English football seems to spend most of its time asking where it all went wrong.
To my mind, the most definitive post-1966 puncturing of our sporting psyche came in April 1972, when England lost 3-1 at home to West Germany in the first leg of a European Championship quarter-final. Before the game, England could have claimed rough equality with West Germany: one World Cup each and, it was thought, a similar approach to football.
Yes, West Germany had beaten England for the first time in 1968, but England had regarded that as essentially a meaningless friendly as they prepared for a European Championship semi-final against Yugoslavia. And they’d beaten them in the World Cup quarter-final in 1970, but that seemed a freakish occurrence in the heat of Mexico with the excuse that goalkeeper Gordon Banks had been ruled out with food-poisoning.
It was after 1972 that England and West Germany’s paths diverged. It wasn’t just that West Germany won; it was the manner of their victory, as they produced what l’Equipe described as “football from the year 2000”. With Günter Netzer and Franz Beckenbauer imperious, England found themselves in a mystifying world in which players interchanged at will, the ball was pinged around at pace, moved sideways and backwards – rather than dully forwards – as West Germany probed. “The magnitude of our performance,” said Beckenbauer, “was really just like a dream. Everything we wanted to do, we did. The moves, the idea and the execution all happened.”
English football, England itself, seemed humbled. In the Daily Mail, Ian Wooldridge even suggested that the freedom and artistry of their performance might alter the perception of Germans in the English mind. Their performance at Wembley had revealed them not to be the humourless automata of stereotype, but rather gracious and brilliant sportsmen.
“From the nervous preliminaries to the joyous scenes at the end,” Wooldridge wrote, “from the Charlie George hairstyles to the occasional small courtesies in the blazing heat of the match, from the cool heads in defence to the glittering flair of the forward line, this was a German team to make a nonsense of the pulp magazine conception of the German character and to make a few million adults realise that their prejudices are as obsolete as Bismarck’s spiked helmet.”
If only it were as easy as that. The Express that week featured a cartoon of Wembley’s twin towers topped by just those spiked Prussian helmets. In the past? No. In 2006 England fans were buying First World War style tin helmets for their trip to the World Cup in Germany.
At the start of the seventies, England and West Germany were equals, but as conservative England remained stuck in the past, forever harking back to past victories for want of contemporary glory, radical, forward-thinking Germany got on with the business of winning, England's fear and fury growing with each new German success. After 1972, it would be another 28 years before England beat Germany in a competitive fixture, by which time (West) Germany had won two further World Cups and three European Championships.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of The Anatomy of England: A History in Ten MatchesReuse content