Italy fans packed one end of a mostly deserted Wembley Stadium and sang “football’s coming home” in response to England’s anthem.
The irony would not have escaped England’s players, fans, or manager Gareth Southgate, as this was the happy scene they had in mind at the start of a frantic, tension-filled night at an edgy Wembley Stadium.
This was the party England and their fans had planned, but they were once again left with their noses up against the window, their hopes dashed by a heartbreaking penalty shootout loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
The sight of Arsenal teenager Bukayo Saka waiting anxiously to take a penalty he needed to score in the shootout encapsulated England’s despair. The entire country was watching, and it was up to a 19-year-old rookie to keep the dream alive.
Saka, who deserves a lot of credit for stepping up and for his overall performance at Euro 2020, saw the giant figure of Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma save his spot-kick, and it was all over for England. Again.
This was not how it was supposed to end. The sound of Big Ben’s chimes and the sight of the Red Arrows flying overhead during the pre-match ceremony sent Wembley into a frenzy – or even more of a frenzy.
And when Luke Shaw scored after two minutes to cap a lightning-fast England start, the players and fans were dreaming of ending a 55-year wait as Italy was pushed back.
Instead, on a nail-biting night, a familiar tale of disappointment and woe unfolded for the hosts, with Italy first equalizing through Leonardo Bonucci before the same old conclusion arrived in the form of a 3-2 penalty defeat.
It all seemed a world away from the previous night, when England fans besieged Wembley Stadium hours before kickoff, with unsavoury scenes of supporters bursting their way through barriers to gain entry to the stadium, as well as 45 arrests.
For more than a half-century, this was the most important day in English football. It felt that way in every pore of Wembley.
The smoke hung heavy in the humid, steamy conditions after a pre-match display of pyrotechnics that gave the occasion the air of a rock concert after Big Ben chimed its last and the Red Arrows flew back to base.