They Think it's All Over?

The enduring legend of England's 1966 World Cup win

Lockdown soccer watching has taken many forms.

With no live football at home, more people than usual have been taking an interest in the Bundesliga and its empty arenas. For the once and only time in its history the Belarus Premier League has even been on some English lips.

England's 1966 World Cup win.
England's 1966 World Cup win

Terrestrial football coverage has concentrated on Euro '96 with both BBC and ITV replaying what was in all truth a mediocre competition, while today Channel 4 revived the old chestnut of the 1966 World Cup Final.

Knowing this national anthem by heart, I would have preferred to have seen England's other World Cup campaigns, especially ones less remembered today such as Chile 1962 or France 1998.

The issue must be the cost of TV rights to show them again, given FIFA owns all the World Cup footage and charges a bomb for any reproduction.

1966 is still England's only glory which means it cannot be forgotten, although for years I felt there has been an excessive veneration of a day which grows ever more distant.

We will always have '66. But we do not want it forever as our only idol.

Nostalgia and conservatism are famous attributes of the English mindset but also weaknesses so the fact England has not won anything since '66 only bolsters the clich├ęs.
My Manchester United Years: The Autobiography.
My Manchester United Years: The Autobiography

Yet, as the years pass and the Three Lions continue to stumble what else can we commemorate and what else can we aim to emulate?

Hungary were the best team in the world in the early 1950s but lost the '54 World Cup final to West Germany, leaving them to honour their 1953 conquest of Wembley - the Mighty Magyars' 6-3 win over England, as their golden day ever since.

In the same way in England we are stuck with '66.

I was not even born then but can name the starting eleven like a litany of saints better than I can recall the 2018 semi-finalists.

I cleave more to the Italia '90 boys because I was an avid teenager then but through osmosis I have learnt to venerate England's one and only triumph.

I am intimate with that day's minutiae; the Hurst crossbar goal and the 'Russian' linesman, Bobby Moore wiping his hands when he spies the Queen's white gloves, the jackets and ties of the pitch invaders and Jimmy Greaves' sullen face on the bench etc.

Within seconds of watching the 1966 final the most obvious difference you note now is the old leather ball.

The orange Slazenger Challenge made the game slower than it is today as it was harder to control and there was no room for the trickery of subsequent stars like Jay-Jay Okocha or Ronaldinho.

There were always skilful players so it is tantalising to wonder what the ball wizards of then - Eusebio, Garrincha and Pele, would have done with today's lighter footballs such as 2010's notorious Jabulani and its unpredictable aerodynamics.

By 1974 the leather Telstar Durlast had a polyurethane coating and by 1986 the Adidas Azteca had completed the evolution to fully artificial materials.

The leather sphere meant free kicks could not be curled or dipped so set pieces were more aerial serves onto attackers' heads. Pressing in '66 was nothing like it is today and defences were more porous. The way Geoff Hurst sailed wholly unmarked into the German box to nod the equaliser was jaw-dropping.

Goalkeepers were similar; Gordon Banks' abilities have not dated, although the sweeper-keeper had not arrived yet. That was popularised by the Netherlands' Jan Jongbloed in 1974.  

All goals can be attributed to defensive errors as much as attacking class but in the '66 final the errors glare more. Half the six strikes in the final were down to right clangers.

The technique of some defenders on both sides was notably wobbly, which cannot just be attributed to the leather ball. Defenders rarely overlapped so were more practised in clearing than passing.

Whatever the ball-skills of 54 years ago compared to today, the quality players of then still stood out: Bobby Moore was imperious, Bobby Charlton dangerous and Franz Beckenbauer precocious.

There seem to have been far more turnovers of possession than there are today and more optimistic snapshots and efforts from outside the box, which is interesting given the heavier ball. It was an open final, if rather nervous and ragged by today's standards.

Passing back to the goalkeeper in the '66 final catches your eye; it was allowed until 1992. This meant custodians only needed good hands, not feet like today. Simulation and time-wasting seemed absent. Strikingly and ludicrously, there were no substitutes allowed.

Statistics on distances run would be interesting because of the advances in modern player fitness - there are no cups of tea at half time or steak and chips as a pre-match meal anymore.

But the athleticism and physical commitment 54 years ago still look impressive. The players were clearly exhausted at the end of 120 minutes.

Regarding the third England goal the less said the better as it did not cross the line, whatever the Azerbaijani linesman said to the Swiss referee. What is remarkable in the light of today's VAR obsession is how lightning quick the pair were to reach the decision, barely a couple of seconds in fact.

The fourth goal, as some fans invaded the pitch and appeared to distract the German goalkeeper Hans Tilkowski, was a surreal cherry on the cake.

Times change rapidly. Off the field the 1966 final seems a world away.

When I see clips of English football in the 1970s I am aware of the growing menace on the terraces, but watching the '66 final you hear nothing more sinister than 'Rule Britannia', 'We Want Goals' and 'Ee Aye Addio We Won the Cup'. Did it all go sour after the 1970 loss?

There is something of the Beatles & Shea Stadium about the '66 final, a joyous pinnacle never to be reached again.

Channel 4 interspersed their coverage with in-picture interviews with England players old and young, including some of the '66 men, as well as Jurgen Klinsmann, who provided some welcome context.

Klinsi helped a united Germany win in 1990 months after the Berlin Wall became rubble, noting the cultural significance of World Cups.

In that sense '66 was a chapter of an English golden age of Swinging London, the Beatles, the sexual revolution, a healthy economy and a charismatic leader in Harold Wilson. If you were young at the time it must have been a hell of party that summer night in the Trafalgar Square fountains.

The golden-haired gentleman captain Bobby Moore, sporting a sweaty blood-red shirt, raising the shining golden cup aloft with a lush green background on an English summer's day has easily become a sacred event. The symbolism of defeating the Germans again on a field of conflict was perfect.

Yet unlike England, Germany has moved on. It has won three World Cups since '66 and still honours the '54 Miracle of Bern as their exit from the dark years of the Nazis and a recovery from the trauma of WWII.

England by contrast still cleaves to '66 through necessity, inevitably over-eulogising it and rose-tinting it in the process. Given the explosion of world soccer since 1966, matching that win has only got harder.

My father was at the game, one of 100,000 lucky souls to have been there in person for the Three Lions's finest hour. How I wish I could say the same. A Euro '96 hammering of Holland will have to do for me.

England's glory aside, 1966 is notable as the last World Cup before commercialism took hold.
There was no advertising inside the stadium or visible sponsor names.

The official programme carried adverts for provincial English brands like Charrington beer and Embassy cigarettes, not multinationals like Coca-Cola and VISA. Sir Stanley Rous, for all his faults, was in charge of FIFA until 1974 when the corrupt Joao Havelange stole the reins of world football.

England's World Cup also heralded the rise of African football via Mozambique-born Eusebio, the star of the tournament, as well as Asian soccer in the form of the astonishing North Korea.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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