Luke Shaw’s goal inside the opening two minutes gave England a lead it looked like it would hold onto all night, before a goalmouth scramble midway through the second half allowed Leonardo Bonucci to poke home an equalizer for Italy.
For the remainder of the match it felt as though extra-time and penalties were inevitable, as neither side seemed willing or brave enough to commit enough men forward to really trouble the opposing defenders.
England had suffered innumerable heartbreaks on penalties over the years and this time it was Italy’s turn to inflict yet more pain on beleaguered English fans as Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka all missed from the spot.
During the wild Italian celebrations, Bonucci — who had been immense all night and rightly earned the man of the match award — screamed “it’s coming to Rome” into the pitch side camera to rub yet more salt into the wounds of English fans.
England’s wait to end its wretched run in major international competitions, stretching all the way back to 1966, will go for at least another year until the World Cup is hosted in Qatar.
Few would have expected Italy, which failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, to reach the final prior to the start of Euro 2020, much less win the entire competition, but Roberto Mancini’s side quickly established itself as one of the contenders after three thrilling group stage performances.
Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy’s hero in the penalty shootout with two fine saves, was deservedly named the player of the tournament and the goalkeeper heads up a group of talented stars that should ensure this side remains competitive for the foreseeable future.
As for England, this defeat is likely to sting for quite some time to come for players and fans alike, but the squad at least has the consolation of knowing it has provided the country with a tournament run not seen for more than five decades.
Wembley Way, the famous road leading up to England’s national stadium, was heaving as many as seven hours before kick off.
Many of the fans here in the early afternoon didn’t even have tickets, instead choosing to just soak up the atmosphere before moving on to watch the match elsewhere.
The fridges that stocked beer in one of the grocery stores closest to Wembley Stadium were almost completely empty by late morning.
For the vast majority of fans in attendance, this was something they had never experienced in their lifetimes. It had been 55 long years since England was last in a major international final and fans have known only heartache and disappointment since that World Cup triumph in 1966.
One couple considered it such a momentous occasion that they decided to get married on Wembley Way just hours before kick off, both dressed in full wedding attire and holding up England shirts with “Mr” and “Mrs” printed on the back.
Even when cheering on ‘golden generations’ of the past, England fans have never supported their national team with a fervor quite like this. Southgate and this group of players deserve much of the credit for stirring up such a feeling of national pride.
Stars have regularly used their platform to speak out on social issues and, when it comes to Rashford’s fight against child food poverty, have even managed to reverse government policy.
“I think we’ve got good players and ice boys, but more importantly relatable boys,” English journalist Darren Lewis tells CNN. “I think the secret to the success of this team is that the people in charge of the England team — and I mean the PR team around them — have allowed them to speak on issues that affect them, on issues that people can connect with.
“They’ve allowed them to be normal. I remember being at the 2010 World Cup and England were keeping their players away from everyone, treating them like rock stars. I remember going down to the harbor in South Africa and the Dutch were walking around — they were finalists that year — walking around, talking to people, just enjoying themselves.
“I think this regime who are looking after the team, they realize that it’s important just to let the players be players, let them be men who people can connect with. If you walk through some parts of the crowd, I remember doing it after games and being struck by the diversity in the crowd; black, brown, white.
“Everyone wants to be a part of this England because they identify with [Raheem] Sterling, [Harry] Kane, [Tyrone] Mings, [Jordan] Henderson. They identify with these players because these players aren’t detached. They care about their communities. They care about the people in the places that they come from and that means a lot to the general public.”
Anyone but England?
However, that feeling of goodwill towards the national team seems to extend no further than England’s borders.
Ahead of the final, viral memes have shown a map of Europe covered in Italian flags to signify the support of every other country on the continent.
Much of the animosity towards England and its fans seems to have stemmed from the chant of “football’s coming home,” the chorus of the 1996 song ‘Three Lions’ which has become the national team’s adopted anthem.
The song was released ahead of Euro 96, hosted in England, and is about pessimism and despair, but still feeling hope that the national team may finally end years of heartache.
However, fans of rival countries have interpreted the chant as arrogant and presumptuous, despite multiple attempts to explain its true meaning.
“First of all, there is this ‘It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming’ that’s banging [on] since the beginning,” Italian journalist Tancredi Palmeri told CNN.
“At the beginning it was nice, but then it sounds like: ‘You owe us,’ like ‘it belongs to us, so you owe us’ and people would say: ‘No, nobody owes you anything and it doesn’t belong to you.
“Just look at the footage of people singing all the time ‘It’s coming home’ for a month. It doesn’t really look like, ‘we are being ironic, being sarcastic.’ It looks like, ‘finally we are getting back what is ours.’ So that is the sentiment [from the outside].”
Some fans outside the stadium certainly didn’t endear themselves to the watching world when they broke through the security barriers in an attempt to get into Wembley before the gates had been opened.
In the hour leading up to kick off, Wembley was thundering.
Large swathes of English and Italian fans were mingling throughout the stadium, joining in chorus to belt out a number of songs that have become English anthems during Euro 2020.
By the time the national anthems came around, neither of which were booed by opposition fans, Wembley felt as though its very foundations were rocking.
When Shaw scored, then, with less than two minutes on the clock, the 60,000 or so fans inside the stadium raised the decibels to levels this ground has never heard before.
It was a wonderful move, too, with Shaw getting on the end of Kieran Trippier’s deep cross to the far post to finish off a rapid counterattack.
England certainly hasn’t thrilled with attacking football at this European Championships, instead its success has been built on an organized defense — the best in the tournament — and a smothering midfield.
However, the players perhaps sensed this was an occasion like no other and put Italy on the back foot from the first whistle.
Throughout Euro 2020, this Italian team has somewhat torn up the defensive blueprints that the country’s national team has become synonymous with over the years.
Though it still boasts tremendous defensive leadership and organization in veteran central pairing Bonucci and Gorgio Chiellini, it’s been the more fluid and aggressive attacking style that has caught the eye.
In the first 25 minutes of this contest, however, they had been stifled entirely by an England team that wasn’t affording them a moment’s rest on the ball.
On the rare occasion Italy did enjoy any extended period of possession, boos rang loudly around the stadium and when a foray forward was ended by a wayward pass, England’s fans erupted into rapturous cheers.
Italy was still showing brief flashes of the exciting football that had got it this far — notably through the quick-footed Lorenzo Insigne — but its players were quickly met with a solid white wall whenever they threatened to fashion a sight of goal.
Mancini’s side did create one opening before the half was over through Federico Chiesa, the goal hero from Italy’s semifinal win over Spain, who picked up the ball from deep and drove towards the box, but could only drag his shot wide of Jordan Pickford’s post.
Before the roar that greeted the referee’s half time whistle, for the first time all evening Wembley had quietened down significantly; the first half had gone as perfectly as these fans could have dreamed of, perhaps they were already nervously allowing themselves to believe.
Less than five minutes into the second half, however, Insigne fired a direct free-kick not too far wide of Pickford’s post just as a prompt reminder that this match was far from over.
With Italy still struggling to create anything from open play, Mancini was forced into making a double substitution after only 50 minutes, bringing on Bryan Cristante and Domenico Berardi for Nicolo Barella the ineffective Ciro Immobile.
The changes had almost the immediate desired impact, as Italy for the first time got in behind England’s back line but Insigne’s shot from a narrow angle was well blocked by Pickford.
That chance rallied the Italian fans congregated behind Pickford’s goal, who had fallen largely silent after their team’s lackluster first half.
This was now without question Italy’s best period of the match so far, for the first time its passing was starting to pull the English defense from one side to another to force some openings.
England soon retaliated, however, with John Stones rising highest in the area to head Trippier’s corner towards goal and force Gianluigi Donnarumma to tip the ball over the crossbar.
But Italy soon got the goal its improved performance deserved.
Berardi’s corner to the far post somehow found its way to Marco Verratti, who saw his shot saved excellently onto the post by Pickford, but Bonucci was in the right place at the right time to tap the rebound into an empty net.
Now it was the turn of the Italian fans to fill Wembley with noise, as England’s supporters descended into a nervous silence with their team now on the back foot.
The minor capitulation forced Gareth Southgate into making his first substitutions, as Saka and Henderson replaced Trippier and Declan Rice.
It so nearly went from bad to worse for England as Bonucci’s raking long ball found Berardi bearing down on goal, but the forward could only send his volley over the crossbar.
England now seemed to be doubting everything that had helped them reach the final; Maguire, normally assured in defense, hacked a desperate clearance away under no pressure at all, while Kane’s passes began falling short of their desired target.
It was almost as if, for the first time all tournament, the magnitude of the occasion had finally started to dawn on these England players.
The game was on a knife edge as it entered the final 10 minutes, though Italian fans would certainly have been more confident than their English counterparts of snatching a win.
Extra time continued in much the same vein with neither side able to stamp its authority on proceedings, both perhaps too nervous to commit at this late stage.
Southgate threw on Rashford, 23, and Sancho, 21, for the penalty shootout but both men went on to miss as England suffered an all too familiar fate.