Germany and England – Two nations united and divided by football

There has been an odd mood in Berlin of late. The locals have seemed happier and more jovial; displaying a greater friendliness to their fellow human beings. This is not something Berliners are typically noted for. My first suspicion was that this had something to do with the long awaited onset of spring, but I was confronted full-on by the real reason when I walked into my local pub last Tuesday.

Well, attempted to walk. Upon opening the door I found, in place of the usual musty air through which one can normally walk from the entrance to the bar a wall of people. German people. With their eyes glued to the television screens in anticipation of an event that was not to begin for another hour and a half.

The Champions’ League semi-final.

You see, this year, two German teams – Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund – reached the latter stages of Europe’s premiere international club football tournament. To Germans, this makes each match a national event (even more so now both teams have reached the final). I first noticed this phenomenon last year, when all the Germans I knew suddenly seemed to become Bavarian the day that Bayern lost to Chelsea in the final. As an Englishman, I found this very odd; after all, the opposing team was English, and I felt no particular affinity for them. This has nothing to do with the debate as to the fairness of them “buying” their success through financial injections from a Russian oil tycoon. The same would apply if it had been Manchester United or Liverpool – traditionally “great” football clubs – competing for the trophy. If anything, as a supporter of a smaller, local team (the mighty Bolton Wanderers), I would be take more pleasure in watching the English side lose.

Football is tribal by nature. On any other weekend of last season, most of those bemoaning Bayern’s loss on penalties against a technically inferior side would have been positively basking in Schadenfreude. Bayern Munich are not a popular team – or rather they are, but by virtue of being so, are probably also the most hated team in the Bundesliga. Their long history of success engenders arrogance and attracts “glory supporters” who have no special connection to Munich as a city, but simply wish to support a team that wins a lot. Those familiar with Manchester United’s fan base should now be nodding their heads. “So far, so good,” you may think.

Yet almost every year, for a few days around April and May, the attitude here changes. Though stopping short of wearing Lederhosen, many Germans all around the country develop a fondness of Bavaria not often seen outside of the Oktoberfest. For many years now, Bayern have been Germany’s only representative in the dramatic latter stages of the Champions’ League and, despite it being a club competition, football fans across the country see this as reason enough to get behind them. But why, when we Englanders take so much pride in watching the best teams from our country fall? What does this say about the difference in our respective national make-ups?

It could be argued that the Germans are simply less bitter – the English are often seen by those across the channel as having an isolationist, island mentality. We are also much more obsessed with the class system, something that leads to a love of the underdog that prevents many of us from rooting for bigger teams, even when they are not in direct competition with the clubs we ourselves follow. Alternatively, it could be seen as an effort to improve the image of the Bundesliga, which was until recently often seen as a second-tier league compared to those in Spain, England and Italy. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that a large proportion of the players who walk onto the pitch for Bayern each week are also the first names on the team sheet for Germany’s international games? All of these arguments have their merits, and they certainly go some way to explaining the automatic support for Munich.

But could it go deeper into the German psyche? Over the past few decades, this country has often had issues when it comes to displaying national pride – as recently as 2006, when the World Cup was staged in Germany, there was an on-going debate about the implications of flying German flags in the streets in open support of the national team. In this context, could club football be seen as a “safe” outlet for Germans to express support of their native country?

This may seem simplistic, and I certainly don’t want to fall into the trap of reducing all comparisons between the UK and Germany to a WWII debate. But there can be no doubt that Germany is a country that has struggled with its sense of national identity. For many years, of course, it was divided, the two different sections of the population being fed very different ideologies by their respective guardian angels. Ever since reunification, German politicians and the population that votes for them have had to work with a heightened sense of awareness of how they are perceived by other countries, often nervous about taking any action that may give the wrong impression. Debate still rages whenever a new memorial is erected, or yet another prominent figure is revealed to have had “connections” – no matter how flimsy – to the Nazi regime.

Yet Germany as a country now has much to be proud of: its economy for one thing, and also its practical, sensible, personable inhabitants who – certainly in my experience – are generally much friendlier and understanding to foreigners than many native English speakers abroad. Its recovery and overhaul since the overturn of the Nazi regime has been admirable on every level, from the political to the individual. Compared to the UK, which seems to have been suffering an economic and social downturn for several years, there is certainly much more here that could be deemed worthy of national pride.

Nevertheless, these achievements are still often unfairly met with resent and warning. Even the Guardian, a generally intelligent, very clearly left-wing newspaper, could not resist comparing modern Germany’s prominent role in Europe with Hitler’s rise to power. Perhaps this is also further reflection of the British insular mentality. Germany’s method of dealing with financial crises in other EU countries has certainly ruffled feathers on the international stage. But it seems unfair that the nation should not be allowed to enjoy its well-earned moment in the sun, even if the typical German on the Clapham Omnibus generally doesn’t seem to mind.

So if football remains one of the only acceptable outlets for expressing pride in the country in which I live, I can reluctantly understand the need to support a team like Bayern Munich. Thankfully, however, Dortmund have spared me that indignity for one more year by reaching the final themselves. Thus my insular mentality remains intact for another season. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just off to paint my flat yellow in preparation for supporting the underdog in the final at the end of the month. Heja BVB!

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2 Responses to Germany and England – Two nations united and divided by football

  1. Barbara Demmler says:

    There was the first English-German football match in 1908 on the Tempelhofer Feld. My grandfather (one of the founding members of Germania 88 in Berlin) had been in the organizational team. Learning last minute that HRH Prince William of Prussia would be present grandfather dashed home to put on his topcoat and high hat to be properly dressed, a story often been told in the family.

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