Schön was not bitter: no two countries more alike

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The Independent Football

As he gave a press conference before the 1966 World Cup final, the West Germany manager, Helmut Schön, was asked if he was an Erwin Rommel to Alf Ramsey's Bernard Montgomery. Schön, who was 30 when the war ended, was nonplussed. Even if Montgomery quite liked football and had sent fan mail to Tom Finney, who had served under him in the Eighth Army, it was still only a game.

Not in England, where football, war and Germany had been linked since Christmas 1914 when men of the II Corps kicked a ball into No Man's Land and played a game with the Kaiser's troops. Germany won 3-2.

Thirty years after Schön was wrongfooted by the comparisons to Rommel, Germany and England met again at Wembley in the semi-finals of Euro 96. The Daily Mirror's front page showed a steel-helmeted Stuart Pearce shouting: "Achtung! Surrender. For You Fritz Ze Euro Championship is Over." The Mirror's editor, Piers Morgan, dispatched an armoured car to the German team hotel which was stopped by police on the M25. Germany won on penalties and Franz Beckenbauer dismissed the stunt with the withering comment: "All that stuff about Stukas, Panzers and war doesn't bother us. We leave that to the English."

Even four years ago, there were some sections of the media that couldn't leave it alone. The Daily Telegraph's podcast from the German World Cup began with Basil Fawlty hissing "Don't mention the war", and one of its regular guests was the actor who played Herr Flick in 'Allo, 'Allo. The Telegraph was behind the times. Deutsche Bahn's trains ran on time and ran beautifully but nobody mentioned the war.

Jürgen Klinsmann, who had completed his football education at White Hart Lane, where in 1935 the Football Association had provoked riots by insanely staging a friendly against Nazi Germany in the middle of London's Jewish quarter, was an Anglophile, who lived in California. He created a fragile but wonderfully effervescent team in 2006, at odds with their traditional image. Those who travelled from England saw a friendly, confident country that staged perhaps the smoothest World Cup of the modern era.

When Klinsmann recalled yesterday how he and his then assistant, Joachim Löw, had travelled regularly to England to ransack the Premier League for ideas, he was merely echoing the thoughts of his predecessor Schön, who said that no two nations were as united when it came to football. He added that not until the 1972 European Championship, when Günter Netzer destroyed Ramsey's ageing team, did Germany feel confident about playing England. They beat them two years before in a World Cup quarter-final in Mexico that was seen as payback for 1966 but Beckenbauer admitted they were fortunate.

For Germany there was only one World Cup that carried echoes of war: the Miracle of Bern, where a nation emerging from the ruins of Hitler's conflict won the 1954 final, overcoming a Hungarian side that had put eight goals past them in the group stages.

In his book Football against the Enemy, Simon Kuper states there was no real hatred expressed towards the Germans when they met Holland in the 1974 final, although Johan Cruyff longed to humiliate them for allegations in the German tabloid Bild that he had partied with call-girls before the final in Munich. But a generation on, with the war a more distant memory, there was an explosion of national emotion, some of it very pointed, when they beat West Germany in the 1988 European Championship semi-final.

England have had nothing similar for 44 years. Even the one tournament victory – a 1-0 win in Charleroi, a steel town that is as much a backwater as Bloemfontein, had no lasting resonance. Germany were dreadful, so were Kevin Keegan's England. For both, the European Championship was soon over and nobody felt very inclined to mention the war.