England has broken through its semi-final ceiling at major soccer tournaments. A title match awaits for the first time in 55 years.
Harry Kane converted the rebound after his initial penalty was saved in the 104th minute to give England a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Denmark in extra time in the European Championship semi-finals on Wednesday at Wembley Stadium.
England will return to its national soccer stadium on Sunday to play Italy and will be competing in its first final since the 1966 World Cup. That remains England’s only international title.
In the intervening decades, the English have lost in the semi-finals four times in either the World Cup or the European Championship. For that reason, this will go down as one of the most significant feats in the national team’s history, something England greats David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker never achieved.
“We dug deep and we got there when it mattered,” Kane said. “We’re in a final at home. What a feeling.”
After the final whistle, Kane led the jubilant England fans in a crowd of more than 60,000 – the biggest gathering for a sporting event in Britain since the coronavirus outbreak nearly 16 months ago – in a rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”
The players and management walked around the perimeter of the field, waving to fans and then their loved ones. England coach Gareth Southgate was serenaded with a song, and he might have appreciated this win more than anyone.
Two of those semi-finals losses – in 1990 and 1996 – were decided via a penalty shootout, with Southgate missing a crucial kick in one of them against Germany. And a shootout looked like where England and Denmark were headed until Raheem Sterling wriggled into the area down the right, cut inside and fell under the challenge of Mattias Jensen.
The contact looked minimal, and a video review was needed. After a brief wait that must have felt longer to England’s fans, the decision stood.
Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel guessed the right way to block Kane’s penalty but the ball came back to the England captain, who reacted quickly to put it into the net from six yards out.
“I was fortunate to have it bounce back,” Kane said. “That’s football – sometimes it falls your way.”
Denmark’s players, whose emotionally charged run to the semi-finals was powered by a resolve to win the title for Christian Eriksen after the midfielder’s collapse on the field during the group stage, were almost on their knees by that point.
And Danish hopes of an equalizer were damaged by having to play with only 10 men for the second half of extra time after Jensen was forced off injured. Denmark had already used up its six substitutes by then.
Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand’s biggest grievance was with the awarding of the penalty.
“It was a penalty that shouldn’t have been a penalty,” Hjulmand said, “and it’s something that annoys me right now.”
England showed another side by rallying for victory after conceding a goal for the first time at Euro 2020 when Mikkel Damsgaard scored with a free kick in the 30th.
It was a shot that Eriksen – Denmark’s captain who is recovering at home after suffering cardiac arrest and collapsing on the field against Finland on June 12 – would have been proud of as his replacement in the team whipped the ball over the defensive wall and into the top corner.
At that stage, Denmark was on top, with its pressing and slick passing in midfield causing England problems and sparking concern among the previously boisterous home fans.
Denmark wasn’t ahead for long, though.
Moments after Sterling was denied from point-blank range by Schmeichel, Bukayo Saka was sent free down the right by Kane’s pass and the winger’s low cross was bundled into the net by Denmark defender Simon Kjaer in the 39th, under pressure from Sterling. It was the 11th own-goal of Euro 2020.
The second half saw England control the game but it still needed a heavily debated penalty call to finish off a tiring Denmark, which retreated into its own half in the closing stages.
“I always felt we would get there but I knew it might be a tortuous path,” Southgate said. “We’ve been so smooth through the knockout stage we knew we would have a hurdle to overcome.”
Denmark’s bid to match its unlikely European title from 1992 – when the team came in as a late replacement for Yugoslavia and wound up winning the whole thing – fell short. But the team gained new fans from around the world for the way it recovered from the near-tragedy of Eriksen, its captain and most famous player.
The team lined up in front of the 8,000 flag-waving Denmark fans at one end of the stadium and saluted them at the end of the game.
“They have been through so much,” Hjulmand said. “We have two people who have saved one of our best players’ life.”