This article first appeared in Issue 12 of The Football Pink

In the build up to the famous Euro 96 game the English press portrayed the match as an extension to the war, 50 years earlier. Yet in 1966, just twenty years after the end of hostilities, many newspapers – and the residents of a small Derbyshire village – saw the 1966 World Cup as an extension of the peace, as DR. CHRISTOPH WAGNER explains.

There is little about the World Cup final of 1966 that has not been said or written already. Coverage of the tournament in England has largely been dominated by fact that one of the most contentious decisions in world football gave the host nation the title. The third goal by Geoff Hurst has been examined by two British scientists and it was concluded that the ball did NOT cross the line. The aftermath for England and West Germany, the contenders of the final, has been outlined and could not have been more different. While many augured a great future for England, it was quite the opposite: an unlucky quarter-final exit in 1970 against West Germany was followed by two failed qualifications for the 1974 and 1978 editions of the World Cup, respectively. West Germany, on the other hand, went on to become a football super power: winning the 1974 and 1990 World Cups before going through a dark time themselves and emerging victorious once more in 2014, 60 years after they first won the coveted Trophée Jules Rimet in Berne against the odds and Hungary.

Little is known, however, about the relations the Germans had with the inhabitants of a little village where they stayed during the competition: Ashbourne in Derbyshire. We have to remember that most of the coverage was about the final, but the tournament lasted a whole month, giving either side – the locals as well as the visitors – time to get to know each other. The location was convenient as the venues for the group matches, Birmingham and Sheffield, were easy to reach from this base camp. Peter Seddon, a local journalist gathered reports from local papers and concluded that relations between locals and visitors were friendly. He writes:

‘Ashbourne residents do maintain fond memories of that “golden summer” of 1966 when Ashbourne became “Little Deutschland”.’

There were, however, older inhabitants of Ashbourne who could not forget that Germany was the old enemy. One resident, when asked if he was going to watch the squad train on the local field explained:

‘No, I’ve seen them on two fields already and that was quite enough for me.’

It was mainly the younger generation that, perhaps seduced by the glamour of their famous visitors, created the buzz around the team. It was reported that;

‘local schoolboys tag along with their new track-suited heroes – men called Seeler and Tilkowski – whilst teenage girls hitherto immune to the subtle charms of football take a sudden interest in the silky skill of a handsome young blade named Franz.’

The leader of Ashbourne Council, Councillor Birch, wished the German team all the best, yet hoped they turned out to be runners up, ‘to England of course.’ As the tournament progressed and it became clear that England and West Germany were likely to play each other in the final, the Ashbourne News Telegraph noted that ‘Ashbourne has taken the German team to its heart.’ The only mistake the Germans made, it seemed, was to leave Ashbourne for Welwyn Garden City to be closer to Wembley. On the day of their departure the locals did not bear any grudges towards their German visitors ‘as a large gathering bade them farewell’ and ‘schoolboys waved an ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ banner to wish them luck.’ This was confirmed by Siggi Held, one of the youngest in the German team. He said: ‘It was very pleasant where we stayed and the people were embracing the tournament and were very friendly towards us.’

While this was heartening and demonstrated that old hostilities could be set aside, the reception for the German team accorded by the national press was less friendly. The best known phrase originated from Vincent Mulchrone who wrote in the Daily Mail on the morning of the match:

“If Germany beat us at Wembley this afternoon at our national sport, we can always point out to them that we have recently beaten them at theirs twice.”

This led the West German television commentator Werner Schneider to comment about the English journalists being ‘tin soldiers’ and accused them of crossing the line of simply supporting their team. Schneider further:

“Perhaps we have learned our lesson in World War Two. Perhaps we think more than other people how mad this thinking is. You would expect this from countries who have nothing else … but in England it is strange and sad.”

What is important to know about West Germany in Derbyshire, is that their coach, Helmut Schön, made it clear that the team and backroom staff had to represent the team and their country in the best manner imaginable. Schön, a Dresden local, was adamant to leave a good impression. Rarely has a German team enjoyed more hospitality than in those days in Ashbourne during the summer of 1966. Uli Hesse writes about the German team’s brief in England: ‘Helmut Schön…was well aware that his team represented a country which only 26 years previously had reduced London to rubble. Again and again he drummed the idea into his players that the most important thing, more important than winning, was to behave like gentlemen and sportsmen.’ It explains the muted reactions of the players after the final whistle and is best epitomized by the image of Uwe Seeler leaving the pitch with his head down accompanied by a steward.

The German press could have cried foul; instead the reaction was muted and focused on what Schön’s team had achieved and the behaviour that had been displayed. The commentator for the final, Rudi Michel, simply exclaimed ‘goal’ when Helmut Haller scored after 12 minutes and remained silent for almost 30 seconds as he considered it inappropriate to celebrate excessively in and against England. Any hint of Goebbelsschnauze was to be avoided. Of course, there was disappointment and a sense that England had won courtesy of a fortunate decision by the referee, yet there was no anti-English animosity, despite the provocation by the ‘tin soldiers of Fleet Street’ who now proclaimed West Germany as honourable opponents.

Fast Forward to 1996. Reading the coverage in the mid-1990s one cannot but assume that something appears to have changed significantly. The coverage about the German team was entirely different than 30 years previous. With regards to football and the English national team, Richard Weight has noted that English patriotism generated by the football team in 1966 was contained within a British identity; by 1996 this was no longer the case but instead a new, separate English identity began to emerge. There was no longer the Union Jack but the cross of St. George in 1996. David Downing stated: ‘the flag of St. George was everywhere.’ There was an unusual aggressive overtone to the coverage, more vehement than seen before. For the second time, the Germans stayed for a month in England, giving the press time to examine their visitors.

The relations of Britain with the EU could not have been worse in 1996 on account of the so-called ‘Beef War’ which had begun in March 1996 when the British government announced a possible link between BSE (Mad Cow Disease) and Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease. It did not help that at the centre of the ensuing ban of British beef was Germany, Britain’s old wartime foe. As a consequence, the press, particularly the English tabloids, openly expressed Eurosceptic positions. In joint efforts, the Daily Express and Mirror offered anti-German articles climaxing in the now infamous front page of the Mirror displaying Stuart Pearce and Paul Gascoigne wearing tin helmets and warning the German team:

“Achtung! Surrender! For you Fritz, ze 1996 Euro Championship is over.”

Interestingly, most of the aggressive coverage was not to be found on the sports pages but in the news section. In the sports sections, the Germans were described as a ruthless machine, grinding out results and crushing their opponents on their way to the final. As much as this was true for 1996, English writers also stated that Germany were the best of a bad bunch of teams at Euro ‘96. This did not stop them to accuse them of cheating, when Klinsmann was injured with a calf injury. It was insinuated that he was ‘indulging in some intricate subterfuge’ and only pretending to have a torn calf muscle. In the end the German centre forward was not able to play against England yet no one bothered to mention that. This, it has to be added, originated from Oliver Holt who wrote for a quality paper, The Times, and demonstrated that jingoistic or strongly biased coverage was not restricted to the tabloids. Moreover, the English papers were not slow to criticise former England players who dared to doubt their country’s team. Kevin Keegan, once of Liverpool and Hamburg was described as ‘Kraut of Order’ when he predicted a victory for Germany.

As Michael Billig has argued, the sports pages are where nationalism is to be found in its most banal form. It is here that flags are waved daily for ‘us’ and where ‘our heroes’ and ‘our victories’ are celebrated. The football writers of several papers certainly got behind their team and banal nationalism was evident in their representation of ‘our boys’. There were writers who wrote more or less without any objective stance which is probably understandable in the circumstance. The difference between the national press and the local papers from Derbyshire in 1966 could not have been bigger. ‘On the whole, past events were kept in the background’ is how David Downing summarized the press coverage. This was not the case in 1996, when England hosted another major tournament and once again met Germany in a stirring contest. In 1996, the coverage was filled with jingoism that bordered on xenophobia, especially in the mass-circulation tabloids. As Garland and Rowe have argued, ‘the xenophobia that was in abundant evidence cannot be understood in isolation from broader social and political trends.’ A newly-resurgent English nationalism was asserting itself against the team that had replaced Scotland as England’s major football rival, against the major economic foe of the Beef War and against the enemy of two world wars and one World Cup. The coverage laid bare issues and attitudes that the English held and possibly still hold towards Europe in general.

Looking at the summer of 1966 from a 50-year distance, it is as though we are looking at a different country. To argue that the World Cup in 1966 was the last innocent tournament, without the grandness of following tournaments, without television and sponsors dominating the schedule would be naive. At the same time, we know that there is no such thing as a golden era, there is only the thinking that such an era has ever existed. This simply is not true. We may describe 1966 as a golden era, the people of 1966 might describe the 1930s as such and so forth.

What the people of Ashbourne have demonstrated is that on a personal level, relations between the English and Germans were so close to be described as normal. Sure, the impression of Ashbourne locals is only a temporary one; we will never know how they would have reacted had the Germans actually settled in their village. However, it was only 20 years since the war ended and was indeed a living memory for many British and German people in 1966. The conflict never took centre stage in the coverage like it did in 1996.

The second time a German team stayed for a month in England it was a whole different affair. All of a sudden, the war was everywhere, yet the conflict itself was 50 years in the past, and experiences were scarce or non-existent among those stirring the pot of jingoism. This has to be explained with the changing nature of Anglo-German political, economic and cultural relations in the second half of the 20th century. The relationship since 1945 has been shaped by mistrust as a consequence of two military conflicts. The restraint in reporting in the 1950s and 1960s is to be explained with the new role for Britain and Germany, though this changed somewhat during the World Cup, when Germany reached the final. When, in 1996, ‘the thirty years of hurt’ were hoped to finish it was again Germany, this time united Germany, who stood in the way of England. Against the background of the Beef War the atmosphere was hostile, not just towards Germany but also Spain and Holland, but Germany in particular. The tabloid press may argue that this was humour that was misunderstood but the number of British people feeling ashamed about it, tells a different story. For Piers Morgan et al. Germany was the baddie and as such was used over and over again in the chase for headlines and readers.