LONDON (REUTERS) - The tears of England's losing players at Wembley were replicated across the nation on Sunday (July 11), mixed in with disappointment and alcohol, after Italy beat Gareth Southgate's young side in a penalty shoot-out to win Euro 2020.
After 15 months of intense Covid-19 restrictions that at times left vast swathes of the country housebound, millions of England fans packed into pub gardens, city squares and homes to watch their side contest a major final for the first time in 55 years.
They lost 3-2 on penalties after the match ended 1-1, leaving younger players who missed spot-kicks such as Bukayo Saka, 19, and Jadon Sancho, 21, sobbing on the shoulders and chests of their teammates.
Messages on social media appeared to show racist abuse being sent to Marcus Rashford, the other player who missed his spot-kick. There were also thousands of messages of support.
"It never goes according to plan," said Ross Handle, sat slumped on a bench in Trafalgar Square. "We've come so far."
Prince William, in the stadium with his wife Kate and seven-year-old son George, described the result as heartbreaking.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the team played like heroes. "They have done the nation proud and deserve great credit," he said.
While the bulk of England fans, the media and politicians have lauded Southgate's players such as Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling for uniting the country during a pandemic which has killed almost 130,000 people, the highest death toll in western Europe, the Football Association (FA) was forced to issue a statement condemning the racist abuse of players hours later.
"The FA strongly condemns all forms of discrimination and is appalled by the online racism that has been aimed at some of our England players on social media," the statement said. "We could not be clearer that anyone behind such disgusting behaviour is not welcome in following the team. We will do all we can to support the players affected while urging the toughest punishments possible for anyone responsible."
After years of disappointment, when star players like David Beckham led a so-called "golden generation" to limited success, Southgate crafted a younger, more humble team, with stronger ties to their communities and the fans who follow them.
Almost 28 million people watched England's semi-final victory over Denmark on Wednesday.
After Sunday night, the Daily Telegraph front page read "The Ultimate Agony" over a picture of Southgate, once the face of English failure for his own penalty miss in 1996, consoling Saka. The Daily Mail said: "It All Ends In Tears".
With Covid-19 cases still rising, the government had urged people to be cautious when watching matches but thousands gathered in city centres.
Many started drinking early and before the game, fans clambered on to the roof of buses and let off flares. One man dressed in mock chain-mail armour and wearing a red cape wielded his plastic sword while clinging to the top of a traffic light.
About two hours before kick-off, hundreds of fans charged at security at Wembley to try to enter the ground, with video clips showing fans fighting one another and officials. Earlier in the day, many had thrown and smashed bottles at Leicester Square in London.
After the game, the police said they arrested 45 people and that they were on hand to help people get home.