England’s charming lads separated from glory by the finest of margins

Sport

A butterfly flaps its wings in the skies above London and the faintest pulse of air whistles around the grand white Wembley arch and, 436 feet below, England’s luck is about to run out. The atmosphere heaves and wheezes with the heavy breath of 66,000 fans. The ball will shortly leave Bukayo Saka’s foot and in that moment nothing else will seem to matter.

It won’t matter that these brave, brilliant lads have charmed the nation.

It won’t matter that it has been 55 years since this country saw a day like it, that nobody knows when the next will come along. It won’t matter that they had 33% possession and were out-shot 14-4. In fact, most of the finer details of this game will be lost to history. Finals are a little like that: the point at which processes and journeys and one-percenters cease to matter.

Perhaps it is easy to direct the film once everyone’s watched it. But from the moment Luke Shaw’s flying boot put England ahead it was clear what sort of game would be required here: one into which they grew rather than shrank, one in which they tried to hit the highs rather than trying to ride out the lows. Instead, faced with a one-goal lead, some of the best attacking players in Europe and all the time in the world, England played the percentages in a game where only one number mattered.

These were the margins that separated England from glory: a fate that in many ways was sealed not when Saka and Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho missed their penalties but from the moment they decided to sit on the game with about 80 minutes remaining, when they tried to parse rather than pass their way through the final. In so doing they essentially attempted to cage a game that was simply too volatile to be caged; to control an occasion that had long since succumbed to madness.

That madness was always there, even if England have done their best over the last month to block it out. Perhaps they will have missed the police horses and helicopters outside, the reports of hordes storming the barriers, the viral pictures of various doughy men in various states of undress in front of cheering, whooping crowds. But there will have been a moment for all of them. The moment when they sensed the fever and the volatility of the country at large: a nation walking the tightrope between rapture and panic, a nation of flailing limbs and pounding heartbeats.

How can you possibly grasp an event of this hugeness? But then, how can you possibly avoid it? Perhaps you do it by throwing yourself into your work.

Reminding yourself of the plan. Five at the back, stick close, control the space, even if you can’t control the ball. Or, alternatively you ride that wave all the way through the anthems, zig-zag the ball straight up the pitch and score after 116 seconds.

In a way Shaw’s goal was entirely in keeping with the madness outside, a four-pints-before-11am goal, a climbing-on-a-bus-stop-and-belting-out-Sweet-Caroline sort of goal. The rush of endorphins is instant, devastating, like no other feeling on earth.

And yet this exemplary response merely ushers in a new kind of madness: the madness of power, one in which the final is suddenly yours to control, and all your possessed body wants to do is tear around as if it’s your last five minutes on earth.

The startled Italians look like a team who have never seen wing‑backs before. Occasionally they look like a team who have never played on a full-sized pitch before. But as half-time comes and goes, a strange thing has happened. England have not broken the game open. They haven’t even really had another chance. Italy have managed to camp in the England half without really doing very much at all. The mood has turned a little.

Italy continue to nuzzle at the door. Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa both have low shots. The centre-halves advance menacingly 10 yards up the pitch. Jorginho is beginning to grip the game as if it’s a doorknob. Then with 23 minutes left, Marco Verratti beats Mason Mount to the ball, Leo Bonucci reacts first and all of a sudden the game is loose again. England have tried to tame the madness and instead the madness has tamed them.

In extra-time they try to whip it up again. The crowd sends them out for the final 15 minutes with a wall of pure noise, pure adrenalin, pure want.

But they are too tired now, too shapeless and dry. With 120 minutes played, the referee Björn Kuipers pitches them into the greatest madness of all.

And so, now what? “Those moments in your life don’t have to define you,” Gareth Southgate said of his 1996 penalty miss, and he’s right. England cut a swath through the tournament, got closer than any of their predecessors, and stayed true to themselves. It is not consolation to take some pride in that.

In the meantime one suspects everyone will try to attach their own meaning to this defeat. For some it will be about the bleary memories; for some the old English mental block; for some the way these proud young men and their wise, kindly coach briefly lit up this big, numb country and forced it to dream a little bigger. No moment like this can ever be reduced to a single story. England’s Euro 2020 has been a fountain of happiness and, even amid the sorrow, there is still room for everyone to drink.