There were points during Sunday’s European Championship final, during an evening 55 years in the making, that it all felt like a dream. In those first few minutes, when Luke Shaw scored and England led, when Italy seemed struck dumb by the noise of the stadium and the power of Gareth Southgate’s England team, when it felt as if destiny was calling.
When it felt that this would not just be a first major final for England in more than half a century, but that it would be a first major victory, too.
Slowly, reality started to reassert itself. England ceded control, and Italy seized it. Leonardo Bonucci clawed in a tying goal in the second. The game drifted to extra time. England had been waiting for so long, and it would have to wait a little longer. Penalties loomed. For victory, England would have to confront all its ghosts.
Even then, there was nothing straightforward. Andrea Belotti missed for Italy, but so did Marcus Rashford for England. And then, as if the spell was broken, everything started to fall apart. Jadon Sancho missed. Jorginho could have won it for Italy, there and then, but there was one final twist:
He missed, too.
And so up stepped Bukayo Saka, the least experienced member of Southgate’s squad, a 19-year-old player who was not born in 1996, when England last suffered like this here. Saka walked slowly, deliberately, calmly to the penalty spot. In front of him was a wall of fans, hoping and praying and waiting for the moment. But Saka missed, too.
And just like that, all that energy, all those dreams, evaporated into the night sky. Italy was the champion of Europe. England’s wait goes on.
Just when it was supposed to be over, it was not.
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