europe

The Germany v England clash isn’t what it used to be – thankfully


If Jamal Musiala gets to play at Wembley on Tuesday in the Euro 2020 knockout match between England and Germany, he might need to occasionally glance down to remind himself which shirt he is wearing. The wiry Bayern Munich midfielder, who played the crucial pass that set up Germany’s equaliser in a tetchy 2-2 draw against Hungary last Wednesday, has only made four appearances for his country’s senior side. But between 2016 and 2020, Musiala played 25 games for the national youth teams of Tuesday’s opponents, England.

Aged 18, the Stuttgart-born holder of a British and a German passport is the youngest player to represent Germany since Uwe Seeler, the captain in the famous World Cup final defeat to England in 1966. Musiala is too young to have experienced how politics and sport have overlapped when the two sides met in the past: he wasn’t even born when pictures of Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce, Photoshopped to look like second world war soldiers, were published in the Daily Mirror in 1996 alongside the headline “Achtung! Surrender”.

However, having moved to the UK in 2010 because his mother was studying at Southampton University, and with Brexit reportedly “a factor” in his family’s return to Germany in 2019, Musiala will know that politics isn’t just reflected in the rhetoric around the game, but can redirect sporting fortunes too.

The match has been trailed as the rekindling of an “old rivalry” or even a “grudge match” in the British press, but German players and pundits have spoken of the clash in more celebratory tones. “To play against England at Wembley, that’s awesome”, said midfielder Leon Goretzka.

One reason for this has purely to do with sport: Germany’s real grudge matches are against teams that have inflicted painful defeats, like Italy or the Netherlands. Matches against England, by contrast, tend to produce happy memories: England have won only six out of 24 matches against West and reunified German teams since 1966. Germany won England’s last match at the old Wembley stadium, and the first after it was demolished and rebuilt. “Four World Cups and three European Championships” is the correct response to England’s “Two World Wars and one World Cup” chant.

The other reason has to do with politics: when showdowns with England accidentally assume an overtly political meaning for the German side, it is usually because they symbolise the start of a new era. The key match in this respect is not ‘66 but ‘72, when Germany beat England in the Euro quarter finals.

Germany’s free-flowing style that night, epitomised by the long anti-establishment locks of playmaker Günter Netzer, was seen as the sporting expression of a political reinvention: at snap elections in November that year, Willy Brandt’s centre-left SPD would gain a majority for the first time in German history. The Daily Mail described the match as the “night that changed the German image”. “No Englishman can ever again warm himself with the old assumption that, on the football field if nowhere else, the Germans are an inferior race”, wrote the Observer’s Hugh McIlvanney.

A 4-1 victory at South Africa’s 2010 World Cup served a similar springboard function, showcasing for the first time a more multicultural Germany studded with players of Brazilian, Ghanaian, Tunisian and Turkish heritage.

For England, these encounters often ended up channeling fears rather than hopes. The 1990 World Cup semi-final in Rome took place just two days before East and West German diplomats sat down to negotiate the terms of reunification – a process Margaret Thatcher had opposed more vocally than any other European leader.

That summer, trade and industry secretary Nicholas Ridley was sacked over a Spectator interview in which he described European monetary union as “a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe”, illustrated with a cartoon of Helmut Kohl sporting a Hitler moustache.

Germany’s dominance on the football pitch and the tennis courts (Boris Becker and Steffi Graf won their respective singles tournaments at Wimbledon in 1989)] touched a deeper paranoia about being sidelined by what was now Europe’s largest economy. When Britain plunged into recession a year later, many blamed Germany’s low interest rates.

When Germany knocked England out of the Euro semi-finals in 1996, John Redwood urged Times readers to “think again about the problem of Germany”, and a Conservative campaign poster in the run-up to the 1997 election depicted Tony Blair sitting puppet-like on Kohl’s giant knees.

Tabloid attempts to frame that encounter in terms of martial conflicts of the past – “Let’s blitz Fritz” wrote the Sun in 1996 – look in hindsight more like desperate diversion tactics, a case of “Don’t mention the economy”. They were also new: when the teams had met in 1966, some 20 years after VE Day, there were no reports of the Wembley crowd booing the German anthem, and the war was barely mentioned by the British press.

Can Tuesday’s match still sustain similar political narratives? If Germany lose, it will leave a question mark at the end of the 15-year period in which its football team has been managed by Joachim Löw and the country by Angela Merkel. For coach and chancellor, it could shift the emotional emphasis from the achievements of their era to the opportunities they missed.

Some Brexit advocates may wish for a swashbuckling English victory to drive home the dividends of the UK breaking free of the shackles of that old “German racket”. Yet a German team that no longer lives up to old stereotypes of ruthless efficiency, and an England side more wary of patriotic hubris than in the past, may be ill-equipped to sustain that storyline.

When England and Germany met in 2010, one German player was under contract at a Premier League club. This time around, eight players in Germany’s squad earn or used to earn their club wages in England, while England players Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham play with Germany’s Mats Hummels at Dortmund. Not to mention Jamal Musiala’s time in England’s junior teams.

These are two sides that tell a story of increased international entwinement, at a time when Brexit has spun the two countries in different directions. As vessels for narratives about the nation state, for once, they no longer look fit for purpose. Instead, they look ahead of the curve.

Philip Oltermann is the author of Keeping Up With the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com



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