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31/05/2006

1966 revisted

Andrew Anthony envisages the World Cup as a straight line to an Anglo-German showdown - in which his team will triumph.

Swept up in World Cup fever, the Folio magazine of the Neue Zürchner Zeitung commissioned a whole string of authors to elucidate on their respective teams' chances of victory. Read Rodrigo Fresan on Argentina, Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro on Brazil, Herve Le Teiller on France, Robert Gernhardt on Germany and and Leon de Winter on the Netherlands. More to follow as the championship approaches...

There are, if you're prepared to look hard enough, a number of reasons why England could win the World Cup this summer. Most obviously, the team has in Wayne Rooney the kind of exceptional talent without which very few sides triumph on the world stage. Not only is the comic-book manchild blessed with power, speed and an unlikely balletic grace, he also seems to thrive on the big occasion.

In addition, it's not overly partisan to suggest that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are the two finest all-round midfield players in Europe and arguably the world. To win that argument it's important to emphasise the 'all-round'. There may be players with greater technical ability and more of that baffling quality that in prosaic England we call 'flair', but none that have more box-to-box influence.

Then we must factor in Michael Owen, a consistent goal-scorer with an excellent record in World Cups. Owen may never again play with the youthful abandon that he premiered, to such devastating effect, in France in 1998, but he retains a cold eye for the half-chance. At the back there is a solid defence based around experienced defenders like Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand, not to mention the indefatigable John Terry. And Paul Robinson is the best goalkeeper to emerge in England in more than a decade. If Ashley Cole is fit and David Beckham recaptures his best form, it makes for a formidable line up.

There are other positive signs, too. The average age of the team is just under 28 – which is the average of age of World Cup winners. And the competition is in Europe, where a non-European team has only once triumphed (Brazil in 1958). Those, then, are the reasons why England could win the World Cup.

However, the reason why England will win the World Cup has little to do with talent or precedent and everything to do with geography and history. And what we might, in a more poetic mode, call destiny. Germany, the hosts of the World Cup, are England's most – how shall I put it? – enduring rivals. People of my age (I'll be 44 this summer) and younger can only recall German triumph in major competitions.

I still clearly remember 1970 – the first World Cup in colour – when England were 2-0 up with 20 minutes to go and cruising towards the semi-finals in Mexico. Actually, it's not remembering so much as feeling – like an old wound. So confident was the coach, Sir Alf Ramsay of victory that he took off the talismanic Bobby Charlton. Suddenly Franz Beckenbauer remembered how good he was and West Germany, as the team and nation then was, somehow drew level and then snatched a winner out of the thin high-altitude air of Leon.

It was an introduction to the relentless German spirit that would cast a psychological shadow over generations of English footballers. The England teams of Italia 90 and Euro 96 were both penalised by an inferiority complex that formed in the aftermath of that extraordinary comeback. And the penalty they both paid was to lose on penalties.

There was one momentary respite, it's true, when England defeated Germany 5-1 in Munich in the qualifying tournament for the last World Cup. But what then happened? Germany went on to sneak through the back door and right on through to the final. England limped out in the quarter-finals.

If a mediocre German side can almost beat Brazil in the final in Seoul, what could they achieve on home territory? The answer, I suggest, is to reach the final again, where I feel confident they will meet England, forty years after the two last met in the World Cup final at Wembley.

To do this England, I think, will have to come second in their first round group, and thereby avoid Germany – who will undoubtedly finish first in theirs – until the final. Given that England's group contains Sweden, a familiar bogey team for us, the task of finishing group runner's up is one that is well within team's slow-starting abilities.

It also means that we shall avoid Argentina, another team that, like fine wine and foreign languages, triggers neurotic self-doubt in the English psyche. Which leaves us to negotiate Italy, Brazil and France. Italy do not worry me, which, naturally, worries me. Brazil have the best player in the world in Ronaldinho, but on the evidence of the current crop of Brazilians plying their trade in Europe, they don't have a great deal else.

And France have the second-best player in the world, Thierry Henry. But, again, who else? Vieira is aging, it's over for Zidane, Pires is a bit-player at Arsenal. There are some promising youngsters but they show no sign, as yet, of merging into a world-beating team.

So it will be Germany versus England, four decades on from 1966 and all that. I predict that, as on that occasion, the Germans will display an unbeatable determination. And I also predict that, as on that glorious day, England will beat them.

*

Andrew Anthony has been writing for The Observer since 1993. He has also written for The Guardian on and off for 15 years. He is the author of On Penalties, which explores the metaphysics of the penalty shoot-out.


This article forms part of compilation of writings orignally published in the Neue Zürchner Zeitung magazine Folio on May 2, 2006.

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