Rome (AFP) – Italy’s players were feted as heroes Monday after beating England in a dramatic penalty shootout to win Euro 2020 at Wembley and prolong the host nation’s 55-year wait for a second major title.

Giorgio Chiellini, the team’s 36-year-old captain, and coach Roberto Mancini lifted the gleaming trophy aloft after the team’s plane touched down in Rome just hours after the victory in London on Sunday night.

Around 200 fans who got up early — or never went to bed — greeted the Azzurri as they arrived back in the Italian capital, chanting “We’re the champions of Europe!” fronted by Chiellini wearing a crown.

No victory parade was expected given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Instead, after a few hours at their hotel, the besuited squad attended a ceremony at the palace of President Sergio Mattarella, who himself had been at Wembley for Sunday’s match.

“We are happy to have given joy and hope to the Italians after such a difficult period,” Mancini told reporters as they arrived, Chiellini still clutching the trophy.

In a night of high drama at Wembley, Italy recovered from the shock of conceding the quickest goal ever in a European Championship final to equalise and then claim a 3-2 shootout victory.

It is the second time the Italians have been crowned European champions and their win marks a remarkable turnaround under Mancini after the team failed to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

By contrast England’s failure from the penalty spot extended their dismal record in shoot-outs and left them still desperately waiting for another major trophy after the 1966 World Cup they won on home soil.

The mood was soured further after three England players who missed penalties — Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka — were subjected to a stream of racial abuse online from their own and other supporters. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson led condemnation of the “appalling abuse”, while England manager Gareth Southgate said it was “unforgivable”.

– Joy in Italy –

In Italy, fans spilled on to the streets from Milan to Palermo to celebrate their side’s triumph on Sunday night, pushing aside thoughts of the pandemic.

Some fans were bleary-eyed Monday after late night carousing, ordering double espressos to revive themselves.

In Rome, greengrocer Matteo Falovo spoke for many when he said that after 17 months of the virus, which hit Italy hard, it had been “a pleasure to be able to think about something else”.

At Wembley, a crowd of more than 67,000 saw Southgate’s go ahead in just the second minute when defender Luke Shaw finished coolly at the back post from Kieran Trippier’s inviting cross.

Italy grew stronger as the match went on and equalised with 23 minutes remaining when Leonardo Bonucci scrambled the ball into the net from close range.

Extra-time finished goalless despite a flurry of substitutions and the game ended in the shootout drama.

Southgate gambled by sending on late substitutes Rashford and Sancho specifically for their prowess in taking penalties, but both missed. The decisive moment came when Saka, just 19, had his penalty saved by goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma to hand the title to Italy.

“That is my responsibility. I chose the guys to take the kicks,” said Southgate, who himself missed a penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final against Germany.

– Fan frenzy –

The atmosphere around Wembley was frenzied in the build-up to the match and footage posted on social media showed hundreds of supporters battling to get past lines of stewards and police, with some able to force their way through security cordons.

Another video appeared to show violent clashes between fans inside Wembley itself.

London police said they made 49 arrests, and that 19 officers were injured while managing the final.

Back in Rome, Chiellini on Monday dedicated the win to the Italian fans and former Italy and Fiorentina defender Davide Astori, who died aged 31 after suffering a cardiac arrest before an Italian league match in 2018.

Addressing the audience in the grounds of Mattarella’s Quirinale palace, he paid tribute to his teammates.

“We are not here because we scored an extra penalty, but because we believed in the values of friendship,” he said.

“This success is a group victory. This bond made us feel like brothers of Italy to answer the call together.”