The set that brought England across the barrier of one of its oldest frustrations was drenched in echoes of that heartbreaking story and contained almost all the ingredients of the extreme. In the overtime tournament, Harry Kane, the most decisive footballer of his team, stood in front of Kasper Schmeichel, who until then had supported a Denmark that had its moments. A face to face in the interior of a boiler surely with more than 60,000 announced spectators, which evoked the other great English achievement, the 1966 World Cup, won in the previous version of Wembley itself, from Hurst’s phantom goal, evoked in the lightness of the penalty this time, a fall from Sterling that the VAR did not reinterpret. He also fired the fragrance of failure, that of the 1996 semifinal penalty shoot-out: Schmeichel stopped the shot. But Kane took advantage of the rejection to lead England to the first European final in their history, on Sunday against Italy (Telecinco, 9:00 pm). Again at Wembley.
Southgate’s selection haunted the uncharted territory of a European final, but before tackling the story, they had to face another unexplored, albeit more mundane, experience: a goal down, finding themselves behind on the scoreboard. England had reached the semi-final without experiencing that vertigo, and vertigo is precisely what Denmark causes. After half an hour of exchanging blows, Damsgaard threw a free kick over a bouncy barrier, but neither those heads nor the tip of Pickford’s glove managed to deflect the ball. This is how England found the first goal against in the Eurocup.
Southgate had repeated a lot that in the psychological package of breathing, visualization and historical refocusing sessions, there was also a chapter of the plan dedicated to when the plan goes wrong. Kane pointed to his head, the coach called for calm, and Pickford fumbled the first ball out with his feet after the goal. Calm was requested. And Kane appeared.
The footballer who was most missed by his team during the group stage, who recovered the goal when he appeared the most serious, took a few steps back ready to act as a quarterback, or whatever it took. He immediately caused a foul around the area, and a cascade of confusion in the defense of Denmark. Sterling’s free kick scared him off the courageous Kjaer, who closed his eyes and did not turn his head away. The cavalry charge had been unleashed.
Kane left Sterling the ball in the small box, half a meter from Schmeichel, the striker shot at point-blank range, and the goalkeeper avoided the goal with his belly. But the captain insisted, and launched Saka into space, who returned the ball to Sterling at the same point. There the City attacker launched himself, with Kjaer hooked, direct to hit an own goal, inevitable because of the struggle, the place, the inertia and the pass from Saka. The vertigo had lasted nine minutes into Harry Kane’s outburst.
Before getting there, England showed that they had digested the near-initiation victory against Germany well. That afternoon when faced with a colossal historical trauma, they entered the field almost on tiptoe, as they watched as Löw’s team, pure poise, took command of the game. Against Denmark, they hit the gas from the first whistle, shaken by an electric Sterling.
Southgate’s team approached the clash with the urgency and aversion to the prolegomena that had characterized until then Kasper Hjulmand’s side, their opponent on the other bench. The stake took effect, and deactivated that trait that has defined Denmark in the European Championship, the arrivals with few intermediate stops. They barely had the air that Braithwaite brought them upstairs, who sometimes held his back, sometimes threw deep, but always managed the times and was scratching options for his own to breathe. Until they started robbing upstairs.
Then he turned his tone, Denmark remembered Denmark and began to bang upstairs. Pickford suffered a first tremor that led to another robbery, another shot against, a corner, and the foul with which Damsgaard broke the game.
In the second half, England, pushed a little more and Schmeichel seemed to be left alone. Already illuminated in his clearance with his navel, he avoided with an infinite stretch that a Maguire head butt slipped away from his glove as he approached the net.
The Danes were fading under English command, though while they did, Dolberg still found his way to threaten Pickford from afar. They held on until extra time, until the penalty shoot-out, standing until the end after overcoming the gigantic scare of the first day, when Eriksen was resurrected on the grass. But they got there. From there, it was a wild Wembley celebration, launching the almost exclusively English crowd to its final against Italy. His first time.
Subscribe here to our special newsletter about Euro 2021