London (AFP) – England fans woke up bleary-eyed on Thursday to the reality of a first major tournament final in 55 years after a momentous win against Denmark set up a Euro 2020 showdown with Italy.
Three years on from their defeat to Croatia in the World Cup semi-final, Gareth Southgate’s men overcame the Danes 2-1 in extra-time at a rocking Wembley to reach their first European Championship final.
They now stand just one game away from ending their long and painful trophy drought, which dates all the way back to the 1966 World Cup.
Standing in their way are an Italy side who are on a 33-match unbeaten run, reviving their reputation on the global stage after an embarrassing failure to even reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
A Wembley crowd of almost 65,000 whipped themselves into a frenzy before kick-off on Wednesday with rousing renditions of “Sweet Caroline” and “Football’s Coming Home”.
Simon Kjaer’s own goal cancelled out a superb Mikkel Damsgaard free-kick and Kasper Schmeichel kept England at bay with some stunning saves to take the tie to extra-time.
The key decisive moment came late in the first period of extra-time when Dutch referee Danny Makkelie awarded a spot-kick for Joakim Maehle’s challenge on Raheem Sterling which survived a VAR check, and England held out to seal the win.
The final whistle sparked scenes of pandemonium inside Wembley — hosting the biggest crowd in the UK since the start of the coronavirus pandemic — as the players partied on the pitch.
Flag-waving fans at London’s Trafalgar Square abandoned their seating to merge into a huge, swaying crowd after the final whistle. One group of supporters climbed on top of a double-decker bus.
For Denmark, defeat spelt the end of a fairytale run to the last four after the trauma of witnessing star Christian Eriksen collapse in their opening group game against Finland following a cardiac arrest.
– Vibrant England –
England have suffered semi-final heartbreak at major tournaments four times since 1966 and those agonising defeats have been etched in the psyche of English football.
But Southgate has overseen the emergence of a vibrant young team unconcerned by the failings of their predecessors.
“They’ve responded to what was always going to be a really challenging night,” Southgate said of his players, who had not conceded a goal until the Denmark game.
“We were so smooth through the quarter-final and relatively unscathed through the second round. We knew that at some point we were going to concede and we would have to respond.”
He added: “For our country, I’ve not heard this new Wembley like that ever and to be able to share that with everybody and share it with everybody at home is very special.”
The match was attended by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince William, who is president of the English Football Association.
“Tonight @England played their hearts out,” tweeted Johnson. “What a fantastic performance from Gareth Southgate’s squad. Now to the final. Let’s bring it home.”
Geoff Hurst, who scored a hat-trick when England beat West Germany 4-2 to win the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley, tweeted: “Wow! We’re in the final. Brilliant game. Well done England. Fantastic.”
Several papers headlined their main stories with the word “Finally”, after England ended their long wait to reach the final of a major men’s tournament.
The Sun newspaper riffed on a long-running advertising slogan for Danish lager Carlsberg: “Probably the best feeling in the world.”
There was talk of awarding a knighthood to Southgate and key players such as winger Raheem Sterling, and calls for the government to declare a national holiday on Monday should England triumph against Italy.
“It’s the first time in our history as a nation, getting through to the European final at Wembley, and it’s one of the proudest moments in my life, for sure,” said Kane. “But we haven’t won it yet, we’ve got one more to go.”