A disconsolate Gareth Southgate was climbing a flight of stairs at Wembley when he heard a familiar voice calling his name. John Major was chasing after him. “You mustn’t blame yourself for this,” the Prime Minister said. “You will feel terrible for a while but it’s not your fault.”
It summed up how his life had changed. Seven months earlier, Southgate had never played international football. Then came a moment that would define both his career and his life. England and Germany were level after 120 minutes and after five penalties apiece. Up stepped Southgate, the man who felt too polite to say no. Andreas Kopke saved his spot kick, Andreas Moller scored his, Germany advanced to the final and the man who ended Euro ’96 holding the trophy and singing “football’s coming home” was Jurgen Klinsmann.
It is inescapable at the best of times, but especially now. Saturday is a quarter of a century to the day to that seminal semi-final. Euro 2020 is the first major tournament since then where Wembley has been among the host grounds. There has been a cathartic element to Southgate’s management of his country, taking England, in the World Cup, to a first semi-final since 1996, using meticulous preparation to win a first penalty shootout since the Euro ’96 quarter-final, when he was not needed to take a spot kick. Twenty-five years ago, his Aston Villa teammate Andy Townsend tried to console Southgate by listing the great players who had missed penalties in shootouts; Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio, Zico. Perhaps a footballing life will come full circle if his lesser England players beat Germany on penalties.
Or, indeed, if they beat Germany at all. The sight of Joachim Low's team trailing to Hungary in Munich on Wednesday may have prompted thoughts of the time a Michael Owen-inspired England beat Germany 5-1 at the Olympiastadion. Southgate was an unused substitute when England defeated Germany in the Euro 2000 group stages.
Yet the fact remains that Germany have prevailed in every knockout tie between them since the 1966 World Cup final. England produced outstanding performances in semi-finals in 1990 and 1996 but Germany won on penalties. England surged into a 2-0 lead in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final but West Germany ended their run as holders and Bobby Charlton’s international career. They drew 0-0 in the second group stage in 1982 but the Germans went on to reach the final. In 2010, Germany’s youthful side put the final nail in the coffin of England’s supposedly golden generation.
Fabio Capello was out-thought and his team were out-passed and outclassed in a 4-1 evisceration. Mesut Ozil exposed the failures of England’s historic reliance on 4-4-2. A youthful Thomas Muller scored his second and third international goals. England had a hard-luck story with a historic echo: a Frank Lampard shot struck the bar, rebounded over the line and back out again. Unlike Geoff Hurst’s second in the 1966 World Cup final, the goal was not given.
This could be portrayed as one of the great rivalries of international football, but results when it has mattered most since 1966 suggest it is instead one of the more one-sided. Since then, Germany have had more competitive rivalries with Italy, Argentina, France and Netherlands. England’s fixation with 1966 stems in part from the fact there has been no sequel during a time when Germany have won three World Cups and two European Championships.
For England, there have been horrible illustrations of how distant the days of 1966 are. They lost Gordon Banks and Martin Peters in 2019, Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles in 2020. Only four of their World Cup-winning side are still with us and Bobby Charlton has been diagnosed with dementia. The teams of 1990 and 1996 have taken their place as the visible reminders of the past, even though each found their ambitions frustrated by German obduracy and excellence from 12 yards.
Southgate has become English football’s most eloquent ambassador, redefining patriotism without jingoistic references to world wars, but the statesman has to be a footballing strategist now. He could end Low’s long reign; given the draw thereafter there is the chance to take England to the sort of occasions that they rarely experience, but which Germany often do.