Don’t be fooled by the chants of “Two World Wars and One World Cup, doodah!”, or by English fans stretching out their arms in imitation of Royal Air Force bomber planes. The truth is that England’s one-sided football rivalry with Germany has lost what teeth it had. For most English fans, the latest instalment, Tuesday’s second-round Euro 2020 match at Wembley, should be a friendly affair. That’s largely because English people now define themselves more against each other than against the Germans.
The rivalry had a 30-year heyday, starting with the England-West Germany World Cup final of 1966. Before then, England’s football team had never been central to national identity. Previous British heroes had been soldiers, royals, cricketers, or masochists who inflicted pain on themselves for no apparent reason: Captain Scott who died at the South Pole, New Zealander Edmund Hillary who climbed Everest, or Roger Bannister who ran the four-minute mile.
The 1966 final was the first big football match of the era of near-universal TV ownership. Its 32.2m domestic viewers remain the largest audience for any British TV programme. Yet England’s victory produced little hysteria. Jimmy Greaves, England’s unlucky reserve, recalled: “Everybody cheered, a few thousand came out to say well done, and within a week everybody had disappeared.” A population that had lived through one or both world wars understood that football was only a game. Anyway, the English in the 1960s still took global supremacy in their stride: their team at that point had never yet lost to Germans.
But then came the trilogy of great English defeats to Germany: at the World Cups of 1970 and 1990, and finally at Euro 96. The results symbolised an era in which — unfairly, in the view of many Britons — Germany won the peace. Even in this period, though, English hostility had a pantomime element. “Two world wars and one World Cup, doodah” is a self-consciously ridiculous chant, at least to most people who chant it. It’s meant, above all, to spice up a football match.
What hostility the English felt peaked on July 4, 1990. In the World Cup semi-final in Turin, the West Germans lived up to stereotype: charmless, invincible, and mechanically proficient at penalty shoot-outs. German reunification was scheduled three months later. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher feared the new country would become an aggressive superpower; West Germany’s coach Franz Beckenbauer boasted it would be unbeatable at football.
Neither scenario came true. United Germany became a gentle power, which refused entreaties from allies to build up its military, while its football team became fallible. Germany’s neighbours relaxed. English hostility waned, just as Dutch-German and Franco-German football encounters also lost their edge.
British tabloids tried to keep the show going. Before the semi-final of Euro 96 at Wembley, the Daily Mirror ran a front-page photomontage of two England players wearing second world war-era army helmets, under the headline, “ACHTUNG! SURRENDER! For you Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over.” But the Mirror had misgauged the mood. The headline caused such revulsion that the paper abandoned plans to drive a tank to the German embassy in London.
By 2010, when Germany beat England at the World Cup again, the ritual defeat was hardly traumatic at all. Beyond the Ukip-voting contingent (probably over-represented among England’s match-going fans), British people have learned to love the Germans.
This is particularly true of the UK’s liberal left, which reveres Germany’s quietly professional leader, its manufacturing exports, and its welcome to refugees in 2015. Fifty-eight per cent of Britons have a positive opinion of Germany, and only 10 per cent a negative opinion, report pollsters YouGov.
There’s a broader reason for the dimming of passions: after five decades of televised football, international matches have become repetitions of each other. Tuesday’s England-Germany game will be a pastiche or mash-up of past England-Germany games. Fans will watch with 1966, 1970, 1990 and 1996 in their heads. That means emotions will be less primal than before — even leaving aside that this is a mere second-round match at a European Championship.
On the field, the multimillionaire English and German players, several of whom play for clubs in each other’s countries, will have more in common with their opponents than with their own fans.
And for many English fans, the enemy now is within. England’s biggest needle match of recent years was the Remain-Leave derby of June 23, 2016, in which the underdog Leavers rode an early lead to a 52-48 victory, prompting the resignation of ashen-faced Remain boss David Cameron. The referendum kicked off a cultural civil war that will continue at Wembley, where English nativists will boo and English liberals applaud England’s players for kneeling in support of Black Lives Matter. The Germans have gone from bogeymen to guests trapped in the middle of an embarrassing domestic row.