on 14 may 1938, the england football team played Germany at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. It was five years into Adolf Hitler’s rule of the country, just two months since the German annexation of Austria. Prominently positioned in the crowd of 110,000 were Rudolf Hess, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering. As the German national anthem played before kick-off, the England players lined up and raised their arms in a Nazi salute. The order for them to do so had come from the Foreign Office, which claimed to be acting in the interests of Anglo-German relations; this, our schoolboy history reminds us, was the period of appeasement of Hitler, under Neville Chamberlain.
The players had protested against the idea before the match, it’s said, but been overruled. They did what they were told, as footballers, for the most part, still tend to do. The blame lies not with them, not really, but with those who allowed them to be used as high-profile pawns in a geopolitical game that deliberately legitimised a regime that — while not yet in the full maturity of its grotesque degradation — was already well on its way to levels of barbarism rarely previously imagined.
The only possible message that could be taken from this display of respect and friendship to the German government (this was a “friendly” match, after all): if Stanley Matthews and his teammates think it’s OK to play with Nazis, to “Heil Hitler”, then why shouldn’t every other reasonable English man, woman and child? It was a propaganda coup. The England players, willing or unwilling, were its stars.
World Cup fever started early in my house, this year. This was thanks to our resident five-year-old football fanatic, who talks of little else but England’s chances against Belgium in Kaliningrad on 28 June. Slim to none, I’ve warned Oscar, but he hasn’t yet been through the endless cycle of hopes idiotically raised and then bathetically dashed; he believes in the power of Harry Kane — who is, as he points out, almost as good as Kevin de Bruyne.
“How many days is it until the twenty-eighth of June?”
“Er, let me see, Osc… 67?”
“So yesterday it was 68 and tomorrow it’ll be…”
“66, yes.” “Daddy?”
“’66 is when England won the World Cup.”
“You’re right! It was. But don’t take that as an omen.”
“What’s an omen?”
The wallchart went up in mid-April, with its delightful centrepiece of Cristiano Ronaldo captured mid-orgasm, having presumably just scored a goal, or possibly caught sight of himself in a mirror. It’s not positioned in some out of the way corner of his bedroom, but — to the quiet consternation of his mother and his older sister, who are less persuaded by the attractions of the beautiful game, and the Portuguese popinjay’s gurning visage — downstairs, by the back door, in full view of all of us, all the time.
The Panini album — you know they hand these things out for free, like a crack dealer offering complimentary samples near the school gates? — is separated from its staples already, thanks to Oscar’s constant flicking of its pages. I’m in the hole for hundreds of pounds in stickers — and we still haven’t had a sniff of the man Oscar refers to, very properly, as “Neymar Jr”. (Got about eight Eric Diers, though, if anyone’s in the market for swaps.)
Oscar’s love for football is pure: he sees drama, colour, excitement, adventure, triumph and disaster, and larger than life characters performing dazzling feats of almost impossible skill and daring. To coin a cliché, what’s not to love?
He knows the World Cup is taking place in Russia, and as a result of that he can pronounce Kaliningrad and even Nizhny Novgorod: we’re playing Panama there, on 24 June, he tells me, having once again consulted the all-knowing Panini. Previously, his knowledge of Russia was limited to the fact that it is very big and very cold and has been in some wars — sometimes on our side, sometimes not. (He’s very interested in wars.)
I’ve told him that Russia has produced some of the most amazing writers and artists and musicians and that it has an astonishing history, rich in drama, colour, excitement, adventure, triumph and disaster, all that stuff he likes. And he is impressed by this, a bit, as much as you can be if you’ve no real idea what a grown-up is boring on about and you just want to get back to your football stickers.
The truth is, Russia is one of those countries that’s harder to get a grip on, if you’re five (or, indeed, 45) than the places Oscar is already sold on, like Italy — pizza, ice cream, Ferraris — or America — superheroes, hamburgers, Michael Jackson. (Massive Jacko fan; I blame the parents.)
Would he like to go to Russia? He would. Why? To watch the World Cup, silly. Yes, but otherwise? Otherwise he’d rather go to Africa (lions), or India (tigers), or Brazil (rainforest), or Italy (reasons listed above) or France (Disneyland) or Japan (Disneyland) or America (reasons listed above, plus Disneyland). Russia? Far down the list.
You are aware of the difference between hard and soft power. The present Russian government uses both. It invades sovereign states, sponsors the gassing of Syrian children and assassinations by poisoning on British soil. At home it jails critical journalists and political opponents, or worse. It holds sham elections. Also, it throws fun sporty
The editor. (Prior to ruling himself out of this summer’s World Cup on moral grounds)