Can there be a better feeling than watching England beat Germany 2-0 at Wembley, after a pandemic that has lasted for a year and a half?
On Tuesday evening, as the referee blew the final whistle and confirmed England’s first knockout victory over the Germans in my lifetime, I couldn’t immediately think of one.
‘We haven’t seen scenes like this in a football ground for a long, long time,’ said the BBC’s Guy Mowbray after the first goal. He was right — not just because it symbolised a nation’s release after months of lockdown, but because it was so rare for us to be in the lead against Germany.
As Wembley erupted in flags and songs, I thought back to previous defeats by our Teutonic cousins, seared into the memory of anybody who, like me, spends far too much emotional energy on England’s footballers.
Can there be a better feeling than watching England beat Germany 2-0 at Wembley, after a pandemic that has lasted for a year and a half? (pictured, Harry Kane celebrates scoring the second goal against Germany)
First was the World Cup semi-final in 1990, when I was still at school. Gary Lineker’s goal, Gazza’s tears, Chris Waddle’s penalty . . . if you’re about my age, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Then, in the semi-final of Euro 96, came another soul-sapping shootout. Alan Shearer scored early, and football was coming home. Then, after a German equaliser and two hours of bitten nails, Gareth Southgate stepped up . . . and you probably know the rest.
In the grand scheme of things, football might seem utterly trivial. And yet, like so many apparently unimportant things, it matters. You don’t even have to like it to see that.
Rightly or wrongly, the game dominates the hopes and dreams of millions of ordinary people across the country. Often, it sets the national mood.
So when England beat West Germany to win the World Cup in 1966, it set the seal on the Swinging Sixties, a golden summer of optimism and opportunity, presided over by a football-loving prime minister in Labour’s Harold Wilson.
Perhaps it was no coincidence, then, that when England lost their crown in Mexico in June 1970 — beaten by, surprise, surprise, the Germans — Wilson suffered a shock election defeat just four days later.
In a flash, the 1960s were over. As Wilson never tired of telling his aides, football really did matter after all.
So I hope even football-haters will forgive me when I suggest that Tuesday’s match, too, could be a landmark moment.
After all, England will never have a better chance of winning silverware, with a Wembley semi-final and, God willing, a Wembley final awaiting them if they can win the atch tonight.
As is often the way, the timing could hardly be better. The worst of the pandemic, thank goodness, seems behind us. A summer of freedom lies ahead.
Is it fanciful, then, to hope that, one day, historians will see England’s landmark victory over our most formidable foe as one that presages something much bigger? After all, for the first time since those early rumours emerged from Wuhan, there really are reasons to be cheerful.
Let’s start with the obvious: the virus itself. Thanks to the Delta variant, Covid infections have risen again, with almost 28,000 new cases reported on Thursday.
Over this past week, there were, on average, just 16 deaths a day from Covid. Each was an individual tragedy. But in a country where 85 per cent of adults have had at least one vaccine dose, they are not figures to terrify us into another lockdown
But there’s no doubt that the vaccines are working — and far better than anybody predicted. As the Mail showed in graphs this week, hospital admissions and, crucially, deaths are far below the levels in the first waves.
Over this past week, there were, on average, just 16 deaths a day from Covid. Each was an individual tragedy. But in a country where 85 per cent of adults have had at least one vaccine dose, they are not figures to terrify us into another lockdown.
No wonder, then, that at Wimbledon on Monday, the spectators rose as one to applaud the scientist Dame Sarah Gilbert, who designed the life-saving Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. It’s no exaggeration to describe her as the woman who has given us our freedom.
As Britain opens up, of course, cases are bound to rise. Most scientists agree the final stages of the Euros, as well as greater mixing over the summer holidays, will bring more infections.
Yet there’s no reason to fear a surge in deaths. Covid may never go away, but the vast majority of us can look forward to resuming our normal lives.
And what a refreshing change that the new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, recognises the importance of getting Britain moving again.
In stark contrast to his predecessor, Matt Hancock, who was clearly distracted by his own version of social distancing, Mr Javid has made all the right noises from the outset.
His mission, he said this week, was to ‘help return the economic and cultural life that makes this country so great’.
And rejecting talk of delaying Freedom Day, set for July 19, he reminded the Commons that no date ‘comes with zero risk for Covid. We cannot eliminate it, instead we have to learn to live with it’.
Unlike his hapless predecessor, Mr Javid is a serious politician. The state-educated son of a Pakistani bus driver, he worked his way up to become a senior figure at Deutsche Bank, and served as both Business Secretary and Chancellor.
He knows, in other words, that it’s vital to get our economic engines roaring again, not least because economic health and public health are so closely entwined.
To put it bluntly, we can’t sustain the NHS on debt forever. At some point, Britain’s businesses must start making money, not least because we need the tax revenue to fund the estimated 2.4 million operations cancelled during the pandemic.
But the signs from Whitehall are promising. On Thursday evening the Prime Minister was absolutely explicit, promising that within weeks we will have returned to ‘a world that is as close to the status quo, ante-Covid, as possible’.
On Thursday evening the Prime Minister was absolutely explicit, promising that within weeks we will have returned to ‘a world that is as close to the status quo, ante-Covid, as possible’
So on July 19, it looks as if we can forget the rule of six, the one-metre rule and the 30-person limit, which is great news for festivals, theatres and wedding planners.
No more bubbles, no more social distancing. No more instructions to work from home either. And above all, no more of those masks, a grim necessity very few of us have learned to love.
What else? Well, without getting too carried away, there’s a decent chance that some of us might get abroad this summer, after all.
In yet another defeat for the Germans — and yes, I know I’m gloating — Spain, Portugal and Greece have roundly rejected Angela Merkel’s scheme to keep British tourists out of Europe. Boris will have been stressing to the German Chancellor the importance of opening up on her visit to Britain yesterday.
The Government is reportedly close to agreeing a deal with Brussels, allowing fully jabbed Britons to use the NHS app as a vaccine passport, which means we can visit Europe without punitive restrictions.
And now for the really good news, on which Britain’s future really depends. The economic outlook, which I feared would be utterly bleak as Covid receded, is rather sunnier than most of us expected.
According to the latest projection by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Britain’s economy is set to grow by 7.1 per cent this year, the fastest rate since 1941. And next year should see the boom continue, with growth of about 5.5 per cent.
Other figures tell the same story. The Confederation of British Industry’s quarterly index of manufacturing output, which has been running since 1975, has just shown the biggest surge in its history.
And some analysts estimate that British households have saved a staggering £190 billion in lockdown — money people can hardly wait to spend on restaurant meals, holidays, evenings out and other consumer pleasures.
What about jobs? Well, the end of the furlough scheme will probably bring short-term pain for some. But in huge numbers of businesses there is currently a staff shortage — one that is actually limiting their capacity.
The truth is that, at 4.7 per cent, unemployment is nowhere near as bad as many predicted it would be a year ago, and not remotely as bad as it was in, say, the 1980s.
For four months in a row, the jobless rate has fallen. And the Bank of England’s outgoing chief economist Andy Haldane has even warned that inflation — currently 2.1 per cent, but likely to rise to about 4 per cent by the end of the year — could prove a greater threat than unemployment, with too much money chasing too few goods.
That’s a useful reminder there are bound to be bumps in the road. The current house price explosion — up by 13.4 per cent in the past year, the fastest rise since 2004 — is bound to end eventually. And if it coincides with a spike in interest rates to cope with inflation, then that could spell trouble for some homeowners.
But this is the kind of nuts-and-bolts issue normal governments face all the time. It’s a return to normal life — hardly an existential threat.
And here’s another reason to be cheerful: Brexit. Yes, you read that right. Some readers may recall that I voted Remain, largely because I was worried about the economic dangers.
But the sky patently hasn’t fallen in, as so many Remainers predicted. Indeed, just this week Nissan unveiled plans for a new £1 billion factory in the North-East, creating some 6,200 jobs and making 100,000 electric-car batteries a year.
Just this week Nissan unveiled plans for a new £1 billion factory in the North-East, creating some 6,200 jobs and making 100,000 electric-car batteries a year
As the Mail’s Alex Brummer wrote yesterday, this was the most important industrial decision taken by a major international giant in Britain since the referendum in 2016. And it’s also a victory for Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda, as well a sign to the world that Britain is well and truly open for business.
Nissan’s chief operating officer Ashwani Gupta even said: ‘Brexit gives us the competitive advantage not only within the United Kingdom but outside the United Kingdom also.’ Quite a change of tone for the company, as he admitted: ‘Brexit, which we thought is a risk . . . has become an opportunity for Nissan.’
No doubt there will be more Brexit twists to come, such as the recent row about Brussels’s absurd attempt to stop Britain selling sausages to Northern Ireland.
But there are welcome signs even here that the EU are beginning to yield to reason, since they have agreed to a three-month extension for the much-maligned British sausage, and are beginning to talk about cooperation rather than obstruction.
The hysterical cultural politics of the past 12 months, inflamed by the reaction to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, also seem to be receding from view.
This time last year, I was writing in these pages about the appalling violence and vandalism in London, where the Cenotaph had to be boarded up to protect it from Left-wing activists.
The headlines were dominated by Black Lives Matter, and all the talk was of intractable division and supposedly ‘systemic’ racism.
But in the past few weeks, I’ve detected a distinct weariness with this whole poisonous, cynical and exploitative business. And this brings me back to England’s footballers.
Some are white, some black, some mixed-race. But really, who cares? Watching them on Tuesday evening, nobody could possibly question their skill, spirit and love of country — all of which would have made their predecessors proud.
After so many lectures about Britain’s supposed racism, how heartening it is to see England’s top goalscorer, Raheem Sterling, hailed as a hero by the Wembley faithful.
And how splendid to see the manager, Gareth Southgate, an impressively articulate, decent and patriotic man, redeemed after his penalty agony against the Germans a quarter of a century ago.
How splendid to see the manager, Gareth Southgate, an impressively articulate, decent and patriotic man, redeemed after his penalty agony against the Germans a quarter of a century ago
Patriotism is a dirty word in liberal intellectual circles, I know. Earlier this year, when Labour’s beleaguered leader Keir Starmer floated plans to embrace the Union Flag, some of his own MPs accused him of flirting with the far-Right.
But one of the many wonderful things about Tuesday night was that it reminded us just how patriotic most ordinary Britons are. Despite all the hullabaloo of the past year, most of us cherish our history, love our country and are proud to fly our flag.
And let’s face it, we have so much to be patriotic about, don’t we? Not just Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish, but a world-leading vaccine programme, a booming economy, the end of restrictions and a renewed sense of national optimism.
If tonight’s match goes to plan, and the Wembley crowd roars our boys to victory on Wednesday, then next Sunday England could be just 90 minutes away from our first title since 1966. Now that really would be the stuff of patriotic dreams.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First things first. Bring on the Ukrainians!