Today
Thu 29 July 2021

As the two countries meet in the knockout stages of Euro 2020, Otto English explains why – when it comes to jingoism and disgrace – one side is always the loser

The Second World War may have ended 76 years ago but, when England play Germany, you’d be forgiven for not noticing it.

From the moment it was announced last week that Gareth Southgate’s squad would be facing Germany in the final 16 of the European Championship, the very predictable narratives of war and jingoism began.

The Telegraph kicked things off, suggesting that the game against Germany might even be the panacea to finally unite the country. “At last, one thing we can agree on!” the newspaper frothed, “fearing and loathing the German football team! A victory would allow a divided nation to put aside its differences and unite around one thing: gloating about beating Germany.”

Football fans in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland take note – you’re either with us or against us.

Things didn’t improve on social media, which provided the cesspit-come-playground for the worst excesses of Germanophobic sentiment that followed. 

“Nice to see the whole country hating the German bastards, we come together for the most important things”, said one person.

“I’ll happily sing… when we beat the German scum tomorrow!” wrote another.

Across Facebook and Twitter there were videos of drunken supporters singing the “Ten German Bombers” chant, so beloved of (some) England fans which led to the FA announcing that it would “strongly condemn” any fans who sang “discriminatory or disrespectful” chants at Wembley on the night. 

But what hope of that when, by the morning of the big match, the mainstream media were fuelling the fire of xenophobia?

Under a heading about Andy Murray’s first round win at Wimbledon, the front-page of Wednesday’s Daily Mail declared: ‘Now Come On England, Smash Germany Tonight’. While over on BBC Breakfast, the ‘England Band’ were being encouraged to “get us in the mood”, by playing the theme to the 1960s war movie The Great Escape.

For the hundred thousand plus Germans living in the UK, these are uncomfortable times. 

“As a German citizen living in the UK for more than 20 years, and now also with British citizenship, I am looking for a hole to crawl into for the next two weeks,” one Twitter follower told me. “It doesn’t matter how the game goes, the outcome will be deeply unpleasant, if the past is anything to go by.”


An Identity Game

England and Germany’s football rivalry has long been – for England at least – something far bigger than 22 men chasing a bit of leather on a muddy pitch. 

The two nations first met in November 1899 when a combined German-Austrian team lost seven-nil to the touring English side in a friendly match on a military training ground in Karslruhe, south-west Germany.

In the years that followed, the two sides met intermittently and twice in the 1930s in two celebrated friendly matches including a 1938 game in Berlin, for which the Foreign Office instructed England players to give a pre-match Nazi salute to keep the hosts happy. So much for keeping gesture politics out of football.

Following the military defeat of Germany in 1945 and subsequent division of the country into East and West in 1949, the nation played as two national teams but it was only one rivalry that mattered. 

England beat West Germany in friendly games in 1954, 1956, 1965 and, of course, most famously in the World Cup final of 1966. But, in June 1968, England lost for the first time – and ever since the matches have, for England at least, taken on an ever more parabolic and desperate bent. 

In the 10 competitive games played between the two sides since, England has won just twice – and been defeated six times – and you’ll be unsurprised to learn that there’s a German word for our growing demoralisation: angstgegner m (sports) opponent to whom one has lost before and who therefore inspires fear and anxiety.

The Germans view their sporting rivalry with the Netherlands as a far bigger deal than that with England and seem to be constantly taken aback to discover the level of ill-feeling thrown their way by English fans and the media. 

But it is about much more than Germany and football. It is about notions of identity. About our country’s fixation with our last great triumph in 1945. The UK’s subsequent decline as a superpower. Latterly, it’s about Brexit. And England’s inability to come to terms with our place in Europe and the world. England is a mid-sized country with enormous ideas about itself – and the beautiful game lies, inescapably, at the heart of those notions.

After all, as we like to tell ourselves, ‘we’ invented football – just like we invented everything else. As such, it belongs to us and it is our inherent right to one day win a trophy that proves it – in the process regaining our sacred destiny as the top footballing country. Preferably by defeating Germany, just like ‘we’ did in the war.


A Dark Turn

As with any cultish faith, there are sacred events. And, prime among those, is that glorious 1966 World Cup triumph; and another tournament 30 years later, which provided the holy chant.

In 1996, with Britpop and ‘Cool Britannia’ at their height and Vanity Fair declaring London to be the coolest city on Earth, England hosted the European Championship in an atmosphere of laddism and self-belief. 

To celebrate the occasion, the comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner teamed up with musician Ian Broudie and penned a single ‘Three Lions’, which set out the holy gospel of England’s footballing past while promising that the game was finally “coming home”. It was undeniably well-intentioned, but inadvertently, the song established a prophecy – and such things can turn very nasty indeed when they fail.

The home team progressed well and, when England were drawn against the newly-reunited Germany in the semi-finals, it felt like the stars were aligned.

The Daily Mirror, under the editorship of Piers Morgan, declared a “football war” on the opposing nation and later claimed that it planned to drop leaflets over Berlin. In the end, it made do with a bizarre front-page headline, ‘Achtung! Surrender’, alongside an image of two players in war-time uniforms. It wasn’t long before other newspapers were joining in. ‘Let’s Blitz the Fritz! shouted the (then still very widely read) Sun.

The joyous mood and the warm buzz of Cool Britannia was cooling.

Labour and Conservative MPs tabled an early day motion condemning the “frenzy of jingoistic, notably anti-German nonsense in the tabloid press”. The German captain Jürgen Klinsmann expressed fears that violence might follow when the prophecy failed and England lost – it did. There were riots in Trafalgar Square. Tourists were beaten up. In Brighton, a Russian student was stabbed by a drunken mob – who thought he was German.

In the years that followed, the ghastly and unedifying events that surrounded the defeat were quietly and deliberately forgotten but football jingoism and our deeply dysfunctional relationship with Germany never went away. 

As long as the angry ‘chip on our shoulder’ antagonism towards Germany is fuelled and as long as the UK media and broader commentariat throw gas on it, I doubt it ever will. It’s a pity because it reflects so very badly on England and most England fans are undoubtedly as embarrassed by the Great Escape theme tunes and the mob chants as I am.

I will of course be watching the game tonight and will also be hoping very much that England wins. But my longer-term ambition for the nation of my birth is that it grows the f*ck up.

Otto English’s ‘Fake History’ is out now

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