Stade du Pays de Charleroi, Charleroi, 17.06.2000
– / Shearer 53.
If the Mannschaft had been fortunate to draw with Romania in their first match, England’s tournament opener against Portugal had been nothing short of a disaster for the Three Lions. Having stormed into a two-goal lead with less than twenty minutes on the clock, Kevin Keegan’s side lost their shape and composure completely as the Portuguese rallied brilliantly to win 3-2. With the Iberians then beating Romania 1-0, Keegan knew for certain that a second defeat against Germany would send his side spinning out of the tournament with a game to spare.
A match-up between England and Germany had always been billed as a classic, but there was a distinctly depressing feel about this encounter in the appropriately grey Belgian city of Charleroi. There was little on paper between the two teams: the Germans may have been an ageing side, but what they lacked in mobility and youth was more than made up by Keegan’s lack of tactical acumen – long seen by many commentators as the England coach’s achilles heel. Both sides also had their own issues off the pitch: many analysts in England had long expressed their reservations about Keegan’s tactics and coaching abilities, while in the German camp Erich Ribbeck was finding it increasingly difficult to engender team spirit and unity – a situation that had not been helped by his continued decision to field the ageing Lothar Matthäus.
With team spirit already at a low ebb, things would be made considerably worse when skipper Oliver Bierhoff damaged his calf in training, ruling him out of not just the England game but the remainder of the tournament. It would be a critical blow to the side: not only was Bierhoff the skipper, he was the side’s talisman – the hero of 1996 – and the only genuine threat in what was otherwise a toothless attack. Bierhoff’s injury would be the third such withdrawal by a key player in as many tournaments for the Nationalmannschaft, following on from Rudi Völler in 1992 and Jürgen Kohler in 1996.
Bierhoff had been one of those senior players who had been highly critical of Ribbeck and his tactics – particularly the decision to persist with playing Matthäus. The coach had promised to discuss these issues with the squad, but when things didn’t go his way he simply chose to put his foot down. In the build up to what was set to be the Mannschaft’s most important match so far, the injured skipper and his coach were not even speaking to each other.
Ribbeck would make a number of changes to his starting lineup, with Markus Babbel being moved back into the defence in place of Thomas Linke and Dietmar Hamann replacing the injured Thomas Häßler in midfield; the average age of the starting eleven would also be reduced dramatically by the introduction of the twenty year-old Hertha BSC Wunderkind Sebastian Deisler, who joined Hamann, Jens Jeremies and Christian Ziege in a four-man midfield unit. With Mehmet Scholl in a free-floating role just ahead of the midfield, the team would be completed with a two-man attack consisting of the thirty-four year-old Ulf Kirsten and the lumbering giant Carsten Jancker, both of whom would make their start in place of the injured Bierhoff and the woefully disappointing Paulo Rink.
The vast majority of the noisy thirty-thousand crowd were decked in white and red, and delivered a pitifully predictable chorus of boos, jeers and whistles that blocked out the German national anthem; the German supporters for their part attempted to do the same, but the few lame chants of “Deutschland!” were quickly drowned out by what sounded like the entire ground singing God Save the Queen. To the German players, it must have felt like a more compact version of Wembley.
For reasons unknown to most, both teams sported their away strips, with the Mannschaft in an all-green outfit and England attempting to revive the spirit of 1966 in a red and white ensemble. It was a dry and pleasant June evening, and the distinctively scary Pierluigi Collina – a dead ringer for Mr. Barlow from the movie Salem’s Lot, though not quite as bright blue – would get things under way.
The first twenty minutes saw little from either side; Germany had most of the possession but had nothing to show for it save a Christian Ziege free-kick which sailed high over the crossbar and a Dietmar Hamann shot from distance that was easily collected by David Seaman, and the obvious lack of quality in both sides was startlingly evident. The first genuine opportunity fell to the Germans with just over a quarter of the game gone, but Mehmet Scholl’s scuffed shot was easily collected by Seaman when he could and perhaps should have laid it into the path of the unmarked Ulf Kirsten.
As the game reached the half-hour mark the Germans had been the slightly better side – not that this really meant that much. With the play being tightly condensed in the middle of the field, distribution was poor and passes were continually being overhit; while England were prepared to sit back and let the opposition run at them, the German midfield was clearly lacking its customary craft and control. While the Portuguese had been able to successfully exploit England’s technical and tactical ineptitude, the Germans simply returned it with interest; it all made for a rather uninspiring spectacle.
Ten minutes before half-time England almost broke the deadlock with their first real attack, as Michael Owen’s well-timed header from Phil Neville’s cross was pushed against the post by Oliver Kahn who up to that point had been little more than an interested spectator. Suddenly the pace started to pick up: both David Beckham and Jens Jeremies found their way into Mr. Collina’s notebook, and Paul Scholes tested Kahn with a crisp chestdown and snapshot before Hamann shot wide at the other end.
Eight minutes into the second half, England won a free-kick out on the right, which was delivered into the German box by David Beckham. Eluding everybody, the ball fell perfectly for skipper Alan Shearer at the far post, who had escaped his marker Markus Babbel to drill his header past the helpless Kahn on the bounce. England were in front.
Having looked so insipid in attack for the best part of an hour, the men in green appeared to have been shaken from their stupor as they upped a gear. Two minutes after falling behind they could very well have been back in the game, as a Babbel ball into the box was neatly collected by Jancker who swivelled neatly but was unable to keep his shot down. Moments afterwards they had an even better opportunity, as Lothar Matthäus’ looping pass into the box caught the entire England defence cold to find Mehmet Scholl, who dragged his shot agonisingly wide of the far post.
If the Germans might have felt slightly unlucky at the scoreline, this would be magnified in the sixty-fifth minute. Having won a corner out on the right, Scholl’s kick was nodded on by Markus Babbel, finding Kirsten who stabbed the ball towards the goal where it was hacked away by Seaman. With the England ‘keeper stranded, the ball fell to Jancker, who sent the ball spinning wide of the post. The big man clearly had more time than he thought, but from this it clearly looked as though it was neither going to be his nor his team’s night.
Germany would have numerous chances to score, but would spurn every golden opportunity. Here Carsten Jancker shoots wide with the goal at his mercy
This feeling of foreboding was heightened with twenty minutes to go, when Ribbeck sent on Paulo Rink for Ulf Kirsten and Michael Ballack for Sebastian Deisler. Rink had been completely ineffective in the opening game against Romania and summed up the dearth of available talent up front, while Deisler’s removal was more than a little surprising given that he had been one of the few players who had provided anything of substance in what had been an uninspired team performance. The disappointing Jens Jeremies was then replaced by the slightly more adventurous Marco Bode, but the spark of inspiration remained elusive.
The last twenty minutes were something of a damp squib, with England content to defend their lead and Germany playing with what could best be described as an unproductive desperation. Despite throwing everything forward in the final minutes they failed to really threaten the England goal; Rink showed a split-second of brilliance with five minutes left, but having skipped past his marker to engineer a shooting chance he provided the perfect illustration of his one-footedness, sending the ball closer to the corner flag than the opposition net.
When the final whistle blew England had recorded their first competitive victory against any German side since 1966, while the defending champions found themselves teetering on the brink of elimination. Their chance to redeem themselves would come three days later in their final game against a Portuguese side that had already made it into the last eight: nothing less than a win would do, and even then they would have to rely on England not getting a point against Romania.
Germany: Kahn (c) – Babbel, Matthäus, Nowotny – Deisler (72. Ballack), Hamann, Jeremies (78. Bode), Ziege – Scholl – Kirsten (70. Rink), Jancker
England: Seaman – G. Neville, Keown, Campbell, P. Neville – Beckham, Ince, Scholes (72. Barmby), Wise – Shearer, Owen (61. Gerrard)
Referee: Pierluigi Collina (Italy)
Assistants: Sergio Zuccolini (Italy), Carlos Martin Nieto (Spain)
Fourth Official: Gamal El Ghandour (Egypt)
Yellow Cards: Jeremies, Babbel / Beckham
Red Cards: – / –