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England v Germany – A One Way Rivalry?
By Steve MacClare
November 20, 2008



At least one German is happy when England win

     On Wednesday, England and Germany met in a friendly in Berlin with England emerging victors in a match more notable for the quality of the players not selected than those that did play. Despite the fact that both managers were prepared to risk losing the fixture in order to take the opportunity to blood some fringe players, the media was full of hype about the ‘fierce rivalry’ that exists between the two nations. They don’t border each other, they have hardly been footballing equals nor is there a centuries’ long history of political jousting. Yet for England, the oldest fixture in the world against local rivals Scotland has increasingly become an irrelevance as they see Germany as their natural rivals. In Part One of a two part article, we’ll look at the England v Germany contest in the context of England’s other rivalries, modern history and actual football matches. 

     On the England World Cup blog website this week (blog), they polled their readers asking who England’s biggest rivals were. Bizarrely, the choices were restricted to three: Scotland, Germany and oddly enough Argentina. This seems strange to start with. Most notably, the omission of France as an option is surprising, given that France is England’s closest neighbour and their biggest cultural rival linguistically. Wales, Portugal and Norway will be disappointed not to have been allowed to join the vote, and England’s clashes with Poland have a historical resonance after the Poles dumped England out of the 1974 World Cup. But still, that the site owners didn’t offer France up seemed odd to me. Site editor Daryl Grove (also editor of explained, “I did consider adding Portugal, mostly because they're responsible for our last two tournament exits (Euro 2002 on penalties, World Cup 2006 on penalties). But ultimately it wasn't a long-standing rivalry, just a quirk of recent history. And we lose to everyone on penalties anyway. England obviously has a historic rivalry with France, but it's more off the field than on.” 

     For further insight I examined the rationale given by Grove for offering each of the three as main rivals. Scotland needs no explanation. It’s geographically the closest. The two countries have played over 100 times. They uneasily share a government and a political nation state (for now). The fans have to put up with each other’s persistent crowing with (nearly) no language barrier to soften the taunts. 

     So what reasons does Grove offer up for Germany? Firstly there’s a bunch of past matches in tournaments where the two have met, starting in 1966 when England won the World Cup with West Germany as their opponents. To the English this makes Germany a big deal, the major player, the screen villain as it were in the finest moments of their footballing history. However, as just one of 13 finals the Germans have reached in the World and European Cups, it’s hardly surprising that this one barely merits a glitch in the German consciousness.  

     Grove not only recognizes that inequality but rationalizes it, and makes a good case that this merely strengthens the rivalry, “The rivalry with Germany is more important to me because it's a measure of our progress. England fans have to accept that Germany has been the more successful team (more World Cups, beating us when it mattered in the 1990 and 1996 semi-finals) but Germany isn't so far out of our reach that we can't compete. So a good way for England to measure the big question: are we getting better, are we ready to take that next step, are we ready to seriously challenge for trophies again is: Can we beat Germany?” 

     But this ignores all those years when England weren’t challenging anyone (including an entire decade where they didn’t qualify and had to watch Scotland). In those years, Germany’s attention was focused elsewhere and newer rivalries were being created. Grove is right that they met twice in big semi-finals in the 90s. But for England, these three games represent the summit of their achievement, and on both semi-final occasions Germany put paid to them. 

      However, not unlike a busy lap-dancer and her once-a-year client, semi-final meetings don’t even get the Germans to remember your name. They’ve met no less than 14 different countries with a Cup Final place at stake with Czechoslovakia, Austria, Sweden (twice), Soviet Union, Italy, Poland (in a three team group), France, South Korea, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Greece (in a three team group), Netherlands, and Turkey featuring on a par with England in German footballing history. So if you accept that a rivalry can be unilaterally in one direction, then this rivalry seems based on England’s desire to elevate themselves to the level of achievement of Germany by declaring them rivals. To that end, I now declare Brazil to be Scotland’s rivals. 

     Being a bit of an outsider on this one, I canvassed some views among English and German friends and journalists. Sadly, more than one initial English response was just to email me the words “Two World Wars and One World Cup.” In fact, too many of them were.

     Widar Wendt from Hamburg took a less bombastic and more measured view of the rivalry, “There’s nothing wrong about being passionate for your team and supporting it in the stadium on game day, but those references are absolutely misplaced. I mean, we know about our history and what despair we’ve brought to the world, but we’re living in the 21st century now and football talking shouldn’t be considered a lesson in world history. International football should be there to bring people together. I see them both, as international events and as intercultural events. “ But the rivalry with England while not the most important is not negligible for him. “If we talk about international rivalries, there’s that thing going on between Germany and the Netherlands for decades. I think it all started with the National side winning the World Championship in 1974, beating the Netherlands in the final. They've never forgiven us for that. But that’s a German point of view. With England, it’s always is an issue when I discuss the European or the World Football Championship with my friends. Like this year, when it became clear that England failed to qualify for the European Championship, we felt a bit like gloating. Though it’s not so much against the players, because England has some terrific players, it’s more like this “They always have this big mouth, but look at them now”-kind of feeling.” 

     Raphael Honigstein, who wrote an article in the English Guardian on August 22, 2007 prior to their last meeting between the two nations, agrees that the Dutch game is bigger, but tried to spare English sensibilities. He said “It should have been a titanic struggle, a classic encounter good enough to become part of the very fabric of the Anglo-German rivalry. (Truth be told, this rivalry is a bit like a cheap kitchen towel - rather one-sided. The Dutch are our real footballing arch-enemies, but let's not digress.)” Ask most Germans who their big rivals are and nine out of ten would say the Netherlands. That derby is not a new phenomenon either. It began back on April 24th 1910 in Arnhem with a 4-2 win for the Dutch, with the men in Orange winning the return leg 2-1 in Kleve six months later. Since then they have met in a slew of important matches including a World Cup final and their litany of injustices echoes England’s other rivalry with Argentina. 

     Not everyone agrees with Wendt and Honigstein. I asked the German publisher of this magazine, Ronald Albrecht, and he was clearly more influenced by the injustice of 1966 than the victory of 1974. “I’m just going to go out on a limb and say it’s the biggest rivalry German has. It goes back to 1966, at least for anybody who can remember it and that includes me. Ever since, playing England is just something special – and of course it’s the motherland of soccer. It’s also mixed with some historical significance. That might be more from the English side, the WW2 thing. That’s still sticking around whether we like it or not. I find all that ‘Fawlty Towers’ stuff a bit of a curiosity. Everybody has their own opinion, in my eyes it’s still the biggest rivalry despite the fact that in recent years England haven’t performed all that well. When I was young I went to Wembley Stadium to tour it. They put on the sound recording of the fans in 1996. To this day it gives me goose bumps.” 

     Christian Grieb studies Germanics and International Business at UW and has fire in his eyes when he explains how the two sets of fans approach the fixture differently. “England is the match that always brings blood to a boil. The fans on both sides have chants that really get after the other side. The English always love hyping this game up as if they are going to smash the Germans, but there will always remain one thing special in the hearts of ‘Die Nationalelf’ (German XI) fans, we won the first and last games at Wembley. This is by far enough to put an English fan right in his place every time they coming screaming Kraut/Nazi at you. Germans always want to move beyond WWII, but it almost feels as if the English want to make it the soul focus of every game between the two countries. The historic rival makes the game just that little bit better than any other friendly during the year. It just means that little bit extra to every German and English fan alike. Trust me the Germans celebrated when the English didn't make the Euro tournament, and we will celebrate yet again for the numerous times that we have trounced their hopes of ever destroying efficient football. I also think it rips the ass of the English to a certain extent that the Germans are better at the Sport they invented! Which is another great thing to hold over their heads, our 3 World Cups to their 1!!” 

     So we seem to have a mixed picture and it seems partly generational. Those with no memory of the injustice of 1966 World Cup Final view the Dutch with greater enmity. That feeling is certainly returned by them. However, those Germans who remember Tofik Bakhramov, the Azerbaijani linesman who persuaded the referee to wrongly award England a goal in 1966 amid well documented rumours (later confirmed by Bakhramov himself) that he sought revenge on the Germans for the Battle of Stalingrad, can’t see past England. And I thought better than to ask either group about the famous defeat by East Germany in the 1974 World Cup. 

     Thank you for reading. In Part 2 next week, we’ll get more of an English perspective on the fixture, look at England’s more tempestuous relationship with Argentina, and reveal what the final result was on Daryl Grove’s poll.

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© 2006 All content property of European Weekly unless where otherwise accredited




© 2006 All content property of European Weekly unless where otherwise accredited