There have been times over the previous four or five days or so that this afternoon’s match between Germany and England has threatened to collapse under the weight of its own hubris. England, seemingly unable to wait for this afternoon to come around, has become a nation of tea leaf readers, swirling a cup which contains the history of the matches between the two nations in a desperate attempt to try and pre-determine what is going to happen. The coverage in the press has taken a turn for the weird. A Steven Gerrard press conference was the lead story for much of the press this morning, with the England captain being described in various organs as having “roared” at it, which will have come as news to anyone that has seen Gerrard being interviewed in the press before. This afternoon, however, any talk of “roaring” couldn’t be any more misplaced.
This particular match between Germany and England does carry an air of curiosity about it. Germany were a mixed bag in the group stages – neat and tidy against a poor Australian performance in their opening match, they came unstuck with the harsh sending off of Miroslav Klose against Serbia in their second match before doing little more but no less than enough against Ghana in their final match. England, meanwhile, started slowly and seemed likely to tear themselves apart amid talk of divisions within the squad. They got their act together enough to squeeze through the group stages of the competition, but it was a close call. The excitement that followed their 1-0 win against Slovenia was completely and utterly disproportionate when compared with the reality of what had taken place but who, realistically, would have predicted anything different?
England take twenty-five minutes to have their first shot on target, which would be all that one would need to know about their performance for the first thirty minutes of the match were it not for the fact that Germany have already taken the lead by this point. The goal comes from a move staggering simplicity. The German goalkeeper Neuer launches an almighty punt down the pitch, Terry and Upson are, well, doing something that quite plainly isn’t defending the ball, Klose gets between them and rolls the ball under David James and into the corner of the net. It’s hopelessly amateurish defending from England, and the warning signs had already been more than evident – James had already saved twice with his legs. The lead is nothing less than Germany deserve, and for the next ten minutes, the question becomes less one of whether they will win or not and more one of how much they will win by. They double their advantage after thirty-three minutes when Klose gets free again on the right-hand side and, with the England defence being pulled back and forth like an accordion, rolls the ball across Lukas Podolski, who shoots under James. The sky looks set to cave in upon England.
Then, however, everything goes a little crazy. On thirty-seven minutes, a corner from the right hand side is dragged back to Gerrard, who swings the ball into the penalty area and Matthew Upson, who has had a wretched half up to that point, gets to the ball ahead of Neuer and heads England back into the game. What happens next, however, is one of those moments at which you maybe start to think that it just isn’t going to be your day. With their tails up thanks to the goal, England are suddenly controlling the game. Frank Lampard collects the ball on the edge of the penalty area and lobs the ball over Neuer. The ball bounces down off the underside of the crossbar and about a foot over the line, but no goal is awarded. It’s a harsh, harsh decision and those that will undoubtedly call kismet over it for 1966 are missing the point that football matches exist only within themselves, and that two wrong decisions, especially at forty-four years remove from each other, don’t make a right, but it remains Just One Of Those Things, and the truth of the matter is that England would have been somewhat fortunate to get to half-time at just 2-0, so disjointed was much of their first half performance.
Still, though, the press have their scapegoats and the BBC commentary team spend much of the remainder of the first half discussing The Biggest Injustice In The History Of The World Cup, arriving at the somewhat peculiar conclusion that this non-decision was somehow “more” wrong than the decision in 1966 that more or less won them the World Cup. At half-time, however, the panel has to admit that while the call over the goal was a bad one, England deserve to be behind. It is striking that the “debate” over goal line technology (which isn’t really a debate, since there isn’t anybody on the BBC panel that will stick their head above the parapets at this particular time and speak out against it) peters out after just a couple of minutes, and the discussion has to revert back to England’s defensive shortcomings.
Presumably still running on the adrenaline created by the last ten minutes of the first half, England begin the second half very much on the front foot. Six minutes in, they come depserately close to drawing level. Having won a free kick at an improbable angle, Frank Lampard shoots, Neuer ill-advisedly lets the ball go and it twangs out off the crossbar. They have further half and quarter chances. Milner crosses from the right-hand side and Neuer gathers well, while there’s a scramble on the edge of the penalty area that sees the ball run away, just, from Jermain Defoe and Steven Gerrard. It looks as if they can find a way back into the game, but in the space of three minutes the match slips away from England, and that is that.
The third goal comes, almost predictably, from an England free-kick on the edge of the German penalty area. Lampard’s shot flies straight into the defensive wall, and Germany break on the left-hand side. Bastian Schweinsteiger carries the ball into the penalty area and passes across for Thomas Mueller to reinstate Germany’s two goal advantage. Any chance that England might have of getting back into the match effectively ends with Germany’s next attack. Joe Cole, just introduced as a substitute, gets caught in possession, Mesut Ozil outruns Gareth Barry in a race that calls to mind the start of the fabled race between the hare and the tortoise and his pass finds Mueller, who beats James at the near post. Tor! And game over.
As the final twenty minutes play out, the post-mortem starts in the commentary box. “Why don’t they just give managers contracts between tournaments?”, howls an anguished Mark Lawrenson, who, it would seem, is starting to try to shift the blame for Gareth Barry having a 100m sprint time of seventeen seconds and the fact that Matthew Upson and John Terry put in performances more worthy of Hackney Marshes than the World Cup finals upon Fabio Capello. On the pitch, meanwhile, it starts to feel as if Germany have a little sympathy for England and slow the pace down a little. With ten minutes to play, Steven Gerrard gets into the penalty area, but his low shot is brilliantly saved by Neuer, Barry has a shot from a low cross by Rooney blocked and Lampard fires in a speculative shot from twenty-five yards out, but it’s far too little, and even further too late.
The writing for today was on the wall with the lifeless draw against Algeria, John Terry’s press conference, Wayne Rooney’s lack of performance and, most significantly of all, what we already knew about this team. There will probably be some that will continue to squeal about what might have happened had Frank Lampard’s first half shot that bounced over the line been given as a goal, but this is a highly selective interpretation of this afternoon’s events. Germany’s pace and fluidity was too much for England from the beginning to the end of the match. They outplayed England to such an extent that most people watching will have spent the majority of the match hoping for no more than for the scoreline to stay at 4-1. They are more than deserved winners of this match and, as scorers of four goals in two matches now during this tournament, can move into the quarter-finals with the deserved belief that they can go on and win the entire competition. England now go home, and there cannot be anybody that wouldn’t agree that they deserve to.
Perhaps this result is what English football needs. A dose of humility will do England – the team and the country – no harm at all. Perhaps the Football Association will learn from it, will put all other projects on hold until the broken youth development system is fixed. Perhaps the press will learn a bitter lesson from their tone towards Germany (which has – and if this sounds like damning with faint praise, it’s because it is – only moved from being abusive to borderline abusive over the last decade and a half or so) and will treat their opponents with a little more respect in the future. Perhaps the clubs will see the potential benefits to the game in Britain from working with the national team rather than seeking control of the FA for their own malign purposes. Or perhaps the Premier League will start again in seven weeks time and all of this will be forgotten.