A heartbreaking defeat for England was a victory of sorts for the BBC as a peak audience of over 23 million watched the national side lose in a penalty shoot-out to quarter-final opponents Italy last night, according to overnight figures.
23.2 million viewers, a 77 per cent share (and almost half the population of England), saw Ashley Cole hit a final tame penalty into the hands of Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon, crushing English hopes of a major trophy for another two years.
Between kick-off at 7:45pm and the end of the shoot-out at 10:20pm, an average of 20.3 million viewers (a 68 per cent audience share) were tuned to BBC1 and BBC1HD, while Match of the Day’s coverage as a whole, from 7pm to 10:45pm, was seen by 17.4 million (62 per cent).
It was, quite predictably, the most watched fixture of the tournament so far, beating the live match average of 16.1 million for England's final group game against Ukraine on ITV1, as well as 14.1 million for the Sweden match on BBC1, and 12.3 million for the opener against France on ITV1.
Sunday night's viewing figures, showing in a prime time slot, also significantly outstripped averages for the last major live TV event broadcast by the BBC, the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton in April 2011.
The mammoth audience was a pay-off for the BBC’s decision to gamble on England qualifying for the knock-out stages of Euro 2012. ITV chose to televise two of England's three group games, while the BBC had exclusive rights to show both the quarter-final and semi-final matches should England progress.
And despite last night's defeat, the total of 34 million viewers averaged by BBC1 across their two live games was significantly better than ITV1's 28 million.