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England vs Germany: the battle of rhetoric

June 23, 2012

Tomorrow, the English football team will play a match. One of the possible outcomes of this match is that England will play Germany next. This is far from certain, and yet already, the flood of rhetoric has begun to wash over our national consciousness.

I speak, of course, of the unbearable and bizarre evocation of war imagery that people seem to automatically espouse whenever England play Germany. Already I have seen tweets championing the match kick-off time of 19:45 as a “good omen”. Already I have heard talk of footballers (some of whom, to their credit, visited Auschwitz with a great deal of dignity and respect) avenging the invasion of Poland by beating Germany in Warsaw. Already I am tremendously annoyed by it all.

As an aside, let me be clear that I have no idea whether this is limited to football, as outside of football neither country is successful enough at a sport that the other considers significant for it to ever come up. As such, football is the only example, and football is the example we shall examine. Let me also add that I am not by a long shot speaking of all England fans. I am speaking of the vocal section, likely a minority, that has offended me.

What irritates me about the whole business is this: if we play Germany in the Euro 2012 semi-finals, we will not be playing the same nation we fought in any war. Most recently, we fought a nation called Germany in the Second World War, but it was a different Germany, ruled by genocidal fascists. I’m not aware of Germany coach Joachim Löw’s political stances, but he is yet to put genocidal fascism into practise with German football team.

Indeed, the current German team is peasingly non-Aryan: you have Lukas Podolski, of Polish descent, happily representing Germany with no conflict between invader and invaded raging inside him. Because it’s a different Germany. You have Mesut Özil, with Turkish ancestry, a practising Muslim and winner of an award for exemplifying good integration. It would perhaps make my point better if I could point to somebody Jewish in the team, but in an age where Islam is often the prime target of fascism, Özil’s success in the German team is encouraging. Germany’s football team is multicultural in a way that defies Second World War stereotypes.

And yet the rhetoric from the England ranks remains. It’s not even the stereotypes that are brought up. It’s just vague posturing. Vague shouting. Bash the Krauts. Bash ’em. With football. That’ll teach them for the war. Let’s quote Fawlty Towers to death, ignoring the fact that those lines came from the mouth of a character who was supposed to be of diminished mental capacity.

I am pro-passion in sport. I have felt elation and despair when watching sport. I let myself get emotionally invested in every sport I enjoy. And I actively encourage intelligent, engaged passion about sport (such as, for example, the excellent Sparrow Dreizehn blog, which is full of fascinating and enlightening discussion about international football and everything surrounding it). But this isn’t passion. It’s not even an active ideal that I just happen to disagree with. It’s just ignorance. It’s boorish cultural laziness. It’s assigning an outdated role to an entire nation, and furthermore grossly misunderstanding the complexities and key details of that role.

Perhaps worse is where this flimsy pretense of sporting rivalry comes from. The two World Wars, in which the UK and Germany were on opposing sides (or to put it another way, not England versus Germany), were the source of thousands of deaths, and those deaths are continuously cheapened by the insistence that they’re somehow of equal importance as, or could be avenged by, a football match. As wars go, I believe we can be proud of our actions in the Second World War especially. Fighting fascism is a noble cause. But linking a football match to it is to debase its significance and taint its memory.

We are not fighting the nazis in Warsaw on Thursday. We’re not even playing them at football yet. If we beat Italy – not Musollini, although that doesn’t seem to get mentioned – we will play Germany in a game of football. I fully endorse getting passionate about that. Just leave the rhetoric out. Just stop relating this game of a sport to an entirely unrelated historical event which caused thousands of continuously-cheapened deaths. Just shut the fuck up about the war.

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