By JOHN F. BURNS
NEW YORK TIMES – SPORTS
LONDON — It has been called the greatest rivalry in soccer, a history of 27 international matches going back to 1930, and its renewal on Sunday, in the bristling tradition of the competition, has generated some eyebrow-raising and occasionally teeth-grinding headlines in both nations.
[Full feature appears at http://www.nytimes.com/sports%5D
Note: The Times’s soccer blog has the 2010 World Cup covered from all angles, with news, schedules, features and live analysis of every match]
Today when England and Germany meet in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in the knockout phase of the World Cup, it will be for a place in the quarterfinals. But for millions in the two countries, the game will be much more than a way station on the road to potential glory.
To hear players, managers and soccer writers on both sides tell it, the 28th game in the series is a matter of history, whether the aging English squad (average age 29, with goalkeeper David James five weeks short of 40) can rise above a toe-curlingly weak performance in two of the three games it has played so far to beat a young German team (average age 25, with three key players 21 or younger) that is rebuilding its fortunes.
But listen to the politicians and comedians, hear the trash talk in the bars and cafes, read the tabloid newspapers, English and German, and tally the sheer numbers of people expected to watch the game — predictions of the television audience run as high as 30 million to 40 million people in each country, about half their combined populations — and it is another kind of history that gives the encounter its edge.
That is the history written by guns and tanks and trenches, in towns and cities laid to waste, and in the millions of dead from World Wars I and II. Though 65 years have passed since Hitler’s defeat, and a strong, prosperous and peaceful Europe has emerged from the ruins, with Britain and Germany pillars of the new amity, the consciousness of generations unborn when the hostilities ended still bears the past’s imprint, if mostly benign.
Seen through the prism of soccer, the striking thing is how time has worked its catharsis. If both countries savor victory, and fear defeat, in ways that are more acute than in other soccer rivalries, they do so now, mostly, with a wry sense of humor that tells its own story about the power of sport as a bonding agent between nations, exactly what World Cups are supposed to represent.