Germany - England September 1987: Football in the Dark Ages ⋆ An Old International

Germany – England September 1987: Football in the Dark Ages

Thirty years ago West Germany were hosting England who had come with a burden to Düsseldorf to play a friendly match: The valley Parade and Heysel tragedies had shed a bad light on English football. The match served as a testing ground for either team to see where they stood a year before the European Championships, held in West Germany.

Football in the Dark Ages

In his study of German football, Uli Hesse assigns the label ‘the Dark Ages’ to the 1980s on account of the football hooliganism that plagued the game at this time and also because of the joyless, pragmatic style adopted by the West German team. He added, ‘The main problem with this sort of football was that it proved successful. West Germany reached two World Cup finals in a row’ (1982 and 1986).[1] For England the 1980s were even darker in that football had to deal with a problem of hooliganism so serious that, after the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985, English club sides were banned from the European competitions, at first indefinitely later the ban was reduced to five years. At the same time, the national team, though qualifying for the World Cup finals in 1982 and 1986 did not advance beyond the quarter-finals and continued to be outperformed by the Germans.

England on Probation

Press coverage of the friendly match played by England and West Germany in September 1987 at Dusseldorf was less intensive than if it had been a World Cup or European Nations Championship match. However, England were under pressure for off pitch reasons. Two years previous two fatal incidents have put English football into disrepute. On the last day of the season in 1985 the Bradford Fire at the Valley Parade stadium cost 56 lives. Only weeks later the Heysel disaster emphasized the impression that English football had severe issues to work on. Subsequently, English club sides were banned from European competitions, at first indefinitely, later set for five years. Bradford and Heysel had prompted much soul-searching within and around British football. ‘Heysel was a horrible, horrible shock,’ observed England manager Bobby Robson. ‘You felt ashamed.’[2] On this occasion it is clear that the English tabloid press was beginning to shed the inhibitions which had characterized reporting from the match in Mexico two years earlier. The Sun used the headline ‘BATTLE OF THE KRAUTS’ for one of its articles before the match; for Downing this was an early indication that the word had been resurrected.[3] It was a sign of the times that the pre-match coverage was concerned as much as what would happen off the field as what would happen on it. FA Chairman Bert Millichip was widely quoted regarding fears that English hooligans would cause major problems:

‘What is at stake is our European future. We might be out of European football at club and international level for the foreseeable future if there is any hooliganism involving England supporters.
We could be thrown out of the European championships next summer, assuming we qualify. It is our greatest test since the Heysel Stadium disaster.’[4]

Given recent history, Millichip’s fears were justified and they were echoed elsewhere on the sports pages. Stuart Jones in The Times, for example, feared that English football fans ‘will live up to their own foul name.’ He observed that the Rhein-Stadion stadium, where the match was to be played, resembled ‘a huge zoo’ which for some ‘may feel appropriate’ as the ‘behaviour of the English louts in the past has been animalistic and there was little or no reason to expect it to have improved.’[5]

Aside from these anxieties, there was the prospect of playing a German team which could still be regarded as one of the strongest in the world. As the Daily Express observed, ‘The game is a searching test for England in the Fatherland where we have not won since 1965.’[6] England striker Gary Lineker, interviewed by the Daily Mirror, underlined the point and was quoted as saying that matches between the two countries have ‘always been a big game, whether it is a friendly or otherwise.’[7] Franz Beckenbauer, now in charge of the German national side, had responded politely before the match, claiming that he had sought this fixture because ‘I need to know how good my side is.’ This persuaded Steve Curry in the Express to claim that the match would be ‘another classic encounter between the two nations.’[8] As Simon Kuper has observed, ‘Professional footballers are always polite about their opponents, because they know that they will run into them again somewhere.’[9] For the Germans, however, it seems certain that by 1987 a match with the Dutch was considered of more importance than a match with the English, whatever Beckenbauer might have said to the English press.

Praise for Germany

After Germany had won 3-1 the quality newspapers, though critical of some aspects of England’s performance, were also generous in praise of Beckenbauer’s newly-assembled side. They emphasised the gap in quality between the two sides. ‘England were well behind the West Germans in terms of sure first touch on the ball, combined with imaginative running and breathtaking changes of pace,’ according to the Guardian.[10] For Stuart Jones in The Times, Germany’s newly assembled side were ‘more efficient, technically more gifted and particularly more organized in defence’ than Robson’s comparatively settled formation.[11] In an article written after the match Jones was inclined to praise Germany rather than to criticize England as the side ‘reassembled by Franz Beckenbauer has already developed into one of the best in the world and must be considered overwhelming favourites to be the next European champions.’ Bobby Robson had argued that ‘only Argentina and Brazil could compete with them (West Germany)’, to which Jones added that even they might ‘struggle to break down their defence or contain their attack.’[12] The tabloids did not disagree with the verdict of the broadsheets. England’s performance was not without merit though, as Nigel Clarke observed in the Daily Mirror, they had come close to ‘being outplayed.’ Perhaps the best news from England’s point of view was that the fans had behaved well. ‘[T]hey can be trusted again’, Harry Harris noted with some relief in the Mirror, though this was probably an over-optimistic judgement.[13] The Express, on an inside news page, noted that thirty English fans, including twenty BAOR soldiers, had been arrested, ‘mainly for drunken brawling.’ An English fan had been stabbed. As a spokesman for the British consulate in Dusseldorf had observed, ‘By football standards, it was not bad at all.’[14] The German magazine Kicker was celebrating ‘magic goals by Litti (Pierre Littbarski) and Wutti (Wolfram Wuttke) and sent a message of encouragement to the team: ‘keep on playing like this!’ Respect was paid to England who were labelled as being ‘ambitious professionals from the island.’ England played an aggressive forechecking but were vulnerable when Germany went forward.[15]

Blitz, Kaputt, Arrogance: The return of the stereotypes

Significantly, the headline over the Mirror’s match report was ‘Blitzed! Robson’s men really kaput,’ signalling the result in terms that could have been understood by anyone familiar with the comic-strip papers read by English schoolboys.[16] Close reading of the Daily Express, in particular, suggests that it was more willing to resort to a form of discourse which was characterized by frequent references to the war and German aggression. The main headline for Steve Curry’s match report was ‘Shilton is caught in crossfire’ – England’s veteran goalkeeper had not been at his best – but the sub-heading was ‘Germans shoot down England.’ There was praise for West Germany’s performance; they were ‘the new pride of the Fatherland’ and superior to all other European national sides. ‘What this prestige match illustrated,’ Curry observed, ‘is the enormity of the task facing the seven nations who will be trying to prevent Germany winning next summer’s European championship.’ However, when describing the sheer power with which West Germany had played, there were references to ‘Franz Beckenbauer’s new panzer unit’ and the England back four being ‘under the blitz from strikers Rudi Voeller and Klaus Allofs.’ England’s best moment – a goal from Gary Linker – had temporarily ‘killed Germany’s arrogance.’[17] After a pause, it seemed that Fleet Street’s tin soldiers were re-emerging, perhaps sensing that opportunities to attack the old enemy would be forthcoming at EURO 88, to be held in West Germany, for which England looked likely to qualify.

The Road to Turin

At the Euro 1988 England suffered the ignominy to lose to Ireland and to go out during the group stage while Germany lost to Holland in the semi-finals. The press coverage in the 1980s was marked by a change to a more aggressive tone with regards to Germany. Commentators are unison that this was linked to the new Prime Minister and the change in policy. Paul Addison has argued that the successful intervention in the Falklands plus an economic revival that began at about the same time ‘drew a line under the thesis that the British were forever sliding downhill and would never achieve anything of significance again.’[18] The television series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet reminded viewers that Germany was not only more successful at football but in other sectors, too. One of the exiled construction workers complained: ‘We’ve managed to put more people out of work than any of our European counterparts.’[19] Other stereotypes stuck or were renewed as Downing has observed. Mainly these were negative images of Germany from the Second World War, which was forty years in the past but enjoyed a comeback in the media.[20] When two years later England and Germany met in Turin for a World Cup semi-final the stereotypes used by the ‘tin soldiers’ of Fleet Street were a common sight.

Notes and References

[1]Hesse, Uli, Tor!: The Story of German Football (London: WSC Books, 2013), 208.
[2]Turner, Alwyn, Rejoice! Rejoice!: Britain in the 1980s (London: Aurum Press, 2013), 135-136.
[3]Downing, David, The Best of Enemies: England v Germany (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 178.
[4]Daily Express, 8 September 1987.
[5]The Times, 9 September 1987.
[6]Daily Express, 9 September 1987.
[7]Daily Mirror, 8 September 1987.
[8]Daily Express, 8 September 1987.
[9]Kuper, Simon, Football Against The Enemy (London: Phoenix, 1996), 5.
[10]Cited in Downing, Best of Enemies, 178.
[11]The Times, 10 September 1987.
[12]The Times, 11 September 1987.
[13]Daily Mirror, 10 September 1987.
[14]Daily Express, 11 September 1987.
[15]Kicker, 10 September 1987
[16]Daily Mirror, 10 September 1987.
[17]Daily Express, 10 September 1987.
[18]Addison, Paul, No Turning Back: The Peacetime Revolutions of Post-War Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2010), 388.
[19]Turner, Rejoice! Rejoice!, 11.
[20]Downing, Best of Enemies, 171.

NB: This text is part of my research into the Anglo-German football rivalry which I have completed at DeMontfort University.

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