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Friday, June 25, 2010
This is more than just a game

By Chris Jones
Special to ESPN.com

JOHANNESBURG -- England v. Germany. Holy crap.

A couple of nights ago, after the U.S. beat Algeria, everyone started doing the math.

England finishes second in Group C … carry the one … it'll play the winner in Group D … divided by two … and the winner of Group D is …

And there was a collective gasp in grandstands and living rooms, bars and school dormitories: England v. Germany, for the 28th time.

I can remember sitting in my grandfather's terraced house -- he was a mailman from Rawtenstall, Lancashire, a pure northern Englishman -- and listening to his stories about guns and rivalry. England was fighting Argentina over the Falklands at the time. "Just a skirmish," he called it. He's gone now, but we still have pictures of him up in our hallway, black-and-white photographs of this handsome young desert rat who fought the Nazis in North Africa.

For him, soccer games between the two countries replaced the battles he continued to fight in his head. When England beat West Germany in 1966 to win its only World Cup -- at home in London, no less, in extra time -- it was one of the glorious moments of his life. When English fans began singing a terrible song during games against Germany, "Two World Wars and One World Cup," my grandfather would have smiled at it. Never mind that the Germans now have three titles to their credit. The English have 1966.

But by the time I sat with him, by the time England was fighting other wars, the competition was mostly one-sided -- the wrong side, as far as my grandfather and millions of other Englishmen were concerned.

Once, England had dominated. In 1938, England beat Germany in a friendly in Berlin, under the watch of Adolf Hitler, 6-3. They didn't play again -- owing to certain off-field hostilities -- until 1954, when England beat the new West Germany 3-1.

The World Cup final in 1966 marked the eighth time the teams had played. England had never lost.

Then things took a turn. West Germany first beat England 1-0 in a friendly in 1968.

And only two years later, the unthinkable happened: West Germany knocked England out of the World Cup in Mexico, coming back in the quarterfinals from a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 in extra time. It was enough of a blow that Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson lost the election three days later.

That's how much soccer matters in England. It's not a game there. It's not an idle distraction. Soccer has an enormous influence on the national mood. A poor England result could see my grandfather mutely walking his route, scattering letters across Rawtenstall, in a kind of glum daze for weeks.

Most often, Germany was to blame for it. The two countries played to a scoreless tie during the 1982 World Cup, but West Germany again crushed English hopes in 1990 in Italy, winning a semifinal on penalty kicks. The Germans again knocked England out of a major international competition in 1996 -- Euro in London -- and once again, they did it on penalty kicks.

England exacted a small revenge in 2000, winning 1-0 in Charleroi, Belgium -- but not before the streets were littered with bricks and broken glass and more than 500 fans had been arrested. The rivalry had reached ugly depths.

For the English police who have been stationed in South Africa -- on the lookout for hooligans who have made their way here -- anti-German songs are the biggest warning sign that trouble is on its way. Somebody starts singing "Two World Wars and One World Cup," and it's time to run for cover.

On Sunday, it's the central tough-luck town of Bloemfontein that will host grudge match No. 28. FIFA has already announced that extra police will be deployed, far more than at any other game during the Round of 16; local organizers have publicly asked bars and pubs to make sure they have enough beer on hand to keep fans happy, at least until the game starts. More than 25,000 English and 10,000 German supporters are expected to make the trip.

I'll be there, too. I was one of the people who gasped after I did the math, and I've been counting down the hours since. I'll be watching for my grandfather when this lurching, fractious English team takes on the youngest and fastest German side in recent memory. Fabio Capello has had his team obsessively practicing penalties, just in case; he's gone so far as to name the five men who will take them, days in advance, when he's made a habit of not even naming his starting lineup until the team bus leaves the hotel for the stadium.

He understands that this isn't an ordinary game. He understands that there is too much history here, too many results, too much baggage and weight, for this to be treated as just a skirmish.

England v. Germany. Holy crap.

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.