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An England fan reacts at Trafalgar Square in London after Italy wins the Euro 2020 on July 11, 2021.

HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

They sang, they prayed, they dreamed and in the end they cried.

Soccer fans across England endured a heartbreaking 3-2 loss on penalties to Italy on Sunday in the Euro 2020 final, extending a 55-year record of failure at major championships.

For England supporters the loss could hardly have been more cruel. The team took a 1-0 lead in the opening two minutes on a quick goal from winger Luke Shaw. That sent the near-capacity crowd at London’s Wembley Stadium delirious and lifted the hopes of the country.

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But it turned out to be England’s only shot on goal and in the second half the Italians took control. Centre-back Leonardo Bonucci tied the game in the 66th minute and forced extra time, which proved inconclusive. In the shootout three of England’s young stars – Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford – each missed their shots while the Italians converted three of their five to claim the victory. Unsurprisingly Italy’s goaltender Gianluigi Donnarumma was chosen player of the tournament.

“Worst feeling in the world,” England captain Harry Kane said afterward. “You have got to hold your heads up high. Anyone can miss a penalty. We win together, we lose together. The boys will grow from this.”

Italy beats England on penalties to win European Championship

England has won just two of nine penalty shootouts at major tournaments in the past 30 years, the worst ratio of any European country that has been involved in three or more championships.

“The fact of the matter is, England and penalties don’t mix,” said England fan Baggy Lewsley as he commiserated with his friends outside the Leinster Arms pub in Central London. “I’m never eating pizza again.”

His friend Thomas Chaumet didn’t fault the young England players who had been substituted late in the game, supposedly because of their penalty-kicking prowess. “Absolutely not, I don’t blame them at all,” he said. “When it comes to penalty shots, it’s a 50-50 chance and it’s sheer luck.”

The Italians went into the tournament as one of the favourites and the team hasn’t lost an international match in nearly three years, piling up a 34-game unbeaten streak. Manager Roberto Mancini has rebuilt the Azzurri after the national side failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2018, the first time the country hadn’t made it to a major tournament in 60 years.

“You need a bit of luck with penalties and I’m a little sorry for England,” Mancini said after the final. “This team has grown so much, I think it can still improve. We are so happy for all.”

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England fans react while watching the match at Trafalgar Square.

HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

England had been building to Sunday’s game for days with a mixture of eagerness and trepidation. Many stores closed early so employees could watch the game at home and school children were promised a late start on Monday if England won. The Queen added her words of support – noting that she handed out the trophy in 1966, the last time England won the World Cup – and the Church of England offered a special prayer; “We do not ask for victory, though we are honest in naming that [we] want it.” There was even talk of a national holiday in honour of an England victory.

One member of the House of Lords, Martin Thomas, raised the stakes even further by telling the chamber that this would have been the first win against Italy in a competition on English soil since Boudicca sacked Colchester in AD 60.

By midday Sunday thousands of fans had converged in parks, city squares and pubs across the country, many draped in England flags and singing “Football’s coming home”. London’s Leicester Square was jammed with revellers hours before kickoff and dozens of nervous police officers stood by as fans set off flares and tried to pull down traffic lights.

Public health officials will be glad the tournament is finally over. There have been growing concerns that socializing during the Euros has helped to drive up cases of COVID-19, especially among men. The number of daily infections has climbed by roughly 30 per cent in the past week to above 30,000 and there are fears it could hit 100,000 this summer because of the Delta variant. For now hospitalization has remained manageable but daily admissions have been slowing climbing.

The tournament started on June 11 and a monthly study of infections by London’s Imperial College found that between June 24 and July 5 men were 30-per-cent more likely to test positive for the virus than women. “It could be that watching football is resulting in men having more social activity than usual,” said one of the report’s authors, Steven Riley, an infectious-diseases expert at Imperial College.

There were some other silver linings despite the loss The Beer and Pub Association predicted that 13 million pints would be sold Sunday and the television audience for the game was expected to be 33 million, making the final the most-watched TV event in British history.

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But none of that matters much to fans such as Eliza Dubois. She’s doesn’t watch a lot of soccer but found herself gripped by the tension Sunday night. “I’ve never been so nervous,” she said as she smoked a cigarette outside the Leinster Arms. “I’ve never been so on the edge of my seat ever. I don’t have any nails left. I’m just so sad they lost.”

Fans console each other after the match.

ED SYKES/Reuters

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