Too often in the past, England versus Germany (or West Germany) matches have been about two talented teams, but only one mentally strong one. England are favourites for tonight’s European Championship last-16 tie at Wembley and Gareth Southgate wants his players to seize the opportunities it offers, not fear the consequences of defeat.
There are demons aplenty when England face the team of whom Gary Lineker once said: “Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win”. That could be particularly true for a manager who missed in the semi-final penalty shoot-out when the sides last met in a European Championship at Wembley but he is determined to banish such negativity.
The Three Lions have the added burden of only having come through one knockout tie in the tournament’s history and they did not even win that game, sneaking past Spain on penalties after a 0-0 draw at Euro 96.
An ignorance of history could help an England side whose oldest member, Sheffield-born Kyle Walker, was less than two months old when Lineker made his quip after the 1990 World Cup semi-final penalty shoot-out defeat. Southgate manages a team which at the last World Cup won a shoot-out on its only other overseas semi-final.
Captain Harry Kane was fully on message last night, speaking of his determination to use past disappointments as a motivation.
“In previous eras we’ve always talked about the past – teams, records, baggage and everything else but there’s no reason for this team to feel this way,” insisted Southgate, who has difficult selection decisions to make because of the depth of his squad and Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell’s Covid-19 isolations. “Most weren’t born when a lot of those games happened so it’s an irrelevance to them.
“It’s a fantastic game to be involved in and a real opportunity to progress to the quarter-final.
“You can make these things as big in your head as you want.
“We’ve got to trust in the way we prepare, transferring what we do in training into the game, and focus on the things we can control. Everything outside of it brings motivation but it’s a game of football and an opportunity to get to a quarter-final. That’s what we’re focusing on.”
Inevitably, two world wars ensured the initial rivalry between the nations went beyond football, and was still fresh when they first met competitively, at the 1966 World Cup final. Since England’s win that day, German teams have come from a seemingly hopeless position to knock them out of the 1970 World Cup in extra-time, on penalties in the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championship, knocked them out of the 2010 World Cup when Frank Lampard had a goal with shades of 1966 incorrectly ruled out, and even won the last game at the old Wembley. England won a memorable World Cup qualifier 5-1 in Munich in 2001 but it summed up the rivalry that Germany progressed anyway, and reached the final.
Unconvincing in the group stages, Germany’s is not a team to be feared as it was in the last decade but the point of 2001 is that historically they have the ability to make that irrelevant. Southgate’s point is that history has nothing to do with it.
England’s Euro 2020 has already thrown up some remarkable plot lines: starting against the Croatia team that knocked them out of the last World Cup semi-finals, resuming international football’s oldest rivalry against Scotland, then facing a Czech Republic side who were the only team to beat them in an otherwise perfect qualifying campaign. The last-16 performances of the Czechs and Croatia underlined what a difficult group it was to win without conceding a goal.
Win tonight and they ought to be favourites again to beat Sweden or Ukraine in Rome on Saturday.
“Every time you pull an England shirt on you have the opportunity to score a goal that will be shown forever or to create a bit of skill or be involved in a match that lives in the memory,” argued Southgate. “That’s the beauty of playing for your country.”
England’s last knockout tie in a European Championship was the notorious 2-1 defeat to Iceland in 2016. Kane is only one of four survivors, with Walker, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford.
“Sometimes games like that give you more motivation to be successful and you can learn from experiences like that,” said Kane. “I did for sure.
“It’s different circumstances. We’re playing a massive team in Germany but it’s a game to look forward to. We feel confident, we’ve had a good start to the tournament.
“There are areas we can improve for sure but hopefully we can take that into the game.”