US vs. UK: A history of love and hate

by Andy Serwer, managing editor


FORTUNE -- America's relationship with the U.K. has always been complicated. Start with the fact that our country was founded by religious fanatics who left England because they were being persecuted, and who later fought a guerrilla war to establish a secular state. (Right off the bat, we confused the Brits.)

In 1812, the British decided they hadn't had enough and took us on again. (Nice.) They invaded Washington and clashed with us in New Orleans -- which inspired a cool country tune -- and in Baltimore -- which inspired our national anthem. (Thanks for that.) Brits will tell you they don't give a rat's petunia about the War of 1812, and historians will tell you they can't figure out who won it, but to me it's clear. We did. Like the song says: Our flag was still there... 'Nuff said.

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Flash forward a hundred years or so to World War I. We bail the Brits out. Thirty years later: repeat. Same enemy, only this time, the English are in worse shape when we come riding to their rescue. By this time we are BFFs with the Brits, which makes sense, at least from their perspective.

After the war, we work hand in glove with them fighting a Cold War against the Russians, even as we spy on each other, which leads to multiple subplots in James Bond movies. In fact, when it comes to our culture, society and economies, we are inseparable. The Brits love FDR and Chuck Berry, maybe more than we do. We love the Rolling Stones and Princess Di, maybe more than they do. We are their second-biggest trading partner. They are our sixth.

The next battle is in South Africa

And now there is football, or soccer -- of course we can't agree on the name. To England, football/soccer is everything. To us, soccer is a game our kids play and a great selling point for minivans.

Of course, it's rich that we've only played the Brits once before in a World Cup (Brazil 1950) and beat 'em 1-0. (Or as the Brits say 'one-nil.' What's 'nil'?). In England, it was a national tragedy. In the U.S., no one gave a hoot.

On Saturday we're going to play the Limeys again in the World Cup, this time in South Africa. And again, as Meryl Streep would say, it's complicated. That's because the game is being played in the shadow of this little situation we have right now -- the great BP (BP) oil spill debacle in the Gulf of Mexico. If the rivalry wasn't heated enough, now we have additional fuel. Pun intended.

It goes both ways though. Americans are fired up because the Brits are destroying the Gulf of Mexico! But the Brits are fired up because the Yanks are driving the biggest blue-chip company in all of England into bankruptcy!

There's an old joke where the Germans have just defeated the Brits in a soccer match and a German fan asks a Brit how it feels to have been beaten by the Germans in the Brit's national sport. "Not good," says the Brit. "But remember, we've beaten you in your national sport twice." (Again, not without our help!)

And now, it's time for the US and the UK to take the world's stage. Again. Two old frenemies go head to head, with nearly 400 years of history between them. Today, the focal point of the relationship is a soccer match at the far end of the planet. And a giant oil slick too close to home. To top of page

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