When I followed England to the 2006 World Cup in Germany the talk before was of how the England fans would be incarcerated the second they “mentioned the war”. The World Cup was a great success and for England (off the pitch at least) things seemed to go well. It was still with trepidation that I travelled to Berlin this week for a game — would being in the city that was the seat of the Nazi’s power be too much for a certain type of Englishman?
Mentioning or not mentioning the war seems to hold a great power over the English, and not just those you’d think of as hooligans — it’s summed up beautifully by this letter from Viz:
‘Could I take this opportunity to remind the UKTV History channel that a lot of history happened before 1939, and a substantial amount of it has also happened since 1945. Not only that, some of it didn’t happen in Germany.’ A Thackray, Letter to Viz comic
But despite the Great Escape and Dambusters film tunes being a feature of both bars before the game and the England Supporters Band’s badly-played repertoire, I didn’t see any trouble. I also spent an evening in the company of hundreds of German football fans, which was not only trouble-free, but friendly and fun.
One reason for the air of friendship is that the Germans are seemingly full of admiration for England’s footballing history, as exemplified by the banner thanking us for “inventing the beautiful game” (Russell Brand’s take on this is worth a read).
But the main reason is the efforts put in by some England supporters to leave a good impression in the cities and the countries they visit. I hope I’m one, but my good impression normally doesn’t stretch further than being nice to bar staff. The real hard work is done by people like Mark Perryman who organises “The Game before the Game” — where teams of England fans share their common interest with the opposition, by playing them at football.
On the Tuesday before Wednesday’s game I took on the wind and rain of Berlin’s winter and, with only the help of the city’s excellent public transport system, made my way to a suburban sports centre to watch my mate Dan play for England against Germany.
There were two 11-a-side games, Dan played in the first against a team of German supporters (who had apparently won through auditions to take part—the England lads clearly hadn’t), then a team of over 35s took on the team from “The Miracle of Bern”. That might sound like a happy-clappy church, but it’s the highest grossing German film ever—set around the 1954 World Cup.
Another football film gave me my biggest laugh of the trip, sat in the dugout hiding from the rain some of the subs were talking about Escape To Victory: “I’ll be Pelé said one, “I’m Michael Caine” says another, “I’ll be Bobby George”.
The set-up is great: national anthems before, reception afterwards, presentations to dignitaries. The teams were presented to Bert Trautman hero of the 1956 cup final for playing on with a ‘broken neck’ — as a blues fan I felt a little guilty.
These games were followed by a 5-a-side tournament with teams from the British Embassy, Bild, the Berlin Police and a team of ex-pros lead by Fredi Bobic that won comfortably. All played fairly, all watched by groups of English and Germans sharing a beer and a laugh.
All a huge contrast to the traditional view of English football fans abroad, unfortunately one that you struggle to get over to more people than attended these events. There were a lot of German press at the fans’ match, but sadly no English reporters that I could see.
In the bars in the centre of Berlin, however, there were journalists goading the groups of fans to sing. I suspect that they were hoping that the footage they shot could be used to accompany reports of riots after the game. Singing in a bar isn’t an act of aggression, but it depends on how it’s edited. One shot of a few idiots being arrested, interspersed with hundreds singing looks like it’s hundreds causing trouble.
It’s not, there are thousands of English football supporters who are a joy to welcome to your city. It looks like the hard work of people like Mark Perryman will have to change perceptions one game at a time.