Two fat drunks

The Best of Enemies: England v Germany, a century of football rivalry

David Downing <em>Bloomsbury

If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then England in the days preceding a football match against Germany is surely his spiritual home. In pubs throughout the country, Englishmen bloated with beer, wind and opinion, their bodies ranging from the fat to the obese, will be holding forth on the World Cup qualifier to be played on Saturday 7 October. Amid the bluster and incoherence, some generalities will emerge with more frequency than others: the German strengths of efficiency, determination, discipline, must be countered by the English strengths of, well, efficiency, determination, discipline.

For some reason (probably involving conspiracy, foul play and cheating), the Germans manage to pick up World Cups and European Championships, while the English scrape through qualification and then tumble out as soon as the competition becomes meaningful. For a major footballing nation (of which there are only a handful), England's performances in international competitions have been truly wretched. Germany, on the other hand, have consistently overachieved, to such a degree that even the most untalented of German teams have seemed invincible, such as when they won the 1996 European Championship in England. But even the Germans could no longer conceal the weakness that had accumulated for a decade, when, in Charleroi in June, they fell to ignominious defeat to the English. The English press acclaimed a great victory; the Continental press despaired at the Stone Age football played in a tournament that had celebrated the technical prowess of the French, Yugoslavs, Romanians and Portuguese. (One Spanish journalist wrote of "two fat drunks slugging it out" - an appropriate description of events, both within the stadium and without.)

The two fat drunks are at it again. While this might engage the fervour of their respective supporters, global interest will be limited, for neither side, even if they qualify, will make an impression in the finals in Japan and Korea - unless they forego a style of play that is so outmoded. Perhaps this is unfair on the Germans, who have tended to learn from their mistakes, and have modernised, producing their one truly fluid and modern team in 1972, inspired by the mercurial Gunter Netzer. The English, on the other hand, took two technical lessons at the hands of Puskas, Kocsis et al in 1953 (6-3 and 7-1) - and half a century on, have still to do anything about it. This year's match in Charleroi, as David Downing reminds us, was a miracle of technical ineptitude: to the Germans, the ball seemed to have its own anti-gravitational field as it ricocheted off their shins; to the English, it was some kind of minor explosive, which had best be lobbed into the opposition penalty area as quickly as possible. Mysteriously, one of these lobs paid off as it bounced up on to the nose of the England captain and into the net. The result, inevitably, turned out to be irrelevant.

Downing's book on the history of the fixture - its date of publication coincides with the World Cup qualifier - is not especially illuminating: a touch of the political and cultural background, a couple of pages to establish that there were few significant differences between the two nations before the world wars, the sort of broad analysis that might engage those who struggle with the manager's preamble in football programmes. What he does capture is the broad shape of England's decline and fall as a football team throughout the century, from the jaunts to the Continent with the ritual demolitions of the opposition, through the odd defeat (owing to fatigue, travel, refereeing); suspicion that the foreigners really might be catching up; patronising refusal to participate in the World Cup (a cause of regret, as England might easily have won in the early stages of its history); realisation that technical inferiority was a fact, thanks to the Magyars; one inglorious and negative World Cup win (Danny Blanchflower criticised the style of play and was denounced as a traitor) - to an astonishing lack of vision on the part of administrators and coaches when it came to doing anything about the team's technical shortcomings. The talent and interest have always been there; the coaching acumen, sadly, hasn't.

The contest between these fallen giants will be interesting, in much the same way as the spectacle of two fat drunks slugging each other in the street will interest a passer-by. And it will be a great occasion, make no mistake - full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing.

Henry Sheen is one of the NS's regular reviewers

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie