Football sometimes saves its darkest moments for just before the dawn.
An England team who had underperformed at Euro 2000 under Kevin Keegan, going out in the group stages saw arguably their darkest moment occur before their brightest false dawn.
Keegan stayed on as manager after the European Championships, but lasted only one game into the next qualifying campaign. Drawn against Germany, Finland, Albania and Greece, England were handed their a toughest qualifying group in recent memory. Not even the debacle of Euro 2008 qualifying presented England with a group where they might have legitimately feared having to go through a play-off to make a major tournament. But coming up against Germany, who were themselves on a low ebb after a poor Euros, too, was still a tough test.
It is one of those rare qualifying campaigns with three separate iconic football games; two of which have their own Wikipedia entries. It heralded an era where the English football team captured the imagination in a way it singularly fails to do today. But it all started with a low point.
Keegan’s final game as England manager was also the final game at the old Wembley stadium. It’s still hard to believe that the rebuilding of the national stadium took almost a decade, as delays and spiralling costs kept pushing the opening date back: rather than opening in 2003, as it was meant to, the 2007 FA Cup final was the official opening of the stadium.
It’s not a forgotten fact that England lost their final game at the iconic old ground, but it’s since been superseded by myth and legend.
Dietmar Hamann, one of five Liverpool players included in the two squads, was the scorer of the only goal of the game as a German side featuring some fairly unremarkable players ratcheted up the pressure on England and their manager, Kevin Keegan – himself a Liverpool legend.
A long-range free kick skidded along the Wembley turf and the ball evaded David Seaman’s grasp, and the goalkeeper took some of the blame in the press after the game.
The pressure became too great. After the match, former FA Chief Executive David Davies entered the England dressing room to find David Beckham in tears and Tony Adams pleading with the administrator to ‘talk him out of it’. What had transpired was that Keegan had decided to quit his role, and not even the will of the desperate players, or indeed Davies’ chat with the manager in a Wembley toilet could change his mind.
The pressure of the job was always great, but something had happened in English football since 1996. The Premier League had changed the game, and England’s performance in Euro 96 on home soil had a profound effect, too.
Most importantly, though, although the qualifying campaign for World Cup 2002 was a catalyst for change in both Germany and England, it was also remarkable for how far both countries were able to grow after just a year. From October 2000 to September 2001, the difference was marked, especially for England. Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole and Steven Gerrard had come into the team under new manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, and they helped England to a famous 5-1 victory in Munich in the return game. It was a frightening turnaround, and one which helped the new-look England team to grow in the hearts and minds of the nation, and to earn the ‘golden generation’ tag which would haunt them later in the decade.
It was a game which also made possible one of English football’s best moments of the decade, too: in the very last minute of the very last group game, England were losing 2-1 to Greece at Old Trafford. But a better goal difference than Germany meant that one goal would be enough to see England avoid a play-off and go straight into the draw for the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. David Beckham’s free-kick, hurtling past the goalkeeper and hitting the net flush in the top corner is one of the great moments of English football, partly because of the interest in the national team gained from traveling around the country to play home games during the Wembley redevelopment, and partly because England aren’t usually afforded tense, last-minute drama given that qualification for major tournaments is usually so comfortable.
But if that was a false dawn for England, Germany’s dark moment sparked a famous ‘reboot’: even though they went on to reach the final of the 2002 World Cup the next year it was far from a vintage squad. But since their defeat to England in Munich, they’ve only once failed to reach the semi-final of a major tournament; at Euro 2004.
Both countries were beaten at the World Cup by eventual winners Brazil in 2002, and although it took Germany longer to generate a ‘Golden Generation’ than it took England, it’s fair to say that it wasn’t the false start that England suffered. Eriksson’s men never made it past a quarter final of a major tournament, nor have they managed to go any further since the Swede’s departure.
But as England have, once again, qualified for a major tournament with deceptive ease, they should learn from the ups and downs of the 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign and not herald fresh starts with too much vigour. In the end, Germany’s second place finish sparked them on to create one of the world’s best sides within a decade. For England, it’s been far too long without that kind of success.