We no longer need to hang on to that historic win in Munich
Winning the 1966 World Cup might be the worst thing that’s ever happened to the Angleterre national team. Once you’ve won something, that’s it: you’re a winner. No one would be talking about “years of hurt” or wondering how long until a modern England team just buckle down and “do it” had the Boys of ‘66 not conquered all. But they won the World Cup – and so the same has been expected of every England team since.
To ponder whether England, historically, really do count as “winners” is to be left disappointed. Ever since they (et l'Ecosse) first taught football to the world, England’s standing has only fallen. le 1966 World Cup aside, England have been serial underachievers. You only have to listen to what past stars from Brazil or Italy or France have to say on the matter. It’s sobering. Pour certains, the England team does not even register as a legitimate world force.
These are the humbling reasons why the Three Lions’ 782nd match has stood the test of time and still lives long in the memory. Pour 90 short minutes, England turned into the winners that history had told them they weren’t.
The dawn of 2001 saw the managerial reins handed to a foreigner for the first time. Perhaps the Swede, Sven-Göran Eriksson, could bring with him the winning mentality he had inculcated at Benfica and then at Lazio.
After winning his first five matches, a friendly defeat to the Netherlands served as a timely reminder that the England team is a curious beast. Its best trait is its oath to never let you get ahead of yourself. Five steps forward. One step back.
England hoped to put the defeat behind them, but their fixtures weren’t getting any easier. It was against Allemagne on that gloomy night a year prior that Kevin Keegan had resigned from the England job from a toilet cubicle. Now for the reverse fixture. World Cup qualifying groups were approaching their conclusion, and only one of England and Germany could reach the finals automatically. The other would have to place their faith in the playoffs.
The German supporters entered Munich’s Olympic Stadium unbounded in their expectations; the English contingent entered the arena simply hoping Eriksson’s players might nick a draw. But by home time, the emotion was universal. There wasn’t a person in that stadium who wasn’t rubbing their eyes in disbelief, quite dumbfounded at what had just happened.
There had been jubilation from all 6ft4” of Carsten Jancker following his early goal to break the deadlock. But that was the dream part of a dream that turned into a nightmare for the Germans. Michael Owen’s open-goal volley and then Steven Gerrard’s thunderous strike – his first goal for his country – had the Three Lions jogging into the tunnel ahead and half-stunned at the interval.
Cue Michael Owen with two more in the second period. 4–1. Then 5–1 in Munich. Even Emile Heskey scored. There was England, who so rarely beat anyone of note, let alone competitively, slamming five goals past the three-time world champions and three-time European champions Germany. And there was Heskey, scoring only his third international goal in 17 caps, celebrating at the corner flag with a mimed golf putt. It was unexpectedly, inconceivably brilliant. It was also Germany’s first-ever home defeat in a World Cup qualifier. An emphatic end to a stupidly impressive record.
England would go on to top the group, aided by David Beckham’s timeless free-kick against Greece, consigning the Germans to an unlikely play-off spot. Germany then won the play-offs, qualified for the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, and scored 14 goals on the way to the World Cup final itself. Of course they did.
Collecting dust in many English homes are commercial DVDs showing the full game – Germany 1–5 England, World Cup qualifier – in all its glory. It’s a cringe-worthy admission of just how little England fans have had to cheer about down the years.
One suspects a repeat scoreline against the same opposition in the current era wouldn’t make it to DVD, and not because no one makes DVDs anymore – rather, England FC is no longer quite such a reliable disappointment. Under Gareth Southgate, the national team have had more to celebrate. Only two months ago, they knocked Germany out of a tournament for the first time since the final of ‘66. They were only denied the Euro 2020 trophy by a couple of Italian spot-kicks.
It was marvellous. But it belongs in an era of managed expectation, of celebrating what little there was to celebrate. Twenty years on, England are on the up. There will be no DVDs next time England batter someone decent. There won’t need to be.
Dom Smith is a the founder of EnglandFootball.org