England v Germany: a historic sporting conflict

On the football field, England and Germany truly are “the best of enemies”.

England may be the only "90-minute nation" at the World Cup but, with Slovenia vanquished, we get to keep the St George's flags out for a fourth game at least. Against Germany, too, with the winners likely to play Argentina (unless Mexico spring a surprise on Maradona and co).

Yet the fear is that England v Germany brings out the worst in our footballing and media cultures. We should be more confident that this time may be different. There is no need to deny that there is something very special about England v Germany. Surely, all that we need to do is to embrace this football rivalry, along with cricket's Ashes -- and since the virtual disappearance of England-Scotland from the football calendar -- as one of the great enduring contests in our sporting history.

On the football field, England and Germany have long been, in the title of David Downing's splendid history, "the best of enemies". So we should embrace our obsession with 1966 and all that as an inevitable, and fairly harmless, feature of national sporting folk memory.

Indeed, across British sports, we have a deep commitment to passing on and revisiting the shared knowledge that keeps enduring traditions alive. (This is in large part now underpinned by the BBC: a great example was its showing footage last weekend of North Korea's 1966 World Cup adventure in Middlesbrough by way of previewing their game with Portugal. It is part of what makes Wimbledon and the Six Nations special, too.)

English football's shame in the hooligan-dominated 1980s was that our peculiar need to link that rare sporting triumph with the Second World War seemed to define England's refusal to join the same fans' festival as most other nations -- chanting not just "Two world wars and one World Cup" at the Germans but "If it wasn't for the English, you'd be Krauts" at the rest of our bemused fellow Europeans.

Given that England's away support was strongly National Front-infiltrated in the 1980s -- the lurking menace and the policing response driving many normal supporters away -- there was always an element of cognitive dissonance in this curious expression of national pride at the defeat of their own fascist ideology.

But we have moved on. After all, the Daily Mirror found itself rather out of time with its embarassing comic-book "Achtung Surrender!" caricatures of the Germans at Euro '96. (Haven't we been laughing at, as much as with, Basil Fawlty since 1975?)

The 1996 tournament restored to the English a positive football identity. "Football's Coming Home" was still very much rooted in 1966 and all that, but it was now recaptured as a positive founding myth for a nation ready to choose hope over experience, by collectively agreeing to suspend our disbelief until the penalty shoot-out at least.

It was still about national pride, but with an internationalist expression in hosting the world having done much to give it the cast of a global game. We even had the right flags, if still the wrong anthems, and what remains the sole month every four years when no St George's flag carries any hint of menace.

Yet Germany is not short of great footballing rivalries. Do England risk being cast here in the role of the Scots, with a deep rivalry no longer reciprocated, perhaps barely even remembered? The Dutch-German rivalry simmered from Cruyff's 1970s up to the 1990s. Simon Kuper's marvellous Football Against the Enemy opens by focusing on just how much the Euro 1988 semi-final victory meant to the Dutch, 60 per cent of whom took to the streets to celebrate.

There were also Germany's epic defeats of Michel Platini's mercurial French in two consecutive World Cup semi-finals, assisted by one of the great World Cup crimes of the villainous German goalkeeper in 1982.

Clash of the titans

Yet perhaps none of this mattered quite as much to Germany as their opponents. With three World Cup victories, no fewer than seven World Cup finals, and three European championships, too, they have every reason to focus less on the decisive moments and near-misses of each tournament as their enduring battle with Italy to be Europe's leading footballing power.

The long view of Germany v England would suggest that it is different. This has been very much a rivalry of two halves. It was only beating England that first established Germany's claim to be the major European footballing nation, something they could not achieve for the first 38 years. It was beating Germany again that became central to England's quest to reclaim a place among football's elite.

When Germany came to Wembley for the 1966 World Cup final, they had never beaten England at football. (They had become unlikely World Champions once, though, beating Puskas's mighty Hungarians in the 1954 miracle of Berne). The greatest day in England's football history was also the last time they would defeat Germany in a competitive football match in the 20th century; a 34-year drought followed, which dragged on until Euro 2000.

Germany's first victory over England -- at the ninth attempt -- came only in 1968, setting up the dramatic World Cup quarter-final in Mexico in 1970, in which England were desperately unlucky to lose a two-goal victory and their world title. "Even the Scots had tears in their eyes", reported Hugh McIlvanney for the Observer the following weekend.

"I had a lump in my throat. I had to get out of the stadium before anybody noticed tears in my eyes," said one Scottish international player. "You just had to be affected when you saw a team with all those qualities -- fellows like Moroo and Ballie and the big Geoff and Mullers -- getting the message like that. I'm telling you this competition lost something special when it lost them. Anybody who calls it nobility isn't far wrong." Those who wince at that as soggy chauvinism should have heard it delivered in a west of Scotland accent.

Yet the real turning point in the rivalry came at Wembley two years later, as a Günther Netzer masterclass dumped England out of the 1972 European Championship, giving Germany their first ever victory in England.

The comprehensive defeat of Alf Ramsey's side was perhaps as great a wake-up call for English football as the Hungarian defeat of 1953. It would be another decade before once-mighty England even qualified for the World Cup finals, though Alan Hudson sparkled to defeat the German world champions at a 1975 Wembley friendly that proved a false dawn.

The reprise of the great clashes of 1966 and 1970 came in the World Cup and European semi-finals of 1990 and 1996. The footballing order had shifted. It was very clear that England were now cast as underdogs, taking pride in magnificent defeat from the penalty spot on both occasions.

And England v Germany now takes a much less central place for the rest of the footballing universe than it did in either of those periods. The Euro 2000 match was a dire slugfest between ageing heavyweights, though it ended England's 34-year Germany jinx.

Local bragging rights have mattered -- Germany's victory in the last game at the old Wembley made Kevin Keegan realise he was not cut out for international football management; England's 5-1 triumph in Munich in the return provided the most glorious of all of the false dawns of the Sven era.

Cherish the misery

We may find that this has finally become a more evenly balanced rivalry. Perhaps this talented young German team have the potential to begin a new era of greatness. Perhaps this generation of English players could finally realise their potential when it matters. Neither side is likely to begin as favourites if they play Argentina in the quarter-final.

(Curiously, England have played Germany or Argentina at the World Cup just about every time we have made the finals since 1966. The sole exception was in 2006, with England downgraded to our new grudge rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. Those encounters have usually proved fatal to our World Cup prospects. Optimists can note that only in 1966 did we meet them both!)

So, there is still everything to play for on Sunday, as long as it does not go to penalties. Only the English (and the Dutch) really know how silly it is to refer to the penalty shoot-out as a lottery. England -- with one victory (17 per cent) and five defeats -- and Germany with five wins (71 per cent) and two defeats have the worst and best records in the world from the penalty spot.

That, too, has now become a central cherished misery in our national sporting narrative.

Yet, once we realise that the rivalry really matters precisely because this is (only) about football, surely hope can still triumph over experience this time around.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society. He blogs at Next Left.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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To the Commonwealth, "Global Britain" sounds like nostalgia for something else

And the former colonial subjects have a less rose-tinted view of the past. 

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson became the first British foreign secretary to visit the Gambia since independence. His visit came a few days before the inauguration of the Gambia's new President, Adama Barrow, who has signalled his intention to re-join the Commonwealth - an institution that his dictatorial predecessor had left in protest at its apparent "neo-colonialism".

Accusations of neo-colonialism, regrettably, seem to be of little concern to the foreign secretary. After Johnson committed himself to facilitating the Gambia's Commonwealth re-entry, he declared that "the strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world". 

His comments are the latest example of the government's Brexit mission-creep in its foreign engagements. Theresa May mentioned "Global Britain" no fewer than ten times in her Lancaster House speech last month, reminding us that Britain "has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world" and emphasising the UK's post-referendum desire to "get out into the world". Ministers' repeated subsequent referencing of Global Britain has almost come to the point of re-branding Great Britain itself. But now the government seems to be directly equating Global Britain with the Commonwealth, the organisation comprising most of the former territories of the British Empire. If the Commonwealth is wooing back former members and seemingly growing in stature, that must mean Global Britain is doing the same. The Gambia's proposed re-admission to the Commonwealth is reconfigured as a victory for British clout and prestige in the face of the Brexit naysayers.

But the Commonwealth cannot be a vehicle or front for Global Britain, on either a technical or political level. The Commonwealth emphasises that it is an organisation of 52 equal member states, without any preference in decision-making. India (population 1.26bn) and Tuvalu (10,000) are treated the same. The organisation is headquartered in London, receives the most money from Britain, and its members share elements of history, culture and political systems; but it is not a British organisation and will not take orders from the British government. Commonwealth states, particularly poorer ones, may welcome UK political, financial and developmental support, but will reject the spectre of neo-imperialism. Diplomats remark that their countries did not leave the British Empire only to re-join it through the back door. 

And yet, shorn of influence following the decision to leave the EU, and the single market so instrumental to British jobs and prosperity, the government is desperate to find an alternative source of both power and profit. The members of the Commonwealth, with their links of heritage and administration, have always been touted as the first choice. Leading Brexiter Dan Hannan has long advocated a "union with the other English-speaking democracies", and Liam Fox has been actively pursuing Commonwealth countries for trade deals. But the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU in any respect. While exports to the EU account for just under a half of Britain's total, the Commonwealth receives less than 10 percent of our goods. The decline of UK trade with the Commonwealth was taking place long before Britain joined the EU, and it has in fact revived in recent years while being a member. The notion that Britain is restricted from trading with the Commonwealth on account of its EU membership is demonstrably false.  

The EU, the beloved scapegoat for so many ills, cannot fulfil the role for much longer. Indeed, when it comes to the Commonwealth, 48 of the 52 members have already completed trade deals with the UK, or are in the process of negotiating them, as part of their engagement with the EU. Britain could now be forced to abandon and re-negotiate those agreements, to the great detriment of both itself and the Commonwealth. Brexiters must moreover explain why Germany, with a population just 25 percent larger than ours, exports 133 percent more to India and 250 percent more to South Africa than we do. Even New Zealand, one of Britain's closest allies and a forthcoming trade-deal partner, imports 44 percent more goods and services from Germany, despite enjoying far looser cultural and historical ties with that country. The depth of Britain's traditional bonds with the Commonwealth cannot, in itself, boost the British economy. The empire may fill the imagination, but not a spreadsheet.

The British imperial imagination, however, is the one asset guaranteed to keep growing as Brexit approaches. It is, indeed, one of the root causes of Brexit. Long after the empire fell into history, the British exceptionalism it fostered led us to resent our membership of a European bloc, and resist even limited integration with it. The doctrine of "taking back control" for an "independent Britain" speaks to profound (and unfounded) anxieties about being led by others, when in our minds we should be the ones explicitly leading. The fictional, if enduringly potent victim narrative that we became a colony of someone else's empire, has now taken hold in government. The loss of our own empire remains an unacknowledged national trauma, which we both grieve and fail to accept. The concept of being equal partners with like-minded countries, in a position to exert real, horizontal influence through dialogue, cooperation and shared membership of institutions, is deemed an offence to Britain's history and imperial birthright.

The relentless push for Global Britain is thus both a symptom and cause of our immense global predicament. Through an attempt to increase our power beyond Europe, Brexit has instead deflated it. Britain has, in truth, always been global, and the globe has not always been grateful for it; but now the government preaches internationalism while erecting trade barriers and curbing migration. After empire, Britain found a new role in Europe, but with that now gone, Global Britain risks producing global isolation. Despite the foreign secretary's rhetoric, the Commonwealth, geopolitically and economically, has moved on from its imperial past. It is not waiting to be re-taken.

Jonathan Lis is the deputy director at British Influence.