All the ghosts that have followed England since 1966 were here, begging to be set free. And the joy of 40,000 was built on relief for all the players and fans who watched them lose to Germany in every tournament knock-out game since 1970. At the heart of it was Gareth Southgate, whose missed penalty on this ground 25 years ago has stuck to him like a curse.
England 2, Germany 0: the most momentous outcome for the former in this eternal rivalry since England 4 Germany 2 in the World Cup final, 55 years ago. We’re talking second-round here - not a final - but the breakthrough was felt in every fibre of the nation.
“I’m not going to play it down. It means everything to beat them,” said England’s captain, Harry Maguire. Beyond this luxury stadium we tried to imagine the catharsis around the country and the anticipation swirling around Saturday’s quarter-final in Rome.
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Since England’s only trophy in 71 years of trying, the Nationalmannschaft have won three more World Cups and a trio of European titles. This colossal psychological advantage weighed heavily on England fans, many of whom have condemned Southgate for his conservatism. It infected their days and nights, preparing them for another round of ‘why-oh-why’ and ‘we’ll-never-beat-the Germans’ and ‘Southgate-is-too-cautious.’

England fans roam through central London celebrating Germany win

But then a heavy cloud of history cleared. Time returned to zero. The relationship was remade. All the hard work to create English players capable of matching German proficiency bore fruit. England’s supporters in the stadium found themselves beaming at one another in a dreamscape they’d given up hope of seeing.
‘Sweet Caroline’ is gnawingly ubiquitous, but here any old happy song was fine. The players joined with the crowd in what other countries will feel looked like a trophy celebration. But have a heart. With a third goal in four games from Raheem Sterling, the local hero, and one from Harry Kane - missing in action until five minutes from the end of match No 4 - England finally opened a new phase in their story, though even harder tasks remain: victory in Rome and then twice back here next week.
Memories of England surrendering a 2-0 lead to West Germany in Leon in 1970 remain sharp. The Italia 90 semi-final shoot-out is etched as tragic opera. Euro 96 is a burden Southgate’s generation have been forced to carry, despite all their club success. South Africa in 2010 was Thomas Muller’s day - unlike this one. Müller’s miss with 10 minutes to go after Sterling’s misplaced pass was a symbolic swing away from German power towards what England are trying to create.
England’s switch to 3-4-3 might have been a surrender to German strength - but it worked, despite some distinctly patchy spells at the start of each half, when they were unimaginative and defensive. But only one tweak was needed to change the game: Jack Grealish for Bukayo Sako on 68 minutes. With Luke Shaw, who was superb at left wing-back, Grealish played a creative role in both England goals. The arsenal on England’s bench gives Southgate a potential image problem but it also gives him a mighty array of options during games.
Southgate said of Grealish: “We’ve got so many good attacking options and it’s hard to give them all the love they need. As a forward you need to feel that love; and their acceptance and understanding of needing to be patient and needing to wait for their moment, with Marcus [Rashford], with Jadon [Sancho], with Jack [Grealish] - they’ve sacrificed themselves for the group.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 29: Gareth Southgate of England during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Round of 16 match between England and Germany at Wembley Stadium on June 29, 2021 in London, England.

Image credit: Getty Images

As manager Southgate had already won a penalty shoot-out at the World Cup in Russia three years ago and now he’s solved the ‘Germany problem.’ For him 1996 has lost all - or almost all - of its sting.
But there was a wider national pleasure beyond the personal redemptive one - even for those fans who refuse to give him credit. Those in the stadium, he said, were “incredible. I’ve been here with a full house and not heard it anywhere near the level the crowd were at today. They were behind every challenge, they were behind every time we pressed the ball, they were behind every run we had, the energy was incredible in the stadium.
“So to be able to send them home feeling as they do tonight, to hear them at the end - you can’t beat a bit of Sweet Caroline can you - that’s a belter really; and to know that so many people, after such a difficult year at home, can have that enjoyment I know we’ll have given them today is very special.

England's coach Gareth Southgate greets the fans after their win in the UEFA EURO 2020 round of 16 football match between England and Germany at Wembley Stadium in London on June 29, 2021

Image credit: Getty Images

“What pleased me the most was that we’ll always have passion and we’ve always had heart, but we played with brains today as well. We pressed at the right moments. We wanted to be man for man aggressive in our pressure. The wing backs did that well and set the tone. The forwards picked the right moments to go and the right moments to stay. And then we found a nice balance to be brave with the ball..and the right moments to go quickly and counter. That was a real step forward for us.”
At the end Southgate spotted David Seaman, England’s Euro 96 keeper in the crowd. The memories are eternal but lost some of their power to hurt with the end of German dominance in knock-out games. Southgate said: “I can’t change the fact that the guys I played with in 96 didn’t get to play in a final. That will always live with me. But what this group of players have been able to do is give a new generation a lot of happy memories and another afternoon where they’ve made a bit of history.”
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