Out on the pitch though, it was all about statistics and probabilities. England needed seven, Holland needed to lose in Poland, the Beatles needed to reform in Liverpool and a large pig needed to request landing permission from Bologna air-traffic control. Still, all week, the BBC's trailers had been encouraging us 'to dream the impossible dream'. And tuning in, you were momentarily tempted to scrunch up your eyes and give it a go, until England got off to that flying stop. Before you could say 'San Marino have scored,' San Marino had scored.
How many seconds did it take? Fifteen? Ten? Eight? Estimates varied throughout the evening, depending on the stupefaction of the pundit. Barely time enough to trash the national anthem, anyway. Stuart Pearce's pathetic backpass (advice to youngsters: try to kick with the upper parts of the boot, rather than the studs) will go down as one of the great live television bloopers, fit to rank alongside the incontinent elephant from Blue Peter. Seen in slow-motion action-replay, it didn't look any slower - a first for televised sport.
Up in the commentary box, John Motson had barely finished putting away his programme. 'I don't believe this. Gualtieri. Extraordinary start by the little No 11. Goodness me, Trevor Brooking. What can you say?' 'You just can't cater for all your planning,' said Trevor Brooking, who, at this point, obviously couldn't be relied upon to say anything which made any sense.
Motson wandered dazed through the next 15 minutes, like a man who had sustained an enormous blow to the vocabulary. 'Speechless I suppose you can't be as a commentator.' Indeed. And sentences you can't start to turn around at moments of panic. Windows the grammar goes right out of the minute things get rough. Somewhat trickily for a commentator, here was an event beyond words: worse, here was an event beyond imagination itself - 'the sort of thing you wouldn't have even dared write in fiction,' Motson suggested. We thought we were dreaming the impossible dream, but suddenly we were living the impossible fact.
Eventually, something like coherent analysis became possible. Motson's assessments of the damage went up whenever he returned to it, the way a dodgy builder's do. Initially, the implications were merely domestic: 'The most embarrassing moment, I would think, in the history of English football.' Gradually, they assumed a European dimension: 'The rest of Europe will be as stunned as you are at home'. And finally, Motson bit the bullet and went global: 'To say that it was the shaker of all time in international football is not, I think, exaggerating.'
Meanwhile Brooking, who had also belatedly recovered the powers of consecutive thought, turned his mind to that fatal Pearce moment. 'It can happen at any time, to anyone,' he said, coming on like the presenter of a self-help film for a particularly intimate problem. ('Yes, back-passes: some people find them difficult to talk about, others find them difficult to do,' etc.)
Watching at home was a chilly experience. The cameras panned around a giant concrete bowl, lightly peppered with spectators and generating all the atmosphere of a warehouse for office products. For the first five minutes, there was an intermittent noise, rather like a buzz-saw cutting through the hull of a ship. 'That's the loudspeaker system here, which seems to have jammed,' said Motson. All in all, with Poland losing 3-1, and England pointlessly poking goals past an embarrassingly poor goalkeeper, it was a blessing when, after 70 minutes, we cut away to Wales for some football.
The BBC received more telephoned complaints about abandoning the national team in its hour of needless goal- scoring, than they did about the six-minute, four-person orgy sequence in this week's episode of The Buddha of Suburbia. There was something hearteningly un- prissy about this. At the same time, what incensed you more: not being able to watch a struggling Stuart Ripley, or the sight of Jemma Redgrave in an unconventional sweeper role?
It wouldn't have been a bad idea if we had spent the entire night in Cardiff, watching Wales fail agonisingly. Better still, we could have been in Windsor Park, Belfast, watching the Republic of Ireland go through. Cutting from Bologna to Cardiff Arms Park was like passing from a crematorium into a rave. We had been out there in the land of the impossible and the unimaginable when we could have spent the evening in the home of the thrillingly plausible.