On that fabled day in 1966, when England played West Germany at Wembley stadium, there was at least one German who desperately wanted his team to lose. Grim-faced, the Federal Republic’s ambassador to London gathered his staff and told them: “If we win, all our work here will have been in vain.”
He feared that for England to lose a World Cup final at home to the old enemy would reopen a wound that the diplomats had spent 20 years trying to heal. So when the BBC’s Kenneth Wolstenholme uttered the words, “They think it’s all over. It is now!”, the entire embassy went to the nearest pub and “drank itself senseless out of sheer relief”.
That story was recounted by the daughter of one of those diplomats soon after we learned that next Tuesday will bring the two foes together yet again. It was a useful reminder that international football is never just about football. When it comes to the recurring contests between England and Germany, it’s a truism that these games were long seen, at least by the English, as reruns of the two epic conflicts of the last century. Rarely forgotten is the Daily Mirror’s “Achtung! Surrender” front page to herald the Wembley semi-final of 1996. Those attitudes were outdated even then; but lest you thought they were buried, note the durable chant, “Two world wars and one World Cup”, to which Nigel Farage lent an approving nod this very week.
I’d always suspected there was something unbalanced in the English attitude to all this, something unrequited. Given that Germany’s footballing record is so much greater than ours – they’ve won the World Cup four times, England just the once – it is surely an act of delusional self-flattery for England to reckon itself a rival. BMW didn’t lose sleep over the Morris Minor, so why would Germany care about England? Isn’t imagining that we are locked in a unique footballing feud with Germany as self-regarding and needy as believing we have a “special relationship” with the US?
Maybe not. The truth, it turns out, is more complicated – and rather more poignant.
“This is as huge for Germany as for England,” says Annette Dittert, the London bureau chief for the ARD TV network. The “lost final” – and what Germans see as the stolen World Cup of 1966 thanks to a still-disputed goal – remains an enduring myth in the German imagination. Partly because it was a landmark moment in what Dittert calls “the long restart” of Germany’s relations with its neighbours after 1945; partly because Germans, like the English themselves, regard England as “the motherland of football”. The German tabloids still feast more eagerly on a contest against England than against any other opponent, recognising a nation as consumed with the game as they are. That Tuesday’s match is at Wembley – again – has made the anticipation all the more intense.
Much of this is purely about football and the bond of mutual respect that can be forged between two teams that have so often, if lopsidedly, been each other’s nemesis. Even if the results have tended to go Germany’s way, it’s been a closer contest than we might think. Before 1966, Germany had never beaten England; it was only afterwards that they won and won. “It’s been a rivalry of two halves,” says Sunder Katwala, the director of the British Future thinktank. For him, the legendary penalty shootouts of 1990 and 1996 have lodged in our national psyche in part because England went into those games expecting to lose, yet surprised everyone by playing on equal terms with the mighty Germans. Far from glorying in failure, he says, we take pride in how close we came.
But if there is an unrequitedness in this relationship, it might be in an unexpected direction – with the Germans more interested in us than we are in them. Two years ago the House of History museum in Bonn staged an exhibition, Very British, on what it called the “special relationship” between the two countries (and perhaps not always making the distinctions between “British” and “English” that Wales and Scotland fans might insist on). It was a big hit, Germans lapping up a British pop culture – from the Beatles to Harry Potter – that they have adored for decades.
The organisers were not surprised by its success. English is compulsory in German schools; they live in a country where After Eight mints were sold as the epitome of “that refined English style”. The war is not outside that, but part of it. The museum’s vice-president, Prof Harald Biermann, told me that very rapidly after 1945 the British were seen less as occupiers than as “protectors” against the Soviet threat. (That said, the exhibition did not flourish in Leipzig: perhaps the old East Germany, with direct memories of the RAF bombing of Dresden and the cold war against the west, has rather less fondness for England or Britain.) Even the allied victory can be integrated into this story, with today’s Germans accepting that total defeat was necessary for the country’s transformation. That view casts Britons less as enemies than as liberators.
For decades, Germans accepted that their affection was not wholly reciprocated, but they understood it. And then, says, Biermann, “You left us.” The Germans were shocked by Brexit. “They took it personally,” says Katwala, viewing it as a rejection of a postwar project that the two countries had shared. Post-referendum polls show Germany suddenly cooler than most European countries towards Britain and markedly less enthusiastic for us than we are for them. Boris Johnson is seen as a nationalist, albeit of an eccentric hue, in a country that still fears the demons that nationalism can unleash.
It means that, while England may go into next week’s game seeing themselves as perennial underdogs trying to end 55 years of hurt, the fans on the other side have heartbreak of their own to heal. On Tuesday, that heartbreak’s coming home.