The ‘two world wars and one world cup’ brigade will struggle with the idea, but as England face Germany in the round of 16 of Euro 2020 at Wembley, cross-pollination between these great nations of the football is more positive than ever.
Two of the most successful Premier League managers are Germans and have been tasked with bringing the Champions League trophy back to England in two of the past three seasons. Thomas Tuchel made a huge impact at Stamford Bridge and his tactical acumen played a huge role in Chelsea’s European Championship title last month. Jurgen Klopp achieved the same feat two years earlier and went on to end Liverpool’s 30-year title drought.
England have also benefited from the Bundesliga experience gained by two of Gareth Southgate’s best young players. Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham found Borussia Dortmund to be a welcoming place. Sancho, 21, and Bellingham, 17, were able to save playing time they were unlikely to get at home.
Perhaps this kind of cultural exchange will help rid the English game of the psychological block that arises when a competitive match against the Germans looms.
The reasons for Anglo inferiority are obvious. The 3-2 defeat to West Germany in the 1970 World Cup quarter-finals after England led 2-0 set the tone. The 1990 semi-final loss on penalties in Turin set the stage for Paul Gascoigne’s tears in a drama of lyrical proportions that still haunts English football. The reunified Germans advanced to the Euro 96 final after another penalty shootout nightmare at Wembley, this time with Southgate missing the decisive penalty.
There is a strange relationship between countries that eclipses – at least on the English side – current sport. Like much of British life and identity – Brexit and the clamor surrounding it is a case in point – World War II casts a shadow on the debates.
As the brain-dead songs suggest, the rivalry with Germany is rooted in two conflicts that took place at the end of the British Empire. For the Germans, it’s just a question of football.
The evidence is everywhere. The 1996 semi-final was preceded by tabloid headlines. “Achtung! Let go, ”said one of them. England surrenders.
This kind of commotion by the populace was nothing new. Before the greatest moment in English football in 1966, West Germans were stunned by the chauvinism of the London press. Bild estimated that the English journalists “write their copy with steel helmets and gas masks”.
It would be nice to believe that things have changed. The excesses of the red top have been toned down, but at any game in England chants about German bombers echo in pubs and bars. The nationalist temperature has risen over 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 drawn to flags, and for some the greatest expression of their identity has come from two world wars and a World Cup. The matches against Germany have become the derby of the world conflict. At least on one side.
For the most part, the Germans don’t care – at least not more than in matches against a host of other nations. The matches against the Netherlands have more resonance. The German team can be a source of national pride but nothing martial is projected on the team.
The 1966 World Cup final was a turning point for both national teams. England’s invincibility against German teams ended two years later, the next time they faced West Germany. The balance of power changed, but English fixation with wars continued through popular culture. It was so ingrained that in the 1970s comedy Rising Damp, disreputable owner Rigsby referred to Bayern Munich’s 2-1 victory over Leeds United in the 1975 European Cup final in these words: “When Bayern scored that second goal, I thought they were going to have a goose … “
Even as German players entered English football in greater numbers in the 1990s, the questionable connotations continued. Manchester City fans sang about Uwe Rosler’s grandfather who bombed Old Trafford. Aston Villa’s Mark Bosnich punched Jurgen Klinsmann at Villa Park, knocking out the Tottenham Hotspur forward. The following year, after being stationed at White Hart Lane, the Australian keeper gave the crowd what he called a Nazi-style “Basil Fawlty” salute. No wonder they marvel at English humor on the continent. Don’t mention the war.
Did this sort of thing help England in their battles with Germany? Certainly, in some English minds games have a meaning that goes beyond just kicking the ball. It brings a different pressure. The cliché is that the Three Lions jersey is heavy. When Germany is in opposition, there seems to be an additional burden.
The best thing that can happen for England is for this nonsense to become a thing of the past. Tuchel and Klopp bring German ideas and methods that have improved the national game. Sancho and Bellingham live and work in Dortmund and England fans should be grateful for their development.
The song “Two World Wars…” and associated chants project insecurity and a desperate desire for a misunderstood past. They are the soundtrack of defeat, a symptom of neurosis. England cannot afford to look back. All it does is create a mystique around Germany.