I hate seeing Bukayo Saka sad, but I love seeing Giorgio Chiellini happy. Saka, the brilliant Arsenal winger, is only 19, and looks it; to follow him on a soccer pitch is to feel yourself in the presence of a kind of beautiful earnestness, a purity of intent that seems more serious, not less, for belonging to someone so young. I’m old enough now that I often find myself feeling irrationally protective of young players I like, and the sight of Saka crying after missing the penalty that sealed England’s loss to Italy in Sunday’s Euro 2020 final was almost more than I could take. I wanted an office to storm into and an adult to confront. No, you listen to ME, I wanted to yell at some assistant principal, possibly Gareth Southgate, possibly the spirit of soccer itself. How could you put him in this position? Don’t you see that his gift is more precious than anything in this rathole town? I wanted to browbeat this imaginary villain into apologizing to my beloved child, an internationally famous soccer star who has never met me and does not know I exist. I wanted to move him to a better school, where the teachers were not trying to stifle his light.
That was what was happening in half of my brain after the Euro final.
The other half was watching Chiellini.
Chiellini, the brilliant Juventus defender, is 36, and looks older. Towering, balding, and scruffily bearded, he has the air of a background character in an Elena Ferrante novel, a shoemaker with a mischievous leer, maybe a grocer with a motorbike obsession. He has sharp features; he stoops a little. You can imagine him lounging on approximately every single street corner in Italy at any time over the past five or so centuries. When he’s happy, Chiellini can’t seem to hold all his happiness inside his own body. It spills out onto anyone who happens to be around him. One of the enduring images of this tournament is the footage of Chiellini, the Italy captain, tormenting Spain’s captain, Jordi Alba, before their two sides’ penalty shootout in the semifinal. Chiellini pinched Alba’s cheeks, folded the much smaller player in a bear hug, and clapped him on the shoulders, laughing all the while, as the super-serious and focused Spaniard seemed to implode from sheer uptightness. Chiellini was accused, by some people, of bullying Alba, and responded that Alba had been trying to trick the referee about the result of the coin toss. On live TV, though, it just looked like Chiellini was overflowing with sheer fun.
After the final, while Saka was weeping, Chiellini was romping around the pitch. He hadn’t taken part in the penalty shootout, but his cool and disciplined defending had been vital to Italy’s win. Now neither cool nor disciplined, he picked up other Italian players and raced around with them. He pumped his fists and bellowed at the roaring Italian fans who’d been brave enough to support the Azzurri at Wembley, England’s home stadium. If Saka looked like a boy who’d just lost a war, Chiellini looked like an old man who’d just gotten the best Christmas gift of his life. Half of my brain was piercingly sad for Saka; the other half was joining Chiellini in his gawky polka of joy.
By the time a penalty shootout ends in a major tournament final, my rooting interest has usually collapsed into a bare hope of emotional survival. I am less interested in who wins than in how I am going to make it out in one piece. I don’t know how you felt about England-Italy going in; I didn’t have a strong rooting interest to begin with, and by the end of the careful, nervy final, played before more than 65,000 screaming fans at a moment when the presence of live fans still seems strange and overwhelming at sporting events, I was barely hanging on to the concept of “team” or “nation-state.” My heart was hammering, I felt crushed with love for everyone in the game, I wanted to teleport to a remote galaxy where I wouldn’t have to watch, and I couldn’t look away.
Crushed with love is not, all things considered, a bad way to exit a tournament like this: one that opened with a player nearly dying on the pitch, then gave us reason upon reason to feel grateful to be alive. (Netherlands-Ukraine! Germany-Hungary! Patrik Schick’s goal from the remote galaxy I wanted to teleport to a few sentences ago!) A soccer tournament is a trivial thing when you put it beside life and death. But that’s the thing about reasons to be grateful: They all count. In the same way, Euro 2020 couldn’t restore life to normalcy after a global pandemic, the way some people said it did; those are not command codes to which a soccer tournament has access. But it could represent a point of contact with normal life. And whether or not normal life is returning—it might be, in much of Europe and America; it clearly isn’t, in a huge part of the world—the sight of people singing in a stadium while other people played a game could be a small reminder of what normal life is for.
The final wasn’t, in and of itself, a great game. This has been a tournament of own goals, and though neither team scored one on Sunday, Italy’s defending during Luke Shaw’s opening goal for England, just two minutes into the match, had something of that quality of haphazard self-destruction. Italy’s defense hadn’t come all the way online yet—you could almost hear it making dial-up-modem phone-blorp noises, probably appropriate given the advanced age of the Azzurri’s back line—and left Shaw epically, spectacularly alone in front of Gianluigi Donnarumma’s goal. So this is what it feels like to be adrift in the infinite solitude of deep space, Shaw had ample time to think before thwicking the ball into the net.
After taking the lead so soon, England did what most teams do when they go up 1-0 in a major final after not starting Jack Grealish: they got cautious. The degree of difficulty in running out the clock for 88 minutes of a 90-minute game is probably higher than that of just scoring another couple of goals, but it’s easy to sit back when you’re winning and not playing Jack Grealish. In fairness to Southgate and the cushioned stadium seats on which he repeatedly warehoused some of his most dynamic players, England was very, very good at sitting back, staying poised, and absorbing pressure. This was a team, after all, that conceded just two goals in the entire tournament while repeatedly springing Raheem Sterling for dangerous counters. Italy dictated much of the game, but Leonardo Bonucci’s lucky putback in the 67th minute was the only result.
There was really nothing to point to, in other words, that said one of these teams deserved the title more than the other. Playing a soccer game is often a weirdly inefficient way to determine which of a given two teams is actually better at the game. Sunday’s outcome probably came down to margin-of-error stuff, a fraction of an angle on a bounce, managerial choices that essentially amounted to guessing. Southgate will inevitably take some flak for subbing in Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, two of his best penalty takers, very late in extra time, so that they were forced to shoot without much of a warmup. And maybe he deserves it; they both missed. On the other hand, we’re talking about penalties! The single most random part of the game! TV announcers love to talk about goalkeepers studying youth-league footage and secret codes scrawled on water bottles as if penalties were just one more mystery to fall before the omniscient gaze of sports science. Then the penalty taker goes up to the spot and the great dungeon master in the sky is like HELL YES LET’S GET OUT THE BIG DICE.
If we have to pick a single moment as the one that determined the outcome of Euro 2020, I’m going to set aside Saka’s miss and go back to the split second when Donnarumma, the Italian goalkeeper, sort of jerkily doinked his leg out to one side during Rashford’s run-up for his penalty. It was maybe the weirdest moment I’ve ever seen during an England-Italy penalty shootout, which might not sound like much, but I once watched Andrea Pirlo take Joe Hart’s soul out of his body and graffiti his own name on it, so the Donnarumma leg-doink is not without legitimate competition. Here’s how it went. Rashford and Donnarumma stared at each other for what seemed like a very long time. Rashford ran up to the ball, watching fiercely for Donnarumma to betray any sign of where he was planning to jump. Donnarumma just stood there. His affect said, “No, sorry, I have no power to move myself, I am a fern in the forest, I am a marionette on a peg.” You could actually see his hands flopping loosely, like fern fronds in a breeze. Then, suddenly: doink. He stuck his left leg out a little bit to the side. Rashford froze. So did Donnarumma. So did Chronos, whose divine hourglass controls the flow of time. Snow melted in the mountains. Lovers were born and died. Empires crumbled. 0.2 seconds passed. Then Rashford, psyched out into the 12th chapter of a gothic horror novel—did the left-sided doink mean Donnarumma was planning to go left? or was it a trick, was the gesture illusory, a doink of misdirection? or was Donnarumma merely the reincarnated spirit of Lady Grimcastle?—tried a shot to Donnarumma’s right. Donnarumma guessed the wrong way and dove left, as his doink had foretold. The shot, however, was the work of a man who has been leg-doinked out of all his self-belief. It bounced harmlessly off the post. Rashford’s hands flew to his head. My heart splintered into so many fragments I am still picking them up off the floor.
Well. You know how this ends. A little insignificant scuffed tiny nothing of a semi-misjudged angle makes the difference between total euphoria and your world breaking, at least for one night. That’s sports; sometimes you’re Saka, sometimes you’re Chiellini, and sometimes what makes you one and not the other is too small for the eye to see. But this has been a terrible year and a wonderful tournament, so let me make a proposal. Anyone who almost became a hero during the past month, let’s go ahead and make them a hero. The England players about whom you’d say, if they’d won, “He’ll never pay for a drink in this town again”? Buy them a drink. The Denmark players whose courage you’d marvel at if Harry Kane’s penalty miss had flown a few inches farther right? Marvel away. Pain is part of the game, and sometimes, as a sports fan, you need to feel it, but this is one of the times when it’s truer to the source to let it go. Twenty-five years ago, Gareth Southgate missed a penalty in Euro ’96 and it’s followed him around ever since, added an undercurrent of pressure to every job he’s taken. It would be a stupid mistake for the same thing to happen to Saka, or anyone else who happened to miss a chance at this tournament. Twenty-five years from now we should be clapping these players on the back and thanking them for what they gave us.
I don’t know the name for whatever it is we get when a few hundred million people spend a month following a tournament like this together. I know it’s easier to feel bad about sports the more we take that togetherness for granted, and harder the more we appreciate it. And just now I’d rather appreciate it. So if you’re an Italy fan, I’ll say congratulations, and if you’re an England fan, or anyone whose team lost, I’ll say I’m sorry, and congratulations to you, too.
An earlier version of this piece misspelled Donnarumma.