The “two World Wars and one World Cup” brigade will struggle with the notion but as England face Germany in the knockout round of Euro 2020 at Wembley, the cross-pollination between these great football nations is more positive than ever.
Two of the most successful Premier League managers are German and have been responsible for bringing the Champions League trophy back to England in two of the past three seasons. Thomas Tuchel has had a massive impact at Stamford Bridge and his tactical acumen played a huge part in Chelsea becoming champions of Europe last month. Jurgen Klopp achieved the same feat two years earlier and followed up by ending Liverpool’s 30-year title drought.
England have also benefitted from the experience that two of Gareth Southgate’s finest young players have gained in the Bundesliga. Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham have found Borussia Dortmund to be a welcoming place. Sancho, 21, and Bellingham, 17, were able to gain playing time that they were unlikely to get at home.
Perhaps this sort of cultural exchange will help rid the English game of the psychological block that manifests itself when a competitive match against the Germans looms into sight.
The reasons for Anglo inferiority are obvious. The 3-2 defeat to West Germany in the 1970 World Cup quarter final after England led 2-0 set the tone. The 1990 semi-final loss on penalties in Turin featured Paul Gascoigne’s tears in a drama of operatic proportions that still haunts the English game. The reunified Germans advanced to the final in Euro 96 after another spot-kick nightmare at Wembley, this time with Southgate missing the decisive penalty.
There is a strange relationship between the countries that overshadows – at least on the English side – the actual sport. Like much of British life and identity – Brexit and its surrounding clamour is a good example – the Second World War casts a long shadow over proceedings.
As the brain-dead songs suggest, the rivalry with Germany is rooted in two conflicts conducted in the waning days of the British Empire. For Germans it’s just about the football.
The evidence is everywhere. The 1996 semi-final was preceded by some ugly tabloid headlines. “Achtung! Surrender” said one. England capitulated.
This sort of rabble rousing was nothing new. Before England’s greatest football moment in 1966, the West Germans were astounded by the jingoism of the London press. Bild opined that English journalists “write their copy in steel helmets and gas masks”.
It would be nice to believe that things have moved on. The red-top excesses have been toned down but, at any England game, chants about German bombers ring round pubs and bars. The nationalistic temperature has risen during the past decade. Patriotism has taken increasingly ugly turns.
The 20th century was defined by the decline of British influence. The worst elements of society are attracted to flag-waving and for some the greatest expression of their identity came from two world wars and one World Cup. Matches against Germany became the global conflict derby. At least on one side.
For the most part, Germans do not care – at least no more than in games against a host of other nations. Matches against the Netherlands have more resonance. The German team may be a source of national pride but there is nothing martial projected upon the team.
The 1966 World Cup final was a turning point for both national sides. England’s unbeaten run against German teams ended two years later, the next time they faced West Germany. The balance of power changed but the English fixation with wars continued across popular culture. It was so ingrained that in the 1970s comedy Rising Damp the disreputable landlord Rigsby referred to Bayern Munich’s 2-1 victory over Leeds United in the 1975 European Cup final in these terms: “When Bayern scored that second goal, I thought they were going to break out into the goosestep…”
Even when German players came into English football in greater numbers in the 1990s, the dubious overtones continued. Manchester City fans sang about Uwe Rosler’s granddad bombing Old Trafford. Aston Villa’s Mark Bosnich poleaxed Jurgen Klinsmann at Villa Park, knocking out the Tottenham Hotspur striker. The following year, after being barracked at White Hart Lane, the Australian goalkeeper treated the crowd to what he called a “Basil Fawlty” Nazi-style salute. No wonder they marvel about English humour on the continent. Just don’t mention the war.
Has this sort of thing helped England in their contests with Germany? Certainly, in some English minds the games have a significance that goes beyond the mere kicking of balls. That brings a different pressure. The cliché is that the Three Lions shirt weighs heavy. When Germany are the opposition there seems to be an additional burden.
The best thing that could happen for England is for this nonsense to become a thing of the past. Tuchel and Klopp bring German ideas and methods which have improved the domestic game. Sancho and Bellingham live and work in Dortmund and English supporters should be grateful for their development.
The “Two World Wars…” song and associated chants project insecurity and a desperate longing for a past that is misunderstood. They are the soundtrack of defeat, a symptom of neurosis. England cannot afford to look backwards. All it does is create a mystique around Germany.
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