There were so many paparazzi trying to steal pictures of the gardens of Baden-Baden’s famous Brenners Park Hotel during the 2006 World Cup that hotel staff had to build a wall of plastic screens around the garden perimeter to block their shots. The photographers adapted, like a virus to a vaccine, and one day a reporter’s morning jog along the canal was interrupted when a man garlanded with cameras tumbled 10 foot out of a tree right into his path.
The prize inside the walls was the sight of the sunbathing England WAGs: Nancy Dell’Olio, Victoria Beckham, Coleen McLoughlin (now Rooney), Cheryl Cole and the rest. As the tournament went on, the WAGs, their shopping, socialising and exercise routines became the centre of a maelstrom of global attention, dragging everything with it. When Carly Zucker went running she would be followed not only by her opposite numbers but by two stumbling hordes of photographers, first British, then foreign, all straining for photos while trying to keep up.
To look back now from 2018, as Gareth Southgate’s England politely arrive in Repino, is to look back into another world. One where England could show up at a World Cup armed with more individual quality and experience than any other team there. One where the world’s most famous footballer, if not the best, was the England captain, with England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson in awe of him. One where, in the Blairite complacency of the pre-crash years, it felt like the boom, the fame and the fun would never end.
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“The froth, culturally as well as sportingly, of the England team of the early 21st century, is the product of a period of the long boom,” says David Goldblatt, author, sociologist and host of the ‘Game of Our Lives’ podcast. “There won’t be another Baden-Baden. For the cultural historian, what an interesting and extraordinary moment: the fusion of paparazzi journalism, reality TV bling and shallow celebrity culture at its peak.”
Of course it did all end, quicker than anyone could have expected. England were distracted by the circus they had the built for themselves, and in truth they never played anywhere near their potential. They scraped past Paraguay and Trinidad, drew with Sweden, scraped past Ecuador and then were knocked out by Portugal on penalties. Eriksson left, Beckham stood down as captain. Two years later they were not even at Euro 2008. Two years after that they were flayed 4-1 by Germany in Bloemfontein, and that was the end of the party.
“I was there at Bloemfontein, to see England get thrashed by Germany,” Goldblatt says. “That was a pretty nasty England team with a nasty vibe of entitlement and privilege and disinterest, and of being in the bubble. It was the first African World Cup and they were just not engaging with it. That knocked all of the triumphalism out of them.”
It is hard to see how Southgate’s England squad could be any more different while still being made up of elite professional footballers. Humble, open, human, they take their cues from their manager, who is all of those. And through their performances, their words and their personalities they are starting to change the reputation of the England team.
There may be less mania at home about this team, going into a tournament, than there has been about any England team for a generation. There is less expectation, less pressure and less hype. There are far fewer flags on cars, and far longer between every play of ‘Three Lions’ or ‘World in Motion’ on the radio than is often the case this close to the start of a major tournament. But national optimism is at a record low, and even in the boom years there was a difference between fever and admiration. When was the last time an England team was liked this much?
The media circus that was Baden-Baden is a thing of the past (Getty)
Because as much as we used to love our celebrity footballers, the national mood now is for the non-celebrity footballer, still trying to make their way in the game. And this 23-man squad is the most star-less and modest England have sent to a tournament since 1966.
In 2014 and 2010 they had Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard. In the three World Cups before that they had David Beckham towering over everyone else. His presence in a Hard Rock Cafe in Kobe during an evening off in the 2002 tournament was enough to force the closure of all the surrounding roads. Italia ‘90 was another era but they had Paul Gascoigne, the best and most exciting player there. In 1986 they had Gary Lineker and in 1982 a fading Kevin Keegan, champion of Germany, England and Europe, with two Ballons d’Or to his name. In 1970, of course, they were reigning world champions.
This time, England’s best player is Harry Kane, a top striker and impressive figure but yet to win a trophy in his life. The Manchester City contingent - Raheem Sterling, John Stones, Kyle Walker and Fabien Delph - now have their first Premier League title to their names. Gary Cahill has won the lot but is the opposite of box office, and is no guaranteed starter if Harry Maguire gets fit.
That low-key likeability of this England squad has been evident in the build-up, not least on the 5 June at St George’s Park, when England players spoke openly about a range of topics. It has not always been that way in the past, especially at major tournaments, but then England’s approach feels different this time. There will certainly be no repeat of the scenes of Baden-Baden. Repino is barely a town, but rather a road running alongside this particular portion of the Gulf of Finland. All WAGs, families and hangers-on have been safely stationed in St Petersburg, 40 minutes away. Even exploring there, on the days off, many of these England players will barely make a ripple compared to the stars of the recent past.
The modest and unassuming Harry Kane will lead England in Russia this summer (Getty)
And at the heart of it all is Southgate, the unlikely, accidental manager who in less than two years has changed more than anyone could have expected. Spend any time with Southgate, his thoughtful answers, his openness to the outside world, his trust in others, especially young people, and you realise that this atmosphere, this squad and these values are indisputably his.
None of this was inevitable. Southgate could have added more experience, more big names, more celebrity glamour if he wanted to. He dropped Wayne Rooney, remember, before Rooney retired, and Southgate could have begged him to come back. But he did not, and cut that last link with the 2006 team. Joe Hart is younger than the Golden Generation but he came to represent some of the hubris of the Euro 2012 and 2016 teams, and he was cut for Nick Pope. Jack Wilshere is better known than anyone in the squad - 3.7million Twitter followers - and he has not played one minute for Southgate.
Southgate’s international career is best known for Euro ‘96 but he played at France ‘98 and Euro 2000 as well. It was only under Eriksson that Southgate faded away, unused at the 2002 World Cup and not taken to Euro 2004. He was supplanted, ultimately, by the Golden Generation, and by their promise. More than 10 years on, he has supplanted their legacy himself.