Captain hauled the young striker around the neck of his shirt, yanking him to the ground. Many cried for a red card but Chiellini’s experience at that crucial moment proved invaluable, regardless of how dirty it was.
Like many a great final, extra time was calling. And it was here that managers Southgate and Mancini needed to make some crucial calls. Jack Grealish was brought on to galvanise the attack but to no avail.
It was set for penalties. And with a minute to go, Southgate made some huge calls. Off came Henderson and Walker, on came the minutes-starved Rashford and Sancho. It was clear that all Southgate was throwing aside experience and mental fortitude, opting with was who he deemed the best penalty takers.
Both Harry’s, Kane and Maguire, slotted their two. The latter’s actually obliterated the back of the net and the camera. It looked even more hopeful when Pickford pulls off a brilliant save on Italian replacement Belotti’s attempt. This was a nation on the brink.
Except it was not to be.
Rashford takes an eternity with his run-up and the penalty glances off the post. Italy pulls one back, and things are exacerbated as Donnarumma spectacularly saves Sancho’s effort. Jorginho is next to miss, meaning that England had to score their next one. Had to.
Rather than more experienced players like Sterling or Grealish stepping forward, 19-year old Saka shows tremendous courage to walk forward, knowing that if he fails, England has lost. And it would not be coming home.
We all know how this went.
What matters in the aftermath is that people look at how far this young team have come. It was only in the last Euro’s that England were knocked out by Iceland. They were a national disgrace. The worst England team of all time according to many. To do one better than the World Cup, to reach the final of a major tournament, something they had not done in 56 years. Clearly, something to be said for what they have achieved.
The same can be said for many of the individuals. Bukayo Saka has never taken a professional penalty before but he stepped up to the mark, well aware of his situation. Marcus Rashford will be more remembered for his amazing effort to provide lunches for school children all over the country than any missed shot at goal.
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This time last year, Harry Maguire was a joke, a shambles of a man who had been arrested abroad and whose highlights reels were of his mistakes. Last night, he looked genuinely world-class, brimming with confidence.
Raheem Sterling has defied the tidal wave of unfair media criticism he has been subjected to for years and was one of the players of the tournament.
And no matter what Harry Kane does, he will get criticised. It’s like he needs to score four goals per game to achieve what’s apparently expected of him. All the while though he holds his head high and carries his duties with a sense of humbleness and lack of ego many footballers could learn from.
Gareth Southgate made the wrong calls on Sunday night. No doubt. But he has admitted it and wants to take full blame. That’s the sign of good character, knowing to admit mistakes on the biggest of stages. These players will remember this for the rest of their lives but it is how they bounce back from it that will define them forever.
At the end of the day, the current England set-up are great players and decent men. They will, however, always be pushed to the limit by the media and a ruthless fanbase.
The FA should stick with Southgate for a little while longer because this England team is really looking at something special.
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