Peter Hoskin

From the Archives: 1966 and all that

From the Archives: 1966 and all that
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Yesterday, Coffee House recommended that disappointed English football fans take solace, as always, in memories of 1966. To that end, here's The Spectator's review of England's World Cup victory at the time. These were clearly more innocent times, as evidenced by the closing observation: "whether we win or not is not a matter for negotiation between heads of states or men in striped pants."

Their cup runneth over, D.N. Chester, The Spectator, 5 August 1966

Let it be for ever recorded. At 5.15 pm on Saturday July 30 1966, the Swiss referee blew his whistle and England had won the World Cup for the first time, having just beaten West Germany 4-2. Winning deservedly, in my opinion, for they were the best all-round team in the competition.


Yet the opening game – a goal-less draw with Uruguay – had emphasised all the old doubts. As the old Lancashire lady said to the grubby little boy who told her his team had drawn 0-0 , ‘Then tha’ needn’t have played, lad!’ We had a first-class defence but could we score goals? The Uruguayans played purely to avoid defeat. Mexico tried partly the same tactics, but France played a more positive game. Both were beaten. So we headed the Group 1 table. We then played in the quarter-final the second team in Group 2 – which turned out to be the Argentine, who clearly were determined to stop England at any cost. The unfortunate result was that their captain was sent off. England just beat the ten men 1-0 and the world press erupted. There was even a suggestion that the German referee had sent the man off in part payment, as it were, for the English referee sending off two of the Uruguay players in the West Germany-Uruguay game being played at the same time. Somebody produced statistics showing that the referee had given more fouls against England than against the Argentine. Anyway, we were rightly through to the semi-final for the first time.


Fortunately for the World Cup and for England, the remaining games showed soccer at its best. The England-Portugal game was a superb thriller which we just won 2-1. The final was a fast game between very fit and skilful teams, both going all out to score. Less than one minute from the end we were leading 2-1, then the Germans scored! And so another fifteen minutes each way were needed. But England were on top. The enthusiastic crowd chanted ‘Eng-land, Eng-land’ and sang ‘When the Reds go marching in’ (an adaptation of the battle song of the St Louis baseball team). England gathered their tired limbs and with two more exciting goals made the Cup theirs.


The jubilant noise was deafening. The crowd waved their Union Jacks, proud to be English. A large contingent of Germans also waved their flags, proud of their country’s team. The banquet that night to the four semi-finalists (the other two were Portugal and the USSR) was graced by the Prime Minister, fresh from LBJ and Canada, the First Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary for Education and Science, and the Minister with responsibility for Sport. This was the most cheering thing that had happened to them in an otherwise black week.


The head quarters of international football are at Zurich, so news of the English victory has no doubt reached the gnomes. What weight they will give to it is difficult to say – Switzerland fielded the least successful team.


It was inevitable, of course, that somebody should at some stage write to the Times letters announcing the arrival of the first cuckoo or the number of babies christened Harold or Mary. Many critics were only too ready to remind England that they were lucky to be playing all their matches at Wembley, that they did not have any forward to match Pele or Eusebio or Bene – indeed, that they were guilty of many fouls. Some of the critics were not Englishmen. In terms of the World Cup, a Scottish peer is just as much a foreigner as is a North Korean, even though England’s supporters mostly waved the Union Jack and not the Cross of St George.


In regional terms, the Cup was a triumph for Western Europe, only Italy failing to come up to expectations. Russia was rather a poor fourth. The United States were nowhere. The Latin Americans made a poor showing, except for the Brazil–Hungary game, which was football at its best. They have a few outstanding players and their ball-control and passing are superb. But their defence, except when paced, is shaky and many of their passing movements lose rather than gain ground. England steadily improved. They were a closely knit team, moving fluently between defence and attack. They scored eleven goals against three in six games.


By no means al the games were of this high standard. Some were nothing like as good as, for example, this year’s English Cup Final between Everton and Sheffield Wednesday. But there was glamour and excitement and, of course, partisanship. Soccer is undoubtedly the best team game in existence – for both players and spectators. There is a simple objective – the scoring of goals, the rules are not difficult to understand, stoppages are few and use up little playing time, and there is plenty of room for individual performance as well as combined play. The final ingredient is an emotional attachment to one of the teams. After being told for years that only the Brazilians, or the Ruritanians, could play football, the English public gradually adopted Alf Ramsey’s belief that England would win. This was not a return to the old complacency. It was a realisation that twenty-two of our best young footballers had been trained by that remarkable manager, Alf Ramsey, and that he believed in them.


In these days it was a tonic to be at Wembley and hear 70,000 or more spectators enjoying their team’s performance, very proud to be English – a feeling shared by millions of viewers. There may be a moral in this for our economic problems. Perhaps it is that football is not a political issue. Clubs and players can be praised or lambasted without fear of affecting this marginal seat, that interest group, or some lunatic fringe. And above all, whether we win or not is not a matter for negotiation between heads of states or men in striped pants.

D.N. Chester is warden of Nuffield College, Oxford. He is chairman of the committee set up by the Government to inquire into the future of Association football.