SUNDAY'S BIG STORIES

2021 And All That

This column is called "The Warm-Up". Today, we suspect, that promise is entirely redundant. If you're an England fan, you're warm. You're warmer than warm. You're seething with neurotic energy. And guess what? You've got the rest of the day to get through.
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Supporters of England's men's team are kind of off the map here. Are the usual big game rituals enough? Or does this call for something special, an extra gloss for an extra glossy occasion. How many lucky pairs of socks can one person fit inside their luckiest pair of shoes? Could you get another pair on over the outside, maybe?
Perhaps the calmest place in the entire country is inside the England camp itself. Southgate seems to be doing a magnificent job of keeping England's players apart from England's vast seething turmoil of pain and delirium and fear. It is generally understood to have been Southgate who once said, of Sven-Göran Eriksson's underwhelming half-time manner, that "We needed Churchill but we got Iain Duncan-Smith". But now the quiet man is keeping the volume at a sensible level.
We usually have a meeting about the set plays in the morning, and then I’ll speak to them before we leave the hotel. You’re two hours before the game at that point. You want the message to resonate but it’s about how you make the players feel as much as anything. We don’t need to be getting them overhyped.
In any case, Southgate is now officially more popular than Churchill. Hopefully "We will meet them about the set plays" will echo down the years just like that line about the beaches.
The Warm-Up is, of course, studiously neutral as to who actually wins the Euros, and we have been ever since Wales got knocked out. But it seems to us that the important thing to do with this day is to enjoy it. Major finals don't come around every day, or even every generation: this is a new and strange flavour of anticipation and one to be savoured.
Southgate and his players have to remain calm. You absolutely do not. Obviously there's a certain amount of common sense required: for a start there's a pandemic on; for a finish, it's a late kick-off and you don't want to miss anything. But it might be another half-century before the country grinds to a halt like this again. Take the nerves, and the fear, and the little quiver in your soul, and stick your head right into the whole lot of it.
Apart from anything else, this will stop you obsessing about the game. It is beautifully set up, this final, and almost impossible to call. If you're anything like the Warm-Up, you've spent the last few days playing it out behind half-closed eyes. And you've been bouncing around from one team to another, unable to decide which of the sides' theoretical strengths or weaknessess will swing the game.
Yes, Italy have beaten the better teams but they're missing Spinazzola which means they don't have an outlet: all England need to do is stick a man on Jorginho! But then that's not as easy as it sounds, and also there's Verratti, and there's no way Italy leave these big inviting spaces for Sterling to run into, and Shaw looked a little rattled against Denmark and that translates to a lot rattled up against Chiesa. Isn't Chiesa brilliant yes he is but so is Sterling and England have the deeper bench GREALISH! GREALISH! CALVERT-LEWIN? but we're probably due a Stones mistake at some point & Donnarumma is huge & what if the crowd turn, what if the hype curdles & England's set pieces are good but Italy's might be better &, &, &, & …
And then you run out of breath and need a sit down. Going to be a loooong day.

Dell'elmo Di Scipio

Are England up to something a little underhanded here? First Italy fly into Luton airport, almost certainly one of the top ten most cursed places in the entire country. And then they make their base at Tottenham's training ground, which probably cracks the top five. There's a joke about avoiding the lasagna here if anybody wants it? No, no, fair enough.
It's probably important to keep in mind that this is a final between two capital-p Projects. Italy may not have quite so many years of hurt in the bank, having won the World Cup in 2006, and you couldn't really get a song out of "three years of acute embarrassment". But winning the Euros just three years after failing to qualify for the World Cup would be the very definition of: saw a problem; fixed a problem.
And like England, this Italy team seem like a side that could run for a while. Quarrying a new Chiellini isn't going to be a straightforward task, but there is youth sprinkled through the rest of the squad: Donnarumma is a child of 22, Chiesa is only 23, Pessina and Barella both 24. Meanwhile Jorginho and Verratti should both be in their prime, at 29 and 28 respectively.
For the discerning neutral, assuming such a person exists anywhere, we suspect Italy have the edge. The story may not be quite as compelling as England's search for a new England, but the football is a lot more fun. Good Italy teams — and this is a good Italy team — are technically and tactically sharp, they attack a good deal more than the stereotype would suggest, and they fizz with intensity and purpose.
Even the time-wasting is done to its utmost: you don't have to like it to see how well it's put together, and with what commitment. Ultimately, there are two excellent stories here, and that's how every international tournament should end. Whoever wins, narrative definitely wins.

Argentina! Argentina!

Finally, one of the world's great footballing nations has got themselves another major trophy. Finally, the years of hurt are over. Those of you unable to think about anything other than England today can take this as an omen, if you like. A sign that things can change.
At the final whistle, every Argentinian player ran to Lionel Messi, because sometimes the overwhelming media narrative is also a real thing that exists for the players. But while there's no doubting his importance as a player and a talisman, or his starring role in getting Argentina to the final, the actual game was won and lost elsewhere.
Ángel Di María got man of the match, thanks to his delicate bouncing lob over Ederson for the only goal of the game. Lautaro Martínez ran himself into the ground. Argentina played 4-4-flippin-2 and it worked. And… well, there was a lot of fouling, and Argentina got the better of that too.
As for Messi, it turns out Barcelona were really holding him back. Time for a dance. Time for a sing-song.

IN OTHER NEWS

We interrupt our scheduled Euros programming to bring you Les Ferdinand skimming a perfect free-kick out of an old-fashioned mudpatch.

RETRO CORNER

Today isn't England's first Euros final: that came in 2009, when the women's team, having dispatched Denmark and Norway in the group stage, then Finland and the Netherlands in the knockouts, faced off against Germany in Helsinki. And, er, got thumped 6-2. It's irritatingly hard to find highlights of the final, but the best goal can be found at the end of this compilation.

HAT TIP

By our reckoning, the internet today is at least 70% Euros build-up, which means you can't really be expected to do anything else with your time. So how about this frankly epic effort from the Athletic (£), looking back at every England men's tournament between 1966 and 2020+1, and just how each and every one of them went wrong.
Celebrations back in the afterglow of victory [in 1966] were comparatively sedate. Queen Elizabeth II, who’d only just turned 40, handed the Jules Rimet trophy to Bobby Moore and the players conducted a Wembley lap of honour, after which the squad headed to the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, west London for dinner. Wives and girlfriends weren’t invited and stayed in a side room. The prime minister, Harold Wilson, did pop in to pass on his congratulations, yet the players ended up drifting off into the night to take in the nearby West End.

COMING UP

England. Italy. Eight o'clock. Assuming you're not busy or anything.
And bringing you tomorrow morning's Cool Down will be… oh hey, Andi Thomas again. Won't that be fun?
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