England has been waiting for some time. More than half a century, in fact. Its mood, over the decades, has veered between frustrated and furious, hopeful and resigned. It has endured countless false starts and even more false dawns. It has, in a way, grown quite good at waiting. It is only now that the impatience has set in. After all those years, it is the last few hours that have proved the hardest.
Leicester Square, right in the heart of London, was thronged from late in the morning on Sunday, wreathed in the cordite smoke of flares and fireworks. Fans had started arriving on Wembley Way, in the shadow of the stadium that will host tonight’s final of Euro 2020, earlier even than that. Long lines snaked out of pubs around the country almost as soon as they opened.
But perhaps the best gauge of the mood of the nation — the mixture of foot-tapping restiveness and dazed giddiness that has set in over the last few days — is that, in the middle of it all, the Queen (or at least her social media team) showed her support for Gareth Southgate’s team by issuing a tweet that contained nothing but three lion emojis.
She had written a more formal note, too, congratulating the team not just on reaching the final but on the way it had comported itself on the way there. There had been a message from Prince William, the ceremonial head of England’s Football Association, and another from Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister. The country has spent a week humming Neil Diamond and “Three Lions” and Atomic Kitten. England jerseys have sold out. So, too, apparently, has Southgate’s favored polka-dot tie.
Ordinarily, where England is concerned, any amount of euphoria is reflexively tempered by caution and by strife: The fear of what might be lost tends to outweigh the hope of what might be won. And yet, for all that there is a respect for its opponent, Italy, with its grizzled central defenders and its inventive midfield and its illustrious history, there is no sense of impending doom.
Indeed, even the suggestion that Southgate might change his team — drafting in Kieran Trippier, a defender, for the forward Bukayo Saka, better to stifle Italy’s threat — has been greeted with acquiescence.
That is a measure of how Southgate has performed over the last month: He has made big decisions and been vindicated repeatedly. Even an English public conditioned to expect the worst has managed, just about, to suspend its disbelief.
But it is also, perhaps, a sign of how this team is now viewed: not, like previous incarnations, as an uneasy and mercurial blend of disparate talent that is prone to collapse as soon as conditions are not favorable, but as a sleek, smart, stubborn side, one imbued with a sense of purpose and a confidence in its approach. It does not feel it is here by chance; its self-assurance has diffused around the country.
Italy, certainly, will be its greatest test, a level above any team it has played thus far in this tournament, a side no less self-possessed, one with no less sense of destiny. England will need to be as good as it thinks it is to win. There are still hours to go. All the country can do, for now, is wait.
As fans filled the streets outside Wembley again on Sunday ahead of the Euro 2020 final, it is worth remembering that it was not by chance that all four semifinalists — England, Italy, Spain and Denmark — played all three of their group games at home, reducing the amount of time and energy they might have lost to travel over the course of the monthlong championship.
Scheduling, too, was most likely a relevant factor in how much Denmark tired in its semifinal against England, days after it had been forced to travel to Baku, Azerbaijan, in the previous round, while England had made the comparatively shorter trip — its only venture outside it borders in a month — to Rome.
There is always a host nation at a major tournament, of course, and the host nation always has an advantage — in surroundings, in scheduling, in stadiums. But in ordinary circumstances, every team in the tournament takes a base in that country to reduce travel time. On a practical if not a spiritual level, the playing field is level.
But even before the pandemic, Euro 2020 was a logistical nightmare: 11 stadiums in 11 cities spread across four time zones, all subject to different local conditions. There will be no appetite within European soccer to stage a pan-continental tournament again.
And that, frankly, is a good thing. Not simply because something is lost, however slight and insignificant, when a tournament is not hosted by a single nation — drawing in fans from across the world, changing the fabric of the place it calls home, even if it is only for a month — but because the diffusion of the games has compromised the integrity of the competition.
That does not mean either Italy or England will be an undeserving champion. They have been the two best teams in the tournament (rather than the two with the most talented individuals). Both warrant their places in the final. But both have enjoyed far from universal conditions.
It would be helpful if that did not happen again.
BEDFORD, England — Whoever wins on Sunday, one English town will be celebrating: Bedford, home to one of England’s largest Italian communities, has been limbering up for what many hope will be “a friendly game” — with, still, a victory for Italy in the end.
“Italy won Eurovision; now it’s time to win the Euros,” Joseph Lionetti, 27, said as he served coffees and Italian sandwiches at the family-owned Piazza cafe in central Bedford.
Lionetti, whose father, Liberato, is Italian and whose mother is English, said he was feeling “50-50” about the match: a victory for Italy would be great, he said, and one for England, “just fine.”
About 14,000 Bedford residents, or one fifth of the town’s population, are either Italian or of Italian descent. On Sunday morning, there were as many Italian jerseys out as English ones.
“There might be some bickering and ‘Ha Ha, you lost!’ tonight,” Liberato Lionetti said in the kitchen of La Piazza cafe. “But tomorrow we’ll be working together again.”
The Italian community grew in Bedford in the 1950s, when workers from southern Italy came to fill the town’s brickworks factory. Now pizzerias, gelato shops and Italian cafes fill the city center, and Bedford has earned the nickname of England’s Little Italy.
Alfonso Bravoco, the owner of the Mamma Concetta pizzeria, said he had to turn down all customers looking for a table on Sunday: His restaurant will be closed.
“My staff is all Italian, they’re not going to enjoy the game if they have to work,” he said. (Mr. Bravoco said he would watch the game at a cousin’s home in London that will be filled with Italian fans.)
For every Italy win, the tradition in Bedford has been to head down the town’s riverside to honk car horns, dance and wave Italian flags. That hasn’t come without kerfuffles in the past.
English and Italian fans clashed in Bedford in 2012 when Italy defeated England in the quarterfinals of the European Championship, and in 2014, English fans burned an Italian flag after Italy defeated England in a group stage game at the World Cup. The local police force urged resident to be “sensible” and behave responsibly on Sunday, no matter how the game turned out.
Still, some Italian fans said they would stay at home even if Italy wins because of the previous incidents. “It’s always a minority causing trouble, but I can’t risk it with the children, so we’ll be celebrating at home,” Massimo Ciampi said as he welcomed friends — Italian and English — into his house for a soccer party.
This week, Italian business owners like Lionetti and Bravoco have encouraged supporters from both sides to show fair play on Sunday night. “We’re lucky to be able to celebrate, we’re lucky to even have this tournament in the first place,” Lionetti said. “England and Italy have had some rough time lately,” he said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic.
On the town’s square on Sunday, nervous supporters from both sides mingled one last time before the final. “If England wins, I’ll go home crying my eyes out,” said the 74-year-old Pasquale Iantosca, sitting on a bench with friends gathering around to consult him on his predictions.
“Come on,” said Steven Brown, a 53-year-old English fan, “How long have you been here?”
It’s been 65 years, Iantosca said as he caressed the top of his Italy hat and unzipped his jacket to unveil a shirt from Italy’s last trophy, in the 2006 World Cup.
“Forza Azzurri,” he said, grinning.
The battle for the Golden Boot, awarded to the tournament’s top scorer, will be decided today, and the England forwards Harry Kane (four goals) and Raheem Sterling (three) seem to be the only two players left with a realistic chance to catch the current leaders, Patrick Schick and Cristiano Ronaldo, who both scored five before departing Euro 2020.
But in reality the race for the tournament’s top scorer has been over for weeks, and the own goal has won it going away.
There have been 11 own goals at Euro 2020, more than the combined total that were scored in the 15 previous editions of the European Championship.
There have been unlucky goals. Strange goals. Slap-your-forehead goals. They have been scored by midfielders and defenders and goalkeepers.
In retrospect, the tournament’s first goal — an Italy cross turned into Turkey’s net by one of its defenders, Merih Demiral — was probably an omen we all should have taken more seriously.
That marked the first time the tournament had opened its account with a player scoring against his own team, but in the four weeks since that night, the own goals have kept coming. Spain was the beneficiary of two of them in a 5-0 win over Slovakia, and Portugal managed to score two on itself — only four minutes apart — in a 4-2 loss to Germany.
Pedri’s, the opening goal in Spain’s memorable round-of-16 victory against Croatia, might have been the worst of the bunch …
… but it had some solid competition for that title:
The most recent one, No. 11 overall, even helped send Denmark out in the semifinals:
Will the final get us to an even dozen? One would hope not. England, for one, would never live it down.
England vs. Italy is not the only major final this weekend.
In Rio de Janeiro on Saturday night, Lionel Messi finally ticked the last empty box in his glittering soccer career by leading Argentina past host Brazil, 1-0, in the final of the Copa América, the South American continental championship.
The trophy was Messi’s first after a string of painful, agonizing, maddening failures with his country’s national team, including three recent Copa América finals and perhaps the most demoralizing defeat of his career — against Germany in the World Cup final — inside the same stadium, Rio’s hulking Maracanã, in 2014.
When the whistle blew to end the final on Saturday night, Messi — his relief palpable — dropped to his knees and was immediately surrounded by his teammates. Moments later, they were lifting him above their shoulders and tossing him in the air.
“I needed to remove the thorn of being able to achieve something with the national team,” Messi said after the celebrations in the dressing room, according to The Associated Press. “I had been close for other years and I knew it was going to happen. I am grateful to God for giving me this moment, against Brazil and in Brazil. I was saving this moment for myself.”