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SINGAPORE — Once again, it was a bridge too far for England. Once again, the curse of penalty shootouts struck, with no fewer than three consecutive misses. And once again, England's agonising wait for another major trophy goes on.
55 years after it won the World Cup, its one and only major trophy, England fell short in the European Championship final. Despite taking an early lead and playing some fluent football, they were pegged back in the second half by Italy, who looked increasingly stronger as the match wore on.
In the end, the Italians deservedly triumphed 3-2 on penalties, despite Jordan Pickford making two saves. And amid all the tired cliches of football coming home, Italian centre-back Leonardo Bonucci rubbed salt into the wound by shouting into one of the pitchside cameras. "It's coming to Rome!"
It was yet another heartbreak for long-suffering England fans like this reporter. From an agonising penalty shootout loss in 1996, to the 4-1 thrashing by the Germans in 2010, to the ultimate humiliation of a 2-1 defeat by tiny Iceland in 2016 - the hurt goes on.
First major final in 55 years
Three years ago, I wrote of how England’s World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia was a bridge too far, despite surpassing all expectations to reach the last four. This time round, the inquest will take in, among others, Gareth Southgate's choice of substitutes, England's failure at game management again and why 19-year-old Bukayo Saka was chosen to take the final and decisive penalty.
And while certain sections of the English media will inevitably have their knives sharpened for Southgate and the three penalty-missers, his team have much to be proud of. Despite a poor second half and extra time period against Italy, England largely played Euro 2020 with a composure, comfort and control in possession I have not seen in a quarter century of supporting them.
No more are they chasing shadows in search of the ball, nor having the ubiquitous instinct to panic and kick it long once things start going wrong. Whisper it quietly, but this England team exude two things almost unheard of in their predecessors: quiet confidence and real quality.
Ultimately, Southgate's men will have to regroup and address that perennial inability to preserve a lead, not to mention their fragility from 12 yards.
But with an average age of 25.27, this team still has much to look forward to, once they pick up the pieces of this agonising defeat. England will lean heavily on standout performers like Luke Shaw, Declan Rice and Raheem Sterling - one of the stars of this tournament - for years to come.
Winning hearts and minds
The English public will be bitterly disappointed. At long last, there had been something to cheer after some 128,000 COVID deaths, a year or more of multiple lockdowns and an often infuriating response from the government, whether it be constantly changing restrictions or officials blithely breaking lockdown rules with little consequence.
But it was not just about the quality of England’s performances, dodgy penalties or barely-believable misses by German strikers. This time round, there was a remarkable lack of hype and/or drama around the team, whether it be the injury woes of supposed superstars, gossip about the ubiquitous WAGs (wives and girlfriends) or the English media endlessly dialling up expectations to the nth degree, only to crucify the team for their inevitable exit.
And it was only fitting that the team was led by the articulate and thoughtful Southgate, the so-called villain of Euro 96. With his down-to-earth demeanour, he ensured his team won hearts and minds, something previous squads often failed to do. As Southgate wrote in an open letter to the fans, "This is a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves."
With his knotted ties and boyish headmaster vibe, not to mention his appeal to racial justice and inclusivity, Southgate instinctively understood how much the England team mean to so many. "When England play, there's much more at stake than (results)," he wrote.
I am not English and will therefore not attempt to parse the deeper political significance of this team and its impact on English identity. Nevertheless, it is impossible to divorce the England team from the political context of a bitterly divided post-Brexit Britain.
This is especially true given the likes of Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford's valiant efforts on behalf of impoverished pupils amid the pandemic, as well as Sterling's outspoken denunciations of racism.
So what does the England team represent? Everyone is free to project whatever they want onto them. But right now, as far as I am concerned, they represent the fact that even decades of disappointment does not mean you will always fail. That there is such a thing as second or even third chances, and values like decency and humility still matter.
England will be back, and fans like me will be right there. Perhaps it is simply the devotion - some would call it masochism - of the diehard fan. But to paraphrase the song: 55 years have hurt, never stopped me dreaming.
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