The Language Bridge

Germany v England: a shared cultural good

Tony Waine

Many of you will remember the victorious German World Cup team of 2014 holding aloft the most famous trophy in the history of sport which they had just won in the final in Brazil.

Before beating Argentina in that final they had given Brazil a 7-1 drubbing in the semis. The German national soccer team has become associated with almost unparalleled success on the pitch over the past 70 years and can truly be identified with the notion of Expertise.

What we in this country still have difficulty in accepting is that we founded the modern game some one hundred and fifty years ago and the Germans copied us in their grammar schools and academies in the 1870s and 1880s. Then British ex-pats and sailors helped spread the sport in different ports around the world including Bremen and Hamburg.

Even following the events of the First World War British coaches such as Jimmy Hogan were taking their ideas abroad. In 1928 Hogan spent a season at Dresden FC, where a thirteen year old called Helmut Schön learned to worship this football missionary and later referred to him as “my shining role model”. Schön went on to become probably the most successful international manager in the history of the game.

1966 and all that

Indeed, Schön was the coach of the West German team that came to England in 1966. The final between England and Germany at Wembley was memorable as the true beginning of half a century of myth making. And muck raking. And mischief making. From West Germany’s point of view it’s remembered for mainly technical and ethical reasons. Was ‘our’ third goal really a goal or was the Russian linesman who allowed it prejudiced against ‘them’? ‘Our’ victory though went much deeper in the national psyche. It delivered a kind of subliminal justice for ‘us’ plucky little islanders who had stood up to the mighty German foe in two earlier military conflicts, and once again on the battlefield of sporting rivalry had shown who was superior – on and off the field. We might have lost an Empire, our economy might have been struggling against the post-war miracle-making German industrial machine, but we had produced The Beatles, Twiggy, James Bond, Bobby Moore and a hat-trick from Geoff Hurst in the final against Germany.

These inter-twined myths sustained ‘us’, with the aid of a rampant mass media, for exactly another 40 years. A sport that had originally brought the youth of the two countries together for the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, had helped as a spectacle entertain the working classes of the two nations throughout the first 60 years of the twentieth century, and provide recreation to millions of men and women here and over there for nearly a century, was being hijacked by part commercially incentivised and part politically indoctrinated individuals in Britain.

Building bridges

As someone who had spent much of his adult life learning to appreciate the German language, way of life and people and trying to build bridges first as a teacher in German schools and universities and then in British educational institutions, I found this development a profoundly depressing experience. I had watched Germans learning to confront their past, learn from their mistakes and make formidable changes to their moral, political and social philosophy and behaviour, whilst I sensed my own nation was deeply confused and unwilling to face new realities. In the summer of 1996 when the European Championships were held in England, our distorted perspectives on Anglo-German history reached a nadir. The Daily Mirror in its reporting on the Euros sank to this new low level. Its headline the day before the semi final match between England and Germany read: ACHTUNG! SURRENDER For you Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over.

Staff and students in the German department of the School of Modern Languages at Lancaster University wrote the following letter to the Editor (a gentleman called Piers Morgan):

Dear Sir,

As members of a university department committed to improving and strengthening good relations between Britain and Germany we are writing to express our anger at the Mirror’s Monday edition. Young people in our department, both British and German, were dismayed by your so-called humour and have said that this has spoiled what has so far been a friendly and good-natured sporting event. Instead of extolling the virtues of a tournament which brings together so many different tongues, traditions and cultures of our continent you are turning back the clock to an era when European leaders and opinion-formers were engaged in inciting old hatreds and fatal national rivalries. As an important opinion-former we ask you in future to consider ways of presenting events such as Euro 96 which help to sell your paper but also help to inform us about a Europe which is real and recognisable.

Needless to say, we received no apology personally from the Mirror, but Piers Morgan was publicly criticised for his xenophobia in many quarters and forced to say he was sorry. Maybe a turning point? Who knows.

A new era

Germany FC

Arguably it was in 2006 when Germany hosted the World Cup that a new, un-blinkered generation of English football fans, accompanied by a much less partisan and backward-looking media, physically encountered a host country magnanimously open to all fans and visitors. A kind of closure was effected there in the stadia and especially the huge open squares of German towns and cities in which English fans and many other nationalities enjoyed a football fest together with their German hosts.

A couple of years later, around 2008 I met a young German scholar at Lancaster University who was as passionate about football as I was. His name was Kristian Naglo. He not only talked football, he also played it. He had played at very high levels of German youth and amateur football, and now in England was playing for a very good North Lancashire works’ side. Whoever I met from the local amateur soccer scene spoke of the ‘German star player’. That grass roots view was, and is, far more typical of how we respond to ‘German influences’ than what the media would have us believe. Several years later Kristian and I together with 12 British and German academics explored Football Culture in England and Germany in a book of essays written in both English and German entitled On and Off the Field. It also has a timeline of the football game in England and Germany.

Of course Kristian Naglo isn’t the only ‘German star’ to help foster good Anglo-German relations on and off the pitch. It’s well worth concluding this blog by reminding ourselves of the charismatic coach at Liverpool FC. Jürgen Klopp has just steered the club to the apex of European football, the Champions League final. He enjoys an equally good human reputation as a product of German sport and society, who has adapted to the British way of life, and its way of thinking. As such he has become a true catalyst for developing further bonds between the two countries and cultures which are no longer based on national - and even racial - stereotypes but on how the two nations can genuinely learn from one another. He is helping to make football a cultural good to be shared and enjoyed by competing nations – a far, far cry from 1966 and all that.

Tony Waine

"In sum, ‘On and Off the Field’ is a highly recommendable book. Not just for football fans, but also for readers interested in cultural studies in general. Hopefully, the dual Anglo-German perspective, which even shows in all the English contributions being written in English and all the German contributions in German, will be followed in future projects."       

Review by Hans Henrik Appel of On and Off the Field: Fußballkultur in England und Deutschland / Football Culture in England and Germany, Anthony Waine and Kristian Naglo (eds.), (Wiesbaden, 2014). In: Sport in History, July 2016




 Posted: 30th May 2018

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