Is football coming home? Perhaps it already has

Whatever the outcome, Sunday's match will be truly once-in-a-liftime — and stands for much more than simply football

You know a game is big when you don’t know quite how big it is. Sunday’s Euro 2020 Final feels — to use a cliche of the past year — unprecedented, even if it isn’t. There was 1966, of course — a date scored into the collective consciousness like a myth or a fairytale; a few black and white images and a snatch of immortal commentary.

But somehow this weekend feels like a different beast entirely. The most cutting thing you can say to a sports fan is that “it’s only a game.” But just try that on Sunday evening and see how far you get. Over the past month, the England campaign has snowballed, as things tend to in the modern era, into so much more than just a tally of goals scored and conceded.

It’s become perhaps the only thing that has genuinely and simply united us for a decade or so — Matt Hancock’s tongue-gymnastics notwithstanding. (There you go: “us”. When else, apart from during an international football tournament, could you seriously use “us” to describe such a diverse and varied nation of some 67 million?) It’s brought the Cross of St George back from white van man derision to source of national pride. It has coincided, in some cosmic aligning of the stars, with the much-delayed unlocking after an exhausting pandemic (did Boris plan this all along?) And it’s been conducted, by Southgate and by his boys, with such humility, hard work and lack of ego as to make the stiff upper lip quiver. When you hear men and women you’ve never met honking their horns with almost European gusto on a Wednesday evening, and an impromptu street party breaking into a chorus of Three Lions, it’s the “home” of “coming home” that swells in the throat. For 90 minutes on Sunday at least, we’ll all be in this together. Football isn’t a matter of life or death, to pinch Bill Shankly’s sentiment. It’s much more important than that. 

The final is big in other ways, too. The number of spectators permitted into Wembley has slowly been ratcheted up over the tournament, swelling to 60,000 for both of the semi-finals — and possibly leaping to a capacity 90,000 come Sunday. It will be the Wembley at its very noisiest, with a volume unimaginable amid the echoey tumbleweed of the past year.

Needless to say, demand for tickets is febrile, with inflation beyond any economist’s logic. You can’t put a price tag on “once in a lifetime”— though the toppier end of things is settling around £40,000 per pair on eBay and social media. This is deposit-on-a-house money — but it seems, for half a second, almost feasible. More realistic is the mid market, which sees individual tickets pooling between £3,000 and £4,500 on various resale sites — still a significant uplift on the $895 UEFA face value for top-grade seats. 

The pub scene is no less competitive. In an anecdotal survey of my various locals (Battersea), several said their screen-adjacent tables had been booked up months in advance by optimistic patriots. Others laughed me out of the room for even enquiring, like Patrick Bateman being howled out of an 8.30 rez at Dorsia.

The Fitzdares Club, of course, is the best-kept secret in this department. Though a fanzone might be a good match for those with strong eardrums and galoshes, Fitzdares — a sporting venue to its very core — offers atmosphere at a slightly more genteel pace (and, in my experience, with blessedly unobstructed views). That’s not to say there won’t be noise, or tears, or joyful chanting — it’s just that you’ll probably get home with your shirt in one piece. The dress code is smart casual, of course — though Gareth Southgate three-pieces and knitted ties are always encouraged — and the location’s nice and close to Trafalgar Square, should you want to get a little Stuart Pierce-y before bedtime.

Which brings us to the most important question of all. Will it be agony or ecstasy come midnight? Boris Johnson has teased the idea of a national bank holiday on Monday 19th July, should England pull off a historic victory. But this does slightly seem like tempting fate. The consensus on the outcome of the game seems balanced on a knife edge — Fitzdares odds have England at 4/5 to win, with Italy at Evens (including extra time and penalties).

But the historical precedents, for an Englishman, are foreboding. Italy have never lost against England at a major tournament (won three, drawn one) — winning 1-0 in Euro 1980, 2-1 at both the 1990 and 2014 World Cups, and drawing 0-0 before winning on penalties in that painful, Joe Hart-with-his-tongue-out shootout of Euro 2012. What’s more, England have won just two of their last 14 meetings with Italy in all competitions (drawn five, lost seven), winning 2-0 in June 1997 and 2-1 in August 2013 — though both were friendlies. The last time England beat Italy in a proper competitive game was during a World Cup qualifier in 1977. Gareth Southgate was seven years old.

There is fire in the Italian bellies — a kind of full-throated, almost possessed self belief that trickles down from their wizened captain Giorgio Chiellini, who giggled and joked with utter composure as his team prepared for the penalty shootout against Spain on Tuesday. Even when they went behind, you felt they’d pull it out the bag. In their midfield, Jorginho is a cool, talismanic presence, keeping things ticking along with incisive passing (and the finest penalty action of recent years, it should be said.) Upfront, Federico Chiesa is a revelation — powerful, sparky, driven. And little Lorenzo Insigne, the Napoli winger, is a constant threat.

But the England team has such depth, such common purpose, such unity, that all the Italians I have spoken to seem genuinely concerned — a rarity for them. We seem to be the team to beat in the tournament — only one goal conceded, and a knack for staying calm under pressure. Sterling is almost vibrating with danger. Kane is back near his best. Jack Grealish — like some perky, award-winning guinea pig — is ever hungry, often threatening. Luke Shaw has become Shawberto Carlos. Bukayo Saka is ‘burdened with glorious purpose’, as Ian Wright put it in the group stages. Jordan Pickford looks 10 feet tall. And Gareth Southgate — Sir Gareth soon, surely — seems like a man with a plan. “The crosses of St George are flying all around me,” said commentator Jonathan Pearce at the climax of a certain fateful penalty shootout, 25 years ago this month. “Gareth Southgate, the whole of England is with you.” On Sunday, we’ll be with him once again. Nervous and jittery. But English and together.

Read next: The Fitzdares Club is the perfect place to watch the Euros

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