Only the most deluded England fan will tell you that their team can win the World Cup these days. This is as it should be.
But there have been times when hope sprang eternal. Or at least cyclical – build up hope and hype for four years, watch it all come to nothing and then rinse and repeat.
And one particularly crazy night in September 2001 made all that hype seem, well, reasonable.
Germany 1 England 5…even now it seems improbable, ridiculous even. At the time, it was a seismic event for English – and German - football.
The game, on the evening of September 1, was a World Cup qualifier. Everything was stacked in the Germans’ favour. They led the group, had home advantage and were a settled, confident side.
England had beaten the Germans in a competitive fixture just the once since 1966. Okay, that had been only a year earlier, at Euro 2000, but the Germans had found time to exact their revenge when the two had met at Wembley later that same year.
Didi Hamman’s goal, in a 1-0 win, had been the last ever scored at the ‘old’ Wembley before it was closed for redevelopment. It was also the last goal Kevin Keegan saw as England coach – he resigned after the game.
In came England’s first ever foreign coach, the laid back Swede Sven Goran Eriksson. Initial results under Sven were, much like the man himself, rather underwhelming and England’s trip to Munich looked like being a fruitless one. The Germans, after all, had lost just one of 60 previous qualification matches and hadn’t lost in Munich for 28 years.
A victory for the hosts would win them the group with two games to play. They were confident enough of this outcome to have already arranged friendly fixtures for the second place play-off dates.
There’s a word for that kind of behaviour, and the word is ‘hubris’.
After six minutes of the Munich game, the improbably ugly German forward Carsten Jancker scored. Hubris was sidling out of the door, dragging England’s hopes along with it.
But it took just six more minutes for England to haul themselves, and hubris, back into the equation.
A David Beckham free kick was repelled and the Germans rushed out to play offside. As the ball was put back into the area, Nick Barmby beat the offisde trap and was one-on-one with the German keeper Oliver Kahn. Instead of trying to beat him, Barmby outwitted him, cushioning a header back to Michael Owen who stroked the ball into the unguarded net.
England were level. As half-time approached, they owed their keeper, David Seaman, big time for keeping it that way, the Arsenal stopper reacting brilliantly to keep out Sebastian Deisler’s low shot.
And then England scored again, Steven Gerrard hitting a sweet half volley from the edge of the box that Kahn could barely see, let alone save, through the crowded penalty area.
Germany 1 England 2 at half-time. The backlash was going to come after the break. The English, the Germans, everyone knew it. It was simply a matter of when, not if, the goals would come.
We had to wait until the 49th minute to be proved correct, Except there was one key element wrong in all of it – it was England, not Germany, who scored.
Beckham threw a cross into the German box, Emile Heskey nodded it down to Owen and the Liverpool man did the rest.
1-3!!! 1-3???? This shouldn’t have been happening.
But wait…there was more.
As Germany poured forward looking for a way back into the game, so their lumbering centre halves were left increasingly isolated and struggling to contain the pace of Owen. And in the 66th minute, Gerrard released his Liverpool colleague, who sprinted clear of the defence and calmly beat Kahn.
4-1 to England, a hat-trick for Owen, it wasn’t going to get any better than that.
Wrong. 73 minutes gone and Rio Ferdinand wins the ball. He gives it to Paul Scholes, who plays a one-two with Beckham before releasing Heskey. The often-derided (often deservedly) Liverpool striker strode into the box and slipped the ball past Kahn.
The game fizzled out after that, England defending, the Germans huffing and puffing, the crowd leaving in droves.
The post-match stats put things into perspective. England scored five goals from just six shots on target and from a mere 39% of possession. This was a classic smash and grab raid, a triumph of counter-attacking football, deadly finishing and everything falling beautifully into place.
It destroyed German confidence while lifting English self-belief and it would be the Germans, with their dear friend hubris now in full lederhosen, who would end up having to make the 2002 World Cup finals via the play-offs.
England, suddenly in possession of a ‘golden generation’ of players, became serious contenders for the world crown. They reached the quarter finals, as per, while the sorry old Germans made it all the way to the final.
And longer term, the Germans worked tirelessly to right the wrongs of that 1-5 humiliation, investing in youth and a more progressive style of play that would ultimately bring them the World Cup title in 2014.
England? Naaah. They rested on their laurels and failed to kick on and now, a decade or so on from that famous victory, they’re light years away from the Germans.
September 1, 2001 was a great day for English football. But it ushered in a terrible decade of hopes dashed and promise unfulfilled – a classic case of winning a battle but losing the war.
Still, it was great while it lasted. It just didn’t last very long.
We have a terrific selection genuine, memorabilia hand-signed by many of the players in action that day – and all UK orders come with FREE postage.