But perhaps the biggest smiles out here last night were on the faces of everyone in the Germany camp, as they watched two sides run each other into the ground, less than four days before they welcome the winners to Warsaw for their semi-final.
Italy have made it through, but Germany will now be the outstanding favourites — if they weren’t already — after this exhausting battle of wills over 120 minutes of compelling combat which finished in the early hours of Monday morning in Kiev.
England did well to make it to the last eight, then take it to extra-time and a shoot-out, but they were totally outplayed by an Italy side orchestrated by Andrea Pirlo before the two Ashleys, Cole and Young, failed with spot-kicks.
So much for a cagey game between two defence-minded teams — this was attacking football from the start. Italy nearly took the lead with a stunning shot when Daniele De Rossi struck a post with less than three minutes on the clock. Hart was well and truly beaten as the Italian’s swirling shot thudded against his right-hand post.
That was a bit of class from Italy, but England could and should have done better only two minutes later when James Milner played in Glen Johnson from the right. The Liverpool defender found himself in space on the edge of the six-yard box but the ball got stuck under his feet and his scooped shot was well saved by Gigi Buffon.
This was no tactical chess match for the so-called purist, but a match between two sides keen to get forward and score. And although England looked the better side at the start, they were ultimately completely outplayed by Italy.
Buffon’s early exasperation with his terrorised team-mates was entertainment itself and his cajoling seemed to have an impact, as Italy’s ability to retain the ball eventually led to a couple more chances down the other end and Andrea Pirlo began to show some of his world-class passing ability from midfield.
His ball over the top to Mario Balotelli, one of three new faces in Italy’s starting line-up from the side that beat Ireland, was a peach and seemed to have the England defenders flat-footed. But to the surprise of many England followers, and Balotelli, it was the ageing legs of John Terry that reacted quickest and the Chelsea defender scrambled back to block the Manchester City forward’s shot with only Hart to beat.
England were beginning to look like a side that would be happy to hear the half-time whistle still on level terms. They were fortunate to escape five minutes before the break, when Pirlo’s classy chip to the far post was headed down by Antonio Cassano towards Balotelli and Joleon Lescott cleared with a desperate last-gasp lunge.
Pirlo and Italy should have put the game beyond England ’s reach within six minutes of the restart. De Rossi was the main Italian culprit as he missed the target with a volley from only a few yards out, then Hart began to live a really charmed life as the chances rained in around him and he saved from De Rossi and Balotelli before Montolivo shot over the bar, under pressure from Johnson.
England’s only hope was that Italy would pay for their profligacy and had missed what might prove to be their best opportunities.
Hodgson was not prepared to take that chance, though, and he made a double substitution on the hour, sending on Theo Walcott and Andy Carroll for Milner and Welbeck.
The switch did the trick in that it appeared to break Italy’s rhythm for a while and the two new boys even conjured a rare attack, which ended with a good chance for Ashley Young, which he wasted. The fact that was only England’s sixth shot compared to Italy’s 16th told a story, but football being what it is, this remained either side’s game.
There was still time for one more England attack, though, as Rooney ended a good move with a hopeful bicycle kick over the bar.
It was nearly a freak goal that settled it as Diamanti’s cross from the right deceived Hart and clipped a post.
Nocerino then had the ball in the back of the net with six minutes to go but he was flagged for offside as he headed in.
And that was about it before Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca blew his whistle to signal it was time for penalties.
It started with the coolest of finishes from Mario Balotelli and then Gerrard. Riccardo Montolivo then dragged a shot wide before Rooney and Pirlo, with an outrageous chip, scored. Ashley Young then clattered the crossbar to make it 2-2 and complete a miserable tournament for him. Nocerino made it 3-2 and Ashley Cole had his effort easily saved.
And it all came down to former West Ham man Diamanti, who sent Hart the wrong way.
Cue tears for England, but celebrations in Italy — and Germany.
England subs: Walcott for Milner (60); Carroll for Welbeck (60); Henderson for Parker.
Italy subs: Maggio for Abate (90); Diamanti for Cassano (79); Mocerino for De Rossi (80)
Referee: Pedro Proenca (Portugal).