England have a history of near-misses against Germany, such as at Euro 96
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For England it has been the most rewarding and harrowing of all international rivalries, evoking images of Russian referees, Nobby Stiles’ dancing, Gazza’s tears, missed penalties and a Michael Owen hat-trick.
For Germany? It evidently does not carry the same emotional baggage.
“I would never describe England as Germany’s biggest rivals,” says Dietmar Hamann, the ex-Germany midfielder who has the honour of being the last senior footballer to score in front of Wembley’s Twin Towers.
“Our big rivals have always been seen as the most likely to challenge us. That would be France, or over many years it has been Argentina, who we have played in finals, semi-finals and quarter-finals at the World Cup. Then we would be looking at games against Spain. Obviously there is a history to the England games, and we all remember Euro 96 as being special. I understand this is the game everyone was looking at the draw and waiting for. But England is one of the biggest games rather than the biggest game for Germany.”
It should come as no surprise that Germany tends to see England as an occasional inconvenience. One nation demonstrates that perennial ability to find a way to win even when their squad is flawed, the other has mastered a ceaseless capacity to fall short even when equipped with enviable talent.
Having played most of his career in the Premier League, Hamann looks upon the English reaction to Germany fixtures with some bemusement, especially as he has come to expect a phone call every anniversary of one of England’s most celebrated victories, the 5-1 win in Munich in September 2001.
“My reply is, ‘what are you on about?’,” he says.
“It was a qualifier, not a semi-final or final. It was not one of the great games in international football. When it came to the World Cup we were still in Japan after the English players had gone home for their holidays two weeks earlier.”
England got knocked out of the 2002 World Cup long before Germany
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Hamann is similarly unemotional about his Wembley memento in 2000, a goal which closed the old stadium prior to rebuild and precipitated the downfall of his Hamburg idol Kevin Keegan.
“One for the history books,” he says.
“The goal did not mean that much to me at the time. It was great to score but I considered it more important because we had gone through a period in Germany of not beating the stronger nations after France 98. It would have meant much more to me if I was English.
“I met Keegan at Anfield a few years ago. He just smiled and said, ‘cheers for that!’”
If these remarks sound dismissive, there is a serious point within. Hamann believes England are the stronger nation going into the last-16 meeting next Tuesday, but a fixation with past traumas and successes might be their undoing.
“The most important thing for England is not to get carried away and spend the week winding yourself up because they are playing Germany,” he said.
“I have seen it in games before. Fans, media and players start thinking about what could happen and possible outcomes that they forget what needs to be done to win the game. That is a big danger with England. If all the players do for five days is think about the game and hear about it being ‘England versus Germany’, by the time they get on that pitch at 5pm on Tuesday they will have used all their energy and have nothing left to give.
“In knockout games I think there is a fear in England when they play Germany, but this is a different team. We have a good Wembley record, but psychologically I see no advantage to Germany from the past.
“If you are going to knock Germany out, I think there is more of a chance in the last-16 than in the semi-final.
“Once Germany smells blood they are as good as anyone at the mental side of it. When they get to a semi-final the mood is, ‘we won’t get beat’. They make fewer mistakes when it comes to the crunch. That is where Germany is always good, so I always think if we fail it is always more likely in the group or first knockout game.
“Let’s put it this way: I don’t think England will have a better chance to beat Germany. This is a disorganised, disjointed team which needs three changes. I am not sure Joachim Low will make them.”
Germany struggled against Hungary
The German team is on the threshold of another era of reconstruction, Low knowing every game might be his last and trying to muster one more tune from his legends.
“It is an unsettled side,” says Hamann.
“Dropping (Thomas) Muller and (Mats) Hummels for two years and then bringing them back two weeks before the start of the tournament – how do you expect a relationship to grow in defence when guys have not played together?
“England has organisation in their favour and the core of the team has been together for a number of years. Their biggest advantage is they are able to defend. They are workmanlike and industrious. Maybe they are a little cautious in midfield and lacking creativity, but Grealish made a difference in the last game and I would be surprised if he is not in the side.”
While England revs itself up, even amid their problems Germany are likely to carry the calmer demeanour of a canny team whose best strategy might be to sit back and wait for a nervous nation to sabotage itself thinking too much about the consequences of triumph and failure.
“I know there is a big incentive for the winner when looking at the friendly draw but you can’t look too far ahead,” says Hamann.
“Everyone wants to avoid France, Italy and Belgium but every opponent is dangerous. You can never write off Germany. Even though they were really bad against Hungary on Tuesday night, once the game has kicked off at Wembley it does not matter how we got there.”