The final goal at the old Wembley had all the hallmarks of a footballing fairytale: it was a long-range thunderbolt that snatched an unlikely win and gave the complacent favourites their comeuppance. Only problem was, those favourites were the hosts of the party. In the final match at England’s old national stadium, England were beaten by the Germans. Again.
There’s an irony that the party pooper in question would go on to become one of his country’s most popular players on these shores: a German whose long career in England left him with a cricket obsession and an enduring scouse-Bavarian twang. “It was a typical English day,” remembers Dietmar Hamann, speaking over the phone in that distinctive accent. He is talking about the downpour through which the World Cup qualifier was played, but he could easily be referring to how a much-hyped England fixture quickly became a spectacle of doomed disappointment.
“When we came out on to the pitch there were 80,000 fans singing ‘football’s coming home’, and we were just coming off the back of a really bad Euros [in 2000] where we got a lot of stick, and rightly so,” says Hamann. Germany had crashed out of that tournament bottom of their group, losing limply to England and scoring one goal in three games. “We were in a period of transition and hadn’t beaten a big team in a while. So it was a special win.”
It was a win sealed by a moment of quick thinking in the 16th minute when Germany won a foul in what looked like harmless enough territory, 35 yards or so from David Seaman’s goal. “They’d recently changed the rules about free-kicks – you didn’t have to ask the referee to take it quickly,” says Hamann. “England were a bit slow putting the wall up, Scholes was the only one there. So I just had a crack.” His shot skittered off the wet pitch and snuck in past a flat-footed Seaman. “He probably should have saved it, but the surface helped.”
Very quickly, Wembley’s goodbye party became more akin to a wake. England were turgid – “a performance as grey and soggy as the shocking weather” according to the Guardian’s report – while Hamann and co saw out the game with a show of unfussy keep-ball. To paraphrase Gary Lineker, 11 men chased a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans won. “Faulty towers for England” was the headline in the Express, which on the morning of the game had announced that “only one thing matters – one last goal before we say a sad goodbye: to overcome the Germans”.
But if events on the pitch were something of an anticlimax, the real drama was still to come: a distraught Kevin Keegan resigned minutes after the final whistle, delivering the news to his boss, David Davis, in the makeshift privacy of a Wembley toilet cubicle. Hamann’s goal had marked the end of an era. “Sven [Göran Eriksson] used to thank me for getting him the England job,” laughs the midfielder, who worked with the Swede at Leicester.
In the short term things worked out swimmingly for England, with Eriksson fast-tracking Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and Rio Ferdinand into the side and results soon hitting a steep upturn. When a thrilling young team stormed to a 5-1 win in the return fixture less than a year later, all signs pointed to an era of glory.
In fact, it was the Wembley game that better hinted at what was to come. With Seaman caught off guard from distance, an abject response to an early concession and a collective capacity to fall to the occasion, the defeat bore a strong resemblance to the way England would slump out of the forthcoming 2002 World Cup against Brazil, and many tournaments thereafter. And the fixture’s bipolar life-cycle – manic hype followed by a bleak performance and intense disappointment – was England’s ensuing decade in microcosm. Hamann’s goal had marked the start of an era, too.
England’s struggles were in stark contrast to Germany, a team without any real superstars who went on to reach the World Cup final in Japan. “If you go through the teams man for man, England had the better players,” says Hamann. “Whereas we were a bit similar to the Liverpool team I played in: we weren’t flash going forward, we were limited to a certain extent. But what we could do was defend.
“England’s ‘golden generation’ were top-class players, all of them, but no manager ever was able to create that togetherness, that team spirit. I always felt that there were quite a few players who tried to play that final pass themselves. They had three or four who felt, ‘If I don’t play the long ball now, if I give it to a teammate, then he will look good and not me.’ With the players they had, they should have done more in major competitions. I think England for too long picked the best players, not the best team.”
Inevitably the defeat was taken by many in England as the ultimate battlefield humiliation (“Didi-day landing is bitter end for Keegan” read the back page of the News of the World), though having seen the rivalry from both angles, Hamann is in little doubt that it’s felt more keenly on one side than the other.
“I wouldn’t say the England games were any bigger than games against Spain or France,” he says. “In fact we had a bigger rivalry at that time with Argentina because we’d played them in two World Cup finals. Obviously England make a lot out of it, playing against the ‘Krauts’, but when it comes to these things I think we are more pragmatic.”
That clear-eyed pragmatism is on display when he reflects on the goal that made him a small part of English football history. “People often bring it up, and yeah, it’s an honour … I guess,” he chuckles. “But where does it stand in my career? It was a qualifier.”