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.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage