“Some people are on the pitch… they think it’s all over… it is now…” Those fourteen words, by some stretch, form the most iconic line in the history of English sports commentary; Kenneth Wolstenholme’s BBC sound track to Geoff Hurst’s third goal in England’s 4-2 World Cup Final win over Germany. 1966… and all that.
That the line still resonates so profoundly, more than half a century later, underlines the persistent grip of that event upon English popular culture, and indeed upon England’s sense of self. It helps explain England’s obsession with football, and England’s obsession with… well, with beating Germany, the country it finds itself drawn against today in the first of the knock-out stages of 2021’s Covid-delayed Euro 2020.
Remember: England’s victory on 30 July 1966 was their one and only major tournament win. The country that “gave the game to the world” – another important part of the national sporting narrative – has that lone trophy to show for it. “Two World Wars and one World Cup, doo-da, doo-da,” the more nationalist-minded and drink-fuelled among the England fans – most of them born after all three of those events – like to sing. “Four World Cups and three EMs” (Europäische Meisterschaft is German for the Euros) is a fair response.
That the two World Wars are significant milestones in Anglo-German history is a given. Britain was on the winning side in both conflicts, while Germany accepted its collective guilt and dealt with it in various ways, not least in the evolution of its modern political system and the core tenets of its approach to foreign and security policy.
Yet younger Germans in particular – which includes anyone now playing international football – find it odd in the extreme that the language and rhetoric of war still play such an apparently indelible role in the English media’s portrayal of Germany. If diplomacy is “war by other means,” I wonder what that makes sport when these two rivals are pitted against one another on the football battlefield. If that too is war by other means, then the Germans have been winning for some time.
“Thirty years of hurt”: so sang Skinner and Baddiel in the original “Three Lions on a Shirt” anthem of Euro 96. Make that fifty-five years now.
Because it didn’t come home in 1996. Instead, it went nach Hause, home to Germany, victors over England in the semi-final, at Wembley, and then over the Czechs in the final (in the same stadium). If Wembley 1966 has bad memories for the Germans, it has brought happy recollections ever since.
The truth is that, whatever trauma 1966 inflicted upon the Germans, they got over it long, long ago. In England, meanwhile, that single tournament win still looms over everything the national team does, and will do so unless and until another trophy is won.
Two and a half generations of English people have now grown up ingrained with the tribal significance of that 4-2 win. Those of us who were football-loving children at the time – even Scotland-supporting children such as me – will be able to name for the rest of our lives the team that won it… Banks, Cohen, Wilson, Stiles, Jack Charlton, Moore, Ball, Hunt, Bobby Charlton, Hurst, Peters.
It is a ritual feature of every major tournament that the Wolstenholme clip gets played, that line gets heard, over and over and over. Then we see the Queen presenting the Jules Rimet trophy to Bobby Moore. He and six of his team-mates, like Wolstenholme, like several of the German side, are no longer with us.
With each death, we see the clips once more, ever more deeply cemented into the national story. The Queen, of course, is very much still with us; but take a look at her then, a beaming Prince Philip two seats along, and take a look at her now.
Once again, you are struck by the sheer length of the road that separates England’s greatest football moment and today’s fixture, so emblematic of the nation’s thwarted longing to repeat that golden moment. What was it Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said, ahead of the last World Cup? Something along the lines of: “I really hope England win it… then we might be able to stop hearing about 1966 the whole time.”
Consider this: England captain Harry Kane has no memory of Euro 96, never mind 1966, yet still he knows very well what the second of those dates means, and is powerfully aware of the pressure it puts on him and the team he leads.
“I was three when Euro 96 was on [he was only two, in fact],” he told me when I interviewed him for the Evening Standard ahead of the Euros. “If you go back to 1966, I hope my Mum doesn’t mind me revealing her age, but she was born in 1966. My Dad was born in 1964, so he was two when England won the World Cup. That is how long ago we are talking about, and it’s down to us to put that right. I think if I finish my career as a footballer without winning a major trophy for England, I would see that as a failure.”
German fans and footballers find bizarre the extent to which England’s sporting debate remains so dominated by a game played before their parents, let alone they themselves, were born. This is partly because they regard Holland rather than England as Germany’s principal rivals; but mainly because of all the success the country has had: World Cup winners once before 1966 – in 1954 – and three times since, in 1974, 1990 and 2014 in Brazil, when they became the first and only European team to win in the Americas.
Germany’s three triumphs at the Euros came in 1972, 1980 and, of course, 1996. And while England have only that one major final to their name, Germany have, in addition, been runners-up in three Euros and four World Cups. They truly are an international powerhouse.
Also, for the Germans, it is not the fourth goal in 1966 that went down in history, but the third, the one that the referee and linesman judged – eventually – to have crossed the line. As Frank Beckenbauer, “the Kaiser”, told Bild last week: “I am absolutely clear – the ball landed on the goal line behind Tilkowski [goalkeeper] but it wasn’t fully behind the line.”
Had VAR existed then, any German will insist, the goal would never have stood, and there would not be a statue to the Azerbeijani linesman Tofiq Bahramov in Baku, its unveiling attended by none other than the now-knighted Geoff Hurst and the then president of Fifa, Sepp Blatter.
And – with the conspicuous exception of 1966 – the Germans love playing at Wembley. A brief summary of their record at the stadium follows (England fans who believe that the past is a guide to the present may want to look away now):
- Euros 1972, quarter final first leg. England 1, Germany 3 (second leg 0-0, Germany go through.)
- Euros 1996, semi-final. (I was there, sitting a few rows behind then prime minister John Major, who was sitting a row or two in front of Tony Blair, and hoping that an England win in the tournament might revive his flagging political fortunes… That much was clear from the ashen look on Major’s face afterwards). Penalty shoot out. Germany 7, England 6. Gareth Southgate missed for England… you see how history works sometimes? Now he is the manager, with that very personal demon, never mind the national one, yet to be exorcised.
- World Cup qualifier, 2000. The last game at Wembley before its redevelopment. So here is a good quiz question… who scored the last international goal at Wembley before it was transformed from its 1923 form into the stadium of today? Answer: Didi Hamann. “Stand up – if you won the war” sang large sections of the crowd as the game slipped away. England 0, Germany 1. Kevin Keegan resigned as manager immediately afterwards.
- First duel in the new Wembley, 2007. England 1, Germany 2.
- 2013. England 0, Germany 1. Goal scorer Per Mertesacker of Arsenal, known affectionately in fans’ songs as BFG – “Big Fucking German”. And Bild ran a front page headline saying “Wembley is now German.”
It has not always been quite so one-sided. Though official fixtures between the two countries did not start until the 1930s, they played a series of four games in the winter of 1899, and England won all of them – including one by ten goals to two. The highest scoring official game ever played between the two teams – in 1938 – ended with England winning 6-3. The biggest ever margin of victory was Germany 1, England 5 in a 2001 World Cup qualifier, in which Michael Owen scored a hat-trick.
Furthermore: when you analyse all 32 tournament and friendly games between the two countries, Germany have won 13 – and so have England. It’s just that in the big ones since 1966 – well, there’s a pretty clear victor. World Cup 1970 – German 3-2 win in extra time; World Cup 1990 – German win via penalty shoot-out; Euro 96 – ditto; World Cup 2010, German win 4-1. All of which adds force to Gary Lineker’s famous quip: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”
Politically, the most significant match of them all was that 6-3 victory in 1938, a friendly played at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, the last before the outbreak of war, with a crowd of 110,000. Today, debate continues to rage over England players taking the knee, while the Germans are still smarting over Uefa’s decision to ban them from lighting up the Allianz Arena in Munich in the colours of the LGBTQ+ rights rainbow for their match against Hungary in protest against Viktor Orban’s new homophobic laws.
Yet neither issue is remotely as controversial as the order from the Foreign Office that England’s players should give the Nazi salute as a sign of respect to Nazi Germany. Not long after the annexation of Austria, and not long before Neville Chamberlain declared “peace in our time”, ahead of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, this terrible decision was regarded by the media at the time and by historians subsequently as a significant propaganda coup for Hitler.
As for the politics surrounding today’s match, Brexit is certainly stoking tensions between the respective governments of the UK and Germany. There is the chasm-like gulf in style and values between outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel and prime minister Boris Johnson. Covid is making it impossible for Germans to travel from Germany, while the Germans themselves are very reluctant to admit Brits to accelerate the spread of the Delta variant in their own country.
But there’s politics of a deeper sort in all this. I would argue that Germany’s success as a footballing nation and England’s relative failure can, at least to some extent, be put down to the broader political context. German football has always struck me as benefiting from a clear strategic alignment between government, governing bodies, the professional and amateur game, clubs, and fans; whereas in England, you have the FA in charge of the national team and the grassroots – while the real power lies in the middle, in the professional game, and especially, these days, the Premier League.
Kane, for his part, was dismissive of my suggestion that – because the Premier League rather than the Football Association is the real stronghold of English football – England will never be as good as Germany, France or Spain, with their more strategically aligned football authorities.
“I don’t accept that,” he said. “Look what happened at the World Cup in 2018. We were written off before we went, and OK, we didn’t win it, so we were disappointed, but we made the semis, we brought the whole country together, we played some great stuff and now we are one of the favourites for the Euros.”
Maybe, I said. But you made the most important point yourself – you didn’t win.
“I know these players and I feel we are ready for anything,” he said. “There are some great teams, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal,” – I sensed he was listing them in order of merit as he saw it – “and to win it we know we have to beat some of those teams, and that is the challenge. But I know for sure, none of those teams will want to face us. A lot of their best players play with us and against us, week in, week out, they know we are a tough opponent for any of them. Expectations are high, but so is belief. There is a lot of belief.”
Kane’s own confidence may have been dented by his failure thus far to score, and by being substituted by Southgate in the game on 18 June against Scotland. But England won their group, and people who know more about football than I do suggest Southgate was using these games to prepare his team to grind out narrow wins against bigger and better adversaries in the knock-out stages.
As it happens, this tournament coincides with a period in my life when, because of a Goethe Institut course I have been taking, I am obsessively listening to German podcasts, and reading German newspapers.
My sense is that the Germans lack their usual confidence in the national team. Bild expert Marcel Reif predicts a 2-1 win for England. Another Bild journalist, in contrast, Kai Traemann, who presents the superb Phrasenmäher podcast, thinks Germany are psychologically stronger than England, and that this will see them through. Euro 96 winner Mehmet Scholl, who also has a Bild podcast, thinks Germany will win, by one goal.
He and Reif can’t both be right, But whichever of them turns out to have called it correctly, this afternoon’s match will be yet another high-stakes chapter in the story of a remarkable footballing relationship, which will have millions watching, thousands analysing, and – depending on the result – generations remembering the drama on the pitch.
The big picture is that England have to do more than beat Germany if they are finally to transfer 1966 to the honoured place in history that it deserves, and to stop treating it as the backdrop to contemporary English football, more than half a century on. If Kane and co win today, they then have to beat the winner of Ukraine v Sweden – and even greater challenges lie beyond that. This, rather than the past, must be the team’s focus today.
The Germans lost in 1966, but have exorcised that particular demon many times over. England won in that year, and have been trying to get over it ever since. Am I allowed to say that it reminds me of Brexit? One huge win, the weight of which makes everything since feel like a defeat, even to those who thought they were the winners.
Alastair Campbell’s latest book, Living Better: How I learned to survive depression (John Murray Books) is out in paperback, Kindle and ebook now.