England Three – Germany Won: Why Americans Can’t Understand Football

By Ashley Gnat

Football is undoubtedly serious business in England.  But one English chant gives me pause: “England three; Germany none.”  This chant was even more common in 2006 when the World Cup was held in Germany, though a match between the rivals did not take place.  According to the facebook page dedicated to this chant (titled “Two World Wars and One World Cup”) the modern rivalry between the teams prompted the UK government to caution “fans travelling to Germany for the World Cup to refrain from taunting the locals with this tune.” To what does this chant refer?  It is customary for each team to wear a badge on their jerseys for the number of World Cups that their country has won.  So the crowd’s enumeration of the respective teams’ World Cup victories would be a reasonable guess.  However, England has won one World Cup and Germany has won three World Cups.  Nor could it be the number of World Cup Final face-offs between England and Germany as the only England-Germany World Cup Final match was in 1966. 

The English crowd’s chant, commonly set to the tune of Camptown Races, explains the English victories over Germany a bit differently: World War I, World War II, and the 1966 World Cup. What led to such a rivalry that it would be expressed through wars and football?  This chant seems to function as an imagined history for the background of English-German rivalry.  In other words, it seems to function as a myth, a myth that could be understood from the perspective of the imagined fan, in which case the myth seems to make the case that war is analogous to football and that England is superior to Germany in all of the ways that matter.  But my main interest lies in exploring the myth itself and the impression that English supporters have made significant—retroactive meaning based on historical events in the face of present football matches.  However in order to more fully explore this myth, I want to explore the history of football, FIFA, and, perhaps surprising for some modern football fans, some early history of the Olympics as it pertains to England and Germany. 

The history of football between England and Germany is not uninteresting; the first friendly matches between these countries took place in 1899 resulting in English victories.  Arguably, the first internationally competitive football match between the two was during the 1908 London Olympics in which only 5 nations participated with England taking the Gold medal. Compared to the 2010 World Cup in which 204 countries qualified and participated.   By 1928, problems concerning the “amateur” status for competitors, a major focus of the Olympics movement, proved to be the dividing factor for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and national teams.  And so in 1930, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) hosted its first World Cup match using the outcome of the 1928 Olympic games to determine which countries qualified.  Football was removed in 1932 Los Angeles Olympic games because American football had proven to be more popular in the host country, but was nevertheless reinstated in 1936 during the Berlin games.  Eventually, Olympic football became restricted to under-23 (years of age). 

Where was England and Germany in this early history?  As far as I know, or as far as anyone with an investment in the English football team talks about, England and Germany did not face one another in Olympic play or the earliest World Cups. Yet the two teams arranged play outside of official competition, a common practice between countries then and now.  It could be argued that the first truly international match between the two countries was in 1930 which ended in a tie.  England and Germany met again in 1935, but because of the political environment in Europe, it was suspected that the match was a propaganda attempt that benefitted German interests no matter the outcome.  England won the match 3 to 0. 

The next England-Germany match was held in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in 1938.  Shortly before the match, the English team performed the Nazi salute as a gesture of good-will on the orders of the UK’s Foreign Office. This now infamous gesture quickly sparked a media-storm in the UK.  As Jonathan Duffy wrote for the BBC in 2003, 

The policy of appeasement towards the Nazis pursued by Neville Chamberlain’s government at the time had been intentionally transposed to the football pitch. 

England won the game 6-3, as well as the Second World War that began the following year.  This was the last time that England played against a unified Germany until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  

England and West Germany played a number of friendly matches after the war, but nothing is more legendary or exemplary (in the English view of their team) than the 1966 World Cup Final.  In a London match that included additional time, a controversial third goal by England, and spectators on the pitch during the fourth goal, England won their only World Cup defeating West Germany 4-2.  The controversial third goal is remembered in British popular culture and on the soundtrack of the commentary about the third goal in a version of “Glass Onion” by the Beatles (on the album Anthology 3).  The 1991 BBC miniseries Sleepers features KGB surveillance footage of the controversial goal, and the goal was re-enacted in a 2006 Adidas advertisement with a contemporary English midfielder and German keeper. 

Chamberlain & Hitler

Since 1966, England has lost nearly all of its matches against West Germany.  Of note are three World Cup semi-final matches that resulted in England’s elimination at the hands of West Germany: 1970 in Mexico, 1982 in Madrid (a tie in the second round, eliminating England), and 1990 in Italy.  Last week’s match proves to be the first time since 1938 that a unified Germany played England in international competition. 

Now I’d like to go back to my earlier “peculiar” conclusions about this chant.  What does this chant do for English fans?  England played Germany during Neville Chamberlain’s failed policy of appeasement which eventually lead to the second world war (and England’s second tally according to their myth-chant), during which time the battlefield had been transposed to the football pitch.  England’s football win proved to foreshadow Britain’s long-awaited victory after a devastating war.  On the other hand, the juxtaposition of football and war could attempt to highlight differences that these two things had with all other things rather than highlight the similarities they have with one another: England is superior to Germany in all of the ways that matter, and the things that truly matter are football and war.  

Yet both of these conclusions illustrate little more than the frame of mind of the participant.  What does it say about the rivalry?  How did the myth of “England three, Germany None” come to be?  Perhaps there may be something  about the pre-war attempts, on both sides, to use football for political gains.  Could the England-Germany rivalry be understood as the legacy or remnant of politics that cultivated animosity for the enemy through sports?  This could, at the very least, be true for English football fans—I have not examined this rivalry from the German perspective.  

The chant also relates England strangely to its rival—West Germany seems to represent the whole of Germany and East Germany seems lost altogether.  East Germany did have a team and there were four friendly matches between the England and East Germany which resulted in three English victories and one draw.  The creation of the myth appears to be centered in the 1966 World Cup Final match. West Germany inherits the bulk of the rivalry between England and Germany and the myth of “England three, Germany none” incorporates recent historical wartime hostilities into the grand narrative of the football pitch.    

But what does this myth allow?  It does not refer to any matches during the height of English-German political aggressions even though one controversial match took place before Germany’s acquisition of Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938.  The main fervor of the myth focuses on the 1966 World Cup Final, making the focus of this chant about football, not war.  It seems that sometime after 1966, the orthodox version of imagined history is one in which England unequivocally defeats Germany in wars and football, regardless of recent (or present) history.  It is for this reason that I don’t think England’s latest World Cup defeat will change the English fans’ view of history.  In other words, it can never be “England Three, Germany Won”. 

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