'Suspicious' or smart? Sterling, Southgate & England making the most of their good Euro 2020 fortune

Getty/Goal

On an emotional night at Wembley, the scale of English ecstasy was matched only by the depth of Danish despair.

With a dramatic 2-1 win, England had ended 55 years of hurt, securing a first appearance in a major international final since lifting the World Cup in 1966.

They had been the better, strong, fitter side too – that was beyond dispute.

The nature of their victory, though, was highly contentious, with the winner arriving in extra-time when Harry Kane converted a rebound from a dubious penalty awarded for a perceived foul on Raheem Sterling by Joakim Maehle.

There had been contact, but whether it was sufficient to send the Manchester City winger to the ground was open to the debate.

Sterling was adamant that he had been fouled, telling ITV Sport: "I went into the box and he stuck his right leg out, and it touched my leg, so it was a clear penalty".

Few neutrals agreed with him. As former FIFA referee Urs Meier told Goal, "Sterling was looking for contact, it was clearly too little for a penalty. 

"I was even more surprised when [referee] Danny Makkelie pointed to the spot. At that moment, I thought there might have been contact, which I missed in the real speed. 

"But then the slow motion replay confirmed my first impression: there was nothing there that should have resulted in a penalty.

"I expected the VAR to correct the decision. For me, it is absolutely incomprehensible that he did not at least send the referee in front of the screen to look at the incident again."

Social media, as it so often does, immediately went into meltdown.

"No penalty!!!" screamed former France defender Bixente Lizarazu. Ex-Scotland international Don Hutchison called it a shambolic decision.

Even a number of England icons questioned the call. 

Chris Waddle conceded that the Three Lions had been "fortunate" to have been awarded a spot-kick for "the slightest of contact", while Alan Shearer admitted that he would have been furious had such a decision gone against Gareth Southgate's side.

Fellow BBC pundit Micah Richards, meanwhile, was brutally honest. "Look," he said. "We're all England fans but we've got to say it how it is. I think the referees and the decisions in this tournament have been fantastic, but I can't see how that's not been overturned [by VAR].

"I don't know if the crowd had a part to play in it because they were shouting and the roof absolutely lifted when Sterling went down. 

"I think the officials have got that decision wrong. I'll take it, but Kasper did excellently to save it and he must be feeling terrible right now."

And he was. They all were. 

Denmark boss Kasper Hjulmand told reporters afterwards, "We're disappointed it was decided that way. It was a penalty that shouldn't have been a penalty, and that annoys me right now.

"It's one thing to lose a game, that happens, but losing this way is just a disappointment, because these guys have fought a lot.

"I think we have to digest this before we can describe these feelings, but it's a bitter way to leave a tournament."

Kasper Hjulmand Denmark England Euro 2020 GFX

It was difficult to disagree, particularly when one also considers that there were briefly two balls on the pitch in the lead-up to the award of the penalty, while UEFA has also opened disciplinary proceedings against England over the use of a 'laser pointer', which was shone at Schmeichel as he prepared to face Kane's penalty.

The fans and players are unlikely to care, of course. England has endured its fair share of bad beats and tough breaks over the years. Theirs is a history of hard-luck stories in semi-finals. As Kane said afterwards, "For once, it fell our way today."

There is a feeling across Europe, though, that everything has been falling England's way of late.

In the Gazzetta dello Sport, Stefan Boldrini lamented the penalty call, writing, "It's a pity because this team needs no help, but that's what's happened over the last month. 

"UEFA ignored appeals from two governments (Italy and Germany) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) [to take the semi-finals and final away from Wembley], suggesting that there is something in the air..."

The German Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, had earlier called it "irresponsible" for the UK Government to increase capacity at Wembley for the knockout rounds, given the rise in Covid-19 infections.

In Spain, meanwhile, MARCA brought up the irony of an England player winning a dodgy penalty less than a week after the British press had accused Ciro Immobile of simulation before adding "The [penalty] mistake was so clear it makes [England's] qualification suspicious.

"Remember that of their seven games played, six will have been at Wembley. It's a shame because it undermines one of the best Euros ever."

The schedule has been a major bone of contention for some time now. Those that have been forced to travel back and forward across the continent have felt extremely hard done by, and it is hardly a coincidence that all four semi-finalists got to play all of their group games at home.

Arsene Wenger, in his role as pundit for beIN Sports, said: “This European Championship has been built basically for England. To play six games out of seven at Wembley, any team would have loved to do that." 

Indeed, it's worth noting that Denmark had to face the Czech Republic in the 35-degree heat of Baku in the quarter-finals before meeting England in London, enduring a 4,000km trip each way in the process. 

Roberto Martinez Belgium England Euro 2020 GFX

And Belgium boss Roberto Martinez believes that never before has home advantage been so decisive at a major tournament.

"We just look at ourselves and if we could play in Brussels, having the familiarity of our own stadium, having the familiarity of our fans, it just makes everything a lot easier because of the Covid-19 protocol rules that every local government has to impose," he explained to Goal.

"It makes it very different when you have to travel away from home and you have to adapt to the different legal requirements. And then, for the fans, it's very difficult for the fans to go around Europe because of the quarantine rules.

"So, it’s a big, big difference when you’re playing at home. You're looking at the opportunity that England have of being able to play six games out of the seven in Wembley, and it makes it a very, very different tournament for them to those of us that had to travel around. 

"So, this type of celebration, 60 years of the Euros and the attempt to make it an event for all of Europe, it's meant that there has been a price to pay for some teams."

Brussels, it must be said, lost its Euro 2020 matches to Wembley because of a lack of guarantees to UEFA that its new stadium would be ready on time, while England would have faced Germany in Dublin had the Republic of Ireland not pulled out of hosting matches because of their own Covid-19 concerns.

The bottom line, though, is that England, the team that has travelled the least at Euro 2020, are now the overwhelming favourites to lift the trophy, given they will be roared on by nearly 60,000 people in this weekend's decider, as Italy fans are not permitted to travel because of Covid restrictions.

Article continues below

It is hardly surprising that UK politicians like the Prime Minister Boris Johnson – who have been so keen to piggyback on the success of a hugely likeable bunch of players and coaches they have regularly found themselves at odds with politically – resisted all calls to give up the semi-finals and final at Wembley, despite the rapid rise of the Delta variant in England recent weeks.

The Three Lions have also benefited from some good fortune – Spain’s failure to top their group, which was confirmed only by Sweden's last-minute winner against Poland, completely unbalanced the draw, leaving England with an easier path to the final than they could ever have imagined – but, as always, it's best just to ignore the conspiracy theories.

Southgate's team have have simply capitalised superbly on each and every opportunity that presented itself, just as Sterling did with Maehle’s clumsy challenge.