By strange osmosis, lads too young to remember the Northern Ireland conflict - never mind World War II - still absorb the old England songbook and travel to away games to chant about wars, “10 German bombers” and the IRA.
This lyrical loop has survived the gentrification of the Premier League, the arrival of new global conflicts and countless social changes. It roots large numbers of England’s travelling fans in a phase of history that has long been overtaken by fresh events, especially in the Middle East. Gareth Southgate, the England manager, asks travelling fans to support the team “in the right way”. Yet the authorities have never taken the big step of disowning this kind of chant, of cutting the choir adrift.
German supporters in Dortmund on Wednesday night listened to it bemused. And as hundreds of England fans directed abusive hand gestures at Lukas Podolski, making his 130th and final appearance for Germany, and scorer of the game’s only goal (a scorcher), the locals could have been forgiven for hoping Brexit comes sooner than the diplomatic timetable might allow.
Here is the sequence. It started with England fans jeering and chanting through Germany’s national anthem, then progressed to “10 German bombers” and “F--- the IRA” and “Have you ever seen a German win a war.” Podolski was abused for his goal and for his protracted send-off, along with German supporters near the England end. The most striking aspect of it was its relentlessness. It was the soundtrack to the night: an inescapable racket.
If you could teleport yourself into that English section of the crowd, you would encounter young fans following an old template (i.e. copying more senior tourists), people who see it as one big joke, and outright xenophobes with an imperial outlook. The first sign that many England fans come not to to visit but to occupy is to be found in city centre bars, which are requisitioned and covered in English flags emblazoned with the names of towns.
Sure it's just a coincidence that the England fans were doing the actions to the 10 German bombers song during the German national anthem. pic.twitter.com/uiYHBzwDD1
— Archie Rhind-Tutt (@archiert1) March 22, 2017
This was the scene in Dortmund on Tuesday night, as England fans maintained a kind of ‘rave’ of song and dance. Some ended up on dancing on tables with arms spread. German police watched from the sidelines, but were not called to intervene. This ritual boisterousness fell into the category of anti-social behaviour rather than aggression. Many of those milling around were respectful. But if you were a local, you would probably avoid the area.
England-Germany games create a particular kind of friction, particularly on the English side, where Germany’s four World Cups and three European Championships are overlooked in favour of songs about the two World Wars. With only 1966 to fall back on, English football has long since lost the argument with Germany’s Nationalmannschaft.
Against this awkward backdrop, many England fans try to drag the rhetorical battle round to two 20th Century conflicts that cost tens of millions of lives, as if WWII, especially, was a kind of Xbox game between the RAF and the Luftwaffe. Nobody can say for sure how many of those England fans consider this to be knockabout that even the Germans are not meant to take seriously.
But packaged with the shouts of “No Surrender” and the display of English nationalism, any intended comedy falls flat. Many television viewers at home sit through the game cringing. In the stadium, embarrassment prevails. This is not the kind of mortification that some Russians must feel when racist chanting poisons the air, or MMA fighters attack rival fans in bars with astonishing violence. But there is no escaping the shadow it casts over the national team away from home.
At the end, Gareth Southgate’s team walked to the England end to applaud their supporters, as tradition dictates they will. But it must be hard for young players to connect “F--- the IRA” with any kind of direct encouragement for the team, because there is none in that chant. Nor is there anything morale boosting for the players in England supporters spreading their arms, aeroplane style, or singing about German bombers.
These chants are irrelevant to the action on the pitch. Yet the choir considers them to be synonymous with patriotic fervour, with getting behind the lads. In truth, nobody wants that kind of support, but few dare say it, including successive England managers and teams, who have tended to recoil from outright denunciation, for fear of the complications it would bring back home.
Much of it stems from provincial England, from the smaller towns and outposts of the game, where exposure to European club football is more limited, or non-existent. Premier League spectators appear to be in the minority when England go abroad. So away games still serve as an outlet for a particular expression of ‘Englishness’, decades old.
The sad truth for the England team is that it puts people off following the team abroad. It sets a mood and a tone at games. Southgate is a moderniser, but he cannot escape this throwback noise. Nor can his players. The FA and the England camp ask supporters to be respectful, but stop too far short of disavowal, which allows old school fans to believe their support is valued, whatever form it takes.
A World Cup in Russia looms. Perhaps some England fans are having this sing-song now because they know circumspection would be wise in Moscow.