All the years of hurt, England fans sing about it. All that sense of entitlement, rival fans are irritated by it.
After decades of embarrassment and moaning at tournaments, the English have a chance to finally back up the bravado — just listen to the team anthem, “Football’s Coming Home” — with a trophy.
The nation that lays claim to being the inventor of soccer, but is more fittingly one of the sport’s great underachievers, is back in a final — against Italy in the European Championships.
The teams will meet Sunday night at Wembley Stadium in London where England will be going for its first major title since winning the 1966 World Cup on their home field. The Italians are unbeaten in 33 games.
It’s been 55 agonizing years for England through 26 World Cups and European Championship tournaments, seven of which they didn’t even qualify for.
Even less illustrious national teams like Denmark and Greece have won trophies since then. But England became all about falling short on a world stage it felt it should dominate.
Beating Denmark on Wednesday broke through the semifinal obstacle at least in the Euros, prevailing 2-1 in extra time and avoiding the penalty shootouts that have proved to be the team’s nemesis through all those near-misses.
“What a brilliant moment for us,” England coach Gareth Southgate said on the field with fans still singing into the night at Wembley. Let’s savior this.”
No way were the England players missing out on the chance to lap up the acclaim of a crowd waiting for this healing moment, not only to reach a final again but to gather in such big numbers again as the pandemic-restricted capacity swelled to 66,000.
“It’s too late,” Southgate quipped discussing any attempt to curtail the exuberance. “We all let ourselves down on the pitch.”
The celebrations were a reflection of the bond the coach has forged between the national team and an English public that seemed disillusioned with the hubris and dreary performances before Southgate’s overhaul began in 2016.
Leading England to a final is proving cathartic for the coach who as a player missed the decisive penalty in the Euro ’96 semifinal penalty shootout against Germany. It was that tournament that saw the introduction of the England “Three Lions” song talking of “30 years of hurt.”
It’s never easy for England. Even when the path to the Euro 2020 semifinals seemed smooth — even the 2-0 win over archrival Germany — Southgate was prepared for difficulties against Denmark, especially after losing the 2018 World Cup semifinal to Croatia and being beaten in the 2019 Nations League last four by the Netherlands.
“I knew it might be a tortuous path,” Southgate said. “In the end it’s a wonderful evening for our fans, for our public and for our country.”
Southgate sees his role as more delivering for a nation, assuming leadership status beyond sport when he talked about unity during the divisive Brexit debate and now encourages the players to use their platforms to promote social causes and campaign against racism.
Southgate is more than just an orator, though. Only 1966 Word Cup winner Alf Ramsey has been a more successful coach of England. The expensive imports at the start of the century — Sven-Göran Eriksson and Fabio Capello — could get no further than quarterfinals. Instead, a manager whose only club job ended in 2009 with relegation from the Premier League with Middlesbrough has led England to a final.
For all his popular support — “Southgate you’re the one,” fans sing — he resists pandering to fans’ demands of selecting players. National hero Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United striker who has won acclaim for challenging the government, didn’t even come off the bench for the biggest game of his career.
He ignored calls to drop Raheem Sterling at the start of Euro 2020 and has been rewarded with three goals from the winger who also forced the own-goal that tied the game 1-all against Denmark.
Southgate stayed calm as England held on, only making only substitution when five were available to him in the 90 minutes before extra time.
“The opposition were constantly changing tactics,” Southgate said. “Sometimes it is bolder to do nothing ... the risk is you don’t do anything, it goes against you but we were causing problems.”
Problems in a way that England has not done for decades.
“It’s one of the proudest moments in my life,” said captain Harry Kane, who netted the winner from a rebound after his penalty was saved. “But we haven’t won it yet, we’ve got one more to go.”