Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Being English during the World Cup finals really does feel like being “stuck in the middle with you”, to labour a pun. On the one hand, there are the newspapers (and not exclusively the tabloid ones), the television commentators, and those that belch in your face and shout, “INGERLAND” at you as if this will somehow help something, somewhere. On the other, there is the rest of the world, which often seems to go out of its way to remember just how much it hates the British, the English, people that wear plastic hats with St Georges crosses painted upon them or whatever. There seems to be no middle ground with England, no way of approximating anything like rationality.
Against all of the evidence that was presented by their first two matches against the United States of America and Algeria, the hysteria returned after the recent narrow win against Slovenia. The truth of the matter is that, against Slovenia, they neither stank the tournament out or set the world alight. They played reasonably well, and were a little unlucky not to win by a greater margin than they did. Particularly impressive was Jermain Defoe, who has frequently looked so out of sorts in an England shirt, but looked, quite possibly for the first time in his career, like an international class striker. He scored one goal and might have had a second had the ball sat up in a slightly more tidy fashion for him at the start of the second half.
That the second goal didn’t come proved to be somewhat costly. The United States of America won their game against Algeria with a couple of minutes left to play, and the paucity of England’s win meant that they would take on Germany, rather than playing an eminently winnable match against a young Ghana team that squeaked into the second round of the competition without scoring a goal from open play. As such, it is perfectly plausible – if not likely – that England’s involvement in the 2010 World Cup will be over by Sunday evening, because the German national football team is the prism through which all of England’s neuroses may be viewed. If England can be considered to have two “great” rivals, those rivals are Germany and Argentina. The average Englishman’s view of Argentina is limited to their football team, the Falkland Islands and corned beef, and it is perhaps this, coupled with the fact that, as a European team, Germany are more regular opposition for England, that continues to fuel this most peculiar of rivalries.
So, Germany then. The Hun. Fritz. And so on. It is one of the more extraordinary ironies of twenty-first Britain that “The War” continues to cast such a long shadow over English culture, when the only people that can even remember it are pensioners, and their memories are those of children. In the immediate twenty years after 1945, there was no meaningful rivalry with West Germany. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that playing them in the 1966 World Cup final was treated as that much of a needle match. The Turkman linesman-related controversy surrounding the third goal notwithstanding, England deserved to win the match. Indeed, had that goal not been awarded, the most controversial incident of the match would likely have been the nature of the last West German equaliser that took the game into extra-time in the first place.
Since then, the narrative of England against West Germany and Germany has been one of perpetual disappointment, punctuated with occasional pyrrhic victories. In 1970, they were undone by a critical mistake by Alf Ramsey, who substituted Bobby Charlton, and freed up Franz Beckenbauer to lead the German fight-back. The most significant result for German supporters, a 3-1 win at Wembley in the 1972 European Championship quarter-finals, feels oft-forgotten in England, and this is perhaps unsurprising, such was the extent to which Gunter Netzer took them to the cleaners. In Germany, however, the team that won at Wembley that day is one of the most celebrated German teams of all. In 1982, West Germany qualified for the semi-finals of the World Cup at England’s expense, although the two sides drew their match 0-0 and it was their respective results against an underwhelming Spain side that proved to be the difference between the two sides.
It was the twin penalty shootouts of 1990 and 1996 that have proved to be the truly defining matches for England’s relationship with Germany. The 1990 defeat in Turin, with the tears of Paul Gascoigne and Chris Waddle’s attempt at goal from the half-way line, held an almost poetic quality about it, but the defeat didn’t feel so traumatic at the time because so few people had genuinely expected them to get as far as the semi-finals in the first place. Six years later, however, there was a feeling that England’s time – even after a handful of ropey performances against Switzerland, Scotland and Spain – had come. The balloon punctured with the penalty shootout, and the national psychosis over this method of finishing a match began at that point. Decades of seemingly perpetual defeat finally came to an end with the start of the new century, but England’s 1-0 at Euro 2000 turned out to be the wooden spoon match in their group and the 5-1 win in Munich in September 2001 can only now be looked back upon as a beautiful freak result. Germany had already, in a match of such clunking symbolism that just thinking about it brings back shivers, won 1-0 at Wembley in the last match at the old stadium, and in 2007 they became the first team to beat them at the new one.
Such a narrative suits a certain part of the English population, and is furiously fuelled by the media. It has all of the right ingredients – an easily caricaturable “enemy” against whom we once won a war, the last genuine golden age of the England team and those twin staples of modern British culture – varying degrees of perceived injustice and an obsession with blaming someone else for our own shortcomings. The censure that the Daily Mirror received for its deservedly infamous “Achtung Fritz” newspaper headline during the 1996 European Championship seems to have curbed the absolute worst of the tabloids’ instincts, but it seems unlikely, if not impossible, to imagine that the tone of the build-up to Sunday’s match will not rapidly descend into the gutter over the next couple of days or so.
What do England need to do on Sunday, then, and are there any reasons to be optimistic? Well, they need to keep the game out of extra-time. England haven’t won a match in extra-time since beating Cameroon at the 1990 World Cup finals. By the same token, they need to keep the match away from penalties – there is a whole other article to be written on why that should be, but anybody that saw Frank Lampard drag his spot kick wide of the post for Chelsea in the FA Cup final will have a rough idea of at least the outline of why that should be. They should probably also stay a million miles away from any British newspapers until after the match. Perhaps the only contact with the outside world that they should have should be to be made to watch the various recent pronouncements of Franz Beckenbauer on video.
As for reasons to be cheerful, well, there may be one or two. England’s performance against Slovenia was proof that the team may be finally moving in the right direction, and Wayne Rooney’s performance can only improve upon what we have seen so far. In addition, Germany may have swatted Australia aside like an irritating insect, but they were beaten by Serbia and laboured somewhat against Ghana. In addition to this, England have won three of their last five matches against Germany (although these have been spread over the last ten years). The rational, neutral observer would probably make Germany the favourites to win, but not by an enormous amount. Ultimately, though, there are unlikely to be too many people that are prepared to be rational about the England team over the weekend, and those amongst us that are will probably be drowned out by the sheer, white noise.