Portrait of England coach Gareth Southgate before the European Championship final

WGareth Southgate has known since June 26, 1996 that failure means. In the semi-finals of the home European championship, Germany will face penalties at Wembley Stadium. The English coaches Terry Venables and Bryan Robson go in search of shooters. After some experienced professionals ducked away, they came to Southgate, 25 years old, ninth international: “If there was a sixth, would you shoot him?”

It was like a bolt from the blue for him, Southgate later wrote about it. That evening he said yes anyway. Shortly afterwards Robson comes back to ask him one more thing: “Have you ever shot one?” The rest is known. The first five shooters of both teams hit with dreamlike security, then Southgate runs up, shoots weakly, Andreas Köpke parries. Because then Andreas Möller meets, the English summer fairy tale is over.

“Thirty Years of Pain”

The semi-final almost exactly a quarter of a century ago has dug deeply into the English football psyche. It has continued and consolidated the previously created story of failure as a self-fulfilling prophecy: the “thirty years of pain”, which was sung about in 1996 in the wonderful football anthem “Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home)”, turned into more than fifty.

And if you had put a few pounds on it in 2016 that that would change under that pale Gareth Southgate, who had just taken over the post of national coach on an interim basis – even the English would have considered him crazy rather than quirky.

That is quite a bit of prehistory, but it helps to understand the emotional force that unfolds the path of the English team, which on Wednesday evening led to the final of a major tournament for the first time since 1966 (Sunday, 9 p.m. in the FAZ live ticker for football -EM as well as on ZDF and MagentaTV). And why it is so special that Southgate, born on September 3, 1970 in Watford, Hertfordshire, should go down in history as the one who freed the football nation from its curse – if only because this time even Germany was defeated.

Southgate, who played unglamorous football at Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough FC, is in the comfortable position of coaching a luxury squad. If you want to criticize something, it is that it often turns into a rather puritanical football.

His undisputed merit, however, is to have put the drama-prone English national team back on solid, rational ground and ensured an excellent spirit. Southgate is not only a master of soft skills, but also a man with manners – so almost an eccentric in the overall picture of English football.

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