The weight of England’s on-pitch rivalry with Germany is one that we long-suffering fans must carry

·6-min read
Passion play: Paul Gasgcoine’s famous tears at Italia 90 (Hulton Archive/Getty)
Passion play: Paul Gasgcoine’s famous tears at Italia 90 (Hulton Archive/Getty)

In the sheet music to the “Farandole” from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne, nothing especially notable happens at the start of the 33rd bar. The first violins are doing the heavy lifting, as they do throughout, carrying the piece’s signature motif in a crescendo before handing it over to the flutes.

Which is precisely what was occurring in the courtyard of the Coopers’ Company and Coborn School in Upminster, at 7.33pm on 26 June 1996, in the well-rehearsed hands of the lower school orchestra.

There is certainly no instruction in the original arrangement, for the hitherto unknown earphone-wearing dads section to rise from the temporary outdoor seating and enter at triple fortissimo, with the words, “YES!” “GET IN!” and – though this one remains disputed – “F****** COME ON!”

To re-watch the footage now, of Alan Shearer’s opening goal against Germany in the Euro ‘96 semi final that night, his raised right arm celebration is almost indistinguishable from the conductor’s attempts to restore order on the crowd behind him.

It was an unfortunate bit of scheduling on the part of the music department to have the school summer concert that night, for which, 25 years on, not all resentment can be said to have fully gone away. It was also a source of considerable confusion to the school’s neighbours, for whom the grand finale – a firework display accompaniment to the 1812 Overture – began just as Stefan Kuntz headed in a golden goal winner for Germany, which was mercifully, and arguably wrongly, disallowed. Though no one remembers that.

Before Euro 2020 began, a year late, Gareth Southgate wrote memorably of how it is only through playing for England that footballers have an opportunity to create memories for an entire nation (or rather, most of a nation, given the United Kingdom’s sporting idiosyncrasies). There are only a handful of sporting moments for which everyone remembers where they were. Gareth Southgate certainly remembers where he was that night. He was standing on the Wembley penalty spot wanting the ground to swallow him up. (Moments later, he would be being pursued around the antechambers of the national stadium by John Major, who was desperate to let him know that it wasn’t his fault, which can only have made it worse.)

I, for what it’s worth, on that night in 1996 had made it to a TV in the PE classroom-cum-multi-gym, and was looking at my own reflection in a single tear I had left on the cold steel frame of the overhead press machine. No one, at that age, should go through that kind of trauma while wearing a bow tie.

The Year 11s also had their leavers ball that night, and there had been a genuine row on the Embankment Pier as to whether or not one of the boys would be permitted to board the pleasure boat with the large cathode ray TV he had brought with him from his bedroom just in case. That rite of passage, so to speak, is not fondly remembered by all concerned.

Whenever any of them have been interviewed in the past few days, England’s players have wasted no time in asserting that history does not weigh upon their shoulders. When Gazza’s tears baptised modern football, as they did in 1990, the current squad’s two oldest players, Jordan Henderson and Kyle Walker, were a few weeks old. Almost all of them are likely to remember Bloemfontein, 2010 (I consider myself unlucky to have had to watch it at the German Embassy on Belgrave Square, but not as unlucky as a man called Mark, from Croydon, who had been booked for the occasion to wear lederhosen and play the accordion).

But none of them is old enough to have seen very much of the freight loaded on to the train it is now their sacred turn to drive. Who can blame them for taking every public chance they get to throw that ballast off?

In any case, how much of it is even still on board at all? You have to be fairly old to really remember Peter Bonetti’s struggles under the searing Mexican sun in 1970. And even if you were there on the Wembley terraces in 1966, as my dad was, there’s a fair chance you really don’t remember all that much about it.

And you have to be even older, very old indeed, to really remember. The dim Second World War-themed tabloid front pages at Euro ‘96 were as embarrassing at the time as they are now, but they were nothing new. A long time ago, I remember Bobby Charlton saying, in an interview for a TV programme I was working on, that, in 1966, “Some people were talking about the match as if it was a repeat of the war. It was stupid, really stupid.” His anger was clearly coloured by having just been talking at great length about the Munich air disaster and the death of his very close friend, Duncan Edwards.

Mercifully, in some ways, the arrival of a deadly pandemic has stripped Tuesday’s match of most of the dreary Brexit baggage that would likely otherwise be loaded on it.

There also seems to be a growing sense, among England fans, that they too have some kind of obligation to liberate themselves from the miseries of the past. This, to me, seems rather odd. Of course, the England-Germany football rivalry is no rivalry at all.

The Wikipedia page on the subject, in its witheringly deadpan tone, says all that needs to be said about it, in one short sentence. “As of 2016, Germany has won four World Cups and three European Championships, and has played in a total of fourteen finals in those two tournaments. England has won one World Cup in the only final they ever reached in either tournament.”

So deep is the neurosis now, so long has the longing been for something that really might never come, that otherwise sensible people seem to believe that the mere fan must also develop some sort of big game mentality. That this is just another game, that England are the better team, actually, the favourites, and that there is some patriotic responsibility not to be haunted by the ghosts of England vs Germanies past. That to do so might actually affect the outcome, in some way.

To which I can only say, no chance. Whatever the result, these are still the rarefied moments in which a lifetime’s sacrifices placed upon the futile altar of football are repaid. Already I have caught myself glancing up at the walls on the stairs and seeing the peeling wallpaper and the bare plaster that were there on the walls of the family home we had just moved in to when a heartbroken eight-year-old boy trudged up to bed on 4 July 1990.

I can scarcely remember Lineker’s equaliser. For some reason, it is a single still photograph of the peppermint shirt and clipped moustache of Olaf Thon that is still seared on to my retinas. It appears that he scored what turned out to be the winning penalty.

So bring on the baggage and pile it high upon me. Strike up the orchestra, fire up the “Farandole” and who knows, maybe, just maybe, this time the arrangement will be different.

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