Before England Could Celebrate, It Had to Suffer

All of that energy that had crackled for hours along Wembley Way would, at first, be converted into noise, booming and echoing around the stadium in the fading sunlight, roaring England on. Within half an hour, though, as Mikkel Damsgaard’s free kick eluded Jordan Pickford’s grasp and gave the Danes the lead, it would change shape once more, into an anxiety so thick it was almost tangible.

An own goal, from the Denmark captain Simon Kjaer — under pressure from Raheem Sterling — drew England level, but it made no difference. The Danes, their legs creaking and their lungs heaving, held firm. No team has had a more draining tournament than Denmark; that it was here still, after all it has endured, deserved a more rousing finale than this. It had no intention of going quietly; only in England, to England, were the Danes the supporting act, rather than the central plot.

With every block, every attack repelled, every opportunity lost, England’s memories stirred; they could feel fresh scars starting to form. Kasper Schmeichel, the Danish goalkeeper, seemed to have decided to mount a one-man campaign to break English hearts. The clock ticked inexorably on, beyond 90 minutes, into extra time. Of course it went to extra time. England always goes to extra time.

This time, though, would be different. Denmark’s fatigue was so deep, so oppressive, and England’s resources so rich that those penalties, the ones that haunt English dreams, were not so close as they might have appeared. The dam had to break at some point: as Sterling darted past Joakim Maehle, an outstretched leg apparently clipping a heel, a penalty was awarded.

Even then, though, it could not be straightforward. Whole universes burst into life and collapsed into themselves in the time it took the video referee to approve the decision. Harry Kane stepped up, struck the ball low, but Schmeichel saved it, once again, a final flashback of how things used to be, of what has gone before.

And then — after all that, after the last 90 minutes and the last three weeks and Croatia and Iceland and Costa Rica and Bloemfontein and the Wally with the Brolly and Baden-Baden and on, back into the mists of time, beyond Southgate and Chris Waddle and the Hand of God and all the rest of the pain and the regret of half a century — the moment came.

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