Loving the Germans

Observations on football

When England beat Germany in Berlin on 19 November, I must have been the only English football fan who wasn't celebrating, because ever since I was a kid I've (secretly) cheered on the German national team. I was born and raised in England but my father was German, born in Dresden, and the more my English friends ridiculed and abused "the Krauts", the more I grew to like them.

There used to be a lot to like. Germany have won three World Cups and three European Championships. England have won only one World Cup, in 1966. But after that recent win in Berlin, something changed. For the first time since 1966, England look like the team of the future. Germany look like a team whose time has passed.

It's 12 years since Germany won a major tournament, Euro '96 at Wembley. I went to the semi-final, also at Wembley, and saw them knock out the hosts, England, in that epic penalty shoot-out. I tried hard to keep a poker face in a crowd of anxious and anguished England fans.

This is now Germany's longest run without a major trophy since 1972, and, on present form, the fallow period will continue long into the future. Today, their only world-class player is an ageing Michael Ballack (who, when he is not injured, plays for Chelsea).

For German fans, last month's defeat felt even worse than the famed 5-1 thrashing by England in Munich in 2001. That result could be written off as a one-off, a freak. The latest defeat feels like a taste of things to come.

Yet, for me, there is one consolation about supporting an increasingly mediocre German team: maybe the decline of the German national side will encourage English fans to be a bit less beastly to the Germans. Only pub bores and office bullies think that the British have a great sense of humour, and all those tabloid and terrace "jokes" about Germans and the war are really just baiting by another name.

England prides itself on its (largely self-proclaimed) sense of fair play, but our attitude to the German team shows us to be a nation of bad losers. German self-belief? Arrogance. German technique? Clinical. German tactics? Mechanical.

Yet when it comes to football, the Germans are our closest cousins. With their home-made scarves and denim jackets with sewn-on badges, their supporters are a throwback to how ours used to be in the 1970s, but without the tribal violence. The reason the 2006 World Cup in Germany was such a success was that, for once, it was held in a country whose people love football just as much as we do, a nation with a footballing culture every bit as rich as ours.

It's all about the war, people say when I ask them why they hate the German team. But Englishmen who fought in the war don't boo the German national anthem. It's their pampered children and grandchildren who do that, weaned as they are on The Dam Busters.

I used to think that would never change, not even with the passing of the decades, but now I'm more optimistic. My son supports England and Germany, and none of his friends gives him grief about it. But his friends haven't been raised on a diet of Warlord comics and The Great Escape. Some of them have even been to Germany. They're not interested in the war.

Two years ago, I went to Germany to write about the 2006 World Cup. I talked to German fans about English football (which they adore) and the sniping of the English press (which they find painful and bewildering). I also met an old man named Emanuel Schaffer, a German Jew who had been forced to flee from Germany during the Third Reich. He abandoned a promising career in soccer, only to return there after the war to train as a football coach, even though he had lost his parents and his three sisters in the Holocaust.

He subsequently arranged a match between Borussia Mönchengladbach and Israel, in Israel. This was the first time a German team had played there. At half-time, the German ambassador told him that he had done more for German-Jewish relations in 45 minutes than German diplomats had managed over many years.

If he can build bridges with the Germans, why can't we?

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror