I hope that England can achieve something on the world stage again. I have to be honest though and say I don't think it's going to happen any time soon. That's not to say England don't have good players, of course they do, but it takes more than good players to get to the business end of a tournament.
One thing I've noticed about England is that there seems to be a need for instant gratification as well as a need to find another all-conquering superstar who is going to bring home the bacon. Such superstars who can pull a mundane team along to a World Cup final probably don't exist. If they do they are freaks of nature. Maradona and Messi are both extraordinary footballers, but even their successes have been achieved as part of very good teams.
Paul Gascoigne epitomises why England can't progress. I don't know the lad, and I know that he has had his problems off the field, so I'm not knocking him. He was immensely talented and a bit of a character too. I'm just saying that if you asked England fans to name recent England greats, Gascoigne's name would most likely get a mention. He's loved in a way that could not happen in Germany.
Had Gascoigne been German he would be persona non grata today. You would never hear mention of his name. I say this because of what happened when England faced West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final in Turin. West Germany had taken the lead early in the second half, only for Gary Lineker to equalise with 10 minutes remaining. Perhaps this was to be England's moment. As the game went into extra-time Gascoigne, who was already on one yellow card from a previous game, made a lunging tackle on Thomas Berthold. The referee pulled out a yellow card and Gascoigne lost it. He went to pieces as he realised that if England won he would play no part in the World Cup final. The game was still tied, and a job still needed to be done, yet his first thoughts were for himself. His only thought should have been, 'What can I do for my team?'
When the game went to a penalty shoot-out Gascoigne was earmarked to take the third penalty for England. He decided that he wasn't in the right frame of mind to take it so David Platt had to step into the breach and take Gascoigne's penalty. For Gascoigne, in that moment, it was all about him as an individual, and the way he was feeling. It was nothing to do with his duty to the team. Football is a team game. England seem to live with the continual hope that putting out a group of talented individuals will create a team. It doesn't. Other things have to be in place.
If Gascoigne was German his behaviour would have created a national scandal, and the player would be forgotten for ever. If it were possible to erase his name from the teamsheet then it would be done. He certainly would never be named among the great German players no matter what he had done before, in the way that Gascoigne is for England.
I can say this with confidence because of what happened in the 2002 World Cup. It was exactly the same situation for us. Michael Ballack was on one yellow card and we were facing South Korea in the semi-final. It was a hard-fought game and after seventy-one minutes Ballack received his second yellow card. He knew, just as Gascoigne knew, the massive implications of that card. He would not play in the World Cup final if we were to make it there. His reaction was brilliant. It was nothing less than Germans would expect. His first thoughts were not for himself. He was part of a team and there was still a job to be done. The score was tied and the game was still there to be won. Four minutes later, Michael Ballack popped up and scored the winner. His goal put us in the World Cup final. He was totally selfless. His delight at reaching the final, even though he knew he would not play in it, was every bit as genuine as that felt by the rest of us. Back in the quiet of the dressing room, though, Michael was heartbroken. That year with Leverkusen he had lost out on the Bundesliga title on the final day of the season, lost the German Cup final to Schalke and lost the Champions League final to Real Madrid. Now he had to miss the World Cup final. Yes, he shed a tear or two, but only after he had done the business for his team. That's what you call a hero.
English players have to raise the bar. If an English player breaks into the Premier League today, he is immediately regarded as a success. If he is very good he will be heralded as the new talent that is going to break England's duck. He is immediately given a heavy burden of expectation to carry and, with the riches and media attention that will be thrown at him, he is made to believe he is successful when he is not. Playing in the Premier League indicates only one thing – that you have achieved a high standard as a professional. It means nothing more. It is not the same as success. There is only one measure of success in football and that is winning trophies.
Some English players win competitions with their clubs, but this is when they are in a team of mixed nationalities. It seems that when you put 11 talented Englishmen together you take away an important ingredient. In England they will be regarded as successful simply for pulling on an England shirt; in Germany you have to do much more to get recognition and, more importantly, to feel that you deserve it. Gascoigne, one of England's so-called best players, went through a whole career winning very little – he got an FA Cup winners' medal but was in hospital when it was given out due to a self-inflicted injury that nearly threatened his career, and he picked up some silverware with Rangers.
When your heroes are people who win very little and it's acceptable to shirk your responsibilities to your team when the chips are down because of the way you are feeling, don't be surprised if you breed teams that are talented but can't compete at the highest level when it matters.
The last time England were successful on the world stage it was with a team that showed tremendous dignity, modesty and respect for each other. They had great players who led relatively normal lives, had a culture of humility and self-sacrifice, and an esprit de corps that was once a hallmark of English culture.
That esprit de corps doesn't seem so strong any more, in football or in English society. What I see is a great country that has let its standards slip as the structures that maintained discipline and order in English society are being eroded. What is left is an obsession with instant gratification and a mistaken belief that success is about material possessions. England's on-the-pitch problems, I believe, have as much to do with its off-the-pitch problems and the culture that is emerging on the streets. Though England will continue to produce great players it will not become a force as an international team unless the players can reproduce the sense of self-sacrifice that was the essence of the "Spirit of '66".
'The Didi Man: Love Affair with Liverpool', by Dietmar Hamann is published by Headline and is now available in paperbackReuse content