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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.