LONDON - Hundreds of jubilant England fans descended on Wembley Stadium early Sunday singing songs, drinking beer and savouring the atmosphere as the country competes in its first major football tournament final in over half a century.
Supporters draped in red and white flags congregated along the famous approach to the stadium, Wembley Way, downing pints of beer and chanting an array of England anthems as excitement built many hours before the 9pm (SA time) kickoff.
Nearby on the streets of northwest London, cars blared their horns as the smell of fried meat from street vendors wafted through the air.
"I want my son to experience the atmosphere -- we'll be the envy of the nation," said Mark Bennett, 40, who owns a restaurant in southwest England and forked out £2,700 ($3,800, 3,120 euros) on two tickets for the historic final against Italy.
"I am fortunate enough to be able to afford it -- it was not something I wanted to miss," he told AFP.
The England team -- nicknamed the Three Lions -- have not won a major competition since the 1966 World Cup, and ending the 55-year wait would represent a cathartic moment for the nation.
"It would mean everything to me, it's what you dream of. This is the biggest day I will ever have in football," said Bennett.
"My son will have a day off school tomorrow. We will go to Trafalgar Square to soak up the atmosphere."
'Back to Rome'?
Victory would be particularly special for Wembley-raised George Gristwood, who celebrates his 91st birthday Monday and remembers England's 1966 triumph.
"I've been to more England international matches than any England supporter. I’ve never missed a match," he said.
"The FA (English football's governing body) says they don't know anyone older than me that still goes (to games)," Gristwood added, noting he had visited at least 18 countries -- spanning most of Europe -- following the team.
Eugenio Copelli, 63, a railway worker from north London, was one of the outnumbered Italian fans who had made the early pilgrimage to Wembley.
"I'm not nervous today because I do believe we are going to win it. It is going back to Rome," he told AFP.
"I hope they both stay true to their styles of football. Even if we lose, if they give 100 percent I will still be proud of the boys... just as long as it's a good game."
Copelli had not bagged a ticket to the big game and would instead be watching with friends on a big screen elsewhere.
"We will be drowning our sorrows in coffee or drinking champagne," he added.
Although Italy's rich footballing history has seen them win the World Cup four times, the Italians have not won the European Championships since 1968.
"It would mean a lot... to win on English soil is a lot sweeter and would be amazing," Copelli said.
'Everything is closed'
However, concerns about a rise in coronavirus infections and disruption to local life have irked some local residents not so hooked by the football.
"When there are so many people, a lot drunk, it is very difficult for us," said housewife Anna Bodo, 29, who lives a five-minute walk away from the stadium with her two-year-old daughter.
"Everything is closed and we have to stay in our garden because if you go here there is always a mess. It's a bit dangerous, there's a lot of broken glass and bottles.
"I'm happy it will be over soon!”
Beyond Wembley, expectant England supporters will also converge on fan zones and pubs, bars, restaurants and clubs in towns and cities across the country as the country comes to a temporary standstill at 8pm.
Pictures posted on social media showed long lines of people queuing to get into pubs as early as Sunday morning.
Around 1,500 people who won tickets via a ballot are expected to watch the game on a big screen in Trafalgar Square in central London, where scenes of utter jubilation unfolded after the team's semi-final win Wednesday against Denmark.