Nearly all over before it began in '66

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England came close to missing out on staging the 1966 World Cup because of the Football Association's controversial support for their counterparts in politically unpopular South Africa. At the crucial meeting, several countries turned against them, and England were awarded the tournament by only seven votes from West Germany - whom they would eventually defeat by a similarly narrow margin at Wembley six years later on the most famous day in English football history. It almost never happened.

England came close to missing out on staging the 1966 World Cup because of the Football Association's controversial support for their counterparts in politically unpopular South Africa. At the crucial meeting, several countries turned against them, and England were awarded the tournament by only seven votes from West Germany - whom they would eventually defeat by a similarly narrow margin at Wembley six years later on the most famous day in English football history. It almost never happened.

Details of the bidding process 40 years ago remain obscure. As Marius Schneider, a Fifa official, says: "The award of the World Cup at that time was still a low-profile event, with the final decision taken by the Fifa Congress, unlike today."

England decided to apply in December 1958, knowing that because the 1962 tournament was going to Chile, it would be Europe's turn again next. Fifa's executive committee visited in spring 1959, by which time Spain, who later withdrew, and the Germans had declared themselves as the other contenders. Minutes of the 1960 Congress in Rome report that representatives of the two remaining football associations made a speech - Denis Follows, the FA secretary, putting England's case - after which the vote was 34-27.

This momentous event has received little coverage: the FA's official history of the 1966 World Cup does not even mention it. But a trawl through the Lancaster Gate archives has revealed a minute on the Fifa Congress in which one of the FA's delegates, Joe Richards, reported that he and Mr Follows "thought the voting for the World Championship of 34 votes for England and 27 for Western Germany was closer than expected because 1) England had defended the FA of Southern Africa against attacks by some delegates on grounds of racial discrimination and 2) England's poor record in recent international championships. Mr Richards said strenuous efforts would be necessary to justify the honour".

By the time the tournament was staged, South Africa had long since resigned from the Commonwealth, and been suspended from Fifa, and Nelson Mandela was in jail.

Germany and Spain duly staged the next two World Cups held in Europe, in 1974 and 1982. Now it may be that South Africa's turn has come, their reinstatement by Fifa and Mandela's release having provided the impetus for their 2006 bid.

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