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.

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“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.