Don’t mention the war

World Cup countdown: Only two days to go. But for England fans, as before every major international footy tournament, there’s the specter of hooliganism. During the 1970s and 80s, hooliganism was the English disease. The Heysel disaster in 1985, which left 39 fans dead, led to English clubs being banned from European competition for five ...

608395_Footballfans5.jpg
608395_Footballfans5.jpg

World Cup countdown: Only two days to go. But for England fans, as before every major international footy tournament, there's the specter of hooliganism. During the 1970s and 80s, hooliganism was the English disease. The Heysel disaster in 1985, which left 39 fans dead, led to English clubs being banned from European competition for five years. Slowly, the problem was contained by a combination of legislative measures and the actions of genuine football supporters. There were still some appalling incidents though. In 1995, an England-Ireland game had to be abandoned because of a riot.

Part of the problem now is that foreign police fearful of the English reputation sometimes intervene prematurely and in a heavy-handed manner that causes trouble to escalate. It is all too predictable what could cause this in Germany: The country's harsh laws on references to the Nazi era. England fans in Germany are going to mention the war, no matter what they're told. (One of the more popular England songs involves whistling the tune to the Dam Busters and that old "Two World Wars and One World Cup" chant is bound to get an outing.) However, if any of them start giving—even mock—Nazi salutes, they can be arrested under German law. It is all too easy to imagine what could happen if German cops wade into a crowd of lit up England supporters to arrest people.

So, why can't the English leave the war out of this? Part of the explanation is a simple desire to rub the English victory in the Germans' faces. (See this story about a group of imbeciles planning to fund their trip to the World Cup by selling inflatable Spitfire planes.) But I think there are deeper causes at play here. World War II is Britain's historical get out of jail free card. It doesn't matter what sins the country might have committed: 1939-45 wipes them out and allows you to be proud of your country. (For an intellectual version of this argument, read Niall Ferguson's Empire.) Also the British Empire in '40 is the only time since the Athenians defeated the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC that one place has stood between Western civilization and its demise.

World Cup countdown: Only two days to go. But for England fans, as before every major international footy tournament, there’s the specter of hooliganism. During the 1970s and 80s, hooliganism was the English disease. The Heysel disaster in 1985, which left 39 fans dead, led to English clubs being banned from European competition for five years. Slowly, the problem was contained by a combination of legislative measures and the actions of genuine football supporters. There were still some appalling incidents though. In 1995, an England-Ireland game had to be abandoned because of a riot.

Part of the problem now is that foreign police fearful of the English reputation sometimes intervene prematurely and in a heavy-handed manner that causes trouble to escalate. It is all too predictable what could cause this in Germany: The country’s harsh laws on references to the Nazi era. England fans in Germany are going to mention the war, no matter what they’re told. (One of the more popular England songs involves whistling the tune to the Dam Busters and that old “Two World Wars and One World Cup” chant is bound to get an outing.) However, if any of them start giving—even mock—Nazi salutes, they can be arrested under German law. It is all too easy to imagine what could happen if German cops wade into a crowd of lit up England supporters to arrest people.

So, why can’t the English leave the war out of this? Part of the explanation is a simple desire to rub the English victory in the Germans’ faces. (See this story about a group of imbeciles planning to fund their trip to the World Cup by selling inflatable Spitfire planes.) But I think there are deeper causes at play here. World War II is Britain’s historical get out of jail free card. It doesn’t matter what sins the country might have committed: 1939-45 wipes them out and allows you to be proud of your country. (For an intellectual version of this argument, read Niall Ferguson’s Empire.) Also the British Empire in ’40 is the only time since the Athenians defeated the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC that one place has stood between Western civilization and its demise.

Now, I’m going to go back to worrying about Wayne Rooney’s metatarsal

James Forsyth is assistant editor at Foreign Policy.

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