It was, memory filtered through the roseate lens of patriotism tells us, our finest hour since, well, the finest hour of which Winston Churchill spoke. I refer to the afternoon of Saturday 30 July 1966, when I was a second-year student at Oxford and a dedicated supporter of an Arsenal team which, then as now, flattered to deceive – and when England won the World Cup by defeating West Germany.
Next week we may receive the joyous tidings that after an absence of 52 years, football will be coming home again in 2018. For the next five days, however, we must make do with those heroics of a vanished age, when sterling was in permanent crisis but Britain's military sun had not (quite) set east of Suez, and football was not treated as the most important pastime on the face of the earth.
If you doubt me, consider this. On 2 December, our Prime Minister and the handsome young prince who is second in line to the throne will be in Zurich for England's final presentation, merely for the right of hosting the World Cup. Back in 1966, when we actually won the tournament, the news on the front pages was less of Geoff Hurst's hat-trick than of the birth of Marina Ogilvy, the Queen's first cousin once removed and, no offence intended, a distinctly minor royal.
Nonetheless, like Maurice Chevalier, I Remember It Well – above all, the final itself, with England's disputed third goal, now elevated into one of the enduring riddles of the 20th century, and Geoff Hurst's argument-dispelling fourth. "They think it's all over, it is now," declared Kenneth Wolstenhome, in the eight words that turned him into the Shakespeare of sport.
Like everyone else, I loved the swooping grace of Bobby Charlton and the gap-toothed belligerence of Nobby Stiles. I was enthralled by the exoticism of Eusebio, Portuguese by nationality but born in Mozambique, the first great African superstar.
In 1966, in fact, African countries boycotted the World Cup, because the winner of the African qualifying group was subjected to the indignity of a further play-off against the winner of Asia/Oceania for the right to compete in the finals proper, which featured only 16 teams. Now there are 32 finalists, of which Africa by right provides six. Roger Milla, Samuel Eto'o, George Weah, Didier Drogba – all have walked a path blazed by the immortal Eusebio. Then there were the North Koreans, even more mysterious then than now, who consigned Italy's ragazzi d'oro to a pelting with tomatoes at Rome airport after one of the greatest football upsets in history. Gianni Rivera and Sandro Mazzola at the time were two of the biggest names in world football. But they were humbled by an unknown Oriental gentleman named Pak Doo-Ik, scorer of the only goal of the game.
Middlesbrough, the normally phlegmatic city where the North Koreans were billeted, was captivated by these subjects of the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung, against whose armies British soldiers had been fighting only 13 years before. Some 3,000 Teessiders travelled to Goodison Park in Liverpool to support their new favourite sons in their quarter-final game against Portugal.
It proved the match of the tournament. I remember my disbelief watching Pak and his men take a 3-0 lead inside 25 minutes – before the Portuguese hit back with five unanswered goals of their own, including four from Eusebio. Amid the idolatry of our boys of 66, we forget the "Black Pearl" was the most brilliant star of that World Cup, scoring nine goals in six games.
But my most vivid memory of all is not English, Portuguese or North Korean, but Hungarian. Go to YouTube and enter "Hungary Brazil 1966". I believed it then, and seeing it again the other day, my opinion has not wavered. The volley by Janos Farkas that sealed Hungary's 3-1 victory over the reigning champions is one of the greatest ever goals. I was spellbound as I watched it live 44 years ago on black and white TV (again to the accompanying strains of Kenneth Wolstenhome), and it makes me shiver now.
None of this, however, alters the reality that England's triumph then was nowhere near as big a deal as it would be now. TV coverage was primitive by today's standards. Sport, as I recall, occupied only two or three pages of a paper, and exclusively at the back. And even the whipped-up rivalry with Germany was nothing like today's.
Maybe memories were still too fresh of an age when the great nations of Europe engaged in real wars, not over-hyped sporting set-tos for the gratification of the masses, in a modern Circus Maximus like Wembley. Maybe it was because Germany's division was still a vivid symbol of the country's annihilation in 1945.
Above all, the great football catastrophes – quarter-final defeat in 1970, elimination at West German hands in 1982, the semi-final loss of 1990 and this summer's 4-1 crushing in South Africa – still lay ahead. So now we take refuge in The War. "There were 10 German bombers in the sky, and the RAF from England shot one down," sang our fans before the game in Bloemfontein, to the tune of "Ten Green Bottles", evoking that real finest hour of 1940. All good-natured stuff, but I can't remember anything similar before the 1966 final. Instead we made do with "World Cup Willie", the tournament anthem sung by Lonnie Donegan.
In truth, other things were more important at the time. The 1966 World Cup coincided with a major sterling crisis, in which the enemies of the moment were not West German bombers or even footballers, but foreign bankers, especially of the Swiss variety, whom Harold Wilson dubbed the "Gnomes of Zurich".
That July, the Prime Minister flew to Washington for talks to rescue the pound. The imposition of ferocious exchange controls, including a £50 maximum that travellers could take with them abroad in those pre-credit card days, helped to prevent the embarrassment of a devaluation amid the footballing festivities.
Richard Crossman's diaries record the then Minister of Housing musing that the defeat of Germany might be a "decisive" factor in rescuing the pound. "It was a tremendous, gallant fight that England won," wrote Crossman in his entry for 31 July 1966. "Our men showed real guts and the bankers, I suspect, will be influenced by this and the position of the Government correspondingly strengthened."
And perhaps it did help, since 15 months passed before the inevitable devaluation took place in November 1967. But then as now, there was ultimately no escaping the verdict of the markets. And who knows, new humiliation may be heaped upon a British prime minister next week in Zurich – this time by the gnomes of Fifa.Reuse content