LONDON — I have been in England for a few days now, and you’ll be happy to know the skies are still cloudy, the sandwiches are still buttered, the Royal family is still nuts, and British journalism is still somewhere between
“The Front Page” and “Striptease.”

In fact, the next time someone accuses the Free Press of being a “homer” newspaper, I’m going to send over a copy of last week’s London Daily Mirror, which had, on its cover, a giant photo of two British soccer players, wearing World War II helmets, over this headline:

“ACHTUNG! SURRENDER!

For You, Fritz,

Ze Euro 96 Championship is Over!”

“Fritz” was a reference to Germany, which was playing England in the semifinals of a soccer championship. And the photo — made with computer graphics — was accompanied by a parody of a speech declaring war on the Germans in 1939. The speech was signed by the Mirror’s editor.

That’s the editor, as in, the man in charge of the whole paper?

If my boss is reading, he might want to polish up his Franklin Roosevelt impersonation.

Now I know they take their soccer seriously in this country — seriously enough to drink a keg of beer, then trample each other — but I didn’t know they were ready to go to war over it, especially with a newspaper editor in the lead tank.

But the Mirror was not alone. The Sun, another tabloid, ran the headline:
“LET’S BLITZ FRITZ.” And the Daily Star had this across its front page:

“HERR WE GO, BRING ON THE KRAUTS!”

The Star’s headline ran next to a photo of model Claudia Schiffer, wearing next-to-nothing — not because she is German, but because, in the British tabloids, you can never throw in enough nearly naked girl photos, even in stories about mutual funds.

For them, soccer is life

Anyhow, England’s declaring war on Germany over soccer, and dredging up Nazi images would be like Atlanta newspapers during the Olympics suddenly referring to outside countries as “French Pigs” and “Towel-Headed Arabs” and
“Mexican Wetbacks” — then running semi-nude photos of Claudia Schiffer. Can you imagine? They’d be shut down in a heartbeat.

Yet over here, the Mirror editor was reportedly planning to hire a Spitfire plane to drop leaflets over Berlin, and to drive a tank to the German embassy.

That’s the editor, as in, the man we look to for guidance?

If my boss is reading, he might want to polish up his bayonet skills.

To England’s credit, there was a backlash to all this rah- rah patriotism. Many people complained and wrote letters and eventually, the editor apologized
— after putting down his tommy gun — saying, “It was intended as a joke.”

But the truth is, it was more than a joke. It was intended to play on the emotions of the country, which were running high, and these newspapers will not hesitate to do the same thing the next time England gets involved in a major sporting showdown. Like today, at Wimbledon, when their newest tennis hopeful, young Tim Henman, takes on Sweden’s Magnus Gustafsson.

You can already see a “Ja, Ja, Tim” headline brewing.

All of this made me wonder how far you should go as a newspaper to side with your readers. The Detroit papers, for example, certainly poked fun at Colorado when the Red Wings played the Avalanche during the NHL playoffs. But would we superimpose a machete in Steve Yzerman’s hand and have him chopping off John Denver’s head, over the words, “Take That, Rocky Mountain Hick!”

If the Lions were playing the 49ers, would we run a photo of Steve Young, who is a Mormon, under a headline: “Hey, Steve, Even Five Wives Won’t Help You Now!”

If Tommy Hearns were fighting an Asian, would we exhort, “Make Sushi Out Of Him, Hit Man!”

If you’re offended, too bad

All of those, believe it or not, would probably get printed in England, a country that clucks its tongue at Americans, then acts even dumber than we do.

Which only shows you how big the Atlantic Ocean really is. In the States, you have to hold your breath when you say anything to anybody. Here, they use
“Krauts” in headlines.

Personally, I’ll take our system. I don’t think people who lost loved ones in World War II really need to see the thing rehashed over something as meaningless as soccer. And calling Spaniards “Juan” or Frenchmen “Pierre” isn’t what they taught us in journalism school.

What’s funny is, England lost that big soccer game to Germany by the narrowest of margins, when a young British player blew a penalty kick in overtime. The next day, the tabloids ran photos showing the poor guy in anguish, crying, blaming himself, under headlines that read “Keep Your Head High, Lad.”

And the next day, they ran a picture of him with his mother, under the headline “Why Didn’t You Kick It Harder, Son?”

So it goes in the British tabloids. With you today, against you tomorrow. No wonder stars like Nick Faldo and Frank Bruno are so wary of the press. This afternoon when Wimbledon resumes, the papers will be behind tennis hero Henman
— who knocked off French Open champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov — as he takes on the Swede, Gustafsson. And readers are already expecting headlines about Swedish meatballs, Swedish massage or Swedish dirty movies.

Personally, I don’t know what to expect. But I figure Claudia Schiffer will be in there somewhere.

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