English focus shifts off Euro 2012 to Wimbledon with deflating defeat
Death. Taxes. England crashing out of a major tournament on penalties.
Inevitabilities each, but only until they actually happen, as did the latter Sunday courtesy of Italy in the quarterfinals of the European Championships.
Here in Wimbledon Village, less than a five-minute walk from the All England Lawn Tennis Club where the world's oldest and most illustrious tennis tournament begins Monday morning, more than 120 fans gathered to watch England's latest capitulation at the Dog & Fox, the self-styled landmark pub in the center of town.
Most of the standing-room-only crowd filed quietly outside into the dim azure of heartbreak immediately after Alessandro Diamanti slotted home the game-winning penalty kick, which sent England packing after 120 scoreless minutes in Kiev. Yet an exclusive but spirited party raged in Carluccio's, a near-empty Italian restaurant two doors down, where the hostess and wait staff pirouetted with one another between chants of "Italia!" while a handful of customers joined in.
Stephano Paolini, a 29-year-old busboy, shouted obliviously from the doorstep of the cafe as gaggles of despondent English fans quietly processed by on High Street, managing to further elevate his enthusiasm for a white Volkswagen Beetle that zipped past with a back-seat passenger raising an Italian flag and screaming in Italian. Paolini said he'd been unable to watch the match on TV due to work, though a radio downstairs in the kitchen relayed steady updates of Italy's domination -- 35 shots compared to England's nine -- until the ultimate spot-kick triumph after extra time.
Joe Zappulla, 43, an Italian-American from Hackettstown, N.J., and longtime soccer fan, is in town for the tennis. He'd started watching the match at the nearby Rose and Crown pub but realized during halftime that he "needed to eat something." After spending most of the second half working on a plate of rigatoni pomodoro in Carluccio's, he overheard the match had gone to penalties. That's when he ran down the street to watch the dramatic finish at the overflowing Dog & Fox.
"I gave the nice lady here my credit card and told her I'd be back," he said afterward, finishing his pasta with an ear-to-ear grin while celebrating a victory that sent Italy through to a semifinal date with Germany on Wednesday.
The many English fans in town for the tennis, from near and far, were far more disappointed.
Tim Watkins, 28-year-old banker from Somerset, had lined up for tennis tickets at 11 a.m. Sunday and was issued a pass that will ensure admission to Centre Court on Monday -- provided he queues up at 6 a.m. to collect. It's Watkins' second visit to Wimbledon, and he's excited to see Novak Djokovic open the tournament on the sport's most hallowed court, as is tradition for the tournament's defending champion, though he's a firm Andy Murray supporter.
Crestfallen following the defeat -- England's sixth in seven major-tournament matches from the dreaded penalty spot -- Watkins mustered a shred of optimism.
"It was more exciting than I thought it would be, but same as always," he said, voice trailing off. "Same as always."
The English supporters' famous cynicism was palpable throughout Sunday's match at the Dog & Fox. The national side entered just three wins from a European title, yet it might as well have been 30. Wayne Rooney was a "granny shagger" as he held the ball, probing the stout Azzurri defense. Ashley Cole was a "useless a--hole," seconds before a golden scoring chance.
"They are s--t," one cried.
"They aren't s--t, they're just very young," responded another.
No matter. When talismanic midfielder Steven Gerrard mishit a free kick in the 74th, a girl at a table near the front of the room slammed her Rooney mask with such force that it broke a pint glass. ("That's the first violent thing I've done all night," she said, almost bashfully.) As the sides prepared for the decisive shootout, an informal poll of the seven England fans in my immediate periphery unanimously tipped the Italians to prevail.
Alas, they did, reverse jinx notwithstanding.
With England homeward bound, the national sporting consciousness now turns to Murray, the great British hope to end the country's 76-year streak without a men's Grand Slam title. Yet after Sunday's heartbreak, Watkins' jingoism is all tapped out.
"No chance," he muttered of Murray's odds, before turning out the door.