How the English fell in love with German football

Sport has a reputation for stoking historic enmities, but football has helped to transform the Anglo-German relationship into one of friendly rivalries and mutual respect.

“Fussball’s Coming Home” declares the Guardian’s Sport section front-page. “Willkommen in England, liebe Deutsche” reads a weighty Times leader, extending the celebration to the warmth of the Anglo-German relationships It is strange, but it happens to be true, that England is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Football Association by falling in love with German football.

It was in honour of that anniversary that Wembley was invited to host tonight’s Champions League final. It will be the first ever all-German contest for the European Cup. The German press have been struck by just how much warmth the British tabloids showed towards Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund as they routed Barcelona and Real Madrid in the semi-finals. Even the revelation that the new England kit looks uncannily like that worn by Franz Beckenbauer’s Germany at Wembley in the 1966 World Cup final, was generally greeted with amusement rather than outrage.  “‘Smart move by @FA and @nikefootball to go slightly German with the strip. If you can’t beat ’em...’ ,“ tweeted Gary Lineker.

Sport has a reputation for stoking historic enmities: the Orwell claim that "serious sport is nothing but war minus the shooting". But a study of the recent history of football would show that it has instead contributed enormously to a popular transformation of Anglo-German relationship into one of friendly sporting rivalries and mutual respect.

This certainly took some time. Not mentioning the war once seemed to be even harder for English football than it had been for Basil Fawlty. "If it wasn't for the English, you'd be Krauts" was the chant used during the 1980s hooligan era in warped justification of the apparent inability of England's extreme fringe to travel to any continental capital without smashing some of it up.  But we moved on too. If we had (mostly) been laughing at Fawlty, not with him, from the mid-70s, the joke was certainly on Piers Morgan when the Mirror's "Achtung Surrender" antics during Euro 96 turned out to have entirely misread the public mood of "Football's Coming Home", a positive patriotism of welcoming tournament hosts.

There are three reasons that German football has a special status: Germany has almost always been present at the moments which have come to define English football; the increasing familiarity of popular German stars, including those who have come here; and a growing interest in German football as providing a model of running the game that has got the balance right.

Firstly, the most important moments in English football have invariably involved Germany. That famous quartet of England versus Germany classic matches in 1966 and 1970, 1990 and 1996 are, arguably, the four most important competitive international football matches that England ever played: a World Cup final, two major tournament semi-finals in the 1990s, and the only quarter-final which England played as world champions. Those matches provide the iconic moments of our footballing folk memory: from the glory of 1966 and all that to establishing the fear of the penalty shoot-out central to the national sporting psychology.

Those games also signified a power shift in European football. Germany had never beaten England at football when they lost the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley, yet it would take another 34 years after that halcyon summer afternoon before England were to again beat Germany in a major tournament. England, so unlucky to lose to Germany in the 1970 World Cup, were properly outclassed at Wembley by Gunther Netzer in 1972. England took pride in two 1990s semi-final defeats because they competed again on even terms with mighty Germany. Perhaps this rivalry now meant more to England than Germany, who developed a more intense rivalry with the Dutch, and their own footballing jinx of always losing to Italy when it mattered to Italy. These iconic moments in our national football narrative have entrenched Germany as England's benchmark for success. 

At club level, English teams have had the edge, winning five of the six European Cup finals between English and German sides, with victories for Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Manchester United and Chelsea over German opponents. The sole loss is contested too. Bearing a grudge is a cherished skill in Yorkshire. So Leeds United fans still chant, at every match, four decades on, to voice their grievances about losing the 1975 European Cup final to Bayern Munich, to terrible and allegedly corrupt refereeing. "We are the Champions of Europe", they sing, about a tournament they have never won. The chant is in the present tense, because the full theological argument of the Leeds tribe is that none of those crowned since should be considered legitimate champions! Yet German teams were almost equally unlucky in several f the finals, as when Manchester United scored twice in the final minute in 1999 to win 2-1 when Bayern Munich had been the better side; or in the heroic goalkeeping to which Bayern lost to Aston Villa in the early 1980s. Most recently, how a mediocre Chelsea side won the trophy - in Germany, on penalties too - continues to baffle most of Europe.

Club football is different in another way too, though nobody seems to have ever told the ITV commentators this. ITV consistently serve up a blinkered account of big European games designed for a nation united behind our boys, apparently oblivious to how their domestic audience can be pretty divided when Manchester United or Chelsea take the field abroad. Last year's final, where Chelsea went to Munich, gave most of Manchester and Merseyside, much of the north and several of London's football tribes what now looks to have been very useful practice at cheering for the German team.

The current reason for English respect is that German football is now prospering by doing all of the right things. The fluency with which Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund swept aside their Spanish (and Catalan) opponents reflects the new spirit of adventure in this generation of German football. Off the pitch, the role given to member-supporters in controlling the clubs, which can only be 50% privately-owned, has seen ticket prices kept affordable and a refusal to engage in football’s bubble economy. This season’s Champions League has suggested the German model need not sacrifice success on the field.

In our multinational football culture, it is no longer noteworthy to find that Brentford's manager, interviewed over the incredible drama in the final minute of the league season, is the German international Uwe Rosler. It was rather more newsworthy, a generation or two earlier,  when iconic national sporting stars - Kevin Keegan in Hamburg in the late 1970s and Jurgen Klinnsmann at Tottenham in the early 1990s - crossing borders to become embraced as local heroes. Football was not the only sport where this happened. Boris Becker and Steffi Graf's love for Wimbledon and status as darlings of SW19 were perhaps the most enduring examples of the English adoption of German sporting heroes.

Yet what became commonplace was once deeply contested. The most important pioneer for Anglo-German sporting contact was Bert Trautmann, the goalkeeper who was to become a great Manchester City legend, most famously breaking his neck in the 1956 FA Cup final and playing on as his team won the match, only realising afterwards how close he had come to death. Trautmann signed for City from St Helens in 1949, having only been released as a prisoner of war with permission to do temporary in 1948. He was to replace the club’s legendary goalkeeper Frank Swift. As Trautmann’s biographer Alan Rowlands wrote, “he ran the gauntlet of racial hatred amid a barrage of controversy and prejudice to become, without doubt, one of the greatest goalkeepers ever seen”.

The man who did much to end the row about whether City could sign a German was Dr Alexander Altmann, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, the communal rabbi for Manchester. He responded to a deeply polarised argument in the letters column on the local press by writing: “Each member of the Jewish community is entitled to his own opinion, but there is no concerted action in favour of the proposal to end their support of Manchester City FC. Despite the terrible cruelties we suffered at the hands of the Germans, we would not try to punish an individual German who is unconnected with these crimes of hatred. If this footballer is a decent fellow, I would say there is no harm in it. Each must be judged on its merits”.

A good case can be made for Trautmann as our most important sporting immigrant. The friendly spirit of tonight’s game makes it an important moment to pay tribute to what he achieved for the cause of reconciliation. Perhaps, in that spirit, we should mention the wars after all. Perhaps it is fitting that the all-German Wembley final of 2013 takes place ninety-nine years after the outbreak of the first great conflicts of the last century. The governments have decided to have an Anglo-German focus on August 2014, to make clear that it is a moment of reconciliation. There is little reason to doubt that this will succeed, given the transformation of Anglo-German relations in recent decades. A century on, no single moment of world war one now captures the popular imagination quite as much as the Christmas 1914 football truce, as reflecting the spirit in which most people believe the centenary should be commemorated, remembering the enormous loss of life on all sides. That is a discussion for another day.

Tonight, there is a glittering prize to be won. To Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, Willkommen in Wembley. Let’s still hope that it doesn’t have to be decided by a Wembley penalty shoot-out between the two German teams. That could make it a very long night indeed.

Wembley Stadium ahead of the UEFA Champions League final match between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Will Ireland
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Rock solid-arity: how fans and bands helped save Team Rock's music magazines

“It was purely helping out friends in a time of need.”

A little over 25 years ago, a journalist friend let me in on the secret of publishing success. He cut his teeth in the Sixties as an editor in the Yippie underground press, wrote for Rolling Stone, Associated Press and the Chicago Sun-Times, then went on to teach at one of America’s most prestigious journalism schools.

The big secret, he had concluded, was community. No more, no less. Get to know your community and serve it well.

A quarter of a century on, it’s sometimes hard to remember what community looks like in newspapers and magazines. Carefully crafted pages have been obscured by a haze of clickbait, engineered to sucker everyone and anyone into donating a drive-by page view for ads. Community has given way to commodity.

But occasionally, there are glimpses of hope. Six months ago, TeamRock.com, built around a group of specialist music magazines including Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and Prog, went into administration.

The Christmas closure came brutally quickly. The Scottish Sun reported that stunned staff in the company’s Lanarkshire headquarters were told they had been made redundant “as a joiner changed the locks on their offices”. In total, 73 staff were laid off; nearly 30 in Scotland and more than 40 in London.

At the close of 2016, the future for the Team Rock brand and its stable of magazine titles was bleaker than a Black Sabbath album. But last month, in an extraordinary reversal of fortunes, TeamRock.com was named the most influential rock music website in the world.

Bargain-basement buy back

Just a fortnight after its shock closure, the brand was bought by former owners Future Plc. In a no-brainer deal, the Bath-based publisher re-acquired the three magazines it had sold to Team Rock’s founders in 2013. It bought back assets sold for £10m at the knockdown price of £800,000 with the bonus of TeamRock.com and Team Rock Radio. The deal rescued large parts of the Team Rock operation – but its soul was saved by the rock and metal community.

Oblivious to any discussions going on to rescue the magazines, readers, music fans and bands came together in a stunning display of loyalty. Hearing that Team Rock staff wouldn’t be getting paid their Christmas wage they took to social media to pledge their support and raised almost £90,000 for redundant staff.

Ben Ward, the organiser of the crowdfunding campaign and frontman for heavy metal band Orange Goblin said he started the appeal with no thought for the business. “It was purely helping out friends in a time of need,” he explained.

He had read all three Team Rock magazines for years, socialised with their staff and promoted his own and other bands in their pages. “To think of a world without any of those magazines – it was devastating,” he said.

The response to the campaign brought him some cheer, with members of bands such as Queen, Rush and Avenged Sevenfold all posting about it on their social media pages. He added: “The whole Christmas period, my phone just wouldn't stop beeping with notifications for another donation.”

Show of solidarity

Though the fundraiser blew up all Ward's expectations, beating his initial target by more than 400 per cent, he didn't seem completely surprised by the scale of the response.

“Heavy metal and hard rock, people that are into that sort of music, we've always been sort of looked down upon. We know it's not commercially the done thing, we know it's not the norm to walk around with long hair and tattoos and dirty leather jackets. But when you see a fellow metal head in the supermarket, you always give them an approving nod. There's a kind of solidarity.”

While favourable capitalist arithmetic has kept the presses rolling – and the online servers going – for Team Rock, it was the music community – empowered by social media – who delivered the real resurrection. With a combined Facebook following of more than 3.5million and a total social media audience of almost five million, it was no surprise TeamRock.com was soon number one in its field.

“What's brilliant about this is that it's based on what music fans share with each other,” explains editor-in-chief Scott Rowley.

TeamRock.com became the most influential rock site based on social media sharing, and came fifth in the top 100 sites across all music genres. The site above it is a hip-hop title, again featured for the strength of its community, according to Rowley. “Those people really know what they're talking about, they want very specific content, and they're not getting served it elsewhere,” he said. “When they get it, they love it and they share it and talk about it and that's their world.”

Responsiblity

Following the outpouring of support for the rock magazines, Rowley now feels a heightened sense of responsibility to do “the right thing” and steer clear of cynical decisions to get clicks or put certain bands on the cover just to sell copies. He believes future success will come down to trust. “Sometimes that feels precarious, but equally I think we're in good hands,” he explains. “We're a business, we've got to make money, but we know what smells fake and where the limits are.”

Zillah Byng-Thorne, CEO of owner Future, recognises the need to balance the realities of running a listed company with the authenticity needed to maintain trust. “What Future is interested in is the passion that underpins specialist media,” she says. “I don't really mind what your passion is, what's important is that it's a passion.”

“No one is sitting around thinking, 'I wonder what bands sound like Thin Lizzy?',” says Rowley. “We're much more a part of their lifestyle, interrupting their day to tell them someone’s just released an album or announced a tour.”

“But it doesn't have to always be about fishing for clicks,” he adds. “I remember [Classic Rock online editor] Fraser Lewry saying, 'Sometimes on social we should just be being social'.”

Being social. Listening. Contributing to the conversation. Sharing the passion. That old-fashioned notion of serving the community. It seems Ward would agree, as he offers the new owners of the magazines he helped to save some advice: “Don't make the same mistakes, investing in things that weren't really necessary from the magazine’s point of view. I'm in no position to tell anyone how to run their business, but on behalf of the rock and metal community…keep it interesting, keep it relevant.”