1966: The year football did come home (part 2)

In the second part of our series on England's World Cup triumph, Arthur Hopcraft captures the spirit of a country throwing off post-war inhibitions and insularity to revel in the sporting carnival taking place on its doorstep even as the middle classes first began to colonise football
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The Independent Football

By the mid-Sixties British football, having borrowed hungrily from other countries' method and even character, and at last having adapted and shaped the polymath to a creation appropriate to its own tradition and temperament, was recognised as a major international force again. West Ham United won the European Cup Winners' Cup with an incisive grace in 1965, beating Munich 1860 by 2-0 in the final at Wembley; Liverpool lost the final of the same competition by 2-1 to Borussia Dortmund the following year. Then, in 1967, Celtic of Glasgow crowned Britain's post-war performance in international club football with a devastating flow of attacking play to beat Internazionale, of Italy, 2-1 in the final of the European Cup.

I have already commented, in a profile of Sir Alf Ramsey, the England team manager, on England's victory in the World Cup in 1966. But there are social aspects of that competition, whose last rounds were played in England, which deserve mention because of what they say about contemporary British attitudes to football, and especially to footballing foreigners. To begin with the competition released in our country a communal exuberance which I think astonished ourselves more than our visitors. It gave us a chance to spruce up a lot, to lighten the leaden character of grounds where the matches were played, to throw off much of our inhibition of behaviour, particularly in the provinces, so that we became a gay, almost reckless people in our own streets, which is commonly only how we conduct ourselves when we put on our raffia hats in other countries' holiday resorts. Except in the celebrations that greeted the end of the Second World War, I have never seen England look as unashamedly delighted by life as it did during the World Cup.

This was, of course, the true England of the industrial provinces, of blood-black brick and scurrying wind and workers' faces clenched tight against the adversity of short-time working and the memory of last month's narrow miss on the pools; our best football is not played in the bland England, that Camelot of the advertisements in overseas' magazines. The World Cup was carnival. Here was the apotheosis of the game which lives like an extra pulse in the people of industrial England.

The English team was playing all its matches in London, so that all the games in Liverpool, Manchester, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Sheffield and Birmingham were of immediate interest only in deciding who might oppose us in the final, assuming that Ramsey's assurance that we would be in it, and win it, held good. The crowds at the matches were not always vast - less than 30,000 to see Portugal beat Bulgaria at Old Trafford, under 14,000 for the North Korea v Chile game at Middlesbrough - but in the main they were well up to the standards of the higher reaches of domestic football. There were 45,000 people to see West Germany play Spain at Villa Park in Birmingham, 32,000 to see Argentina play Switzerland at Sheffield, and at Goodison Park, Everton's ground, the crowds responded with relish to the prospect of Brazil v Bulgaria (47,000), Hungary v Brazil (51,000) and Portugal v Brazil (58,000).

The spectators were watching unfamiliar players, as well as a handful of the ones whom they knew well enough were among the world's finest. With few ready-made favourites to cheer at the matches they quickly appointed their heroes and their villains, and settled their fondness and their disgust upon them without stint. How handsomely the Liverpool crowd saluted the sinuous power and deadly instinct for destruction of Portugal's Eusebio, and how they embraced Hungary's [Florian] Albert with their delight at his dagger-like thrusts through the Brazilian defence.

And then there was the delirious affection which the Middlesbrough crowd developed for the tiny North Koreans, with their extraordinary three-part names - Li Chan Myung, Han Bong Zin, Lim Zoong Sun, Oh Yoon Kyung - who were billeted at the local airport. This team of tireless, brave gymnasts, who started in a state of obvious bewilderment at the stern orderliness and practised cunning of European and South American football, learned rapidly from one match to another. When they beat Italy 1-0 to win a place in the quarter-finals, the crowd fell upon them in hysterical acclaim. My lasting memory of that match is of a tall British sailor lugging two Koreans off the pitch, one under each arm, like prizes. The Koreans' team manager, Mr Kim Eung Su, when asked afterwards what he wanted to say about his players' quite remarkable performance, replied with touching sincerity, which gained in point by the delay in interpretation, that the Koreans "thank the peoples of Middlesbrough very much".

These World Cup matches had all the anger, the soaring tension, the love of triumph and the pathos of defeat that attend the football which British crowds follow week by week. Watching these crowds absorbed as if personally involved in these confrontations of foreign teams it seemed unbelievable that only a few years before the national leadership of our game had turned a cold shoulder to organised international competition. This public response confirmed conclusively that football belongs to the people, that it is the conflict and the setting which possess them in their ownership. In a matter of days a dark, slant-eyed footballer with a name like a nonsense rhyme can be adopted as a personal representative by a Middlesbrough labourer just because he is expressing hope and liberation through the one art the labourer fully comprehends. It often sounds unduly pompous and pious when men talk ceremonially about football's role as a bridge across national frontiers. But that is because the occasions of such statements are usually pompous, and so turn a decent truth into a banality. East and West were undoubtedly linked at Middlesbrough.

In the final at Wembley on 30 July 1966, England and West Germany met in circumstances of barely tolerable emotional tension. I have earlier described the closing minutes of this match. But I want to refer to something in its atmosphere which disconcerted me because of its inappropriateness to the game as a whole: the measure of chauvinism which was divorced entirely from what took place, in terms of football, on the field.

I watched this game not from the press box but from a seat in the stands, and I was struck well before the game began by the unusual nature of some of the crowd around me. They were not football followers. They kept asking each other about the identity of the English players. Wasn't one of the Manchester boys supposed to be pretty good? That very tall chap had a brother in the side, hadn't he? They were in their rugby club blazers, and with their Home Counties accents and obsolete prejudices, to see the successors of the Battle of Britain pilots whack the Hun again. Some of them wept a bit at the end, and they sang "Land of Hope and Glory" with a solemn fervour I have known elsewhere only at Conservative party rallies. I suspect that if they had found themselves sitting among a crowd of real, live football fans from Liverpool they might have been amazed by the degree of treacherous support available to Jerry. Some football fans prefer even German footballers to plump-living countrymen exercising the privilege of money to bag a place at an event thousands more would have given their right arms to see - and understand. I much prefer "Abide With Me" at Wembley. Its connection with chapel and pub identifies it with the England which nurtures its football.

This is not a complaint against national commitment in sport: that, on the part of Ramsey and his team, greatly helped to win us the championship. But I did resent something discordant in the tone of that climactic afternoon. I wish the terraces of Anfield, Old Trafford, Roker Park and Molineux had been so heavily represented at Wembley as to overwhelm those decently educated voices of ignorance.

I gulped and shouted like everyone else, and congratulated myself on being English with all the acclamation at my command. But it has always nagged at my fond recollection of that day that a lot of my companions might as well have been at Wimbledon.

But at least the art had been properly scrutinised up at Liverpool and Middlesbrough. And had I not heard a tiny English boy ask the trainer of Brazil's team in their Cheshire hotel whether Pele was coming home for his tea? People of that child's generation will never go to Wembley with yesterday's old war wounds in their hearts.

This article is an extract from 'The Football Man' by Arthur Hopcraft, who died in 2004. The book, first issued in 1968, is published by Aurum Press in paperback, priced £7.99