As Italy solemnly reflected on their elimination in a circle on the pitch, the Belgians had a huddle of their own. The calm debrief quickly ended with a raucous chant and, appropriately, dancing to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.
It felt like it was 200F under the east Manchester sunshine as temperature records were broken across the country. Belgium created their own history as they reached the quarter- final of a major tournament for the first time in only their second European Championship thanks to Tine De Caigny’s pinpoint strike.
Goals were required as a 0-0 draw would guarantee both teams being eliminated from the competition regardless of the result between Iceland and France. Italy looked sloppy at the back under the baking Manchester sun in the opening stages. A loose ball from Elena Linari was collected by Elena Dhont who cut inside and found Hannah Eurlings but her curling shot went inches over the bar, much to the relief of the Italian backline.
It was 30C at 8pm when the match kicked off which might explain the slow nature of the play. A cooling break was required just before the half-hour mark, a time to hydrate and take on instruction.
Belgium looked the more threatening of the two teams but seemed intent on picking the wrong final pass on numerous occasions. Dhont positioned herself in space on the right for the midfield to find her but instead her colleagues decided to attempt to thread the ball through the eye of the needle, finding centre-backs rather than space as they did so. By the time the half-time whistle was blown neither goalkeeper had been tested, but at least they did not need to worry about keeping warm.
It took fewer than five minutes after the restart, potentially helped by the sun setting behind the Etihad Stadium across the road during half-time to make the temperature more respectable, for De Caigny to bring life to the game. The midfielder found herself in space inside the area after Italy failed to clear a free-kick and she picked her spot in the bottom corner.
Italy head coach Milena Bertolini had previously described this as a “European Championship of suffering” for her side and she will have felt greater pain as she witnessed Cristiana Girelli hit the bar and Valentina Giacinti’s shot, destined for the net, deflected wide as Italy lay siege to the Belgian goal before and after the second-half cooling break. It was not enough to keep them in the tournament as their opponents, especially goalkeeper Nicky Evrard, valiantly held on to book a daunting match against Sweden on Friday. The Belgium players were still celebrating with their fans in a corner of the ground 45 minutes after the final whistle. Planning for Sweden can wait.
“It was very difficult in the last 20 minutes but we stayed tactical like against France, so it is a great feeling to win this game,” Belgium’s Sari Kees said. “It’s an amazing feeling, it is history for Belgium thanks to a great team performance.”
After reaching the quarter-finals of the 2019 World Cup, Italy will feel deflated to have picked up a single point in England on their way to early elimination. “I think there were too many expectations,” Bertolini said.
“People at home thought this team should win the European Championships. They achieved something extraordinary at the World Cup. We are a mid-range team, not a top-class side.” She added: “I will take all the blame for this exit. I am in charge and in the firing line.”