This sense of disbelief had been equally evident among the Italian players after Saturday night's goalless draw which sent England to France and Italy to the play-offs. "We had expected less of England," admitted a limping Paolo Maldini. "They played differently."
Given that Le Tournoi in the summer had highlighted England's steady progress under Glenn Hoddle, and Manchester United overran Juventus 10 days before the World Cup showdown, the Italians should have know better. But reputations, as the fans found out, are hard to shake off, and it seems Italy still believed English football was based on "palla lunga e pedalare".
No longer. Discipline and composure were England's watchwords as they produced a performance to cherish on a tense night in the Stadio Olimpico. It was rarely pretty and only seriously threatened a goal on three occasions but it was just what was required in the circumstances. Italy, who needed to score, were reduced to a similar poverty of opportunity as they were were caught in a web they have so often spun themselves.
There was further irony in the identity of England's key weavers, - Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne - both of whom showed the benefits of their period in the Serie A finishing school. Ince was an elemental force, but a careful one keeping his feet on the ground and his tongue still. The bloody cut he received from Demetrio Albertini's elbow (careless rather than vicious) seemed to inspire rather than inhibit him.
Gascoigne, while still prone to moments of rashness in the tackle and visibly tiring by the end, justified the decisions of both Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle to persevere with him. It has taken a while but he has begun to absorb their teachings, modifying his game and his approach to it with a view to maximising his still- wonderful natural talent. There were moments in the first half when his skill and panache lifted those around him, reminding them that England had a magician with the ball to match any Italian.
After some early worries, when only Tony Adams's experience held England together at the back, the central midfield of Ince, Gascoigne and David Batty established a control they rarely relinquished. They were helped by the early departure of Maldini, who was looking threatening when he appeared to sustain a leg injury falling while attempting to tackle Ince.
With Maldini gone David Beckham, who was struggling to shackle the great attacking defender, was able to push forward and be an influence himself. No wonder Glenn Hoddle had to correct himself later when he talked of a "victory". "It feels like we've won," he added with a grin.
Had Ian Wright, three minutes into second-half injury-time, scored rather than hit the post, England would have gained the victory they deserved. But, equally, had Christian Vieri finished like a pounds 12m striker a minute later England would now be contemplating the play-offs.
It was that tight and, afterwards, Cesare Maldini, the Italian manager, criticised a system in which his team had finished unbeaten and won at Wembley but only came second. Since Alexander Curteanu's goal in the 11th minute of their first match in Moldova Italy have gone 709 minutes without conceding another but, for all their attacking talent it is also more than three hours since they last scored one.
Of the 18 top-two finishers, only Hungary and the Ukraine have scored fewer goals. Three points for a win was designed to punish such a lack of attacking ambition and England, the originators, were rewarded for their foresight on Saturday. Italy ought still to progress but they will be keen to avoid Croatia, Russia or Yugoslavia in the play-offs.
England need not worry about this football repechage, except for the dozen Premiership, and several Football League managers with players involved. They can now turn their full attention to next summer.
"To an extent the hard work starts here," said Hoddle as Saturday night turned to Sunday morning in the stadium's bowels. "My standards are much higher than just qualifying. We are not the finished article by any means when it comes to what is required to take on Brazil and Germany.
"We have come close to what I want in some of the qualifying matches. At times we passed very well tonight. We did everything we attempted to do here apart from put pressure on them with an early goal. We needed to be strong and keep 11 men on the pitch."
Hoddle confirmed that, among his plans may be trying Rio Ferdinand or the recovering Jamie Redknapp (now playing for Liverpool reserves) as a sweeper. His first opportunity is likely to be against Portugal on 19 November. Hoddle will be looking for a mixture of opposition, both South American and European as well as less noted football areas as he prepares for France. Much depends on the draw (in Marseilles on 4 December), but a match in South Africa remains a possibility.
This has the added attraction of distance as, inevitably, security concerns will also influence fixtures. A trip to Dublin, for example, is unlikely, as are ones to the Netherlands and Germany.
This is partly because of proximity but also because the latter two countries also have a significant hooligan element. Saturday's violence in the stadium was foreseeable but, unforgivably, largely preventable, poor ticket management at the Italian end allowing entry to 4,000 English supporters not in the carefully vetted England Travel Club. While they were partially sinned against, and some of the police reaction was brutal, it is clear that a significant number of these supporters were seeking confrontation.
It was a reminder that the Fooball Association will be as busy as Hoddle in preparing for next summer. Their task may be the harder as, apart from injuries, Hoddle has more control over his prospects.
If Alan Shearer is fit - Ian Wright, though keen and brave, was an unconvincing replacement - and Gascoigne, Ince, Adams and David Seaman stay fit, England will be serious contenders. On present form only Brazil, who have inflicted two of England's three defeats in 37 games and four years, need be feared.
ITALY (3-4-1-2): Peruzzi (Juventus); Cannavaro (Parma), Costacurta (Milan), Nesta (Lazio); Di Livio (Juventus), Baggio (Parma), Albertini (Milan), Maldini (Milan); Zola (Chelsea); Vieri (Atletico Madrid), Inghazi (Juventus). Substitutes: Bennarivo (Parma) for Maldini, 31; Chiesa (Parma) for Inghazi (h/t); Del Piero (Juventus) for Zola, 63.
ENGLAND (3-5-1-1): Seaman (Arsenal); Campbell (Tottenham), Adams (Arsenal), Southgate (Aston Villa); Beckham (Manchester United), Batty (Newcastle), Ince (Liverpool), Gascoigne (Rangers), Le Saux (Chelsea); Sheringham (Manchester United); Wright (Arsenal). Substitute: Butt (Manchester United) for Gascoigne 87).
Referee: M van der Ende (Netherlands).
Bookings: Italy: Di Livio, Costacurta, Bennarivo, Albertini, Del Piero, Di Livio (second offence: sent off), Chiesa. England: Campbell, Gascoigne, Southgate.
Man of the match: Ince.Reuse content