It is a fixture rich in history, controversy, tears and trauma and at 5pm on Tuesday will cause a nation to stop and brace themselves to go through it all over again. England v Germany is upon us and, make no mistake, it matters.
Hence the nerves that have been shredded since last Wednesday, when Germany’s 2-2 draw with Hungary in Munich confirmed them as England’s opponents in the last-16 of the European Championship. Joachim Löw’s side are far from the force that won the World Cup seven years ago but they are still Germany and for a generation of England fans that automatically leads to a sense of dread.
Memories return to the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup, the night Paul Gascoigne wept and, ultimately, so did his country after losing to what was then West Germany on penalties. Then came Euro 96 and another semi-final defeat on penalties to the same opponents. And this one really hurt given it took place at Wembley and cut short a truly glorious English summer. The sun shone, Three Lions played endlessly and it was definitely coming home … until it wasn’t.
As omens go it hardly helps that Tuesday’s encounter also takes place at Wembley and that England’s manager is Gareth Southgate, whose failed penalty in the 1996 shootout precipitated the national team’s heartbreaking loss. But going into the game there are reasons for England fans, players and staff to feel positive. First because for all the bad memories, Germany at Wembley is also the basis for the greatest moment in English football history – victory in the 1966 World Cup final. More pertinent, England have a genuine chance of winning.
Southgate’s side have been less than sparkling at Euro 2020 but they have been strong, winning two and drawing one of their three group matches and conceding no goals in the process. They are the only team at the tournament to maintain a perfect defensive record and, if anything, should be stronger in that department given the return to fitness of Harry Maguire. The Manchester United centre-back missed the win against Croatia and the draw with Scotland due to injury but played in the victory over Czech Republic last Tuesday and looked up to speed, making him a certainty to start against Germany.
Partly that is because of Maguire’s ability to get England on the front foot, which they undeniably need to be better at. Only two goals were scored in the group stage, with both coming from the same player – Raheem Sterling. Meanwhile the captain and leading goal threat, Harry Kane, has been a largely peripheral figure. Southgate bristled when it was put to him at the weekend that England have been overly cautious but there is no denying that he has failed to get the maximum out of England’s rich attacking talents and there would be no better time for the 50-year-old to change that than on Tuesday, especially given Germany’s vulnerabilities.
Die Mannschaft have conceded five goals and not kept a single clean sheet at Euro 2020. They also came incredibly close to losing to Hungary on home soil, a result that would have been a huge shock and meant their elimination at the group stage. Quite simply the authority of old has been replaced by something bordering on full-on chaos, which has been the case for some time and lies at the heart of Löw’s decision to step down as Germany manager at the end of the tournament, having been in the post since 2006. That moment could come this week should England be positive and take advantage of a team in decline.
What should help England’s cause is the presence of 40,000 spectators at Wembley. That is a sizeable rise from the 25,000-strong crowds they played in front of in each of their group games and comes as part of the government’s latest round of test event pilots, announced earlier this month and remaining in place despite the delay to the final easing of Covid restrictions. All but 2,000 of those in attendance will be English (travel restrictions means Germany’s fans will be entirely UK-based), ensuring backing for the hosts is likely to be as fulsome as it is deafening.
It would be foolish to write off Germany given their propensity for delivering in tournaments and, in that regard, it is important to remember that while for England this fixture is significant given its association with incredible highs, crushing lows, and, regrettably, references to the war that refuse to fade away, for their opponents it is largely just another game, allowing Germany to remain cool in the heat of battle.
“We have been erratic, but we know we can be strong if we get a few things right on the pitch,” said Löw. “It’s going to be a completely different type of match against England.”
Germany will be ready and England need to be so too, focusing on a victory that will take them into the quarter-finals and strengthen their chances of reaching the final, at Wembley, on 11 July. Equally, however, they need to embrace the magnitude of the occasion and recognise that a win will transform them into national heroes. Yes, it matters that much. And it could go to penalties.
“I don’t think this game is bigger than the Scotland game or the Croatia game in the first game in the tournament,” said Southgate on Monday, shortly after it was announced that Kane, alongside Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, will wear a rainbow captain’s armband at Wembley to mark the end of Pride month. “But it’s a top-quality opponent that we’re playing and, of course, a lot of history’s involved in the fixture.”