Herr we go again

Few things excite British tabloids quite as much as England v Germany, especially at Wembley. We take a look at what makes this rivalry so compelling

Paul Simpson

Paul Simpson

‘Herr we go again!” This punning headline was emblazoned across The Sun’s front page after it was confirmed that England would face Germany in the last 16 of Euro 2020. “Herr we go again!” was also tucked away on the Daily Mirror front page. The Daily Star was more innovative, assuring readers: “We’ve consulted our psychic seagull & he predicted this… so here’s next Tuesday’s result a little early… England beat the Germans in penalty shootout.”

Few things excite British tabloids quite as much as England v Germany, especially at Wembley. The last time the sides played a competitive match at the old Wembley on 25 June 1996, in the Euro 96 semi-final, the Daily Mirror’s then editor Piers Morgan got thoroughly over-excited with a screaming front-page headline ‘Achtung surrender!’ accompanied by photoshopped pictures of Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce in army helmets.

This notorious edition was marinated in Dad’s Army puns (“Zey Don’t Like It Up Zem” read one heading) and phrases the sub-editors had probably dredged up from childhood memories of the jingoistic comic The Victor where German soldiers only ever said “Achtung!”, “Schnell!” or “Hände Hoch!”. Morgan even penned an editorial parodying Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Germany in 1939, taking George Orwell’s remark that “Sport is war minus the shooting” so far over the top that he had to apologise on TV.

Back then, Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling tabloid, was more restrained, headlining its matchday story: ‘Revenge for the goal scam’, with Willi Schultz, who ended up on the wrong end of that 4-2 scoreline in 1966, saying: “There is a score to be settled.”

Former England manager Graham Taylor believed that, in the 1990s, the fierce rivalry between The Sun and the Daily Mirror changed the nature of British sports journalism. Coverage became more sensationalist, critical and, at times, abusive. Taylor was a victim of such ruthlessness – having his head stuck on a turnip under the headline ‘Swedes 2 Turnip 1’ in 1992 – but even before Italia 90, England manager Bobby Robson observed: “The World Cup? The newspapers think it’s all for them.”

The 1990 tournament marked the birth of a new species of sports journalist – dubbed ‘the rotters’ by established football writers – who earned their daily bread from front-page exclusives, not back-page match reports. Morgan, who started at the Sun in 1988 and began editing the Mirror in 1995, had been trained in an editorial culture which decreed that only wimps had scruples. The worse the England team performed, the more ‘the rotters’ liked it – and tabloid sub-editors relished each loss, greeting defeat by the United States in 1993 with the memorable headline ‘Yanks 2 Planks 0’.

In this context, Morgan may have felt that ‘Achtung Surrender!’ was merely pushing the envelope. In reality, it was an act of editorial hooliganism. The most xenophobic stunt of all – sponsoring a World War II tank drive to the German team’s hotel (it got stopped on the M25) – is bizarre evidence of the hubris that almost destroyed the tabloids. Somehow, Morgan escaped from the wreckage to become Britain’s pre-eminent self-publicist. (Full disclosure: I have been banned by Morgan from following him on Twitter after posting my disgust at one of his newspaper columns.)

In the run up to Euro 96, the Mirror had also made a big fuss about the mysterious fate of the ball with which Geoff Hurst had scored his historic hat-trick. There was less to this mystery than met the eye – Hurst had long known that Helmut Haller had grabbed it because, as the German midfielder explained later: “It is an old German tradition – if the winners get the cup, the losers get the ball”. The Mirror Group bought the ball back for £80,000. Many Britons still believe Haller stole it but he even asked the England team to sign the ball after the match.

Back in 1966, Haller’s souvenir had caused no controversy at all. It is a mark of how radically different editorial values were then that Eric Todd, covering the final for The Guardian, identified Bobby Moore, not hat-trick hero Hurst, as man of the match, noting: “If memory is to be trusted, he never misdirected a pass.”

The 1966 World Cup marked football’s breakthrough as a globally televised spectacle. The BBC’s boffins invented the slow-motion replay to cover the tournament. The Daily Mirror reported that, for the final, “four hundred million fans linked by cable, radio and that spinning, beeping satellite Early Bird, glued, riveted or otherwise trussed to their tellys watching the Greatest Show on Earth.”

Astonishingly, England-s 4-2 win against West Germany was the first competitive match between the two countries. England had won the preceding four friendlies but, under Sir Alf Ramsey, would never beat West Germany again, losing 3-2 in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico and 3-1 at Wembley in the 1972 European Championships.

In 4-2, a brilliant blend of memoir, social commentary and match report, author David Thomson notes: “Ramsey had the haunted look of a disappointed father.” That look became more familiar as his reign wore on but at least he didn’t suffer the indignity of having his head stuck on a turnip in The Sun.

That said, England have largely held their own in this rivalry: their record against West Germany (1954-1990) and Germany (before 1950 and since 1991) is P32 W13 D6 L13 F51 A42. Even with the agonising defeats on penalties in 1990 and 1996, that record is still reasonably balanced. Besides, if the Daily Star’s seagull is really psychic, that record will tilt slightly in England’s favour at Wembley.

The TV coverage of the 1966 World Cup, punctuated with snippets about what a player had for tea and how many children they had, broadened the sport’s appeal – more women watched the final on ITV than men. It was also partly responsible for footballers being conscripted into the celebrity-industrial complex, a trend exemplified by George Best, aka the fifth Beatle.

The England football team’s role as an index of national well-being moved up a notch in 1966, as Alastair Reid noted in The New Yorker: “Breaking open the morning papers and reading banner headlines like ‘ENGLAND IN TROUBLE’ our hearts would sink for a while until, after a closer glance, we found that they applied merely to the state of the economy.”

Prime minister Harold Wilson tried to make political capital out of victory, remarking: “Have you ever noticed how England only win the World Cup under a Labour government.” Four years later, Wilson attributed his shock election defeat partly to England’s quarter-final exit to West Germany, which stung even more because Ramsey’s men had led 2-0 before losing 3-2 after extra-time. One minister blamed the “disgruntled Match of the Day millions” for Labour’s loss.

The great irony is that German football is not, as the British tabloids often suggest, a seething cauldron of resentment against England, 1966 and the third goal – Hurst’s second. German goalkeeping legend Sepp Maier told Uli Hesse in Tor!, “The linesman said it was a goal, so that was that.” In the 2010 World Cup, in what looked suspiciously like an instance of sporting karma, Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ in the last 16 clash, which Germany won 4-1, wasn’t given even though it bounced a foot over the line.

If you judge sporting rivalries on the emotive content of newspaper headlines, it is Italy, not England, who are Germany’s ‘best of enemies’. The Azzurri beat West Germany 4-3 in the 1970 semi-final and in the 2006 World Cup semi-final, knocked out hosts Germany 2-0, scoring twice in the last two minutes of extra-time. This was the kind of outcome that prompted the great Johan Cruyff to say: “The Italians can’t beat you but you can lose to them.”

The Star’s psychic seagull is not the only member of the British press to conclude that a penalty shootout is inevitable at Wembley. This may reflect a hunger for national redemption after England were knocked out on penalties in the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup and Euro 96, with Germany winning both tournaments.

As the term suggests, the shootout is where football comes closest to Orwell’s military metaphor. It is, to tweak Winston Churchill’s remark about democracy, the worst way of deciding a drawn match apart from all the other methods that have been tried from time to time.

If we don’t get penalties, we may well go to extra-time: four out of the five knockout matches between England and Germany have done so. This will be a testing time for fans, journalists and staff at the National Grid. On 4 July 1990, after Gazza’s tears in Turin, demand for electricity surged by 2800 megawatts as more than a million kettles were turned on – the biggest power surge the utility has ever recorded.

As we brace ourselves for the latest instalment of “Herr we go again!”, let’s remember that part of what makes this rivalry so compelling is that it is, now, only about football.

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