London (AFP) – Gareth Southgate’s England stood just one game away from ending their 55-year trophy drought as Euro 2020 frenzy gripped the nation ahead of Sunday’s final, but Italy are in the mood to spoil the Wembley party.
Southgate’s young team have set excitement levels soaring by reaching the first European Championship final in English football history, more than half a century after their 1966 World Cup win.
Along with an expected crowd of 67,500 at Wembley, millions across the nation will be glued to the final on television, with some schools and businesses set to open later on Monday to allow a lie-in after the 1900 GMT kick-off.
Supporters draped in red-and-white flags congregated along the famous approach to the stadium, Wembley Way, downing pints of beer and chanting England anthems.
But as kick-off neared, the atmosphere became more tense, with thousands crammed into the pedestrianised area.
Fans — with few signs of mask-wearing despite surging coronavirus infections in Britain — threw cans of beer, flares and traffic cones into the air as police kept a close eye.
Southgate’s squad has received messages of support from Queen Elizabeth II, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and even Hollywood actor Tom Cruise.
Hundreds of fans gathered outside England’s Hertfordshire team hotel to give them a rousing send-off as they left for Wembley on Sunday, with Southgate urging England to harness the outpouring of emotion into a winning formula in the final.
In a video message on the official England football Twitter account, Southgate, who has been praised for his leadership of the team, said the fans’ support has given them a “huge lift”.
“I’m very grateful to all of the players and the incredible staff I’ve got with me, that we’ve been able to get to our first final for 55 years,” he said.
“But of course we know now we’ve got to deliver for you, so we’ll be doing everything we can. Your support and energy has given us a huge lift, and I know it will on Sunday.”
Southgate has revolutionised English football since taking charge in 2016 and his team have impressed in Euro knockout-stage wins over Germany, Ukraine and Denmark.
But England were beaten in the 2018 World Cup semi-finals by Croatia and only a final triumph against Italy will be enough to satisfy them now.
“That is the challenge now. We have been knocking down barriers on the way but we have to go out there and win it,” said captain Harry Kane.
Not everyone is buying into the patriotic fever gripping England ahead of the final to Euro 2020 — delayed a year by the coronavirus pandemic.
With England playing six of their seven Euro matches on home turf at Wembley, some rival nations claim UEFA has tipped the tournament balance too heavily in favour of the Three Lions.
– ‘Cool heads and a hint of madness’ –
But Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini is unfazed by the prospect of having to play in Wembley’s hostile atmosphere.
“There is always a home team. That has happened in the past and it won’t be the last time,” he said.
“There is no controversy. It is a dream for football lovers everywhere to be involved in the final and it will be even better if we can win it.”
Italy have been arguably the team of the tournament, sweeping through the group stage with a perfect record before knocking out Austria, top-ranked Belgium and Spain to reach the final.
Revitalised since Mancini took over after their embarrassing failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the Azzurri are on a remarkable 33-match unbeaten run.
The four-time world champions’ lone European Championship triumph came in 1968. They have lost their previous two finals in 2000 and 2012.
Veteran defender Chiellini called on his team-mates to stay focused with the trophy within touching distance.
“We need to thrive and savour this occasion. When we met up before the competition I said we needed just that hint of madness and to keep cool heads,” Chiellini said.
“That has brought us this far and hopefully it can take us to win the competition.”
“A Sunday for lions. Do it Azzurri,” headlined Italian daily Gazzetta Dello Sport.