England expects

How times have changed for England and Germany

The internet is a breeding ground for rumour. Just recently, for instance, a message has been going around about a proposed England song for the 2006 World Cup, not the official one but a celebrity singalong in the manner of 1998’s Vindaloo. It’s Who Do You Are Think You Are Kidding, Mr Klinsmann? sung to the tune of the Dad’s Army theme. Ant and Dec are said to have been approached to sing it with Peter Kay and Gazza among others being asked to participate in the video. It might not be true, but the fact that it sounds all too horribly plausible demonstrates how bad things may get between now and next June.

There has been a sea-change in the nature of England’s support in recent years, largely thanks for the efforts of those unofficial groups who put so much effort into it. England’s travelling support is now far more mixed in terms of age, sex and race than was the case (though there is nothing wrong per se with young white men, there is if they act in a way that excludes others). Fewer people on away trips spend most of their waking hours getting drunk and looking for fights then putting all the blame for the inevitable trouble on the locals. The Friday night scenes familiar from fly-on-the-wall documentaries about British policing and binge-drinking are no longer repeated day after day by those fans actually attending the games. UEFA praised every aspect of the England support’s behaviour at Euro 2004 bar the booing of the national anthems.

But there remain considerable causes for concern. First, England and Turkey remain combustible materials, with too many on both sides willing to refight the battles that started with the murder of two Leeds fans in Istanbul in 2000. Even if their team do not qualify via the play-off against Switzerland, there is a substantial Turkish minority in Germany.

Second, there were still a few incidents in Portugal, albeit mainly restricted to the Algarve. At Euro 2004 there was a natural area, well away from the games themselves, where the average boor could soak up the tournament atmosphere without being directly connected to the England team. It is not fair or reasonable to expect the FA to change our country’s drinking culture at a time when it is a subject of great debate in Parliament, but in the absence of a resort area to act as a drain, where will the bar boys go in Germany?

Third, of course, is that word “Germany”. Within the England crowd there remains a solid percentage who cannot go 45 minutes without bursting into “song” about the Second World War. The beating out of the theme from The Great Escape by the band may seem harmless enough – along with Self-Preservation Society from The Italian Job it even had some relevance and wit as a one-off in Rome in 1997. But it is the tip of a murky iceberg – Ten German Bombers and the Dambusters theme targeted at the 2006 hosts themselves, Where Were You In World War Two? and If It Wasn’t For The English You’d Be Krauts at the countries that were our allies.

Some hope to tackle the problem head on, using the “Don’t Mention The War” slogan. The problem is that too many laugh with Basil Fawlty, rather than at him. Piers Morgan, the Daily Mirror editor guilty of putting Achtung! Surrender on the front of his paper during Euro 96, is a case in point. Though he missed a trick before the Spain game, when he blamed that country, rather than the Nazis’ Condor Legion, for inventing carpet bombing at Guernica. That he is now owner of the UK Press Gazette and presenter of a TV politics show is up there for irony with Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize. And there are still plenty in the press (not just the tabloids) willing to stir up racial tensions more directly, as front-page stories screaming simple lies or unrepresentative facts about asylum seekers or our new European Union partners show.

English people are not alone in viewing football through the prism of war – as England prepare to face Argentina this month, it is worth recalling that Diego Maradona repeated his view that the “Hand of God” was justified by the Falklands War (not that he calls it that). But that does not justify a response in kind, verbal or otherwise. In fact, despite everything, the Germans like us. Especially our football culture: look at their adoption of Three Lions. They will be repaid with relentless smirks, many not about the game but playing to cultural stereotypes or worse, by TV presenters such as Gary Lineker (who has plenty of form in this area) between now and next summer.

Our World Cup prediction: if there are scenes of cafe chairs flung across market squares as police fire water cannon at bedraggled men in XXXL England tops, then those who have enjoyed playing on past tensions rather than seeking to calm them down will, of course, pile in the condemnation while washing their hands of any share in the blame.

From WSC 226 December 2005. What was happening this month