DOHA, Qatar — Remember 1966? You might have heard it mentioned every now and then by an England football fan, player or coach. And here’s why: It was the last time England beat a previous World Cup winner in the knockout stages of the competition.
That’s right. Not since 1966 has an England team secured a knockout victory against a former world champion, or even a team that has previously played in a World Cup final.
The 1966 World Cup was obviously a high point in more ways than one. Alf Ramsey’s team beat previous finalists Argentina (1930) in the quarterfinals before going on to win the World Cup for the only time to date by defeating West Germany (1954 World Cup winners) in the final at Wembley. Ever since then, the Three Lions have tried and failed to “bring it home” when playing in the World Cup and, more often than not, their hopes have been extinguished by a team with at least one gold star above their national badge.
Beating one of those superpower nations in a World Cup knockout game is a significant hurdle for any team to overcome, and England must summon the spirit of 1966 all over again on Saturday when they face reigning world champions — and two-time World Cup winners — France in the quarterfinal at Al Bayt Stadium.
However, while England have faced the likes of Brazil, Germany and Argentina in the past with hope rather than belief that they could win through, this time feels different. Gareth Southgate’s squad now know how to manage tournament football better than any England team since 1966. They reached the semifinals at Russia 2018, losing to Croatia in Moscow, and then a first major final since 1966 by qualifying for the Euro 2020 final last year. A defeat against Italy on penalties in the final at Wembley denied England a first trophy since 1966.
It means that when England face France this Saturday, the two teams will will be on (almost) level footing. Didier Deschamps’ side have scaled the summit of the mountain that England are determined to climb, but at least England now know how to get far enough beyond base camp to be able to see their desired destination. And this time, there is no sense that England lack belief against a fellow major nation in a tournament.
“We’re playing the world champions, but we are two good teams that will go toe-to-toe,” England defender Kyle Walker said earlier this week. “We have great talent and, in my eyes, neither team is the underdogs or the favourites.”
The Three Lions have made it to the quarterfinals as the top scorers at Qatar 2022 with 12 goals in four games. Midfielder Jack Grealish echoed Walker’s self-belief by saying that there is a mood of confidence within Southgate’s squad.
“We have been scoring goals, keeping clean sheets and controlling games, so we will go into the [France] game full of confidence,” Grealish said. “No doubt this game will be biggest test yet, but you’re never going to get to a World Cup final without playing the best. We know that if we do everything right and play the way we have been, then we can beat anyone on our day, and I think we have proven that in the last few games.”
When England lost 3-2 to West Germany in the quarterfinals at the 1970 World Cup, they were the reigning champions, but that defeat in Leon, Mexico, was the first of a sorry run of results against heavyweight opponents that needs to be broken if Southgate’s team are to reach the semifinals.
England failed to qualify for the 1974 and 1978 World Cups in West Germany and Argentina, respectively, and were eliminated at the second-round stage of Spain ’82 after failing to beat either Spain or West Germany in a second group phase in which the top team progressed to the semifinal. Four years later, in Mexico City, England lost 2-1 against Argentina in the quarterfinals — a game that has become legendary because two Diego Maradona goals, the first being his infamous “Hand of God” goal.
At Italia ’90, England made it to the semifinals, but lost on penalties to Germany in Turin. After missing out on qualification for USA ’94, they found themselves knocked out by Argentina again at France ’98, this time on penalties in the second round in Saint-Etienne.
The 2002 World Cup was the same old story: a quarterfinal exit in a 2-1 defeat against Brazil in Shizuoka, Japan. After being beaten on penalties in the Germany 2006 quarterfinals in Gelsenkirchen against Portugal — not a previous World Cup winner or finalist — England faced Germany in the second round at South Africa 2010 and lost 4-1 in Bloemfontein.
When England have made it to the semifinals since 1966 — in 1990 and 2018 — they have had a favourable route to that stage, beating Belgium and Cameroon in 1990 and Colombia and Sweden in Russia four years ago. It is when England face nations that have a similar level of expectancy and success that things tend to go wrong, so France fall firmly into that category.
There is some good news, though. At Euro 2020, England beat Germany in a knockout game for the first time since 1966. Prior to that, they had never beaten a previous World Cup winner in a knockout game at the European Championship.
Rio Ferdinand, who was in the squad when England lost to Argentina in 1998 and Brazil in 2002, said at the time that Southgate’s team were “breaking down barriers” by erasing negative historical statistics from the record books. So the challenge is there for England this weekend: No knockout win against a fellow World Cup winner since 1966, no knockout win ever against such a team in a tournament outside of England.
This England team seems to be rewriting history rather than allowing itself to be beaten by it, however. A win against France will have people talking about 1966 even more.