War cliches only tarnish Anglo-German classics

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Published in conjunction with the 1966 World Cup final, a variation of the following remark is attributed to Frank McGhee, late of this life and the Daily Mirror: "If, on the morrow, the Germans beat us at our national game, we'd do well to remember that, twice this century, we have beaten them at theirs."

Upsetting as this was for West German FA officials, including the press officer Wilfred Gerhardt, a confirmed Anglophile who had risen to a position of trust alongside the coach Helmut Schoen, it scarcely astonished them. "Germany's past is something we have to live with, something that only time will repair," Gerhardt said.

Gerhardt's words came back to me many years later when, between us, we were successful in persuading Schoen to be guest of honour at the annual dinner of the Football Writers Association. Significantly, you may think, Schoen, whose team had gone on from Wembley to put England out of the World Cup finals in Mexico four years later, brought the house down.

Deeply moved by the respect shown for his feats of winning the 1972 European Championship and the 1974 World Cup, Schoen spoke that night of a bond between English and German football. "In character and style, I think we are closer than any other two football nations," he said.

Since the Germans were forging ahead to their present record of three World Cups and three European Championships with six appearances in the final of both competitions, it was interesting to hear Schoen privately admit he didn't think they had England's measure until a 3-1 European Championship victory at Wembley in 1972. "We had built an outstanding team," he said, "but the shadow of English football still hung over us."

Not even Franz Beckenbauer, who had retreated from midfield to turn the sweeper's role into an art form, felt confident. "Until I scored the only goal to win a friendly in 1967, we had never beaten England," he would recall, "and our victory in the 1970 World Cup came after we had been outplayed for most of the game, so we were very nervous. But everything worked out for us. England had lost some of their best players, including Bobby Charlton, while our team had improved."

A denial of arrogant expectation, England's defeat caused a storm to break over Alf Ramsey, who immediately came under pressure to bring in younger men for the return leg in Berlin two weeks later.

A couple of days before the game I fell into conversation with Schoen after watching the Germans train. By then we were on quite friendly terms, and he asked whether Ramsey would yield to popular opinion. "No chance," I said. At this, Schoen smiled. "I didn't think so," he said. "Shame, because we would have torn an inexperienced team to pieces."

There is nothing on which football correspondents can grow more caustically critical than the subject of national team managers, who, they imply, are public servants and had better not forget it. Thus, when Ramsey did not heed their advice, and a 0-0 draw led to England's elimination, he was wickedly accused of merely trying to save face. He never confronted the Germans again.

Events since then have done little to ease the trepidation England's supporters are sure to feel in Munich on Saturday where a draw would be good enough to secure Germany's place in the World Cup finals. The finals of 1982 saw England, under Ron Greenwood, go out with a goalless draw against Germany in Madrid. The better team when they met Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-finals, England lost in a penalty shoot-out that set Beckenbauer up to become the only man, other than Mario Zagallo, of Brazil, to win the World Cup both as a player and manager. Heartening revenge was on the cards when Terry Venables sent out England to face Germany at Wembley for a place in the final of Euro 96, but he too had the agony of losing on penalties.

Earlier this week, Beckenbauer declared himself bored with the crass hyperbole that erupts in sections of the English press whenever Germany are in opposition. "All that stuff about war, Panzers and Stukas doesn't bother us," he said. "We leave that to the English." Anyway, McGhee did it first. And, with tongue firmly in cheek, he did it better. Gerhardt thought the world of him.