20 years ago this September, England’s footballers lined-up to play Germany in Munich for a World Cup Qualifier and the omens weren’t great. The corresponding home fixture had taken place almost a year earlier and was memorable for all the wrong reasons – it was the last-ever game played beneath the old Wembley twin towers, England manager Kevin Keegan quit after the game, and the Germans won 1-0; oh, and it also pissed it down. The occasion was a far-from fitting send-off for the Empire Stadium. By contrast, Germany hadn’t lost a match at Munich’s Olympic Stadium for almost 30 years, and they’d only suffered defeat once in their previous sixty qualifiers – and that had been for the distant 1986 World Cup. With the exception of a 1-0 win in the group stages of Euro 2000, England’s competitive record against their old rivals since 1966 was pitiful and few anticipated anything other than a hammering for the visitors. However, in one of the all-time great England performances, Germany were blown away 5-1 in their own backyard.
This unexpected result raised expectations for England supporters beyond anything resembling realism for the forthcoming World Cup and also elevated relatively new manager Sven-Göran Eriksson to a lofty status he didn’t entirely warrant. So euphoric was the response to the 5-1 victory that it even inspired a dire hit record by ‘comedy’ duo Bell & Spurling; but at least the inaccurate line in the song that Eriksson ‘looks like Jimmy Savile’ should secure its place in permanent oldie oblivion. The 5-1 score-line was regarded by some as a national morale-booster, but just ten days after the fixture 9/11 happened and all the optimism for the future the result had generated evaporated overnight. Suddenly, the future didn’t seem such a great place after all.
Fast forward to yesterday’s England Vs Germany game in the delayed Euro 2020 tournament and the 2-0 win for the home team against the old enemy was again viewed in some quarters as precisely the tonic the country needed. The situation now is very different from 2001, however. One wonders why the nation required a morale-booster 20 years ago. What did we have to complain about? Nobody bar a few trainee pilots knew what was just around the corner, the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (and their endless ramifications) hadn’t yet happened, and – best of all – there was no coronavirus pandemic. To employ a well-worn line beloved of the elderly, we didn’t know when we were well-off. Yet, after the kind of twelve months and-a-bit we’ve just endured, a victory by the England national team over a country that has pooped so many English parties over the past half-century – 1970, 1990 and 1996 in particular – probably was a good thing, if only because it meant those that care had something to cheer about again.
That last week before the War on Terror kicked-off and ushered in the modern age was the closing chapter of a decade of relative global stability and general optimism. It seemed to be the point at which the trend of each successive generation being better off than the one preceding it ground to a halt. Various unrelated elements were gradually conspiring to bring about this state of affairs – and it’s fair to speculate the good life was living on borrowed time for the second half of the 90s; but the single horrific incident of 9/11 now retrospectively feels like the symbolic full stop that ended one epoch and began another. Nothing that has happened since then has been worth celebrating in the way the demolition of the Berlin Wall or the end of Apartheid was – there’s been nothing comparable to what those events represented. Instead, what Adam Curtis labelled ‘the politics of fear’ has become the ongoing pessimistic narrative. Two decades of relentlessly negative headlines concerning Islamic terrorism and a climate apocalypse have combined with the establishment of battle-lines in which issues such as Brexit, Trump and Identity Politics are the divisive ammunition the entrenched sides hurl at each other. And then we get Covid, lockdowns and the imposition of a Communist Chinese design for life on the West.
In this respect, a trivial breather such as the England football team inflicting a well-deserved defeat on one of its oldest international rivals is bound to be embraced as a sign that things can only get better. Indeed, with more fans at Wembley than we have so far seen in this competition and some even engaging in communal celebrations without masks, things looked almost ‘normal’ yesterday. But, of course, they’re not. Even if England were to defy the odds and go on to win the tournament, it will only be a joyous respite from what we’re living through. Lest we forget, the executive boxes at Wembley will have been crammed with dignitaries for whom the restrictions the rest of us are still being forced to endure were quietly waived. Exemptions for the wealthy and powerful aren’t merely exclusive to UEFA bigwigs either.
The inevitable resignation of Matt Hancock – a man who could (and should) have been fired for far more damaging crimes than indulging in a bit of how’s-your-father with one of his taxpayer-funded aides – highlighted how some are being spared that which they preach to the plebs. New rules regarding ‘senior executives bringing economic benefit to the UK’ were sneakily announced by the Government this week. For all Sajid Javid’s efforts at making an instant impact in his new job by declaring all restrictions should be lifted by the middle of next month, until then those of us who don’t hold VIP status should be made aware that those who do are already enjoying the kind of freedoms that we all took for granted and shouldn’t by rights be denied us in a supposedly-free society.
According to these two-tier rules, ‘you may be permitted temporarily to leave quarantine for coronavirus in England if you are a senior executive in a business’. These include ‘multinational executives – executives based overseas who are part of multinational firms and visiting their UK subsidiaries or branches’ and ‘international executives – executives of overseas companies normally based overseas who are seeking to undertake exempt activity in England related to either making a financial investment in UK based business or establishing a new business within the UK’. So, that’s thee and me excluded, then. Any mention of the word ‘executive’ instantly evokes a certain loathsome type who would describe himself as such, and that type was best represented in a Fry & Laurie sketch around 30 years ago when Hugh Laurie played a smarmy businessman insistent on referring to the breakfast lounge of the hotel he was staying at as ‘the executive breakfast lounge’ simply because it made him sound more important than he actually was. As satire, I think it retains remarkable relevance.
The doom-mongering Mekon of SAGE Prof. Chris Whitty, fresh from his unsettling encounter with members of the public who – depending on which source you believe – either heckled him or simply requested a selfie, is now safely back in his bubble and issuing pessimistic predictions of autumnal lockdowns, so we’d best enjoy this little moment of permitted euphoria while we can. However, as much as politicians may like to hitch a ride on the England football bandwagon in the hope some feelgood vibes might rub off on them – and as removed from the terraces as the whole corporate carnival of Euro 2020 (21?) might be – the joy many feel at the win over the Germans is a purely spontaneous celebration born of hereditary national pride utterly detached from knee-taking and rainbow flag-waving and all the other officially-sanctioned gestures granted by a ruling elite who actually despise such simple, non-ideological patriotism. So, whether you give a shit or not, make the most of it while it lasts. And hopefully it will last longer than Saturday’s Quarter Final against Ukraine in Rome.
© The Editor