As painful as it may be, England is finished. What seemed determined to be a return to glory was dashed into space like Ashley Young's penalty that vaulted off the crossbar. I am American, and it hurts me dearly to swallow the reality that England holds no place in the semifinals of this year's Euro 2012 tournament.
According to all the naysayers, and oh how they number like the stars, this England side played like dirt and had no realistic chance of making the final four, lest beating Germany in the following round. How sad that the media, and especially England supporters, hold this position. England may not have played great, but they never lost in regulation time, were content to play eight defenders behind the ball, and were a couple penalties away from a monumental step forward in their pursuit of international greatness. Now, what is left - the world cup? Only two more years of agonizing qualifying matches and a nation (both media and domestic) hell-bent on keeping English football trudging through the mud.
In the post-game analysis of the England-Italy match, Bob Ley, Michael Ballack, Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman all felt that Italy was clearly the better team throughout the match - in Lalas' words, "Talent won out." With half a team no one ever heard of, it is hard to claim that Italy was far and away more talented than an English side loaded with millionaire professionals who start for the best teams in the English Premier League, which is arguably the best division in the world.
Glen Johnson had a point-blank opportunity in the fifth minute, and missed it. When he finally got the ball off his boot, no further than six yards from Gianluigi Buffon, he kicked it into the keeper's outstretched left arm, as opposed to the 20-plus square feet of open netting surrounding the Italian captain. The stage, it seemed, was too big for England, but the opposition was not. Rooney, only minutes later and still early in the first half, clobbered a sitter of a header high over the crossbar, leaving the scoreboard at an ominous 0-0.
Were these two chances, or even just one, to have found the net, we fans of this Euro 2012 tournament would have seen an entirely different game. There likely would not have been such a patient, deliberate possession-game by Italy, slowly passing and meandering their way down-field, calmly constructing final passes into the box. There might have been more spirit in the strides of Steven Gerrard, Danny Welbeck and Scott Parker. Each and every time England gained a turnover and countered the Italian control, second touches or last passes went longing, finding their way out of bounds or into the feet of an Azure defender. It was maddening to watch England put together a nice bit of play, and then innocently chip the ball to no one. Time and time again this happened, and the forwards and midfielders would have to scramble back and help to defend an exhausting and deftly-coordinated passing exhibition by Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio.
With all this said, the game was still 0-0 at the end of regulation. Mario Balotelli was kept in check. The couple times he did get behind the defense (and these were by far England's worst moments), he was not able to convert - either thanks to a Joe Hart save or an amazingly desperate slide tackle by John Terry. Antonio Cassano, a true sniper all year in the Serie A, was horrible, and made life much easier for the English defense, who watched his selfish efforts destroy the truly good breaks and opportunities for Italy. Ignazio Abate, the right back from Inter Milan, was Italy's best player through the first 45', though he had not started a match leading up to the contest. His speed, touch and runs on goal made life miserable for Ashley Cole and others, but this was the biggest storm England had to weather.
The lack of midfield-forward chemistry was apparent throughout for the English team, as no one seemed to know where to pass the ball or when their teammates would start their run. Andy Carroll was a beast in the air for England, but his headers (along with Welbeck's I should add) went bounding into space and found nothing but the pitch or an Italian boot. When Carroll did handsomely collect a long ball with his chest, he would quickly and impressively turn, only to find no one in support. And this was the story of England all day - whenever they gained possession, there was never another white jersey within twenty yards of the ball. This spelled scoreless doom for England, as they sent long ball after long ball into the quicksand of Italy's defense. And the game ended, 0-0. After the two extra 15-minute periods, 120 minutes complete - the game was still 0-0. You would think Italy won 4-0 had you missed the match but arrived in time for the ESPN postgame report. But such was not the case. England, yes England, had fought its way to a draw, against legendary Italy, and now would just have to win a shootout for a chance to take on Germany and surmount the incessant obstacles (albeit spoken) that have plagued this team.
The first penalty was the most nerve-wracking. Balotelli had just set the tone with a bulls-eye into the same corner that Joe Hart dove toward, good for a 1-0 Italian lead. And here was the captain, the hero of England - Steven Gerrard - with all the weight of a nation and millions of English fans such as myself pleading with the player on the television screen to relax and bury it - so much easier said than done - but he did! Gerrard pummeled the ball into the very same corner as Balotelli - so confident, bold and befitting of a champion, that the pressure was now back on Italy. And who was next? Riccardo Montolivo, who had by far the worst match of any Italian player, and has never himself been considered one of the greats of the game. And what did he do? He missed it, shanking it wide of the left post, out of bounds and into the elation of England fans' hearts. At this moment, you could truly hear the tele-type machines ablaze, people screaming on their phones to their loved ones and friends, and envision newspaper headlines around the world with headlines reading: "England through - beat Italy on penalties," or "England Semifinal-Bound." After years of grief and torment, England was about to ascend higher than all the critical press in the world. It was Wayne Rooney's turn, and, if you are a Manchester United fan, you know that he struggled significantly from the penalty spot this season. But, Rooney stepped up, and killed the ball into the left side of the net, giving England a commanding two goals to one lead. Andrea Pirlo, the man of the match for Italy, followed up Rooney's effort with one of the most composed, dazzling efforts ever from the penalty spot. Feigning a hard strike, he deafened his follow through, sending Joe Hart sprawling to the corner of the goal while the ball softly floated waist-high into the center of the net. As bad of a position as Italy was in this moment, everyone in the crowd, and certainly at home, gave out a collective, "Oooh". And perhaps it was this mastery that got into Ashley Young's head as he stepped up to take England's third penalty. With a chance to keep one hand on the Italian jugular, Young laced into one, cleanly picking the ball off the pitch and into the air at a ferocious pace, only to have the ball clang off the crossbar, the goalie Buffon diving the opposite direction, but to no avail. The ball did not find the net, and with that, England's chances were dashed. A subsequent score from Antonio Nocerino kept it tied, but when Ashley Cole's follow-up and feeble attempt was gathered by the Italian goalie, all hope was lost. A last-ditch opportunity to send the shootout into extras was lost as Hart dove the opposite direction of Alessandro Diamanti's penalty, securing Italy's advancement and sending England home, again, to face the sad, terrible music.
This was one of the most remarkable 0-0 games I have ever seen, and will hopefully do much for a sport that Americans seem to lament for its very lack of scoring. When you combine the history and national pride that go into such matches, the spectacle that is Euro 2012 becomes all the more significant. There is no tournament like this in this world aside from the World Cup. And, like the World Cup, this tournament only happens once every four years. Dreams are laid on the line for this tournament. England had laid lifelong dreams on the line for this tournament. And their team was within two penalty shots of making those dreams reality. But, the shots missed, and time will have to heal in order for the Three Lions to come roaring again. One day, if the naysayers finally decide to shut their mouths, the lions may do just that.