There was very little doubt that Italy played England off the park in their Euro2012 quarter-final. What remained in doubt, until Ashley Cole slapped his penalty kick into the grateful arms of Italy keeper Gianluigi Buffon, was whether Italy or England would advance to play Germany in the semi-final. The Italians aren’t good at penalty shootouts, but England is the world’s best at messing them up. After a goalless 120 minutes, during which Italy knocked on England’s door for most of the night but never got in, the Italians prevailed 4-2 in the PKs, with Ashley Young being the other English culprit.
Before the tournament began I wrote a cover story for TIME wondering why England and its wonderful supporters keep believing that the team is any good at this game and should actually win something. Never mind that they haven’t won since 1966. At Euro 2012, England advanced out of a weak group, riding its luck and a blown call by the referee, who failed to credit Ukraine with a legitimate goal. Good for them. You can’t pick your group or the referee. You just play and see what happens.
What happened is that when England got to the quarters, it was outclassed but still nearly claimed a semi-final spot. Had it converted one of its chances early in the first half, England was a good bet to make it stand up. But after the first 15 minutes, the field tilted and England was overmatched. Start in the middle of the park: Italy’s midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo alone had more passes—131— than England’s entire midfield, including substitutes—96. Pirlo conducted a passing clinic, then topped it off with an audacious chip to score on his penalty. On the other hand, Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano and Daniele DeRossi seemed allergic to every great ball served into them. England was eventually reduced to bombing long balls at substitute Andy Carroll, who was of little help even when he caught up to them. Its biggest threats came from Steven Gerrard’s perfectly flighted free kicks into the Italian box.
The expectations for this England squad were low, so this performance will somehow go down as an achievement. But England is still going backward compared with Italy, and especially Germany, and manager Roy Hodgson has a ton of work ahead of him. The English media will no doubt be praising their lads for keeping the Italians at bay for 120 minutes—Italy outshot England 35 to 9 and hit the post twice. They’ll be employing words such as gallant and heroic and spirited. The newspapers use a lot of words like that, because nobody celebrates losing as much as England.