The War On The Football Field
Matthew Brundrett | 11 October 2021
◇ British History / Football / German History / Memory Sport / WWII
“Two World Wars and one World Cup.”
This is a frequent chant of English fans when facing their old football rivals: Germany. The chant refers to England having won the First and Second World War, and the 1966 FIFA World Cup. But what exactly is the basis for this chant? After all, West Germany had already won a World Cup in 1954, 12 years before England would win. And Germany has gone on to win three more since. Apart from the conceited nature of the chant, the comparison between war and football may seem like a harsh comparison. Can Football be compared to warfare?
Perhaps it can, on a national level. The oft-quoted George Orwell once wrote about sports: “At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe – at any rate for short periods – that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.” Written in 1945, but does it still hold truth today?
Any controversy between Britain and Germany in football has rarely originated in the game itself or with the players, but more often with the media and the fans. In 1966 the Sunday Mirror described the victorious England team as ‘conquering heroes’ and celebrations as the wildest night ‘since VE night in May 1945’. These kinds of descriptions have not tempered over time. Other controversial headlines throughout the years include ‘The Battle of the Krauts’, (1987) ‘Achtung! Surrender’, (1996) and ‘Job Done… Now for the Hun’ (2010).
It is not hard to imagine that these media headlines were meant as general provocations. What is more striking is the behaviour of the fans. A common English chant uses the theme to The Dam Busters (1955) which is accompanied by arms outstretched in a mimicry of the war planes the film portrays. When Britain was knocked out of the World Cup by Argentina in 1986, 75 per cent of Brits said they supported Argentina rather than Germany, despite the Falklands conflict with Argentina having only ended four years prior, and Germany (who had not come up against Britain in that particular World Cup) being their political allies for forty years.
More recently, those who followed the Euro 2020 tournament, may remember the England-Germany match, as well as the crying German girl that dominated the screen for a short amount of time. They may also remember the abusive comments made about her online and the cheers of the English crowd. These comments included references to Anne Frank and the Holocaust and referred to the girl as a Nazi, among other offensive labels.
What all of these examples have in common is not only lack of hesitation, but the often flagrant willingness to create connections between football and the status of Germans as wartime adversaries. It is therefore difficult to disagree with Orwell’s view on sports in the context of the England vs Germany football rivalry. Yet what should be noted (and may be a hard truth for some English football fans) is that this rivalry only appears to truly exist in England: German football fans don’t tend to reference the war when mentioning England or English fans.
So why does British football culture seem to have merged the memory of the war and Germany’s defeat in it with football? Why is the fact that ‘we won the war’ such a defining trope for football fans across the nation? It may have something to do with envy over the fact that the German team generally dominates the English team. As Gary Lineker once remarked, ‘Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.’
But this German position of dominance has not been limited to football. By the time of the 1966 World Cup, the West German economic miracle, or Wirtschaftswunder, was well under way. At the same time, Britain was losing its status as a superpower. It has often been put forward that this inferior position in various realms has led England supporters to hold on dearly to what they knew they had over the Germans: wartime victory.
Ruth Wittlinger suggests that this issue of inferiority has also been the cause for the loss of a British identity, further aggravating emotions. She further writes that Britain holds on to a wartime memory of Germany while remaining uneducated about current-day Germany because of an ever-present memory of the Holocaust in the media and in the classroom, together with a strong focus on the war and Germany more generally speaking. Moreover, parallel developments to Nazi fascism, racism, and antisemitism have continued in the post-1945 period, such as in the form of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or the development of ‘skinhead’ culture and violence against immigrants across Europe.
This all paints a bitter picture indeed and can also help uncover a certain hypocrisy within Britain when it comes to its relationship with the past as well as the present, as has been humorously satirised. It has been shown before that Britain is less than willing to engage with its own uncomfortable memories, including deeply rooted issues like the romanticisation of colonialism and the question whether stolen items in the British Museum should be returned to where they were plundered from.
There are some that say we simply can’t help it, relying on Ad Populum arguments about pride and suggestions that Germans ‘deserve it’. Others present more nuanced arguments interpreting the supporters’ behaviour as a reflection of British pride, attempting to recapture the wartime spirit that brought the British people together. Others still think it is all just good fun and not offensive, that these football chants are harmless and there are bigger issues in football to worry about. The fact that these contrasting opinions exist and have been published in major outlets is proof enough that the question remains a hot topic.
So the question remains: is all this about modern British pride, or are the chants a reflection of a bitter longing for a better past? Are we remembering our own values when we chant “Ten German Bombers,” or are we making sure Germany doesn’t forget that they lost theirs during the first half of the twentieth century? If we are so keen to avoid facing our own problematic past as a nation, is it really fair that British football fans keep reminding Germany of theirs? It is difficult to agree that football fans’ anti-German chants are not quite a serious problem when you don’t have to look far to find examples of violence and insults towards Germans, or when an emotional little girl is abhorrently called a Nazi.
Matthew Brundrett studied History with Psychology at Keele University, and has recently completed an MA in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. He is currently continuing his MA research related to the First World War with a view to obtaining a PhD. Matthew can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.