Who Are England’s Biggest Rivals Now? Still Germany? Portugal? Argentina?

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As the Premier League typically takes a break just when the action is getting good, Daniel ponders how England’s rivals have changed with their fortunes.

I was brought up to see Germany as the enemy. At school, history lessons told me that England had fought against Germany in two world wars. On screen, the evil Hun was resisted by the cream of British acting heroes: Dicky Burton, Alec Guiness and Gordon Kaye (Rene in ‘Allo ‘Allo). In newspapers, the Conservative Government warned of the demise of sterling, pounds and ounces, Page 3, test match cricket and everything else that put the Great into Britain in a European Union run by the Bundesbank. And at home, my gran would tell me, “You can never trust the Germans.”

But none of this shaped my attitude towards Germany as much as football. Here, the image of the ruthless, cold-hearted German was most powerful. Players in the German football team were strong, efficient, and mistake-free. But most of all, they always seemed to win the close games, the games that mattered. Germany was the most dependable team in world football. Nobody ever doubted them. Even if Germany was losing a game, phrases like, “they’ll come back, they always do” and “never write off the Germans” were both common place and true.

And nowhere was this seemingly pre-determined superiority more evident than when Germany played England. They always beat us. And what made it worse was that they did in the big games, the games I really cared about, when England had found inspiration from the scale of the occasion and raised their performance to a level far beyond their usual up and at ‘em style. In the semi-finals of World Cup ’90 and Euro ’96 England played the better football, created golden chances against the meanest defenders in the world and gave absolutely everything they had. But that just made the pain of defeat even worse. No defeat has ever left a prolonged numbness inside me like those two games.

Until this decade, if you asked England fans who they would most like to see England beat in an important, competitive match, they would have said, “Germany.” And if you then asked them whether they though England would beat Germany in an important, competitive match they would have said, “No.” Because the Germans had a hoodoo over England. Even when England were inspired and the Germans were not at their best, Germany still won. We would throw the kitchen sink at them in extra time, knowing we could never possibly win on penalties, but the football gods were on their side. Why else did Chris Waddle’s shot hit the inside of the post and rebound out to safety in 1990? Why else did an invisible thread seem to pull Gazza back from reaching Anderton’s cut back and scoring into an open goal in 1996? To call England v Germany a great sporting rivalry at the time would have been inaccurate. Great rivalries are founded on equal competitors who experience both wins and losses against each other. Germany v England in the 1990s was not Ali v Frazier, it was more like Pete Sampras v Tim Henman.

Which made the win in Euro 2000 so sweet. In terms of skill levels, it was a dire game for a European Championship, but that was forgotten because we had beaten the Germans. However, Germany lost all their games in that Championship, including getting stuffed 3-0 by a reserve side put out by Portugal who had already qualified for the knock-out stages.

It was clear at that stage that Germany’s aura of invincibility had slipped. But it needed one more defeat to smash the myth of German footballing superiority and the last game under the twin towers of Wembley was the perfect occasion. This time England were going to beat Germany with a flourish and signal a change in football’s world order at the start of the new millennium. But of course, on a wet and miserable afternoon the Germans won again, an emotional Kevin Keegan resigned in the tunnel and nothing had changed. Even if Germany was not the force of old, they still beat England, still left us feeling empty inside.

It was against this backdrop of misery that the World Cup qualifier took place almost exactly six years ago now in the late summer of 2001. With the German hoodoo firmly back in place over England, optimism was in short of supply. Media reports reminded everyone of Germany’s incredible 28 year unbeaten home record at the Olympic Stadium in Munich. And so we gathered around TV sets at home and in pubs and sure enough, within a few minutes Germany were ahead, Carthorse Jancker scoring his one goal for the season. But then a funny thing happened – England won. And they didn’t just win, they thrashed Germany 5-1. 5 goals! England couldn’t score five goals against Andorra’s amateurs. For an established football nation to concede five goals was unheard of; for Germany to concede five goals was unthinkable. The second half of that game was surreal to watch. Every time we had the ball we looked capable of scoring. Gerrard took it round Hamman then went back to nutmeg him for good measure. Even Heskey scored!

Germany still reached the final of the World Cup the following year, but I didn’t see them in the same light any more. They weren’t the unbeatable Germany that kept breaking English hearts. They were the Germany that England had beaten 5-1 and provided me with one of my happiest football memories ever.

This change in my perception of Germany was really brought home to me last year during the World Cup. England had just been knocked out of the competition in the quarter-finals and the question was raised among a group of friends who we wanted to win the trophy out of the remaining semi-finalists: France, Portugal, Italy and, inevitably, Germany. Now admittedly for many a diehard England fan this kind of choice would be like asking them whether they would prefer to stand in cat shit, dog shit, cow shit or horse shit. But a silence descended on the table. I had made my instinctive choice, but I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from inside. It felt wrong. It was like harbouring a desire for the ginger one in Girls Aloud. I felt I couldn’t tell the outside world of my preference for fear of being outcast from society. But then somebody blurted out, “Germany” and we all agreed. They were now the underdogs playing at a level above expectations.

All of which begs the question, who would I most like to see England beat? Nowadays it would have to be Argentina. Games between England and Argentina are always close, feisty and passionately contested. There’s also something about the likes of Maradona, Simeone and Crespo that raises the shout-at-the-TV decibel level too.

But who would you most like to see England beat? Are there purists out there who dream of seeing England beat Brazil? Do you feel that we’re due a big win against Portugal after 2004 and 2006? Are there Spurs fans out there who want to see England wup France because of Arsenal’s gallic connections? Or would you like to keep things local and beat the Scots because, after all, they’d love to stuff us? Or would you just settle for a scrappy 1-0 home win over Israel and take it from there?