London – That was some performance from Joachim Löw, the Germany national manager, after the jarring evidence during the international break that there are still a few troglodytes among his team’s support who seem hell-bent on providing living proof of Einstein’s theory that there is no limit to human stupidity.
Löw had just seen his team win 2-1 against the Czech Republic in Prague, maintaining an immaculate record in their World Cup qualifying group, but when he arrived for his press conference, face like thunder, the questions about his team’s performance had to wait. “I am neither upset nor sad,” he began. “I am full of rage, that explains my feelings better. I am really, really angry about this – that some so-called fans have used the stage of an international football match, and the stage of football, to bring shame on our country with their embarrassing behavior and appearance. We don’t want these anarchists. We are not their national team and they are not our fans. Their behavior was the lowest of the low and utterly despicable.”
It isn’t usual to hear a manager speak this way but, then again, these weren’t usual circumstances. A section of Germany’s support had disrupted a minute’s silence, abused one of their own players, Timo Werner, and followed up the traditional chants of “Sieg” (victory) towards the end of the game with an echoed “Heil”. It was an abomination and, at the final whistle, something happened that the people who follow die Mannschaft tell me they have never seen before. Germany’s players refused to go to the away end. They didn’t wave, there was no clapping, zero appreciation. It was a choreographed protest, a public disavowal and a clear, defiant message that they didn’t want any association.
For that, the players deserve our applause and Mats Hummels, in particular, as the captain who directed his team-mates off the pitch and made it absolutely clear it was a time to make a stand. “The chants were a catastrophe,” Hummels said later. “They started during the minute’s silence, which shows you the kind of people we’re dealing with. Timo Werner was insulted and ridiculed. Then the fans started shouting their insults. We distance ourselves completely from it and want nothing to do with it. And that’s why we didn’t go [to them].”
Bravo, that man, and what a pity England’s players did not have it in them to do the same in response to that abysmal night in Dortmund six months ago and the absence of respect for their hosts from the corner of the Westfalenstadion decorated in St. George’s flags.
That occasion needed a strong voice, too, when virtually the entire soundtrack was about the second world war and the only real choreography came in the form of the outstretched arms, creating a fleet of pretend fighter planes, during the various renditions of Ten German Bombers, one lasting fully 15 minutes, and how “the RAF from England shot them down”.
Unfortunately, it did not get one. Gareth Southgate’s comments were, frankly, not nearly enough and let’s not kid ourselves: it won’t even have crossed the players’ minds that they might be in a position to affect change and try to stop it happening again. The modern‑day England footballer just isn’t made that way. You will never find one speaking in the way that Hummels did. And more’s the pity.
The only counter-argument is that the 21,000-capacity Eden Arena in Prague is a much smaller stadium than the Westfalenstadion, making what happened feel even more intrusive and lamentable, and the behavior was on a different, more sinister level than the backdrop to the Germany-England encounter.
Maybe that’s true. Reports in Germany say the 100 or so troublemakers were associated with Dynamo Dresden and a number of other clubs from the former East Germany, where right‑wing extremism is said to be more prominent than other parts of the country. They mostly wore black and targeted their own football association with chants of “scheisse, DFB” during what was supposed to be a minute’s silence. Rudolf Kocek, president of the Czechoslovak FA when they won 1976 European Championship, was one of the people the host nation wanted to remember. Rudolf Bat’a, the organization’s former general secretary, was another; and so was Lenka Civinova, who was on holiday in Egypt during the summer when a terrorist went on the rampage in two beachfront hotels. Civinova, 36, the Czech FA’s accountant, was among the seven tourists stabbed. Two of the dead were actually from Germany.
It isn’t easy to understand why anybody would want to shout that down, but don’t forget what happened when England arranged a minute’s silence against Brazil in 2013 to honor the people who died in the Munich air tragedy, the 20th anniversary of Bobby Moore’s death and the 238 victims of a nightclub fire in Santa Maria. Perhaps you might remember the England-Wales match in 2004 and what happened after a request by the authorities for a minute’s silence for Ken Bigley, the news of whose murder by terrorists in Iraq had broken the previous day.
The difference on those occasions is that it is very rare for anyone involved with England – the manager, the captain, any of the players – ever to dare criticize their own supporters, even when criticism would be deserved, and it is a shame they have never found their voice when Löw, Hummels and their various colleagues have shown that it is possible to make a stand and in the process, change the narrative.
The FA did hold a media briefing three months after the Dortmund game to go over what had happened but nobody from the England setup itself was prepared to go on record even though it was clear by that point it was more than just a few beery, offensive chants. The footage of England’s end showed people making Nazi salutes and slit-throat gestures. One member of the choir could be seen holding a finger above his lip to imitate Hitler, in between gesturing that he would stab the German fans. All of which brought to mind the verdict of one Philadelphia Inquirer columnist after the United States had been awarded the 1994 World Cup. “What’s the first word to come into your head when I say: ‘British soccer fan’?” he asked. “It was ‘sub-human’, wasn’t it? I rest my case.”
It’s a nice line but, in reality, there are plenty of people who go abroad to watch England and enjoy their adventures without restoring to time‑warp chanting, 90-minute xenophobia or pretend patriotism about conflicts from another phase of history.
Yet it was still easy enough to find lads going through “No Surrender” in the queues on Wembley Way after England’s last game and, when it comes to next year’s World Cup, it has been interesting to hear from the relevant authorities about some of the supporters who will be making that trip to Russia and why those people had better wise up bearing in mind what could be waiting for them.
England’s troublemakers still tend to wear the same uniform that was fashionable on the terraces a quarter of a century ago – Stone Island, Burberry, Adidas trainers (more Gazelles than the Maasai Mara) – but it is a different form of trouble these days. The old category-C hooligans have gone, for the most part, and in their place it is a new breed of younger supporters, largely 19 to 25, who are not so dangerous but make up for that by adopting an anything-goes, stag-weekend mentality, whereby they take pride in behaving badly and regard England trips as a bit of escapism. When the FA’s travel club emailed its members after the Germany game a number of replies came back telling the FA to stop being spoilsports, arguing the behavior was exactly how they liked it.
The difficult part is breaking that kind of mentality and perhaps Southgate and his players missed a trick when the alternative, as their equivalents in Germany have shown, would have been to turn their backs and disown the people who still confuse international football matches with old medieval tournaments.
It doesn’t automatically mean that when Germany go on future excursions the demagogues and dunderheads will stay away or come with a new songbook. But at least the manager and players of the world champions have realized this kind of behavior affects them, too, and that it would be better to confront it rather than sitting on their hands and deciding it is somebody else’s problem. That has to count for something and, for that alone, it is tempting to think their English counterparts could learn a thing or two.
The Guardian Sport