Book Review: The Best of Enemies, by David Downing

Back in late 2000, I was in a fleeting relationship. The less said about this the better, as things did not end particularly well. However, there was an upside. My then girlfriend was a keen bookworm who had clearly paid close attention to the contents on my bookshelf, observing and noting what was there and what was not. When Christmas came around, the exchange of gifts was akin to a small book fair.

Alongside an old copy of The Real Mother Goose, the collection also included Michael Burleigh’s excellent history of the Third Reich, a wonderful coffee-table tome on Soviet architecture, and a title that filled the football gap. I had not been aware of David Downing’s history of the England versus Germany rivalry, but there it was in this entertaining little stack.

The Best of Enemies, by David Downing

Starting out in the late nineteenth century and the initial meetings between English and German representative teams, Downing covers the historical and cultural development of what – for English fans at least – has turned into a major rivalry. (German fans may argue that Italy or the Netherlands have been the Mannschaft’s biggest rivals over the years)

There is little coverage of the early meetings in the first decade of the twentieth century between the newly-formed German national team and England’s amateurs, but there are plenty of lovely anecdotes from the First World War and meetings that had taken place between the trenches.

The reason for the apparent early omissions is pretty straightforward; while German records include everything from 1908 onward, the English FA only list records from the start of the professional era, with the first meeting coming in May 1930 in Berlin when the highly-rated England team avoided a shock defeat with a late equaliser.

We then hit the first substantial chunk of historical “meat”. The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime in Germany would impact the developing relationship between the two football teams, and the 1930s were defined by the two controversial meetings in 1935 and 1938.

The connection between sport and politics – and the desire for some to create a distinction between the two – is a familiar debate today, but in the 1930s it was all very new. In 1935, the FA made the decision to host the Germany game at White Hart Lane, in spite of the fact that Tottenham Hotspur had traditionally drawn a lot of its local support from the Jewish community. Then, three years later in Berlin, there was the decision by the Foreign Office to pressure the FA into demanding that the players offer the Nazi salute.

These moments are objectively covered by Downing, taking all of the prevailing opinions into consideration.

The discussion after that is considerably easier, in that it is the football that takes the centre stage. English perceptions of German football had been badly twisted during the 1930s, but it would take one heroic character to start setting things right. Downing devotes an entire chapter to Bert Trautmann, the former Luftwaffe paratrooper who overcame the initial bad feeling with his brilliance and bravery in goal for Manchester City.

As Downing works through the 1950s and 1960s, the gradual and slow decline of English football – contrasting with the rise of the German team – is summarised perfectly. England would win the World Cup against the Nationalmannschaft on home soil in 1966, but this would be their high point. Just two years later Germany would claim its first-ever win in the fixture, and in Mexico in 1970 they repeated the trick – coming back from two goals behind in the process.

The win in Mexico was a hugely significant moment, and was the beginning of the end of the style of football that had taken the Three Lions to the world title four years earlier. Downing devotes plenty of time to these contrasting changes in fortune, reaching its zenith in 1972 and the 3-1 triumph for a dynamic and dominant Germany against a stale and one-dimensional England team.

With the German national team having established itself as the world’s footballing superpower, emphasis in England moved towards club football, and this too is excellently covered.

Although the narrative ends with England’s scrappy 1-0 win over a poor German team at Euro 2000 that ended a barren spell in competitive meetings spanning thirty-four years, the 1980s and 1990s provides the story of an era that will be familiar to most supporters of both countries. England flattering to deceive, and Germany time and again proving itself to be the perfect tournament team.

Downing captures the spirit of the 1990s perfectly, from Germany’s professionalism and England’s fighting spirit on the pitch, and the fine lines between success and failure in the lottery of the penalty shootout. As well as the footballing drama, there is also a sober analysis of the jingoistic attitude shown by the English media towards the German team – in marked contrast to the England players themselves.

Attitudes towards German football in England have changed markedly since the publication of Downing’s book, largely as a result of the revolution inspired by Jürgen Klinsmann. However, The Best of Enemies is an excellent addition to any footballing history collection.

The Best of Enemies: England v Germany, by David Downing
246pp. Bloomsbury, 2000

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Book Review: The Best of Enemies, by David Downing

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