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England Have Won Wars Against Argentina and Germany. Football Matches, Not So Much.

Deciding who to root for in the World Cup final is not so easy if you're English

AFP/Getty Images

How many people will be watching the final—hundreds of millions? Even billions? And yet most of them, which is to say most of us, will be technically neutral, and have to decide which team to support. It’s not easy.

My colleague Leon Krauze says he has overcome Latin American solidarity, and even his love of Lionel Messi, to root for the formidable Germans. But if he thinks this final is emotionally complicated for him as a Mexican, what does he think it’s like for an Englishman?

In the 84 years since the World Cup was first held, a mere human lifetime, my country has, uniquely, fought wars with both of this year’s finalists. We won both wars, but that hasn’t made our sporting relationships any easier, especially as we’ve been very far from successful against them on the football pitch.

In 1966, England played West Germany in the World Cup final at Wembley. It was on the morning of that game that Vincent Mulchrone of the Daily Mail wrote (in a line Ann Coulter has heard of but managed to garble and misattribute), "West Germany may beat us at our national sport today, but that would be only fair. We beat them twice at theirs."

We did win that match, but Mulchrone’s vulgar jingoism has been punished ever since. West Germany had already won the Cup once before that year—“the miracle of Berne” in 1954—and they’ve won it twice since, though not since reunification, whatever the significance of that may be. Not only have England never won the Cup since, they’ve suffered one humiliation after another at the hands of Germany, too painful to list.

And as for Argentina! They won in 1978, when England failed for the second Cup in succession even to qualify, and then again in 1986. It was only four years after the Falklands War, and so the tension was acute when Argentina played England in the quarter-final in Mexico City in front of a crowd of 114,580.

Argentina won, of course. That was the game of Diego Maradona’s two goals, one wicked and one sublime. The first was what he later impiously called “the hand of god,” when he visibly (to everyone except the referee) punched the ball across the goal line, rather than kicking it as the rules suggest he should. Three minutes later he dribbled and swerved past five England players, including the hapless Peter Shilton in goal, to score one of the greatest goals ever seen.

But the match most indelibly etched in my memory is the Round of 16 game on June 30, 1998 when Argentina played England in St Étienne. Not that I was there. I was in western Bosnia, staying at the British Army base at Mrkonjić Grad where I was reporting for a London newspaper on how our brave lads were keeping the peace. (I should emphasize that this was after the savage fighting had ended, and I wasn’t a real war correspondent in any serious danger.)

We watched the match in the canteen, and in an atmosphere of emotional intensity I’ve never known at a stadium. The troopers of the Light Dragoons were Yorkshiremen and Geordies, Leeds and Newcastle supporters, and more loyal and ardent fans you will never meet. And so their exhilaration, elation and deflation was heard to bear and share.

We saw Michael Owen score a dazzling one-man goal, and we saw David Beckham get himself sent off in the stupidest way imaginable. After extra time the game was two-all. I don’t need to say what happened in the penalty shoot-out—and this eight years after the misery of the semi-final at Turin in which England lost the shoot-out to Germany.

So who is it to be for the honest Englishman, Argies or Krauts? I think I’ll flip a mental coin at kick-off, though whoever wins I’d love Messi to have the truly great game he owes us. And if you want a betting tip, should they go to the dread shoot-out, remember this: it’s been more than 30 years since a German player missed a spot-kick...