By Paul Beckett for The Wall Street Journal
It is standard for newspapers, including ours, to include the following sentence in almost any story about India and Pakistan: The two countries have fought three wars since Independence in 1947. You do not read the same about England and Germany: The two countries have fought two World Wars since 1914. Except at times like this.
For a series of reasons, part historical part psychological, there may be no match up in soccer that is quite equivalent to England versus Germany. Not for the quality of the football although Germany last night ran over England at the FIFA World Cup 2010 with some of the best football of the tournament so far, winning 4-1. Germany now advances to the quarter finals.
Nor does the significance of the game come from the fervor of football in each country. Yes, both are football crazy but there are plenty of countries that take football as seriously, if not more so, as these two do.
But there may be no bigger game when it comes to two nations who view each other as former enemies, now allies and rivals. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any other sporting event where two major nations weave so much national drama into men running around on grass, with the possible exception of when India and Pakistan play at cricket.
Why is this so?
India and Pakistan may have been separated at birth, but England and Germany have their own shared attributes (which certainly don’t get any attention at times like this): They are both northern, beer-drinking, sausage-eating nations; Britain’s current monarchy, the House of Windsor, has German origins; they may be more alike as nations than England is when compared with any nation outside the British Isles (just don;t tell the English.)
Of course, the situations have as many similarities as they do differences. England and Germany are friendly nations (despite what you read in the British press at times like this) bound together by the European Union and NATO. “It is high time to forget (World War II),” said Germany coach Joachim Loew, according to the Associated Press. “This is year 2010, we are all in the EU and it’s highly inappropriate to raise this subject.”
India and Pakistan, meanwhile, are caught in a diplomatic netherworld between war and peace that only now is showing signs of some thaw.
England and Germany, overall, have prospered in the past few decades, even if Germany’s industrial might means its economy has eclipsed that of the U.K.; India has prospered while Pakistan has struggled as the two nations took dramatically different courses, politically and economically, post Independence.
Yet there are times when sport comes to represent something that defines relations, seizes national imaginations and confirms dearly-held stereotypes, and that is the case with England versus Germany at football and India versus Pakistan at cricket.
It is not that the fans of either team hate the fans of the other (despite what you read in the British press at times like this.) It is a strange mix of respect, rivalry, historic ties, insecurities, bluster, hope, fear and a desire to read deeper meaning in a game of football that makes these games so compelling.
It is a time when entire nations stop to watch. When everything else is eclipsed in favor of one game and people want to think they are watching something that will go down in the history books, a marker of where they were when.
“It’s insane, the roads are completely empty here right now,” an Indian friend said in a text from London before yesterday’s kick-off. When Miroslav Klose in the 20th minute pierced a sloppy England defense to score, he followed with: “And the pub goes quiet.”
England also got the required controversial referee’s decision that will let it, as a nation, worry over its beads for years: a shot by Frank Lampard that clearly bounced over the line but which was not allowed as a goal.
That would have equalized the game at 2-2 and who knows what would have happened next, mate, it would have done the England team no end of good mate, you hear what I’m saying, it’s all about the psychology and that was devastating for the lads, just devastating wasn’t it and I’m not saying that Germany didn’t outplay them, mate, but you’re never gonna win when the ref’s an #%^& and mine’s a pint of lager.
“Fabio’s flops are battered in Bloemfontein,” said The Sun, a reference to English manager Fabio Capello. The headline ran on top of a picture of Frank Lampard realizing he hadn’t scored. “Three Lions Muller-ed by Germans…and the Ref,” said The Mirror, a reference to Thomas Muller, who scored goals three and four for Germany and the referee. Imagine an umpiring decision that incorrectly dismisssed Sachin Tendulkar from the crease against Pakistan.
This was a matchup that probably carried greater weight for England than for Germany, even before the opening whistle. Germany has had the better of England in big tournaments in the last several years. Germany also took a famously young side to these World Cup finals; many of them will return four years from now.
Not so England. Only are handful – and not including Steven Gerrard, John Terry, or Mr. Lampard – are likely to have a shot at Brazil 2014.
And now England can sink into its other national sport: getting depressed over the underperformance of its football team. As my friend in London texted: “All you hear is the german girl laughing. Totally quiet otherwise. This is amazing.” Not long after, he added: “This really tortured drunk guy screamed at Rooney at that last corner. And then put his head in his hands. Awesome.”