Germans puzzled by British tabloid blitz

Fantasy football wars: Media respond in kind to English jibes but stop short of mentioning the War

"The fatal defect in cows' brains seems to have transferred to the two-legged inhabitants on the island." It was the only rational explanation the Cologne tabloid Express could offer for the outbreak of lunacy among its British equivalents.

"England declares football war on us," screamed the nation's leading tabloid, Bild Zeitung, splashing the Daily Mirror's picture of Gazza in helmet on its front page. "Where did they find a helmet big enough?" wondered Andy Kopke, the German team's goalkeeper.

The moment had come for Germany to fight back, to launch a satirical blitzkrieg against those cocky Englander who had been hurling insults at the German people ever since their cows were relegated from the markets of Europe.

Bild tried the hardest. By yesterday morning, its top guns had come up with "11 Questions to the English" - 11 jibes designed to send Fleet Street's most scurrilous scribes running for their Biros. Here is a small sample: "Why do you wear your swimming costumes in the sauna?" "How can your former colonies beat you at cricket?" "When did an Englishman last win at Wimbledon?"

Biting stuff, this, and there was more. Bild's super-sleuths, no strangers to making up stories themselves, discovered that the "Germany embassy spokesman" quoted by the Mirror as saying that "we surrender", was in fact the embassy porter, and had said no such thing.

Away from the fantasy league, British efforts to undermine morale in the enemy camp may have had the opposite effect. German fans approached Euro 96 with uncharacteristic timidity, and violence so far has been limited to skirmishes in southern Germany between native thugs and the flower of Croatia's youth. Now the hardcore hoolies who had originally decided to give Wembley a miss may find the lure of gun-powder wafting across the Channel hard to resist.

What effect all this has had on the morale of the German players will only become clear tonight, but one suspects that the enemy salvoes might well have stiffened resolve among a team wracked by self doubt so far. Berti Vogts, the manager, entered the spirit of the occasion yesterday by promising not to wave the white flag. Stefan Kuntz, the striker, struck a more ominous tone. "Let the English enjoy themselves now, because the fun will be all over for them Wednesday evening," he said.

Alas, that was the limit of the Hun's effort to even the score in the propaganda war. Not even Germany's least sophisticated newspaper dared plunge to depths as low as its British counterparts. Of wars Bild made no mention. Instead of a rousing call to arms, Bild's menacing headlines were merely followed by a lament. The team had played badly against the Croats, lost General Klinsmann to injury, and, as in the Battle of Britain, England were proving a lot more resilient than strategists had anticipated.

Making fun of other nations is not really a German thing, and scoring points by evoking past conflicts is deemed distasteful. In Germany, two weeks of football have produced only one pathetic epithet - against the "Pizzas" who held the Germans to a draw in the first round. Jingoism, on the evidence of the two nations' press, is performed with much greater relish and efficiency in England.

The vitriol that has been flowing from the pens of British tabloid writers ever since the outbreak of the beef war has therefore been particularly hurtful to Germans. The Bonn office of the Independent, and the bureaux of other British newspapers are rung almost daily by anguished German colleagues seeking an explanation for the latest Fleet Street stunt. "Do the British really hate us so much?" they ask, and "What's all this about the War?" "It's a joke," we assure them. "Don't you get it?"

No, the Germans don't get it, although judging by yesterday's evidence, they are beginning to learn. Rather than fanning the flames of nationalism, down-market papers are giving their readers crash courses on British humour, and trying to explain that all those racist jokes are meant as a harmless bit of fun.

Jokes apart, today's match has great historic significance. "It's a big event," says Michael Reichert, a caterer. "It's taken us 30 years to get the bastards." "What about settling scores for another defeat, 51 years ago," I ask. "The War? - Oh, that was too long ago."

Match previews, Sport pull-out, pages 1-4

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