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Gary Younge
Bet you won't be shouting for this lot on Sunday

Voicing anti-German sentiments may be the last "acceptable" prejudice. The confidence that Britons have, even in the company of strangers, to articulate their disdain for an entire nation without fear of contradiction or contempt is both staggering and intriguing. Otherwise liberal types, who would struggle over whether to call someone mixed-race, black or dual-heritage choose freely between the Hun, Boche or Kraut. Similarly, reactionary sorts, who insist "European civilisation" reigns supreme above all others, reserve a special place in their misanthropic souls to despise the nation that produced Goethe, Bach and Einstein.

As we gear up towards Sunday's World Cup final, England is about to become a country of honorary Brazilians.

The obvious reason for this would be the war, were it not for three reasons. First, it is over. While other countries may harbour resentment for Nazi atrocities, not even those who were invaded demonstrate the degree of popular antipathy towards Germany found in England. Second, the Germans lost. If anything that should give them a reason to hate us - which they definitely don't. Third, neither the Germans nor the English fought the war alone. Yet anti-Italian or anti-Japanese prejudice exists on nowhere near the same scale, nor does it span the generations, as it does in England. And you will not find the same level of anti-German prejudice in Scotland or Wales.

The only other explanation would be football. England are regularly beaten by Germany, often in crucial games - such as the semi-finals in the 1990 World Cup and the 1996 European Championships. The one significant exception, the 1966 World Cup final, was a landmark in English sporting history - a moment that has been remorselessly relived in song and archive as a trope of our former glory.

The fact that we have to go back 36 years to find something to cheer about in our national game might explain why these prejudices are so outdated. It is also in this element of our national psyche that the most credible answer to the origins of German-bashing might lie. For the search for historical sustenance to shore up a fragile national identity is entirely consistent with a general British view that "our best days are behind us". The explicit xenophobia contained within it further suggests that during those "best days" foreigners knew their place.

What this antagonism truly reveals is an ingrained insecurity regarding Germany's postwar ascent which has coincided with Britain's post-colonial decline. The fact that their economy is more sluggish, labour relations more fraught, and unemployment far higher than ours is testimony to the depth of that insecurity and the degree to which the myth of German supremacy holds fast in the English psyche.

"What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" asked the late Trinidadian intellectual, CLR James. No sport exists in a vacuum and nor do sporting loyalties. The very trait that makes so many English abhor the Germans explains the antipathy of so many towards England. Once those flags start waving there is no knowing where the chanting might go.

To all of this, however, we must inject some perspective. Unlike the Irish, blacks, Asians or asylum seekers we are not talking about systematic discrimination. Germans are not excluded from employment, health or housing. They are not being murdered in police custody, criminalised for existing, or disproportionately stopped and searched. Since 1994 the commission for racial equality has received only 10 requests for legal assistance on the grounds of anti-German prejudice. Poking fun at them may be viewed as socially acceptable, but it is not politically endorsed in the manner that attacks against asylum seekers and Muslims have been. We are talking about prejudice against an equally powerful nation, not racism against an historically oppressed people. On that level, disparaging remarks made about Germans rank alongside the kind of regional rivalry that exists between Jamaicans and Trinidadians or Australians and New Zealanders.

With that perspective can we then set vital parameters? No prejudice is acceptable. When Germany beat England in 1996, fans went on the rampage in Brighton beating up German students. Two years later, Weymouth council established safe houses for German students who might have to flee from violent attack. It infects an entire mindset that can then go on to affect others. Open the door to one form of xenophobia, and you will soon find yourself well and truly swamped.

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