Before their final group game against Denmark, Germany pretty much knew they would come up against Greece if they made the quarter-finals. If they went through, it was always likely to be as group winners, and their chance of finishing second with six points was even more unlikely than the possibility of them finishing third. However, they will have to wait until late tonight to discover who they will meet in Thursday's semi-final in Warsaw: Italy or England.
Asking players who they would prefer to face in this sort of situation tends to be a journalistic dead end. Take your pick from the following unenlightening answers: "It doesn't matter who we come up against"; "we don't care who we play"; "I have no preference"; "both are strong sides"; "if you want to win a title, you have to beat everyone anyway". Having heard all of these a hundred times, I usually don't even bother with the question.
So it came as a refreshing change that so many of the Germany players expressed a preference in terms of their semi-final opponents. "I would prefer England – they suit us better," said defender Holger Badstuber, while captain Philipp Lahm added: "I would prefer England, just because it would be great to have a classic in the semi-final." Attacking midfielder Marco Reus concluded: "Rooney is an outstanding player, but we are the better team."
Given the tendency within the tabloid press to spin such statements wildly out of proportion, it is worth noticing that a lot of the sense of them gets lost in translation. Being half-German and half-English, I feel safe to comment on this. What sounds like hubris in English is more a reflection of genuine excitement. German players and fans like English football, seeing its traditional style and values – grit, determination, passion – as not too far removed from their own.
Plus there is the small fact that, while Germany have yet to win a competitive game against Italy, they have beaten England several times in recent decades.
Nonetheless, it is not all down to cool pragmatism. The fact so many Germans will be quietly rooting for England tonight does not mean they think Roy Hodgson's side will be a semi-final pushover. They just reckon on a much more direct, dramatic test of strength against England, while Italy – historically at least – tend to avoid such open confrontation, deftly picking the lock rather than kicking down the door.
That logic might not hold – from what I have seen, England are likely to play an even more cagey game than Italy, but if I am honest, I imagine Joachim Löw's team will be too strong for either side anyway. Hubris? Ask me again on Thursday.
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