By Samiran Mishra
Football in 1938 was overshadowed by the spectre of geopolitical conflict. The Nazis ruled in Germany, Neville Chamberlain was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Manchester United finished runners-up in the Second Division.
The last game between England and Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War was a friendly at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin in 1938. The match is remembered more for its political overtones than the football dished out by the two teams.
England had been touring Germany since 1899 and up until the match in Berlin, the Three Lions dominated the fixture with scorelines that read 12-0, 10-0 and 9-0, among other lopsided numbers.
By 1938, the Germans had somewhat improved. The first official full international between the two teams took place in 1930 when they met in Berlin. England, leading the game twice, went behind 3-2 before a late strike from Arsenal legend David Jack brought the scores level.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had risen to power in Germany. The first match England played against Nazi Germany was in 1935 and at White Hart Lane of all places. Home to Tottenham Hotspur, a club noted for its significant Jewish following, the venue of the match raised many eyebrows.
Three months before the match, the Nuremberg Race Laws were passed which criminalized intermarriage or sexual relations between Jews and ‘persons of German or related blood’.
Despite suspicions, the choice of venue did not have any political intent. As during that time England played their internationals not at Wembley but at iconic stadiums, mostly in London, White Hart Lane was coincidentally in line to host the next international as Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium had already hosted three matches.
“No recent sporting event has been treated with such high seriousness in Germany as this match … Between 7,500 and 8,000 Germans will travel via Dover, and special trains will bring them to London. A description broadcast throughout Germany … Sir Walter Citrine, General Secretary of the TUC, in a further letter to Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary, said that ‘such a large and carefully organised Nazi contingent coming to London might confirm the impression among people in this country that the event is being regarded as of some political importance by the visitors’,” read a report in The Observer.
England comfortably won the match 3-0 courtesy of a brace from George Camsell and a goal from Cliff Bastin.
“So chivalrous in heart and so fair in tackling were the English and German teams who played at Tottenham in mid-week that even the oldest of veterans failed to recall an international engagement played with such good manners by everybody,” The Observer noted.
In 1938, England were to play Germany at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. As was customary then, the English players were forced to do the ‘Nazi salute’.
But one player refused.
Stan Cullis, former Wolverhampton Wanderers player and coach, was the only player in the England side who refused to do the salute when the German national anthem blared from the loudspeakers. He was subsequently dropped from the team due to his actions.
The British Olympic team had caused offence two years ago in the 1936 Olympics for not giving the Nazi salute therefore England captain Eddie Hapgood was under pressure from the ‘authorities’ to not create any controversy.
It is believed that the United Kingdom’s Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, was consulted, but it is still disputed whether he ordered the team to perform the salute or not. Stanley Rous, the FA secretary who went on to become the President of FIFA, is also said to have influenced the actions of England players.
The decision to carry on with it did not bode well with the players in the dressing room but Cullis was reportedly the only player to flatly refuse to be a part of the charade.
England won the game 6-3 with the goals coming from Stanley Matthews, Frank Broome, Leonard Goulden, Clifford Bastin and a brace from John Robinson.
For Cullis to stand up to the British government and the FA’s cowardice towards the Nazis speaks volumes about his moral fortitude. Cullis’ 12 England internationals could have easily been 13 had he acquiesced with what had been ordered.
A centre half by trade, Cullis was also the captain of Wolves at that time. Although his international career was marred by the outbreak of the Second World War, he went on to become one of the best English managers of all time having led Wolves from 1948 to 1964 in what was one of the most successful periods in the club’s history.
At Wolves, he became the youngest manager to win the FA Cup at the age of 31 in 1949. He also led them to three First Division titles in 1954, 1958 and 1959.
Wolves were a continental force under Cullis. Before the formation of the European Cup, the Cullis-led Wolves beat the mighty Budapest Honved side 3-2 at the Molineux. The Honved side consisted of players such as Sandor Kocsis, Ferenc Puskas and others who, only a year ago, had hammered England 6-3 at Wembley playing for Hungary.
Wolves’ win is said to have played a huge role in the eventual formation of the European cup.
Cullis passed away at the age of 84 in 2001. A bona fide legend at Wolves, a stand at the Molineux is named after him and his statue is installed outside the stadium.