Saturday, 26 June 2010

For you Englander ze war is never over!

England's clash with Germany is just a football match...isn't it?

The morning after Germany's win over Ghana, which confirmed yet another meeting of the "arch-rivals" in the last 16 of the World Cup, the topic of Nicky Campbell's phone-in on 5 Live was "Can England v Germany ever only be about football?"
The answer I deduced from listening to most callers to the subsequent programme (whilst busy with my work of course) was yes it can...if you're of a certain age.  For others like me, now in their forties, it's perhaps not that easy.
Anyone who has read the brilliantly hilarious start to Harry Pearson's Achtung Schweinehund - A Boy's Own Story Of Imaginary Combat will probably understand why.

I was 139 days old when these chaps lined up at Wembley

People born in the Sixties were surrounded by "the war", especially if like me you had a father, grandfather and great-grandfather who'd all served King & Country; with two of them having done that in conflict with "The Hun".
Like Pearson I was brought up on Airfix models and toy soldiers, along with a TV diet of Dad's Army and It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Colditz and The World At War as well as a whole host of films that actually highlighted our contribution to eventual victory (unlike recent Hollywood attempts to airbrush Britain from the conflict altogether).
War, in particular the 1939-45 conflict, even became a source of comedy in mainstream programmes, something that continued throughout the Seventies (Fawlty Towers) and Eighties (Auf Weidersehen, Pet), while as recently as the Nineties Harry Enfield introduced a German character whose fall-back line was to apologise for his nation's conduct in "ze war".

Given so much material there's little wonder that people of my generation had Germany engrained as public enemy number one in all facets of life, from football to Eurovision and even Jeux Sans Frontieres (It's A Knockout).
Of course in football there was even more reason to want to beat "the Boche".  Too young to share in the glory of '66 or the despair of Mexico 1970, the first England v (West) Germany encounter I can recall  - albeit vaguely - is from the Saturday night in April 1972 when Gunter Netzer inspired the visitors to a 3-1 win at Wembley, realistically dumping us out of the European Championships at the now familiar quarter-final stage.
In his worthy read England v Germany - The Best Of Enemies David Downing describes that particular West German triumph as "a real watershed for both the English national team itself and the expectations which surrounded it.  It knocked the incipient cockiness out of English football".  For me it also set the tone for a lifelong catalogue of disappointments at the hands of our Teutonic rivals.

The bloke in the middle's a right Gunt

Obviously Italia 90 and Euro 96 rank among our greatest setbacks, made worse  by the fact that in both cases the Germans went on to win the actual competition.  Even when we tasted all-too-rare success in our meetings - Shearer's winner in Charleroi and the 5-1 demolition job in Munich - there was to be no long-term gain.
I observed each of the above in the company of like-minded souls in packed boozers or at organised gatherings.  The only Anglo-German meeting I've witnessed at first hand came in the World Cup qualifier at Wembley in October 2000; the last game to be played under the famous Twin Towers and the one that prompted Kevin Keegan to walk away from the "impossible job".  No need to tell you who won.
Obviously the Munich meeting more than compensated for that defeat (although, in the bigger picture, it was again Germany who advanced to the Final) and 2008's friendly win in Berlin suggests that there has perhaps been a slight shift in power in recent times.  But  that will count for zilch come Sunday!

 German Kuntz

So despite what Downing describes as the "peculiar piquancy of the Anglo-German football relationship", including "the legacy of that political and military enmity which afflicted the two nations in the first half of the (20th) century" (and also "the barely conscious recognition of the fact that the two nations are similar in so many ways") it's plain to see there are enough footballing reasons alone to "hate" the Germans.  No "Achtung Surrender" headlines this time please. 
However, that said I do think people are a little bit over-sensitive when they  go overboard about the familiar tunes that will no doubt emanate from the massed ranks of St George on Sunday.  "The Great Escape", "The Dambusters Theme" and yes, even "Ten German Bombers" should be accepted for what they are - bad taste songs sung (badly) by  football fans for football fans.  It's banter - ignorant banter perhaps but banter all the same.  Despite Bernard Manning once saying, "if their football was as bad as their sense of humour they wouldn't be in the World Cup", many Germans spoken to ahead of recent meetings on the football field no longer take exception to such "wit".  Indeed, I'm sure they will also have their own anti-English "ditties" to fall back upon.  As long as it goes no further than the sharing of such (non)musical offerings and supporters can otherwise peacably enjoy a gripping contest then football will again be the winner.  Not that we'll hear them anyway - thanks to those bloody vuvuzelas!

 Man with the Horn

Postscript: The first person I met en route to work yesterday was a man some twenty years' older than me whose morning greeting consisted of sticking his head out of his van window and shouting, "We'll do them square-headed bastards on Sunday!" I allowed myself a wry smile.  Anyway, here's to a "Hun-Nil" victory on Sunday...

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