As a museum piece of the passions, England’s Euro 96 semi-final penalty shoot-out defeat is a nice easy package, especially as Gareth Southgate missed the penalty that opened the door to Andreas Möller’s strut. But there’s a more recent trail that explains why the old rivals converge on Euro 2020’s round-of-16 closer together in talent production.
After the dismal coming together at Euro 2000 that eliminated both countries at the group stage, England and Germany knew change was unavoidable. An Italian paper described the game as “two big beer drinkers pushing each other around.” Germany’s move was quick, decisive. England took the more scenic route.
Shamed by a bottom-place finish in Group A in 2000, Germany returned home to accelerate Das Reboot, a radical talent development overhaul that spawned the team who pummelled England at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
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The Football Association did something equally sensible. They travelled en masse to Clairefontaine in France, a kind of grand cru vineyard, with 56 hectares, 60 staff, 302 beds and seven grass and three synthetic pitches: a national institute for the coaching of elite 13 to 15 year olds. “They’ve told us everything,” said Les Reed, the FA’s technical director at a time when Michael Chopra, Cherno Samba and Jermaine Pennant were among those tipped for stardom.
The template that produced France’s 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 wins wasn’t directly transferable. But in the face of club and internal opposition Howard Wilkinson and the reformers drove through the club academies plan and St George’s Park, which later gave birth to Dan Ashworth’s ‘England DNA,’ with Southgate a central figure all the way through the chain.

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That manifesto finally connected all the England men’s teams from youth to senior and made possession football the religion. The outcome is a Euro 2020 squad that has mostly come through the England system on a curriculum designed for international success. In 1996, no such structure existed, though the U-21s were taken seriously by Bobby Robson, Ron Greenwood and others. The art of throwing together an England side was to spot the 11 best players and apply a personal view of tactics. Terry Venables, remember, was the polar opposite of his predecessor, Graham Taylor.
Germany worked all this out ages ago. As Raphael Honigstein showed in his book Das Reboot, the German player supply line was being reinvented before Euro 2000. One point from three games in Holland and Belgium empowered the reformers to press ahead with regional talent centres and higher technical standards. Honigstein describes Germany’s 1-0 defeat to an Alan Shearer goal in 2000 as an “all-round embarrassment of footballing poverty.”
England, meanwhile, were unsure about which country they should copy. In Spain’s golden era from 2008-2012 it was said the English needed “more No 10s.” But the best lesson was delivered further south than Spain: in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in June 2010, by a German side blessed with Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Jérôme Boateng, Sami Khedira, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller - who still poses a threat to England 11 years on.
The psychodrama of Frank Lampard’s shot bouncing down from the crossbar two feet over the line was a pre-hawkeye indictment of Fifa’s technophobia. It would have made the score 2-2 at half-time. After the break, England’s heedless attacking left the back of the team open to the counter and Müller punished them for it, scoring twice on the break in a 4-1 win that flummoxed Fabio Capello, who claimed he’d told his players not to chase the game so recklessly.

: Manuel Neuer of Germany watches the ball bounce over the line from a shot that hit the crossbar from Frank Lampard

Image credit: Getty Images

Müller and Neuer will be at Wembley on Tuesday to stir those memories for Steven Gerrard, Lampard, John Terry and Wayne Rooney, all retired, and who all started in Bloemfontein. But while that humiliating defeat seemed to send England back to zero, the balance is shifting. In theory.
Das Reboot authored the imperious German team who became the first from Europe to win a World Cup in South America, with wins over Portugal (4-0), France, Brazil (7-1) and Argentina in the final. Mats Hummels and Müller, discarded by Joachim Low, were readmitted for Euro 2020: an admission that Germany’s new talent wave is smaller than England’s.
The crux of Tuesday’s game is the possibility that England possess a more potent group of youngsters than their nemesis. Germany were the hare in player production but England could yet be the tortoise. That won’t be decided by notional lists of how good Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden are going to be. Tournament logic is more brutal. It sends one team home and one team through. And since 1966, England have been knocked out of tournaments by West Germany or Germany in 1970, 1982 (in a second World Cup group stage), 1990, 1996 and 2010. In that larger context Southgate’s missed penalty in ‘96 is only one more detail.
A better starting point is 2010, and whether the 4-1 in Bloemfontein was the start of an undetectable swing, away from German domination towards Premier League-funded English talent abundance. This beautifully poised second-round game will extend the German mastery since 1970 or rescue England from an excruciating loop.
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