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28 June 2021updated 27 Oct 2022 11:34am

Why England and Germany have more in common than their historic rivalry suggests

Both countries have reasons to be anxious about sport’s ability to fuel toxic forms of nationalism, but they have also shown how sport can pioneer a liberal and inclusive patriotism.  

By Sunder Katwala

During the most dramatic, topsy-turvy night of European football last Wednesday as the final batch of games in Group F were played, Gareth Southgate’s England side could have been preparing to face four different opponents in the first knock-out round of Euro 2020. But perhaps it was fated to be Germany who, despite having been minutes away from being eliminated from the tournament by underdog Hungary, would come to Wembley for the round of 16 to renew one of the great international football rivalries.

England versus Germany will be the tie of the round, the kind of game that these great footballing summers are all about. Up to 20 million of us will tune in to watch – anxious about the outcome, but eager to see whether the players can create memories that we will talk about for years to come.

Some may fear that tonight’s game will bring out the worst in our football and media culture. Yet we might be more confident that almost all of us have moved on. Twenty-five years ago, when England crashed out against Germany on penalties in the semi-final of Euro ’96 (which Germany went on to win), as they had done in the 1990 World Cup (which Germany also won), Piers Morgan’s Daily Mirror already seemed embarrassingly out of tune with the spirit of the tournament in its “Achtung Surrender!” headline, an evocation of Second World War comic books. England versus Germany now matters most as one of the great sporting rivalries: it is “Don’t mention the penalties”, rather than “Don’t mention the war”, that has become the dominant cultural reference point for the match.

Games against Germany have provided the four most important matches in England’s football history: the 1966 final when England beat Germany 4-2 to win their only ever World Cup; the loss of that title to a dramatic German comeback from 2-0 down in the quarter-finals of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico; and two of the three major tournament semi-finals (1990 and 1996) that England have reached in the 50 years since.

[See also: How I learned to stop worrying and love football]

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“England beat Germany? In a World Cup final?” said one of the characters, incredulously, in a recent episode of Call the Midwife that used the 1966 final as the backdrop. Yet this was the anachronistic perspective of the modern scriptwriter. Not many people realise that Germany had never yet beaten England at football when the two sides played the 1966 final – something easily forgotten since it was to be another 34 years before England beat Germany again in a major tournament at Euro 2000.

Despite their rivalrous history, what England and Germany have in common is the surprisingly positive role that football has played in shaping national identity. Two countries with reasons to be anxious about sport’s ability to fuel toxic and xenophobic forms of nationalism have successfully shown how sport can pioneer a liberal and inclusive patriotism.

The era of German totalitarianism saw sport exploited by the dictatorship for its popular reach, most notoriously in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, in which the Nazi Party sought to prevent Jewish athletes from participating. Yet sport also played a key role in securing the Federal Republic of Germany’s rehabilitation on the international stage after the war, including its participation and surprise victory in the 1954 World Cup. While the constitutional patriotism of the Federal Republic has remained distinctly wary of flags, the “summer fairytale” of the hosting of the 2006 World Cup changed many minds about the spirit in which flags could be flown in Germany too.

Britain’s historic contribution to the defeat of fascism is a legitimate source of pride – as reflected in enduring national traditions of Remembrance. But the shadow of the Second World War undoubtedly played a toxic role in football culture during the hooligan era of the 1980s, which saw English clubs banned from playing in Europe because of the behaviour of their fans. Singing “If it wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts” seemed to be the warped justification for drunken violence and disorder by an extreme fringe of England supporters.

That changed, gradually, as the 1990 World Cup, hosted by Italy, popularised Pavarotti as well as Gazza while England’s hosting of Euro ’96 decisively shifted the fan culture around the national team. The “Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home)” song of that tournament produced a new narrative of the 1966 World Cup victory – and all of the “oh so nears” since. It was the story of English football from the perspective of the fans. England no longer expected – but it would continue to hope, somewhat against experience. As David Baddiel, who co-wrote the song, said recently: “It created a very unusual thing – a non-aggressive, non-triumphalist patriotism. It was a soft, sad type of pride being expressed, not a vanquished overcoming one.”  It is an ethos which, along with the diversity of the squad, helps to explain why the English football team is seen by white and ethnic minority Britons alike as the national symbol which most feels like it belongs to people across every ethnic group in England.

[See also: England’s players have won the nation over – on and off the pitch]

Thirty years of hurt did not end at Euro ’96 – though England fans took great pride in the team’s performance. There could be no better proof of the spirit of Baddiel’s anthem than how this song about the 1966 triumph was received by Germany. “It gave you chills. It didn’t matter whether you were English or German. That was unforgettable. We loved that song and we sang it throughout the tournament,” said Jurgen Klinsmann, star striker who went on to coach the German national side.

So the German team went home from Euro ’96 with not just the trophy but with England’s new football anthem too. After the victorious players sang “Three Lions” to their fans from the balcony in Frankfurt, the song entered the German pop charts and is sung at club grounds. The Berlin crowds were still singing “football’s coming home” when Germany brought the World Cup home from Brazil in 2014.

That the fans of these two great footballing rivals have chosen to share a supporters’ anthem is a striking recognition of how much we have in common across our rival allegiances.

May the best team win – but perhaps not, this time, on penalties.

Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future, an independent thinktank focused on issues of identity and race, migration and integration. Its report Beyond a 90-minute nation: Why it’s time for an inclusive England outside the stadium was published earlier this month.

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