Germany were better than England but not as much as everyone says. The disallowed goal was the first critical moment because 2-2 at half-time would have made it a completely different game, England would have had momentum and Germany would not have been able to play on the break in the second half. The second critical moment was Gareth Barry’s failure to hit the ball first time from an England corner; he tried to trap it, failed and Germany scored the third from the break. Up until then I was fairly confident England would equalise as they were in control.
Germany would still have been a better team than England but, as everyone who knows the game knows, football is a game in which the worse team often wins, through luck, fight and critical moments of inspiration or individual error. Being the superior team merely increases, in theory, your odds of creating more chances than your opponent. Over a league season the best team always wins; in knockouts they often don’t. The margins are very fine: for the winners, flukes are always forgotten and for losers bad luck is never forgiven.
In hindsight it is easy and fun to say how rubbish we were because the thing we English enjoy most after winning is wallowing in a loss. At the World Cup finals there is only one winner and 31 losers. Therefore there will always be reasons why 31 teams failed. For England, take your pick.
None of which is to excuse the consistently poor showings of this so-called ‘Golden Generation’, a team of neurotic talents who have underperformed every time they’ve been put on the big stage. This time, Capello found a way to make them perform in the qualifiers, but failed in the tournament. In tournament football, you just need to get lucky enough to find a team that functions for a brief period. Capello’s biggest mistake was sticking rigidly to a formula which obviously wasn’t functioning in this particular brief period. But then again, had that Lampard goal stood, he might have won, and there’d be another roll of the dice and another chance for it to suddenly click.
The ‘root and branch’ theories about why English football is doomed to failure are irrelevant. England’s cricketers have been pummelled for years for their poor limited-overs efforts. The rest of the world, we were told, had left us way behind, we’ve got it wrong at the root. Suddenly, by who knows what series of flukes and inspirations, the team has found a way to function and we’re world T20 champions and duffing up the Aussies at will. The strange thing about sport is that you never know when success might suddenly sneak up on you. Mostly, it doesn’t, and the default state for sports fans is suffering and disappointment. This is something that those for whom sport is a constant companion, rather than a quadrennial distraction, know in their bones.