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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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.