In Charleroi and England, fans trudged home amid the tears and utter emptiness of defeat

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The Independent Online

In the end they went quietly. After two weeks in which they had gained a well-deserved reputation for loud, raucous, even yobbish behaviour, England's fans were silenced last night by something beyond their control. When it was all done there was really little they could say.

In the end they went quietly. After two weeks in which they had gained a well-deserved reputation for loud, raucous, even yobbish behaviour, England's fans were silenced last night by something beyond their control. When it was all done there was really little they could say.

Some might have expected the opposite - presuming that the defeat that saw their team eliminated from Euro 2000 without having even reached the second stage would have sent the England fans on the rampage.

Given the excruciatingly painful manner of the defeat - by conceding a penalty in the 88th minute - it is a fair bet that many a Brussels bar-owner watching the game on television would have shut up early. But in the same way that victory brings euphoria, so defeat brings a sense of utter emptiness and exhaustion.

As the Swiss referee Urs Meir blew the final whistle last night, ending England's dreams of international glory at least until the World Cup of 2002, many of the team's fans stayed in their seats at the Charleroi's stadium, apparently unable to move.

It was exactly the same at St Etienne during France 98 when England lost to Argentina. There, as with last night, there was nothing they could say or do that could adequately explain. You either understood or you did not.

But one thing most England supporters from the coach downwards could agree on last night - and it came with a honesty that might surprise some people - was that their team did not deserve to win. They had been outplayed and outfought - and the more creative, skilful team had gone through.

But the fans who had just seen defeat snatched from the jaws of a kind of victory did not need Kevin Keegan or anyone else to feel sorry for them - they could do that for themselves.

Just outside the ground, and just minutes after the England coach had been giving his post-mortem examination, a group of fans were starting their long journey home, their Dutch and Belgian adventure over.

"Absolutely speechless - that is how I feel. Why did he change the format? I thought we had a draw," said Paul, 30, a plumber from Manchester.

"We had no passion, they had more passion than us. They wanted it more."

His friend Gary, 36, a security guard, also from Manchester, was more succinct. "I thought that we were shit. We did not deserve to win.

"I just feel so deflated. This has cost us hundreds of pounds, hundreds, and it is all ended in just a couple of minutes. There are some veryserious questions that needto be asked about English football."

Another friend, Steve, 33, a civil servant from Birmingham, had been among those at St Etienne two years ago when England lost on penalties. "I feel the same as I did then,"he said. "I just feel deflated by it. Empty."

Another group was also heading back to Brussels before the starting the journey back to England later today. "I have to say I am glad to be going home," said John Sullivan, 38, from Manchester.

"We have been here 10 days and we have been treatedlike scum. People might think there will be trouble tonight but everyone just feels gutted by all of this."

His friend Joe Jones, 19, from Liverpool, thought England's performance had been disastrous. "Right up until the end I thought we had done enough to get the draw and go through. I can't believe that this has happened."

Mick, 29, from Liverpool, said he and five friends had spent £3,000 on the trip to watch Euro 2000, but now they would be calling it a day. "I have had my missus in the phone saying 'Great you are coming home' but I don't want to go home."

In England, the sense of despair in defeat was mirrored among the thousands of people who packed pubs and bars to watch the game as the nation came to a near standstill. In Birmingham, hundreds of people packed O'Neill's pub in Moseley, where Scott Vessey, an IT trainer, said: "I'm gutted. I've waited for 28 years for English success and I'm still waiting.

"Everyone here's depressed as hell. Phil Neville should have his passport confiscated and not be allowed to leave the country."

In the Bohemia bar in Bristol, the assistant manager, Richard Barker, said: "The penalty was taken and put in and the scene was one of complete devastation.

"People were crying, men were crying and smashing glasses, and the crowd just melted away, people floated out. It was complete and utter devastation."

In Charleroi late last night, fans began the long haul home by heading for the railway station to take them to the Channel ports. In the dark streets that led down from the stadium dejected groups all wearing the colours of England were tramping slowly down the hill. One group stopped for a chat with some Belgians who wanted to joke, but no one could be really bothered.

In the central square, where just hours earlier scores of fans had been preparing for the match by drinking beer and singing in the sweltering sunshine, they were just now standing around amid the piles of plastic cups and old newspapers.

One group was being interviewed by a polite crew from a Japanese television station. They did their best to try to explain the depth of feeling, the level of disappointment, but to be honest they struggled.

And what could you expect? After you had just paid money to sit and watch the team you love do what they had done, what was there left to say?

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