You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Look Who’s Afraid of the Three Lions

Some of my earliest memories are of international football matches, between England and Germany among others, like the game this Sunday afternoon. I can’t honestly claim to have seen the famous England 6-3 defeat at the hands of Hungary in 1953, or even to have been more than vaguely aware of it. Much later, my friend A.J. Ayer told me that he had been taken to the game by Arthur Koestler, still enough of a Hungarian to gloat over his native country’s victory.

In the following year came the “Miracle of Berne” when those same magical Magyars lost the World Cup final to West Germany. It was miraculous for the Germans, that is. Very few of them had television then, but millions heard the radio commentary, Herbert Zimmermann’s ecstatic cry at the end, “Aus! Aus! Aus! Das Spiel ist aus! Deutschland ist Weltmeister!” made famous again by the climactic (and, for the heroine, fatal) scene of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s movie, The Marriage of Maria Braun.

No one needed the political implications of that explained, and the Cup really did a great deal to restore national morale by giving the Germans something to be proud of. Not that we English look back with much pride to a “friendly” in Berlin 16 years earlier. England beat Germany 6-3 in 1938, the score less memorable than the fact that the England team, on the instructions of our Football Association, lifted their arms in the Deutscher Gruß, or Nazi salute, a “friendly” gesture too far.

Months after the Berne match—and now we enter territory which really is within my living memory—England beat West Germany 3-1 at Wembley, and never mind that it was pretty much a German reserve team. It was the same score when they met again in May 1956, this time in Berlin (and in the 1936 Olympic stadium of unhappy memory). One of the goals was scored for England by the wonderful boy Duncan Edwards; less than two years later his life ended in Germany, with the tragic air crash at Munich which killed half of the young Manchester United team.

But say “England v. West Germany” to any Englishman of my age and the reflex is “4-2.” That was the score in the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley, the first and last time England have won the title. It may not have been dazzling football but it was memorable drama, with one highly contentious England goal, with the score tied after 90 minutes taking it into extra time, with Geoff Hurst’s hat trick, and with our “Aus! Aus! Aus,” the words mumbled by Kenneth Wolstenholme of the BBC at the very end: “They think it's all over ... it is now!”

Since then good-natured fans have never let the Germans forget it. When England play away to a country like the Netherlands, our lads chant, “If it wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts!” and when we play Germany they hum the theme music from The Dambusters (another vivid boyhood memory, the movie about the aircrew of 617 Squadron and their exploit in May 1943), to remind our German friends more generally about the Bomber Command campaign which by the war’s end razed the cities of Germany and killed half a million civilians. Most of them women and children.

And of course our popular press does its bit. The Daily Star, most imbecilic of the London tabloids, still screeches about the “the Hun,” and as I write, two papers have almost identical front pages: “Germany Terrified of 3 Lions” (Sun), and “Look Who’s Afraid of the 3 Lions” (Daily Mirror). The German squad visited a safari park. They were photographed gazing at a group of lions. Three lions (leopards passant guardant, if you want to be heraldically precise) adorn the England shirts. Ha ha.

If we must have vulgar, Boche-baiting xenophobia, let it be done with a little real wit. As the game in Bloemfontein approaches, some of us recall with a suppressed smile what Vincent Mulchrone of the Daily Mail wrote on the morning of the 1966 World Cup final. "West Germany may beat us at our national sport today, but that would be only fair. We beat them twice at theirs."