do not mention the war

History is playing football at EURO 2012

In Anglo-German Relations, England, Football, Germany, History on June 6, 2012 at 10:27

It’s just about a few days until EURO 2012 will kick off in Poland and the Ukraine and for three weeks the footballing gravity centre will be between Warsaw and Kiew. What has this got to do with this blog? Initially not a lot and yet quite a lot. Germany has a special relationship to Poland and Thomas Urban has written a superb book about the football in the history of these two countries, titled White Eagles, Black Eagles published by Germany’s most prominent sports publishing house Werkstatt-Verlag.

Group of Death

Germany’s group is a prime example of a ‘group of death’ featuring football heavy weights such as Portugal, Holland and Denmark. However, it will get interesting in the quarterfinals where Germany might meet the likes of Poland, the Czech Republic or Russia. Meeting the latter would be even more significant as the game would take place on June 22, the day Nazi Germany started their operation Barbarossa, thus invading and attacking the Soviet Union in 1941. However, the focus will be on Poland and the Czech Republic as there is particular football history.

Poland: water-logged pitches, Klose and Podolski

The relationship with Poland can best characterized as difficult. Germany, or rather Prussia played a key role in the three partitions of Poland between 1772 and 1795. Alongside Russia and Austria, Prussia occupied large parts of Western Poland, Austria added the south of the country while Russia took the east of the country, leaving Poland just a small corridor from Kraków in the south to Riga on the Baltic Sea.

For centuries the Polish state did not exist; only after 1918 a free Polish state emerged and was still subject of a treaty between Stalin and Hitler, who split Poland between them. This way, a buffer between these two giant empires was created, alas to no avail as in 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Even after 1945 the relationships between the German states GDR and FRG remained fragile at best. East Germany recognized the Oder-Neiße line as the frontier, declaring this the ‘border of piece’ (Friedensgrenze), thus guaranteeing Polish integrity. Things only got better when in 1970 the German chancellor acknowledged the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising by genuflection at the memorial site.

However, football games between West Germany and Poland have been marred by controversy, namely the ‘battle in the rain’ at 1974 World Cup. Just before kick off, heavy rain has made the pitch almost unplayable. However, the water-logged pitch was cleared to play but Polish sources reported that the pitch was only cleared in the Polish half, thus enabling Germany to launch their attacks while the Polish counter attacks literally drowned. These conspiracy theory was countered by the fact that Poland won the toss and chose which side of the pitch they were playing and at half time, the ends were changed, therefore any advantage or disadvantage would have been levelled automatically. Germany won the match 1-0 through a goal by Gerd Müller in the second half and the tournament. Poland confirmed their status as a football power in Europe by becoming third, a feat they repeated in 1982.

The biggest issue between these two countries is the fact that players like Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, both born in Poland, decided to play for Germany instead, the country where they grew up. Both speak Polish and when Podolski scored against his country of birth at Euro 2008 he did not celebrate, which in some quarters was seen as proof of a bad conscience as he seemed to have betrayed his ‘mother country’.

Czech Republic: Doing a ‘Panenka’ and a Golden Goal

Politically, Germany and the Czech Republic enjoy good relations. Of course, a lot of recent European history is linked with the period between 1933 and 1945 and German aggression. In 1938 Germany occupied north of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland, unlawfully. It was argued that this area was largely inhabited by Germans and therefore should be German territory. All this was reversed in 1945. The country helped many East German refugees in providing shelter for them at the embassy of West Germany in Prague. From there, these people were allowed to travel to West Germany. It was another nail in the coffin for East Germany.

In 1976 Germany and the Czechoslovakia met in the final of the European championships in Belgrade. Germany have won the previous tournament in 1972 and were defending champions as well as world champions. The game ended 2-2, Bernd Hölzenbein scoring the equalizer in the 90. minute. Extra time saw no goals, so it had to be penalties. All went well until Uli Hoeneß came when it was 4-3 for the Czechs. He blasted

the ball into the sky of Belgrade and it was advantage Czechoslovakia. Had he scored, there would have been a lot more pressure for Antonin Panenka. But as it were, he was relaxed and calm. And he did a ‘Panenka‘, i.e. lobbing the ball over the goalkeeper Sepp Maier into the middle of the net.

Twenty years later Germany faced the Czech Republic in the same competition in another final. This time it needed extra time again but no penalties as Oliver Bierhoff scored the ‘golden goal’ for Germany which ended the game immediately. It was the last trophy for Germany.

Of course, the relationships have been far more amical between Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic and Germany as compared to Poland and Germany and there won’t be the same level of sour grapes should Michal Bilak’s team meet Jogi Löw‘s youngsters. Further, football should be enjoyed without political connotations but as Europe boasts such a rich and tragic history, it is sometimes inevitable to draw some parallels between history and sport/football.

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