There is nothing like an England vs Germany football match for taking Fleet Street's temperature. Certainly in the recent past it has been feverishly aggressive – though much less so, actually, in the 1966 World Cup. Perhaps the real war was then too recent a memory for jokes. Now, the weary expectation is for sub-editors and the occasional editor to reach for wartime metaphors, puns and stereotypes. It's not that long ago, during Euro 96 in fact, that The Mirror's editor, Piers Morgan, was reported to the Press Complaints Commission for the front-page headline: "Achtung! Surrender!"
For last weekend's crucial fixture, the first signs were that the war, or at least the battle of the stereotypes, would be fought once more. On the BBC, Alan Hansen, the analyst and former Liverpool player, was asked about the German side's presumption in arranging friendly matches for the dates of the play-offs, thus taking it for granted they would beat England. "Arrogance," he sighed. "Typical German arrogance." The BBC must have a house style guide to stereotypes. On Saturday's Football Focus, Ray Stubbs made a tired quip about English fans putting down towels to reserve seats at the match.
The press, though, seems to have turned the corner. The war really may be over. Yes, it is always possible to seize on seemingly provocative words and phrases; but that is because the languages of war and sport, for better or worse, employ a lot of the same terms: victory, defeat, slaughter, annihilation, manoeuvres and generals are no strangers to the back pages.
But specifically anti-German stereotyping may have had its day. In the pre-match build-up there were stunts aplenty, with The Sun inevitably leading the fray by sending a band of trombone-playing Page Three girls to play outside the German team's hotel. That was apparently in retaliation for the England team hotel being near a noisy bierkeller. That story was played widely in the press, though football writers could have told their news desks that the hotel regularly puts up visiting teams with no ill effects. But it was hard to find a war reference in the pre-match coverage; and, bar the odd reference to towels on seats, there was little stereotyping.
The tendency remains to write headlines in pidgin German. "It's von for ze history books" read an inside page in the News of the World. But I suspect Brazilians, French or Italians would all be victims of that tabloid tendency.
The 5-1 scoreline could have been a signal for triumphalism littered with war-reporting clichés, but again, it was hard to find anything that might alarm the PCC. Both the News of the World and The Independent on Sunday used the headline "Don't mention the score!", but you'd have to be pretty po-faced to see much harm in quite a clever nod to Fawlty Towers.
Yesterday, The Sun, in a display of vanity publishing astonishing even by its own standards, made its front-page picture and story the fact that one of its own advertising hoardings was in shot when Michael Owen scored his third goal (if you looked from a certain angle with the light behind you). That, allied to headlines such as "Germans suffer their wurst nightmare", may be cringe-inducing; but it is not rabble-rousing.
The Mirror's front page, a laboured mock-up picture of the German goalkeeper's gloves being burnt, strayed nearer the taste boundary with an RIP for "arrogant, clinical penalty-scoring". Presumably, it is the scoring that is arrogant. It now just remains for editors to ban that word next time England and Germany meet.
Nevertheless, sensibilities in Germany may be more acute. On Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, Jim Naughtie had to point out to the German ambassador that "Don't mention the score" was a joke. "It is not our sense of humour," he replied tartly, adding quickly, "though we do have one."
An even more delicious exchange came on the same programme when the Swedish Prime Minister – who made a barbed aside against the sportsmanship of British newspapers – was asked if he watched Sweden's own match last Saturday or the England game with our team managed by a Swede. He had, he maintained, watched both. In addition, he had had half an eye on an athletics fixture between Sweden and Finland.
There indeed is an image to savour. In the new Europe, where sportsmanship and diplomacy are paramount, we will have automated television stands, three screens continually rotating to cover all possible conflicts of loyalty. It may not catch on over here.Reuse content