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Showdown between old foes has historical and political dimensions...

It's one of the great rivalries of world football, so ever since Wednesday's results in Groups C and D set up another England v Germany showdown - thanks to Landon Donovan's late strike for the United States - there has been huge anticipation of Sunday's clash between the two teams in Bloemfontein.

Although the rivalry on the pitch reached a new level of intensity when hosts England met West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley - the first competitive match between the two, and one still imbued with controversy - it has more than just a sporting dimension because of the countries' shared history in the first half of the 20th century.

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Indeed, while England's traditional footballing rivalry is with Scotland, and Germany's with the Netherlands, there is a particular edge to Anglo-German competitiveness that is fuelled by results whenever they meet but has its origins in two world wars.

Don't mention the war

The negative legacy of those conflicts has inevitably dwindled in today's world of European political alignment and economic union; and in the football context it is rightly played down by officials, players and coaches. But in the often irrational psyche of rank and file supporters it still provides a rallying call - particularly among English fans - for stoking up the enmity.

Cynics - and possibly Germans - would say it offers the English a ready refuge in the face of relative underachievement on the pitch. After all, Germany's World Cup record - winners three times, runners-up four times, semi-finalists four times and quarter-finalists three times - compares rather favourably with that of England, who have won it once, been semi-finalists once more and reached the quarter-finals on six occasions.

Maybe that is one reason why England fans have been happy to include non-footballing victories when goading their German counterparts, a common terrace chant at matches between them being "Two World Wars and One World Cup" to the tune of "Camptown Races". Similarly, when Germany were leading England 1-0 in a 2002 World Cup qualifier in October 2000 - the last match played at the old Wembley Stadium - a section of the home crowd responded to their team's inadequacies by singing "Stand up if you won the War"; Germany won the game 1-0. Kevin Keegan resigned.

The low end of the downmarket English tabloid press has also been swift to endorse jingoism where matches against Germany have been concerned. The most notorious example was during Euro '96, when England's refreshingly sparkling football under Terry Venables carried them to a semi-final showdown against their arch-rivals. The fact that the tournament was being staged on English soil may have led certain hacks to assume they had licence to crank up the nationalism.

The Daily Mirror, then edited by current media darling Piers Morgan, went way over the top with a headline that screamed: "Achtung! Surrender! For You Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over", and accompanied it with a mock article that spoofed a report of the 1939 declaration of war between Britain and Nazi Germany. Germany won that game too, albeit in a penalty shoot-out, just as they had ended England's World Cup dream at the semi-final stage at Italia '90. Morgan later apologised for the headline, which was blamed in part for the violence that erupted in London's Trafalgar Square after the defeat.

Violence - involving both sets of fans - also provided a backdrop to the Euro 2000 clash between the teams in Charleroi, Belgium. Before the game, rival fans threw chairs and bottles at each other in the town's main square until police drove them back with horses and water cannon, after English fans had charged at a group of chanting Germans. England won the match 1-0, and although it was only a group game, the English supporters celebrated with such unrestrained joy and relief that it could have been the final. Such is the importance to English fans of beating Germany.

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Wembley-Tor

For their part, the Germans are somewhat less emotional and, perhaps, more mature about things. But one defeat that still rankles is that 1966 World Cup final when England's 4-2 triumph was secured with the help of a controversial goal in extra-time. England's Geoff Hurst swivelled to fire a shot that crashed down off the underside of the bar onto the line before being cleared by Wolfgang Weber. Roger Hunt, following up, turned with arm raised in triumph instead of thumping the ball into the net to remove all doubt, so sure was he that Hurst's effort had crossed the line. The referee was less certain, but after consulting his linesman, Tofik Bakhramov - an Azerbaijani representing the USSR - awarded the goal to England.

The Germans remain unconvinced that the ball had crossed the line. Some sections of the German media accused the linesman of bias because West Germany had eliminated the USSR in the semi-final, and to this day Germans describe a goal which should not have been given as a 'Wembley-Tor'.

Bakhramov of course has entered English folklore, popularly if erroneously earning immortality as "the Russian linesman". When England played Azerbaijan in a World Cup qualifier in October 2004, in a stadium named after Bakhramov, many travelling England fans asked to be shown the grave of the official, who died in 1996, so they could pay their respects. In his memoirs, Bakhramov wrote that he believed the ball had bounced back not from the crossbar but from the net, making its subsequent movement irrelevant. However, according to rumour, when asked on his death-bed why he gave the goal, he is supposed to have replied, “Stalingrad,” where close to 500,000 Soviets died fighting against the Nazis during World War Two.

From ceasefire to propaganda

It was World War One that provided the most poignant episode in the rivalry between the two countries. An unofficial ceasefire was announced on Christmas Day 1914, when British (Allied) and German troops left their trenches and played football with each other, involving thousands of soldiers over many miles of the front.

It wasn't played to any clear set of rules, but is nevertheless regarded as one of the earliest examples of Anglo-German football.

In some places the truce lasted as long as a week, begging the question why the Great War was fought at all, when there was little apparent animosity between the two nations.

But by the time they played their second official international against one another, at Tottenham's White Hart Lane in 1935, politics had hijacked the show. One English newspaper reported protests by the British Trades Union Congress that the game could be used as a propaganda event by the Nazi regime. The next meeting, in Berlin in 1938, undoubtedly was. Before the kick-off the English players were ordered by their Foreign Office to line up and perform a Nazi salute as a sign of respect to their hosts.

The game helped prepare the way for British prime minister Neville Chamberlain's infamous "Peace in our time" deal with Hitler, which in turn led to Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia. England won the match 6-3, but for Hitler the propaganda value was the most important factor, not the result.

The Lineker line

Happily there has been no armed conflict to sour relations since 1945, but the purely footballing context has given the English new reasons to approach games against Germany with an uneasy mixture of exultant optimism and cold dread. As England's former striker Gary Lineker put it after the Three Lions lost on penalties to their old foes in the 1990 World Cup: "Football's a simple game. You run around for 90 minutes and in the end, the Germans win."

That particular game, complete with Germany's deflected goal, Gazza's tears and the missed penalties by Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle, seemed to encapsulate the perceived partiality of fate, in many English eyes, in favour of Germany, and made their 5-1 win in Munich in 2001, in a World Cup qualifier, so much sweeter.

It was a memorable victory; but the fact that Germany still qualified for the 2002 finals - and in fact went all the way to the final itself against Brazil - seemed to lend credence to Lineker's wry observation.

All of which adds piquancy to Sunday's looming showdown...

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