It wasn't my intention to write about the World Cup this week - Stan's piece below sums up the experience far better than I ever could - but if the intention of this blog is to offer an insight into the culture and psyche of our respective locations, then I feel I would be doing you a disservice by not addressing the major news story of the moment in England: not the draconian and savage budget cuts being implemented by the Government, but Sunday afternoon, 3pm GMT, England playing Germany in the last 16 of the World Cup. People will stop what they are doing, the streets will empty, TV screens gathered around, fingernails bitten to the quick.
England v Germany. It is a contest loaded with history. And it is we English who tend to do the loading. The Germans have moved on; they seem able to view these games as just that - games.We are less mature, however. As soon as a German opponent hoves into view, everyone turns into Basil Fawlty in full 'Don't Mention the War!' war mode. The worst culprits, as they invariably always are, are the tabloid newspapers. Probably the crassest front page in recent memory came on the eve of the 1996 European Championship semi-final between England and Germany. The editor of The Daily Mirror, a very smug young man named Piers Morgan, who has since gone onto global success as...actually I'm not sure what his success is based on, besides enormous amounts of chutzpah...decided to splash with the headline 'Achtung! Surrender!' above the strapline 'For you Fritz, ze European Championships are over!' It backfired spectacularly, apologies were made, and it was made to look even more daft when Germany, after an unbelievably tight struggle, beat England in a penalty shoot out.
That was simply the latest in a long line of painful defeats to Germany, etched into the English sporting psyche. England famously beat West Germany to win the 1966 World Cup, but needed a a controversial call from a Russian linesman, who deemed Geoff Hurst's shot to have bounced over the goal line after hitting the cross bar. The TV pictures are unclear, but you don't find many England fans complaining. It put the team 3-2 up in extra time. As the Germans poured forward in search of an equaliser, Hurst broke away in the last minute to score the winner, resulting in the most famous piece of sports commentary in English history by Kenneth Wolstenholme.
(As Hurst breaks free, fans run onto the pitch, thinking the full time whistle has blown) 'There are some people on the pitch. They think it's all over. (Hurst's shot almost breaks the net)...It is now.'
It immortalised Wolstenholme, even though I watched a full rerun of the match recently and his commentary is otherwise hopeless. He gets the name of most players wrong and barely has anything of interest to say beyond the quotidian. But that one line lives on.
That was last taste of footballing success against the Germans for some time, as if a curse had been placed on England when the Russian linesman made his game-changing decision (Boston Red Sox fans take note. You're not the only ones to do hopeless, pessimistic superstition). Four years later, defending their title in Mexico, England took a 2-0 lead against West Germany in the quarter-finals. Alf Ramsey, the victorious coach of '66, decided to take off Bobby Charlton, England's talisman. England wilted in the heat, and Germany surged back to win 3-2. In 1990 England scrambled through to the semis of the World Cup. They came up against a mighty German side, crammed with winners. England played well, arguably deserved to win, but it was 1-1 at the end of extra time. Cue penalties. Cue inevitability. Germany won.
When the same thing happened in 1996, pessimism seemed to be widespread: we just couldn't beat Germany. Stereotypes took hold. They had Teutonic ice in their veins. We had ants in our pants. When it came to pressure, they thrived, while we choked. Believing we had little chance on the pitch, some England fans in the stands took to taunting Germany in increasingly juvenile ways. They would sing the theme tune to Dambusters and spread their arms out like aeroplane wings. Or they would start chanting 'Two World Wars and One World Cup doo-dah doo-dah', forgetting Germany had won several more World Cups than us. It was all extremely juvenile and did the country no favours whatsoever. When it came to Germany, we seemed incapable of growing up.
Then, on a surreal night in Munich in 2001, on the road to qualification for the 2002 World Cup, England beat Germany 5-1. People pinched themselves. We could beat the Germans. More than three decades of sporting hurt was exorcised. From that point on, we grew up. Ahead of the game this weekend, so far there is little of the crass patriotism, or infantile sniggering about the past (though not all: when the game starts, listen carefully, beneath the drone of vuvuzelas you are likely to hear the brass band who follow the national team everywhere playing the theme from The Great Escape.)
That said, it is the main topic of conversation. Who will win? Is Rooney fit? Who will play alongside him up front? Where will you be watching the game? This England team has been very poor so far. They will have to play much better, but they are capable of doing so and have a great deal of big match experience throughout the team. Germany, in contrast, have played some good football, but are a young team with less of an aura about them than their more illustrious predecessors. If they play without fear England could be in trouble. But I just have a sneaking feeling that England will snatch it by a single goal.
As long as it doesn't go to penalties. Please don't let it go to penalties. England have a 17% win record in penalty shootouts in major tournaments. The Germans have 71%.
Ice in their veins, you know. *Spreads arms wide* Der der- der der dada der der, der....