“All the journalists need to cool down,” warned Jurgen Klopp. “You make it too big if they win, too big if they lose.”
The Liverpool boss has been in England for two years, but if he’d only been here for two weeks he could still have recognised it just as easily: the national team evokes a special kind of media bubble, unlike anywhere else in the world.
Before his nation, Germany, takes on England at Wembley, you already know that the paradox of England and international football will once again show itself. As a footballing culture, the country simultaneously bemoans international breaks as boring and pointless and yet also reads an inordinate amount into the national team’s result.
Matches against Germany are a good example. Before the 2016 European Championships, England faced the World Champions in a friendly game in Berlin in March, the Three Lions came from two goals down to win 3-2. Whilst, from the coverage, it wasn’t as though you’d have thought England had just won the World Cup, there was still probably a sense of optimism which went well beyond what was useful.
England weren’t the courage-filled victors who showed their character in spades. They were an average side who had beaten a better team who, themselves, had taken the opportunity to switch most of their best players at half-time. It’s what international friendlies are for, really.
But that’s nothing like what happened when England last faced Germany in a qualifying campaign. Back in 2000 and 2001, the bipolar nature of England fandom came to the fore in extreme fashion.
In October 2000, England played their last ever game at the old Wembley. A team under pressure after a poor European Championships hosted another team under even more pressure after a dismal display at the same tournament. The only thing that made Germany’s performance worse than England’s was that England had won 1-0 when they faced each other in Charleroi. But both teams exited at the group stage, pipped by Romania to the second qualifying spot.
The Wembley game in the World Cup qualifying group in which they met each other afterwards was won thanks to a daisy-cutter of a strike from Liverpool midfielder Dietmar Hamann. And just like that, English football was in crisis. Kevin Keegan resigned as manager after locking himself in a cubicle of a Wembley gents’ loo for a while and Peter Taylor took over for one game as caretaker manager and handed the captain’s armband to David Beckham.
It was almost another year before England faced Germany again, looking for revenge in Munich, but when the chance finally came around, the Three Lions were a different team. And they had a different manager: the Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson.
A new centre-back pairing of Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand took over from Martin Keown and Tony Adams, while Ashley Cole started at left-back. Indeed, there were five changes to the team which started in Munich from the one that played in London a year earlier, and all of them were young players breaking through to form a new and exciting generation of English talent.
So to go from one of English football’s lowest points, because of the status of the national team in the world, but also to lose the final ever game at the old Wembley stadium, to arguably the highest point in modern English footballing history in the space of a year was extraordinary.
But so too was the response.
England’s decline wasn’t taken as evidence of a cyclical slump, best remedied by working on the grassroots system like it was in Germany. And their high point wasn’t taken as a sign that a young team of players had promise and needed to be nurtured. Instead, England jumped from one extreme of depression to proclaiming a Golden Generation of players who just had to win a World Cup.
And although this week’s friendlies against Germany and Brazil won’t mean as much as the two real and meaningful qualifiers against the Germans did nearly two years ago, the reaction to them will need to be tempered. As Jurgen Klopp suggested, it gets too bad if they lose and too good if they win.