Friday, June 25, 2010

The Phoney War

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....




  1. Oh dear, football.

    Well, I have only my self to blame - I am trying to concoct a murder right now which takes place while England is scoring a goal. My family thought I had gone crazy when I told them about this plan, but I hope that if I choose the right perspective (woman who is as daft as me), I will be able to pull this one off.

  2. Now that I have stopped laughing over, 'Two World Wars and One World Cup doo-dah doo-dah', I can get down to the serious business of discussing the World Cup and the winners and losers.

    The US is getting excited about the game tomorrow against Ghana but much of the media coverage of the World Cup is focused on the French. What is it in the French attitude toward life that makes them work so hard to be despised? I thought it was only overpaid American baseball players who acted like spoiled children.

    Americans will start paying serious attention to soccer when one of the players gets a Nike contract or signs a multimillion dollar agreement. Given that every child of the suburbs starts playing soccer in Kindergarten, I am surprised that it has taken so long.

    We are amazed that we have made it out of the first round. As one writer put it, the US went from "no shot to long shot". We are realistic; we have a pretty good idea that if we beat Ghana that may be as far as we go...this time. If we win Saturday, there will be much more enthusiasm in 2014. And, as American baseball legend and sport's philosopher Yogi Berra once opined, "It ain't over till it's over."

    Since, Dan, it isn't likely that our teams will face off, I can enthusiastically wish England great success against Germany on Sunday.

    It seems that sports rivalries are more entrenched in a national psyche than opponents in war. With that in mind, I have to point out, Dan, that the World Cup breaks hearts every four years. In baseball it happens every year. Sometimes, like the Italians, we have to face the fact that our season ended just out of the starting gate (a horrible mix of metaphors).

    So best of luck to all of us, although I doubt Leighton's team needs much luck, and I am so grateful that as the number of teams gets smaller, I have a chance at figuring out the point system.

    I don't want to talk about yellow and red cards.


  3. Dorte - a murder while England score a goal? Good luck with that. In this World Cup so far, that's a bit like saying a murder while a one-legged man wins an arsekicking contest.

    beth - ah, while the World Cup breaks our hearts every four years, we also have our club teams who break our heart each year too. In sport, we have a neverending world of pain - ain't that right Cubs fans? Funnily enough, when I was eight I went to Fenway Park. I saw the same fatalism and pessimism and gallows humour I was later to see in the stands of a Test match watching England play cricket or Liverpool cope with the 1990s/2000s post success hangover. I expect many of us secretly love the exquisite pain of defeat, knowing our team will fail in the end, in the same way when we're younger we perpetuate the exquisite pain of romantic loss.

    In other words, where's the bloody fun in being a Yankee/Manchester United/Brazil fan anyway. All that winning. Pah.

    As for the US, you lot really shouldn't be surprised. They are short on major talent yet big on guts. A bunch of gamers. Last year in a tournament the US knocked out Spain and were two goals up on Brazil until they rallied. I see Bill Clinton was at the US/Algeria game, and saw the last minute winner. 'Everything is a head game,' he said, which proves he still can't take his mind off sex :) But he's right. The US can do well in this tournament because of their desire to win.

    Which brings me on to France. I would say this is what happens when you've had a revolution, but the US above prove me wrong. The French were lucky to be there, played like they shouldn't be there, acted like they didn't want to be there, and now everyone is glad they aren't there.

    Finally, donning my Basil Fawlty moustache and on the subject of war, has anyone noticed the resemblance between this tournament and the last World War? The French surrendered early, the Italians were a waste of space, the US only turned up at the last minute, and the English were left fighting the Germans...


  4. Nothing can top that closer, Dan, but I do have to point out that the English were left fighting the Germans to no avail until the Yanks showed up. And, as I recall, England has a revolution, too.

    I bring up those points because you brought up Bill.


  5. I love the idea of tying a murder mystery in with goal-scoring! Best of luck, Dorte!

    As for Germany...I remember when they were the team to beat in the 90s. Over here in the US, us teenagers picked foreign teams to take on as our own b/c our own team was so new. I saw Germany play in 94 at the WC in Dallas, TX...I have to say, they were impressive!

    Now, though, it would be nice to move on from the war-metaphors and concentrate on the game. Every country needs a good rival, though, so don't give up on that! It's always a shame when sports become political.

    As for penalty kicks, here are my two cents: as a former competitive 'futballer,' that is no way to win a game. No one wants to win that way!

    Best of luck to England tomorrow! I'll be watching from across the pond.


  6. Dan--

    Well that was an interesting match.

    For any Yanks or Brits concerned about the recent fraying of the Special Relationship--welcome to the Brotherhood Of The Disallowed Legal Goal.