Three years and four months later it is the Germans again, and the test that will tell the England team much about where it stands in the world ahead of Brazil 2014 next summer.
These days, the Germany side do not represent that same kind of character examination they did for, say, the 1990s generation of England footballers when the story was more about German nerves of steel in tournaments and penalty shoot-outs – although there is an element of that. The challenge of the modern Germany team is more complex now, about a successful football nation which has risen to the challenge of reinventing itself even more successfully.
Even without Mesut Özil, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Manuel Neuer in Joachim Löw’s side tonight, England will still have to confront many of the leading characters in the great cavalcade of German talent produced in the last five years, Mario Götze, Marco Reus and Toni Kroos among them. These are players who have emerged on the international stage since the 4-1 defeat in Bloemfontein in the second round of the 2010 World Cup, the last meeting between the two sides.
When asked about that fateful day, Steven Gerrard, who was captain on the occasion of England’s heaviest competitive defeat since 1980, and will be captain again tonight, said he would not envisage losing by the same margin as the side of 2010 did. “I’d say we are better,” he said.
“The reason I feel that is if we were to meet Germany tomorrow in a World Cup situation I don’t think we’d leave the pitch having been beaten 4-1. I do feel we are a lot stronger. There is a good mix of youth and experience in the squad at the moment. We are all moving forward and improving all the time.
“I look back to the Chile result on Friday and I come away from that game feeling different from a lot of people. I’m really confident that if we were to meet Chile further on into a World Cup competition we would have the players at full strength to go and beat them.”
Certainly, the team of 2010 was much older, including as it did a goalkeeper, David James, two months shy of his 40th birthday, and only two players – James Milner and Wayne Rooney – under the age of 25. The average age of the team of 2010 was 29 years and three months whereas the side Roy Hodgson has named for tonight’s game averages 26 years and nine months.
Gerrard, Rooney and Ashley Cole are the survivors from that XI in Bloemfontein who will feature at Wembley tonight. Between the 5-1 win in Munich in 2001, in which Gerrard scored his first international goal, to the defeat in South Africa, the two countries played each other twice. On both occasions the teams have been weakened by injuries, reflected in the fact that the two games – Wembley in 2007 and Berlin in 2008 – were lost by the home sides.
Germany’s reinvention of its youth development system post-Euro 2000 is a story that has been told many times and no doubt if England are outplayed tonight there will be a further outbreak of derision at English football’s failure to reform. But for Hodgson and Gerrard, who are obliged to take a shorter-term view, there is not the same sense of despair.
Gerrard acknowledged that, even at Wembley, England go into tonight’s game as the lesser-fancied side – but not by much. “If you look at how they’ve performed in recent tournaments and where they’re ranked, then maybe we are slight underdogs,” he said. “But if you look at both squads and both starting XIs I wouldn’t say we’re huge underdogs, no. Maybe slight.”
With the current vogue for German football – its player development policies, its club sides, even its policy towards ticket prices – a heavy defeat on this, the showpiece game of the Football Association’s 150th anniversary celebrations, could set off another bout of English introspection. Hodgson, having experimented with his team against Chile, clearly felt he was left with no option but to play close to his strongest side tonight.
Of course, German football is not perfect either. Bayern Munich won the title by 25 points last season, bought second-place Borussia Dortmund’s best player and are undefeated in 12 games in this campaign, a record that suggests a degree of inequality compared to the Premier League. As for English football, it is already more than a year into its own major shake-up of youth development – the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) – by which future national teams will either prosper or not.
For better or worse, EPPP was conceived of, in the main, by the Premier League and effectively imposed on the rest of the Football League, albeit with the support of the FA. German football, as we are constantly told, works differently – in a manner that would be impossible in the English game where the big clubs dominate. It would be wrong to judge Hodgson’s team tonight purely on one result, but that is certain to be the case in some quarters.
England have not lost consecutive games at Wembley since the summer of 1977 when Don Revie’s side were beaten by Wales and Scotland in the space of five days. For Hodgson there is the old bind of trying to prepare for a World Cup finals, and make the most of limited game time, while remaining competitive against a formidable opponent.
Against Chile he had to take the chance to try new players and yesterday was not impressed by the prospect of too much being read into a second defeat. “It [a defeat] won’t stop us winning our first game of the World Cup, will it? I’m not trying to be clever – I don’t see the relevance,” he said. “I can’t give guarantees that we definitely will put the result of Friday right because Germany are a very good team. But I expect us to be much wiser after this game.”
He is still unbeaten in 14 competitive games, excluding the Euro 2012 elimination on penalties to Italy. Time is limited and he is doing his best to try out his options. But tonight his team faces Germany, and Hodgson is well aware that games against this old rival tend to evoke strong feelings in the English football public – not least about their own team.