England have been the annoying little brothers to Germany for so long. They can break out from that if they play the game, not the occasion.
England want it to be 1996 again, when the sun was hot and the pubs and stadiums were full. It was the perfect time to follow football for a generation. Out of the ashes of a national media witch-hunt which followed Terry Venables’ Three Lions squad home from an ill-fated trip to Hong Kong sprung burgeoning hope and connection, all in the name of the team hoping to make true on their soundtrack to the summer’s European Championships.
“It’s Coming Home” sang Skinner and Baddiel, with the sort of loveable self-deprecation which has become synonymous with English life beyond the sport. The game was already at home. England were the hosts and through games being played at Wembley against Switzerland, Scotland, Netherlands, Spain and Germany, the familiar sense of useless faith gradually subsided. Momentum built. Alan Shearer, having not scored an international goal for two years before the tournament, was well on his way to the Golden Boot, and Paul Gascoigne was the quite literal joker in the pack.
He was viewed as the main culprit from that drunken night in Hong Kong. His photo was splashed across the front page of a tabloid under the headline: ‘Disgracefool’. He scored that memorable goal against Scotland and celebrated by mimicking the dentist’s chair – the reason it all went so pear-shaped in the build-up initially – exorcising the demons. He missed the big chance with penalties looming against Germany at the semi-final stage before a nation fell in the cruellest of fashions to the eventual winners.
Almost everything revolved around Gazza that summer: he was the epicentre of what has become an incredibly well-polished narrative over the subsequent two-and-a-half decades.
Anchoring is natural, to an extent. England have only ever won one tournament and have not even reached another final. But making a tournament return to Wembley in this continent-wide Euros anniversary special has seen memories played and replayed for weeks. The players in that squad have appeared on TV and radio and in countless interviews. In this tournament specifically, things have never been better than they were then and at a time of political unrest, amid a debilitating health crisis, everybody just wants to feel good about themselves again. The fact that the summer ended in heartbreak is a detail that can be put to one side quite easily.
Narrative can weigh heavy. Round one came against Scotland last week; the build-up was peppered with images of Gazza’s goal, Uri Geller made mainstream TV appearances for the first time since he claimed to have helped England win the original meeting by making the ball move a second before Gary McAllister struck his penalty against David Seaman. It was about revenge for the Scots after that defeat ultimately paved the way for a group stage exit and, although they managed to clinch a goalless draw and claims of a moral victory soon followed, the spectacle was flat in comparison to Euro ’96. It was clear what a rivalry which means much more to one side than the other looks like, too.
So here we are again. England topped Group D and will now face Germany at Wembley in the last 16. Because of Group F, the ‘group of death’, which also included world champions France and current Euro holders Portugal, Gareth Southgate’s side were always going to face a difficult task coming out of the first stage. There were those plotting a simpler route by imploring England to finish below the Czech Republic, who face Netherlands in Budapest on Sunday. But this scenario means England will play all but one game at Wembley which, even in Covid times with reduced attendances, is a huge plus for those who make clear just how much the small advantages can matter in tournament football.
The impending arrival of Jogi Löw’s side on Tuesday evening will only spark the pre-game storyline into overdrive. It could be crushing; there are the mirrors of ’96, the same setting and the same jeopardy which only add to the one-sided rivalry. Germany’s incredible penalty record and the discourse which has always surrounded it in complete contrast to England’s will mean that the dread of the lottery will play on a lot of minds. Southgate was the man who missed the crucial kick in the semi-final 25 years ago and that will push the possibility of a deciding shootout even further into prominence.
It is all noise, pantomime, part of the game that can be fun but also quite distracting and harmful. Constantly referencing war, invasion and winning a battle with greater connotations than football has been commonplace in the media whenever Germany come up on the calendar, but nothing is served by that better than fuelling what seems to be a national inferiority complex. Germany, as a country, has regularly looked on at England as an annoying little brother who simultaneously tries to undermine and emulate them. But perhaps that is changing.
So often calm, professional, efficient and effective in tournaments, Löw’s side have been anything but so far. Their group-stage performance has been erratic and inconsistent, perfectly encapsulating the final three years of their coach’s reign before he leaves his post. They were flat and ordinary against France, sublime against Portugal and shaky against Hungary. England, despite criticism and complaints, have been steady, strong in defence and clinical enough in attack. Southgate may not always get it right with his selections, but he has studied nations like Germany and how they grow into tournaments.
There are players for Die Nationalmannschaft to fear, too. Raheem Sterling would win a race against any defender. Harry Kane will cause problems the moment he regains a semblance of form. And from an opposition perspective, it’ll be seen as an early victory if Borussia Dortmund pair Jadon Sancho or Jude Bellingham are not in the starting line-up.
England should and will be taken more seriously than ever by Germany. In many ways, this is the best chance of a win at this stage than can be hoped for. But as the old adage says, they must play the game and not the occasion.