SO here we go again. At 5pm on Tuesday, England’s footballers will once more be playing Germany at Wembley – this time doing battle in the Euros group of 16.
As an old newspaper hack, the match gives me the chance to humbly regale you with possibly the greatest intro about sport ever penned by a journalist.
On the day of the England v West Germany World Cup Final at Wembley on Saturday, July 30, 1966, the inimitable Vincent Mulchrone of the Daily Mail wrote: ‘If the Germans beat us at our national game today, we can always console ourselves with the fact that we have twice beaten them at theirs.’
They were brilliant words, crafted by a legend of the Press, encapsulating an attitude that was taken as a given back then: our lingering enmity with Germany.
Until the 20th century, the British had generally got on well with the Germans. Among other things, the Hanoverians had provided us with an heir to the throne and the Prussians had helped us beat Napoleon at Waterloo. Our traditional enemies were the French.
But from the start of the Great War in 1914 through to the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Germans became embedded in our national consciousness as wrong ’uns. Not entirely without cause, you’ll agree.
It meant that many of us born in the immediate post-war years (1950 in my case) inherited the understandable antipathy towards Germans felt by our parents, who had lived through and fought in the Second World War.
We weren’t discouraged in our unfocused dislike. The comics we read were full of British battlefield heroes giving the dastardly Hun a bloody nose, and we packed the cinemas to watch with relish films such as The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky and Sink the Bismarck! We’d well and truly beaten the Boche and we weren’t going to forget it.
But as the years advanced, there gradually came the uncomfortable realisation that while Britain had won the war and bankrupted itself, the West Germans were winning the peace and growing rich.
With the creation of the pan-Europe club that morphed into the EU, we could only look on as a reunited Germany eventually achieved economic hegemony over Western Europe without the need for panzers. It wasn’t fair, was it?
If that erstwhile resentful attitude towards Germans now sounds archaic and xenophobic – and, Heaven forfend, racist – I can only say that that’s how a lot of Britons felt back then. I doubt, though, if that’s how most feel today. The times have moved on.
While Mulchrone’s Daily Mail story in 1966 was rightly hailed as a gently nuanced masterpiece, 30 years later another newspaper was roundly condemned for plumbing new depths of crassness in its coverage of football against Germany.
On June 24, 1996, when England were about to play Germany in Euro ’96, the front page of the Daily Mirror – edited at the time by Piers Morgan – was headlined Achtung! Surrender with mocked-up pictures of Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce in soldiers’ tin helmets.
Instead of graceful prose in the style of Mulchrone, we had: ‘There is a strange smell in Berlin and it’s not just their funny sausages, it’s the smell of fear.’
How subtle, Mr Morgan.
So is there any reason for some England fans to continue dissing Deutschland with mischief-making chants over its dark wartime deeds? Probably not. Most of the Germans who scourged the world with war have long been roasting in Hell, and we are told the sins of the fathers should not be laid on the children.
Interestingly, apart from the football tomfoolery, the dislike doesn’t seem to have been passed down the generations in any substantial form. Most British youngsters today probably can’t really relate to resenting Germans except when they see that Fawlty Towers scene where Basil fails not to mention the war and then does his Hitler impression.
When all is said and done, it can only be a good thing if we set aside our old quarrels, difficult as it may be in some quarters. And thankfully, we can still indulge our national rivalry without harm.
If, as the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said, war is politics by other means, these days football is war by other means.
So I’ll be watching the game on Tuesday and in the true spirit of British sportsmanship, hoping
our lads give those damn Jerries a bloody nose the best team wins. Come on, England!