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Offside, 23 March

Going to Germany for World Cup 2006 is no time to make friends.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Here’s a starter for ten. What does the phrase ‘A time to make friends’ mean to you? A storyline from Teletubbies perhaps? An advert for a local mothers and toddlers group? Or maybe a strapline for a speed-dating evening? Actually, it’s none of these. It happens to be the official motto of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

UK home secretary Charles Clarke has urged England fans to take this motto to their hearts when they travel to Germany for the tournament. ‘The German slogan for the World Cup is “time to make friends” and that’s how we want to see this tournament going’, he said. And how exactly does he expect fans to comply with this saccharine slogan? By not mentioning the war, of course. Clarke has warned English fans that they can be locked up for goose-stepping, giving Nazi salutes and chanting ‘Seig Heil’. Apparently, doing a Basil Fawlty impression might contravene German laws that prohibit the glorification of the Third Reich. Clarke has also suggested that fans could get into trouble for singing songs about the war, waving inflatable spitfires and wearing German helmets.

Where does this leave traditional terrace anthems like the Dambusters theme, The Great Escape, ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ and of course that singalong classic, ‘Ten German Bombers’? It’s anyone’s guess. Assistant chief constable Stephen Thomas, who is in charge of British policing at the tournament, has said the German authorities have yet to decide whether fans would be arrested for singing songs about the war. However, even if singing these songs isn’t unlawful, England fans are still being urged not to offend the host nation. ‘I would hope that the old stereotypes of 60 years ago are not warmed up again for this occasion’, said Britain’s ambassador to Germany, Sir Peter Torry. ‘The people here find it deeply upsetting. They cannot understand why we don’t seem capable of growing up.’

Even Sven has entered the debate. In the government-sponsored Free Lions England Fans’ Guide to Germany 2006, he makes a direct appeal to England fans to behave themselves. ‘I’d particularly like to call on you to avoid any anti-German singing and chanting during the World Cup’, he says. ‘The song which we really don’t want to hear is the one about “Ten German bombers”.’ (A word to the wise, Sven – no self-respecting fan is going to take etiquette lessons from a man who wears stack-heeled shoes, thinks that Aston Villa is a good investment opportunity, and whose Plan B is to send on Peter Crouch.)

The authorities seem to be getting their knickers in a right old twist over what is and isn’t an acceptable football chant. When quizzed on the issue by BBC Radio Five Live’s Nicky Campbell, FA official Andrin Cooper suggested that ‘Ten German Bombers’ and the Dambusters theme might overstep the mark whereas The Great Escape would be permissible. However, sports minister Richard Caborn told Campbell that humming the Dambusters was acceptable so long as it was done in jest. Blimey, it’s a minefield this making friends with the Germans malarkey!

It’s telling that it’s mainly the British (plus the odd adopted Swede) rather than the Germans who seem to be doing all the handwringing over these songs. The ‘don’t mention the war’ campaign seems to be more about assuaging our own guilt and embarrassment about overt displays of old-fashioned British patriotism than about anything else. I suspect that German football fans might be somewhat more thick-skinned about offensive chants. They’re used to England fans singing ‘Stand up if you won the war’. Their riposte is a chant about mad cow disease accompanied by cow horn gestures and mooing noises.

And that’s what Charles Clarke just doesn’t get. There is a time and a place for making friends but it ain’t at a football match. Football fans thrive on the ritual trading of insults – the more offensive the better. It’s the stuff that atmosphere at football is made of. And when it’s England versus Germany, it would be a dereliction of duty not to mention the war.

But we should also remember that the Punch and Judy politics of the terraces is also largely theatrical. Step outside a football ground and you’ll find that anti-German sentiment isn’t particularly strong in Britain. We drive German cars, buy German electrical appliances, and drink German beer. We even grudgingly admire their ruthless Teutonic efficiency at penalty shoot-outs. A 2005 MORI survey found that 44 per cent of British adults had a favourable opinion of Germany, 40 per cent had no opinion either way, and only 12 per cent had an unfavourable opinion.

So, don’t be fooled by the mock goose-stepping and nursery rhymes about German bombers. Anyone with a sense of humour can see that we’re not really a nation of Basil Fawltys. And the Germans do have a sense of humour – don’t they?

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Topics Politics

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