The FIFA World Cup™ is the biggest show on earth; the holy grail for footballers from every corner of the globe. Before the world elite can convene at football's top table, however, titanic battles are fought by some of the game's top nations merely for the right to be there.
In the first of this new series looking back at the individual brilliance and never-to-be forgotten upsets that have marked out classic preliminary matches of the past, we remember a stunning English success from September 2001.
1 September 2001, Olympiastadion, Munich
Germany 1-5 England
Scorers: Germany (Jancker 6); England (Owen 12, 48, 66, Gerrard 45+2, Heskey 74)
Germany: Kahn, Worns (Asamoah 45), Linke, Nowotny, Boehme, Hamann, Rehmer, Ballack (Klose 65), Deisler, Jancker, Neuville (Kehl 78)
England: Seaman, G Neville, Ferdinand, Campbell, A Cole, Barmby (McManaman 64), Scholes (Carragher 83), Gerrard (Hargreaves 78), Beckham, Heskey, Owen
Few rivalries can match the history of Germany-England. The basis for the nations' enmity has little to do with football, of course, but ever since Sir Geoff Hurst scored 'that' goal in the 1966 FIFA World Cup Final, any meeting between these old foes has contained more than a little added spice.
The Germans have certainly exacted plenty of revenge in the time since, most notably at the 1970 and 1990 FIFA World Cups and UEFA EURO 96 but also in the last meeting prior to our featured match: a 1-0 preliminary win in the last-ever match at the old Wembley in October 2000. That result had ended the reign of Kevin Keegan, paving the way for the appointment of England's first foreign coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson. The Swede's side went into the return meeting in Munich trailing the Germans by six points, albeit with a game in hand.
The situation was simple: victory for Rudi Voller's side at the Olympiastadion - where they were unbeaten since 1973 - and a place at Korea/Japan 2002 would be secure. A draw and Germany would only need to a point from their final game to consign Eriksson's side to the play-offs.
Germany, with just one defeat in their previous 60 qualifying matches, began confident of booking their flight to the Far East, and there was no hint at the drama that was to follow when Carsten Jancker prodded home the opening goal inside six minutes. However, while the Munich crowd sat back in anticipation of a memorable victory, Michael Owen had other ideas and almost immediately set about stealing the show with a well-worked equaliser.
Steven Gerrard then smashed England into the lead on the stroke of half-time, before Owen struck again two minutes after the break, coolly beating Oliver Kahn from Emile Heskey's intelligent knock-down. This was Owen at his sharp, lightning-fast best, and with the German defence floundering, his hat-trick was completed - fittingly, after 66 minutes - when he raced through to covert an incisive Gerrard pass.
Still, Germany's agony was not complete, and there was still time for Emile Heskey to rub salt into their wounds before Pierluigi Collina brought this incredible encounter to a close. Elated and incredulous, the visiting England fans remained long after the final whistle to sing their heroes' praises, while back home a TV audience of nearly 15 million tuned in to watch history being made.
Even the traditionally critical English press rushed to praise Eriksson's men, with The Independent reflecting on "one of the least believable results in international sporting history" and The Sunday Telegraph left to wonder if it was all a "magnificent, ridiculous dream". Early the following year, a poll of Britain's 100 Greatest Sporting Moments ranked the win in Munich second, one place ahead of the 1966 Final.
The Germans, meanwhile, were stunned. Voller had left the stadium minutes after the final whistle to attend the bedside of his father, who had suffered a heart attack during the match, but legends such as Karl-Heinz Rummenigge were in no mood to show any mercy. "I have never seen such a terrible defeat," said Rummenigge in the match's aftermath. "This was a new Waterloo for us."
No debate here. Along with his explosive performance against Argentina at France 1998, this match arguably represented the high point of Michael Owen's international career. Owen, who is within nine goals of Bobby Charlton's England scoring record, said at the time: "You can only dream about results like this."
"I can't believe that we can beat Germany 5-1 away, it seems like a dream, it's unbelievable. I said to the players: 'I don't know what to say to you.' I told them before the game, if you play football as you can play we can beat any team, even Germany away. But I can't believe it was 5-1," England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson.
"I have never seen a better England team and I have never seen an England team playing better football. They had pace, aggression, movement and skill. It was fantasy football. When they scored their third goal they started to play football that would have beaten anyone in the world. Michael Owen was simply unstoppable. Our defenders were slow and they just could not handle his pace, while his finishing was unbelievable," Germany legend Franz Beckenbauer.
What happened next...
England returned to action just four days later with a 2-0 win over Albania and when both sides drew their final group fixtures, Eriksson's side advanced automatically thanks to their superior goal difference. As so often happens, however, the Germans enjoyed the last laugh, beating Ukraine in the play-offs and then, against all expectations, marching all the way to the Final in the Far East. Kahn, beaten five times by Owen and Co, claimed the adidas Golden Ball, while England made their customary quarter-final exit, going down 2-1 to Brazil.