Euro 2020 final reaction: England make memories but can't quite get the trophy against Italy - The Warm-Up
Gareth Southgate's England side end Euro 2020 in a good place and in a good mood, but without the trophy and with work to do. And Roberto Mancini's Italy are back where they belong, in their rightful position as the great scrappers of tournament football. Italy deserved the game, just, and nobody's had a better tournament from start to finish.
The point of a football team is to win matches, and the point of football matches is to be won. But the point of football… that's a bigger and odder question, one that incorporates hope and pride and other intangibles that aren't only glimpsed in the aftermath of victory. The production of memories, perhaps. To be the "there" in "I was there".
And if that's at least some of it, there's no denying that England have made a memorable time of this tournament. Germany beaten, a semi-final negotiated. Millions of smiles spread across millions of faces. Atomic Kitten. Neil Diamond. Lateral flow tests. Taking the knee. Spirit. Identity. Endless debates about whether flags can ever be Good and Right and Just. You've been present as That Summer Of 2021 has been built around you and you'll be talking about it for a while.
But it all comes back to the football. For the all-but-one teams that don't actually win a tournament, thoughts turn quickly to the next one. And there, England are in an unusual position. The age of this squad is such that the entire lot of them could make it to Qatar, in just a year and a half, and they would do so with a plan that's proven good enough to reach the business end of two tournaments. Stability and reliability are not words that go along with the England national team, but that's what they've got.
They've also got the papers on their side for the moment — "Lionhearts to the last", "Pride of lions", "Heartbreak", "So, so cruel" — and the fans, too, for the most part. (We'll come back to this.) There have been times in the not too distant past when England exiting a tournament was a cause for the gnashing of teeth and the shredding of plans, the sacking of managers and the humiliation of players. Avoiding all that for the second tournament in a row might be a greater achievement even than beating Germany.
'They should hold their heads high' - Southgate immensely proud of players despite defeat
About half an hour, by the Warm-Up's reckoning. For about half an hour England were in charge of the final and Gareth Southgate looked like a statue-in-waiting. For about half an hour Kieran Trippier looked like Cafu and Luke Shaw looked like Roberto Carlos and England looked like they'd come not to close down a game of football but to win it.
And then they conceded first possession, then territory, then the initiative, then the equaliser, and finally the game. Having ushered Shaw's goal home at the near post, Donnarumma had one save to make in the subsequent two hours of actual football, a gentle John Stones shoulder-header, and that was probably going over anyway. It might be a little glib to suggest that this was just the Croatia semi-final again, except with a stronger squad, but it might not be totally inaccurate.
Big games warrant big autopsies, and for all his growing status as a beloved national uncle, this one is going to be unpleasant for Southgate. Given what we know about his methodical approach, we can assume that the order of penalty takers was underpinned by something a little more sophisticated than, "Right, who fancies one?", but that doesn't make the sight of England's youngest player missing the last one any less brutal or peculiar. However, Southgate was at pains to try and wrest the blame back to himself.
I chose the guys to take the kicks. I told the players that nobody is on their own in that situation. We win and lose together as a team … It is my decision to give him [Saka] that penalty. That is totally my responsibility. It is not him or Marcus or Jadon. We worked through them in training. That is the order we came to.
And to be fair to the manager, it is a great tradition of English leadership to send the kids over the top.
Jadon Sancho (mitte) mit Gareth Southgate (r.) und Jordan Henderson
Image credit: Getty Images
Wrong decisions aren't necessarily bad decisions. Nothing is guaranteed to work. But England's greatest strength is the depth and range of their attacking options, and regardless of how their penalties went, to use Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho as specialist penalty takers is to waste them.
A bigger waste, perhaps, was that start. A goal after two minutes, in front of the largest and loudest crowd seen at any sporting occasion for more than a year; an opposition visibly rattled by that combination. It might be unfair to expect Southgate's England to abandon their careful, safety-first approach at the first sniff of fear, but hindsight suggests that was their best chance to turn a lead into a win.
And the good feelings around the squad sit awkwardly with the rest of England's messy day out: the miserable racist abuse directed at Bukayo Saka, Rashford and Sancho; the violence within and away from the stadium, including the inevitable spike in domestic violence that always follows England games; and the gleeful return to the discourse of those who want nothing more than to see this team's bright young things shamed back into dutiful silence. Football came home, and was promptly sick on the carpet.
Glass All Italy
The good thing about having a final between the best teams in the tournament is that whoever wins, you can be pretty sure they deserve it. And so it proved: Italy deserved the game, just, and nobody's had a better tournament from start to finish.
As noted above, they could have been blown away early on. But once they got through the first half hour at just one goal down, they built and built, carefully and patiently, getting better with every substitution, and by the end they were ascendant. England were happy to let them have the ball, preferring to defend space; Italy were happy to take it, knowing that it's a lot easier to make chances in possession than out of it. Perhaps England can take consolation from the fact that the goal was a scrappy set piece. Perhaps scrappy set piece chances come more often to the team in control.
The most impressive thing about Italy's run through this tournament has been their resilience and adaptability in the face of whatever's come their way. A potentially awkward group dealt with in style; a deep dig against Austria; two very different elite opponents in Belgium and Spain; and then an early concession in front of a hyped home crowd. Add to that the injury to Leonardo Spinazzola, not just brilliant but crucial to their shape and style, and then the loss of the wonderful Federico Chiesa in the final. Add to that the fact that both Ciro Immobile and his replacement, Andrea Belotti, have barely kicked a ball straight all month: not so much false nines as invisible ones. In the best tradition of Italian tournament football, this was a constant struggle against absolutely everything, including themselves.
But that's not why they won. No, it's all down to the weather. For the first half hour, as the rain teemed down and England scurried about, Roberto Mancini stood glowering in his corporate cagoule, a miserable PE teacher watching children he hates play a sport he despises. And Italy were rubbish. Then the rain eased up, the zip came down, the couture came out to play. And so did his team.
'I cried again today' - Roberto Mancini on his emotions at the final whistle
IN OTHER NEWS
We could have gone with any number of celebration videos here, but we like this from Milan because one Italy fan — that's Italy, who play in blue and have a flag of red, white and green — has turned up with an orange smoke bomb. You do you, friend. You do you.
For a perspective on the Italian side of things, here's Nicky Bandini for the Guardian on Roberto Mancini's rebuilding project. He said the European Championship was his first objective when he took the job, so: job done.
Mancini has led Italy out of one of the darkest chapters in their football history, delivering not only results but much-needed joy. Italians have loved watching this team because they can tell that the team has loved playing together. After Italy’s win over Belgium, a giddy Insigne gushed that it had been "like having a game of five-a-side with my mates".
It's going to be a while until another tournament in England: 2030 at the earliest. So it's time to retire Three Lions as football leaves home again, and begin a campaign for England's Qatar 2022 squad to re-record Back Home. Bow ties and all.
A well-deserved rest for everybody.
Here with the Warm-Up tomorrow, but wearing a bow tie every day, Ben Snowball.