Perhaps, as it was Gareth Southgate and England, it had to come down to penalties. Sadly for Southgate and England, the national curse struck again. Italy, who had won the World Cup on spot kicks in 2006, claimed silverware in sudden death again.
Gianluigi Donnarumma emerged as the hero as England missed their last three spot kicks. Marcus Rashford rolled his against the post before Donnarumma denied Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka. Southgate, who missed against Germany in 1996, will know how they feel. England have lost shootouts in quarter-finals and semi-finals before, but never a final. Their 55-year wait for silverware goes on.
But Italy’s remarkable renaissance is complete. They failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Now they are unbeaten in 34 games and European champions. The greatest disappointment of Roberto Mancini’s playing days came at Wembley. The greatest success of his managerial career has come there. Mancini, whose Sampdoria lost the 1992 European Cup final at England’s national stadium, inspired a turnaround with his substitutions and Domenico Berardi, Leonardo Bonucci and Federico Bernardeschi took fine penalties after the Juventus centre-back delivered the equaliser.
For England, Jordan Pickford’s shootout saves from Andrea Belotti and Jorginho – the second a quite brilliant stop when the Chelsea midfielder had a chance to win it – were in vain. Yet, in truth, it started to go wrong long before the shootout.
England were ahead after 117 seconds but then there were echoes of the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Croatia when they scored early but lost control of the game to superior passers in the second half. Here Southgate’s side looked tired. Mancini was the first manager to make substitutions and he altered the game. Bonucci cancelled out Luke Shaw’s opener, two defenders finding the net.
Shaw joined Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters in the select band of players to score for England in the finals of tournaments but England showed too little creativity after that stunning start. The goal came with their only first-half shot of any variety. Indeed, they did not muster an effort in open play for the next 100 minutes, limited to headers from Harry Maguire and John Stones from corners and, following another, a half-volley from Kalvin Phillips that went wide.
The fastest goal scored in the final of a European Championships was just the fourth of Shaw’s career. If it capped the revival of a player who, until recently, only played 59 minutes of international football in six years, it was a spectacular and immediate reward for Southgate’s pre-match tinkering.
The England manager reverted to the wing-back formation he used against Germany, demoting Bukayo Saka and bringing in Kieran Trippier. And when Shaw found Harry Kane and he sprayed the ball out to the right flank, there was Trippier. An outstanding crosser delivered the deep ball for Shaw, given licence to get further forward now he was no longer playing as a full-back, to drill in a low shot.
The watching David Beckham and Tom Cruise bumped fists. Southgate’s celebrations were restrained but his gameplan was paying off. Theirs was a confident, assured start, with players adapting well to their different duties. Declan Rice cut a forceful figure in midfield, bringing the ball forward with some driving runs. But while Kane excelled early on, Italy started to snuff him and England out.
This was the first time Italy trailed in the tournament and, within 20 minutes, the longest they had been behind since 2018. It was an unfamiliar scenario but, while it took them time to react, they began to have possession in the England half as Marco Verratti became more of an influence.
Federico Chiesa spurred them into life, powering away from Rice and drilled a shot that fizzed just past the post with Jordan Pickford beaten. Ciro Immobile had little service but when he connected well with a half-volley, Stones made a terrific block.
Opportunities became more frequent. Lorenzo Insigne twice directed free kicks over the bar but he was irrepressible and tested Pickford from an acute angle. It came after a reshuffle by Mancini, who removed the ineffective Immobile and installed Insigne as his central attacker. In the process, he changed the game.
Chiesa moved to the left and became still more threatening. Pickford made a terrific save to deny him. He made a still better one to keep out Verratti’s close-range header from a corner, but Bonucci was on hand to sweep in the rebound, a centre-back showing a striker’s predatory instinct.
It was only the second goal England conceded in the tournament but sheer weight of pressure had told. The substitute Berardi volleyed over after a glorious ball by Bonucci. England rallied a little in extra time after Jack Grealish came on and Jorginho may have been fortunate to escape a red card for a foul on the substitute but greater drama followed.