They say anything can happen in football. But England’s repeated defeats against the well-oiled German machine through the years belied that particular adage. For England, however, this was the day – a 2-0 result sending Gareth Southgate’s side into the quarter-finals.
The prevailing mood as fans gathered to watch the last-16 match in the Trafalgar Square fan zone on an overcast Tuesday afternoon had ranged from quiet confidence to bold optimism, with a consensus that even with their poor record against Germany, the stars were aligning and England’s luck was about to change.
“Germany’s not very good at the moment, and the English team are fit and young,” said an excited Jamie Booth about an hour before kick-off. England hadn’t beaten their rivals in the knockout stages of a major tournament since 1966, but for 28-year-old Booth, sporting a blue-and-white hat emblazoned with the iconic Three Lions mantra, “It’s coming home”, that was then and this is now.
As the crowd began to filter in, intermittently shielding themselves and their pints from the rain with flimsy plastic ponchos turned self-fashioned headbands, the atmosphere was distinctly and overwhelmingly positive, in part stemming from a determination to manifest an England win, but most were spurred on by a sheer force of faith in Gareth Southgate’s team. Most predicted an England win, whether in 90 minutes or in an extra 30.
Despite their worries over tweaks to the English formation and nerves about England’s long history of losing to Germany, students Alex Cowling and Devan Wasam, both 19 and draped in the flag of St George, were still confident it would be a clean sweep for Southgate’s side. “I’m nervous, I can’t lie, it’s risky. But I think the side is balanced and they’ll come through with a masterstroke. I see us going through to the quarter-finals,” said an assured Wasam.
Even the prospect of a dreaded penalty shootout couldn’t dampen Harry Barlow and Omar Ali’s spirits – in fact, rather the opposite. “This is a new England. The side has good penalty-takers, they’re young, fit, confident – I believe we could win this,” said a vibey Ali as the pair bopped to Mas Que Nada, pints in hand, undeterred by the brief downpour drenching the square and determined to bring their own sun to the event.
“It’s just meant to be, we’ve got perfect English weather and the German defence isn’t great,” added Barlow, cocooned in the English flag and confident the day had come when England would avenge their painful knockout defeat by Germany in 2010. “It’s got to be fate.” Brothers David and Rob Compton were just as positively jubilant. “The draw is so easy. It’s coming home, mate!”
But not everybody had set their hopes quite as high. Friends Dan and Harry squarely raised their brows, ready to bring a characteristic dose of healthy British cynicism to the whole affair.
“Based on last night’s game, I don’t think it’ll be as good a match for England,” said a nervous Dan, 25. “We had our amazing football day yesterday,” he said, referring to an epic match between France and Switzerland, featuring six goals and a shock French exit from the championship, and Spain’s 5-3 extra time victory over World Cup finalists Croatia. He didn’t expect anything quite as thrilling from this game, though he also predicted an England win on penalties. “I reckon we’ll scrape by.”
But it was indeed optimism and self-belief that won the day, with late second-half goals from Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane sending beer spraying into the air and flags flying against the grey skies of central London as the crowd roared with joy. As they broke into Three Lions, standing and swaying arm-in-arm on tabletops, and belting out the lyrics from the heart, organisers unsuccessfully tried to remind people to maintain social distancing and stay in their bubbles.
In a championship that has seen the back of so many favourites, including France and now Germany, there is a sense that this time could be different. “It just proves anything can happen,” said 26-year-old Sarah Asher on her way to the pub to celebrate England’s first knockout win against Germany in 55 years.
“This could be the team to finally shake off all that history we’ve carried as a nation. That warrants having tomorrow morning off work too, if you ask me.”