x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Whatever you do, don't say it's just a game

References to two world wars and the 1966 World Cup final victory are the hallmark of the jingoist xenophobia that surrounds any England-Germany encounter.

LONDON // David Cameron, the UK prime minister, is set to snub German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G20 talks in Toronto today. But this does not herald the opening of a new diplomatic rift between the two nations. It is, to coin a phrase, much more important than that. It is about football. Specifically, the Germany-England World Cup clash in South Africa this evening.

The British leader admitted in a GMTV interview that he would not be able to sit close to Mrs Merkel in Canada. "I'm not sure if that will be safe. We might get a bit carried away," he said. Over the past century, of course, hostilities between the two nations have not been uncommon. Fortunately, in recent times, they have been restricted to the football field. Ever since it became apparent last Wednesday that the two would meet again, England has not been the place to be if you are averse to violent mood swings.

Little more than a week ago, after a humiliating World Cup draw with Algeria, throwing oneself off the white cliffs of Dover seemed a popular option in the national psyche. Then came the relief and elation following Wednesday's victory over Slovenia, only to be replaced almost immediately afterwards by trepidation when it became clear that the old enemy would be the country's first (and, maybe, last) opponent in the knockout rounds.

Andy Davies, a fan from Wrexham, ruefully e-mailed Sky Sports: "This World Cup has turned out like World War Two. The French surrendered early, the USA arrived last minute and we are left to fight the Germans." Simon Hughes, a sports columnist on The Times, observed: "It's the cruellest good news/bad news joke: England have got through to the round of 16 but they're playing Germany, time and again England's nemesis at big football tournaments.

"The nightmare of war has been followed by a postwar nightmare of football ? it provides a new mythology, one that requires no deaths to make it vivid." Part of that folklore is that the Germans always beat England on penalties though, in reality, it has happened only twice, in the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championships. Nevertheless this dread has been enough to send the statisticians delving into the record books and prompting The Sun, the UK's best-selling tabloid, to come out with this page one banner headline on Friday: "Germans Wurst at Penalties" - a fact, perhaps, but not one destined to calm English nerves over the possibility of a shootout.

The temperature surrounding the latest clash has been further raised by Franz Beckenbauer, the German footballing legend. Having already criticised England's style of play for going "backwards into the bad old days of kick and rush", he has now said that the team made the "stupid" mistake of failing to finish top of their group - and thus avoiding Germany - by drawing with Algeria. The omens for England in the latest encounter have also taken a knock from, of all things, an octopus.

Paul, an eight-legged oracle who lives at Oberhausen Sea Life Centre in Germany but was born in Weymouth, England, correctly predicted the outcome of all Germany's group games, including the loss to Serbia. On Friday, two boxes, one bearing the cross of St George and the other the German standard, were lowered into his tank. And he first chose the food that had been placed in the German box. Not, though, that the Germans are so passionate about the rivalry as the English are. Deutsche Welle, the German broadcasters, commented on its website yesterday: "For the Germans, England's obsession has never prompted anything other than mild bemusement.

"As far as the Germans are concerned, England are just another opponent, albeit one with a certain amount of history. "This fact infuriates the English further. The rivalry should mean as much to the Germans as it means to them - otherwise what's the point of getting all stewed up about it?" But stewed up they are. The German game is expected to attract a record audience to TV screens as the nation comes to a halt.

The cross of St George is decorating houses, pubs, shops and cars. And a UK oompah band, the Bavarian Strollers, turned up unannounced outside BBC Broadcasting House on Friday and regaled staff and visitors with a rendition of the Dam Busters' March, a tribute to the 1943 raid on the Ruhr dams by RAF bombers. References to two world wars and the 1966 World Cup final victory are the hallmark of the jingoist xenophobia that surrounds any England-Germany encounter.

It was best summed up by the late Vincent Mulchrone, a columnist for The Daily Mail, who wrote on the morning of that game 44 years ago: "West Germany may beat us at our national sport today, but that would be only fair. We beat them twice at theirs." dsapsted@thenational.ae