So football didn’t come home in the end, instead it proved to be a fairly predictable defeat that not only punctured the feelgood vibes that most of the country has been enjoying, but brought us all crashing back down to earth with a bump. That the defeat ultimately came via a penalty shootout felt almost as inevitable as it did cruel.
This time despite the familiarity of the Three Lions’ exit, it did feel different. A knockout victory over one of our old foes in the form of Germany, a cruise of a quarter final and us winning a semi-final for the first time in 55 years, hell this time we even took the lead in just the second minute of the final! However, as the first half wore on and Italy started to establish themselves in the match the nagging doubt at the back of my mind started to grow. England needed to find a way to build upon that early advantage but couldn’t, instead Italy restricted them to just 34% possession and 1 further shot on target.
As the match entered extra time I can’t have been alone in thinking that I had seen this movie before and knew how it ended: with an England player staring mournfully into space, probably shedding a tear or two, while the opposition goalkeeper and players celebrate in the distance. That it was three of England’s young upcoming stars in the form of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka seemed a particularly cruel twist. It should go without saying of course that all three of these stars for now and most definitely of the future should be supported by any genuine England supporter, not subjected to the vile and racist abuse on social media that they were in the aftermath of the match.
Even if the ending wasn’t quite what England supporters had been hoping and praying for it was a tournament that gave the whole nation a much-needed lift. Locked at home for the vast majority of the past 16 months we needed something as close to the old way of our lives as we could get, and Euro 2020 certainly delivered on that front. Seeing sun-drenched (for the most part at least!) stadiums with increasing numbers of fans actually being allowed in provided a reminder of how much we as football fans have been deprived of as well as a reminder of what we want to get back to. Some of the matches were thrilling and a real joy to watch, even beyond that though it was the different stories that formed the tournament’s narrative that made it really stand out.
None of us who have been glued to the tournament for the last month will ever forget: Denmark’s incredible team spirit borne out of seeing one of their teammates laying stricken on the turf at the Parken Stadium on the opening Saturday; or Wales very nearly recreating their adventures of five years ago despite having to play their opening two games in Asia; the Tartan hordes descending upon London en masse and reminding us of decades gone by with their hijinks and spirit of fun- such a contrast from the so-called England fans who forced their way into Wembley for the final and provided a stark reminder of the shameful history of our fans; Hungary very nearly squeezing through in the Group of Death, or indeed “Manic Monday” with 14 goals and a penalty shootout and the elimination of the clear favourites France across one very enjoyable evening of football, to name just a few of the moments that stand out.
In the end though it all boiled down to whether an England team could finally do what only one team in the history of the game in the nation of its birth has ever done by winning a major tournament. Ultimately it wasn’t to be, but the coach, squad and players should hold their heads up high. They have surpassed every England tournament performance bar one and seem to be on an upward trajectory: three years ago it was the semi-final of the World Cup, two years ago it was the semi-final of the Nations League, admittedly not a major tournament but a decent performance nonetheless, and now the final of Euro 2020.
While it is right that we should all feel a bit down after the events of Sunday evening, this time England’s future seems much brighter than it has for quite some time. Let us not forget that just 7 years ago in his first speech in the role, new FA Chairman Greg Dyke had us all in hysterics when he suggested in September 2013: “I want to set the whole of English football two targets. The first is for the England team to at least reach the semi-finals of the Euro Championship in 2020 and the second is for us to win the World Cup in 2022.” Eerily prescient even if the Euros were delayed for a year.
The following year, in the aftermath of the disastrous performance at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which saw Roy Hodgson’s men eliminated at the group stage after picking up just a solitary point from a goalless draw against the might of Costa Rica, the England DNA blueprint was launched when a certain Gareth Southgate was the Under-21’s coach. Having seen what has come after that, it is difficult to suggest that it isn’t working.
The average age of England’s Euro 2020 squad was just 25, the second youngest in the tournament behind Turkey, with a conveyor belt that seems to be producing talented young player after talented young player and the next World Cup only a year and a half away, if Southgate can keep his young charges on this developmental path we may just have our day in the (Qatari) sun after all.
For now though we should just be happy for what this tournament has given us all. We can argue about the format that saw teams jetting all over the continent (and beyond!) to play games during a global pandemic and teams playing away at home, or in another country when there was a match scheduled in their own, but we can’t fault the entertainment that we have been served up. Thank you Euro 2020 and football, you certainly delivered just when we needed you the most.