Nothing like a major football tournament to bring out tabloid nationalism. Piers Morgan, the former editor of the London Daily Mirror, even had to apologize for his front-page headline "Achtung Surrender" during Euro 1996 when his newspaper declared "football war on Germany."
Now another European tabloid has stooped to a new low and yet again the target is Germany: Polish tabloid Super Express printed a photo montage of their national team's coach holding aloft the severed heads of Michael Ballack, the German team captain, and Germany coach Joachim Löw. "Bring us their heads," the paper demands.
Poland coach Leo Beenhakker was shocked when he was shown the paper. "This is shit," he said. "Here one sees what sick people there are in this world. I disassociate myself from this made-up photo and hope that it is now only about the sport."
Wednesday's tasteless offering from Super Express was only the latest salvo fired in a tabloid war in the run-up to Sunday's Euro 2008 game between Germany and Poland. The day before Poland's biggest selling paper Fakt had run a photo montage of their national side's manager Beenhakker swinging a sword at Germany's captain Ballack.
The paper implored the Polish team: "Leo, repeat Grunwald!", a reference to the 15th century Battle of Grunwald, in which the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania defeated a German knights' order. In the image Ballack, wearing a German spiked helmet and the robe of the German knights' order, is kneeling in front of Beenhakker, who is wearing a knight costume and brandishing a sword.
Unsurprisingly, German newspapers hit back. Bild, the country's biggest selling tabloid, printed the offending Super Express image on the front-page of its Thursday edition and raged: "This is simply disgusting."
However, what Bild failed to mention, is that one of the Polish newspapers that so offended its sensibilities is, in fact, owned by the same parent company: Axel Springer is the publisher of both Bild and Fakt. "Fakt is a journalistically completely independent newspaper, as is Bild," Alfred Draxler, the deputy editor of the German tabloid told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Wednesday. He added that Bild, therefore, had no problem reporting critically about the Polish tabloid.
Super Express's bloody image was also condemned by Europe's football governing body UEFA. "This certainly is something we don't welcome," spokesman Robert Faulkner said Thursday. "We are of the opinion, people should talk about football. We have known since the draw that this game would come with a certain amount of tension. But we hope that what will happen on the pitch will be the focus of attention."
Politicans also reacted angrily. Peter Danckert, chairman of the German parliament's sports commission, told Bild: "This photo montage is an absolute scandal, absolutely below the belt. I hope the Polish government will react appropriately."
These tabloid images are not the first time a Polish publication has offended German sensibilities: Last summer magazine Wprost published a doctored image of Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel breast feeding the then prime minister of Poland Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his twin brother Lech, who is the country's president.
Germany and Poland meet in the first round of Euro 2008 in Klagenfurt, Austria, on Sunday. Poland's footballing record against Germany is rather dismal, having won only one out of 16 games against their neighbor.
With reporting by Annette Langer