In London, as August was beginning, I ran into a friend from New York who had come to England for a kind of cultural dip into theatres, galleries, and the pure tingle of London, which has been much celebrated of late in all manner of periodicals. As we were talking, he confessed to a deep puzzlement. “I’ve felt very out of it all this time,” he said. “Everyone has been crouched over a television set, or else hurrying home to crouch over television set. It’s this World Cup, about which I know nothing at all; but I must say I’ve never felt so out of the swim, anywhere, ever.” How right he was, poor fellow. Out of the swim was precisely what he was, for between July 11th and 30th, not only the British Isles but a considerable part of the world was held in thrall by the World Cup, the culmination of a global football competition which takes place every four years, and for which, on this occasion—the eighth since its inception—England was the host country. The extent to which the attention of the world was concentrated on this tumultuous series of football matches is pretty staggering on reflection At the conclusion of the series, the Daily Mail claimed that one person in five of the world’s population had watched at least a part of the competition, transmitted by satellite; and the statistical systems of British radio and television showed that practically thirty-one million inhabitants of the British Isles—a bit over half the population—gave themselves over to following the Cup, which required a fair hunk of their attention, since games were taking place at least every other day, sometimes four at once, while on off days the British Broadcasting Corporation produced panels of wordy experts, replays of games already over, and a spate of analyses and predictions of every sort. Legions of housewives were apparently converted to the game, leaving three weeks’ worth of dust to gather, and the World Clip proved to be not only the “greatest sporting event ever staged in Britain,” as the shrewder papers had always claimed it would be, and a conspicuous financial success for the Football Association (and, one must assume, for hostelries and merchants of every description ) but also, in the end, a kind of national fairy tale that will take some forgetting, for, as things turned out, it had about it that incredible sporting perfection that always might, but seldom does, happen—a perfection incarnate in events like Bobby Thomson’s famous home run in 1951, yet a perfection much more gradual and intricately devised, a perfection that a goodly part of those who saw it felt they would nod over happily in their old age, smiling a secret, faraway smile.
All this took some explaining to my friend—as, indeed, it would to almost the entire population of the United States—for the football being played in the World Cup had nothing to do with the space-helmeted, Martian contests of the National Football League, or even with the oval ball, or the single wing. The football that was preoccupying a fifth of the world’s population during those dramatic three weeks is the game referred to in the United States as “soccer”—played with a round ball, and eleven men to a side-and is without question the most popular spectator sport in the world, evoking near insanity throughout Latin America, deep passion in Continental Europe and the Soviet Union, barefoot dedication in Africa, and intricate knowingness in the United Kingdom, which is generally recognized as the womb of the game. In Britain, the game is referred to officially as Association Football. (The word “soccer” is actually a laconic version of “association,” stemming from university slang, which made “rugby” into “rugger” and “breakfast” into “brekker.” ) To the avid British public, though, “football” it remains, just as it is futbol exuberantly throughout Latin America (by far the most dedicated continent of supporters and players), and, in France, quite simply, le foot. While the World Cup was getting under way, I met an old school friend, now an agile sporting journalist, in the World Cup Press Headquarters at the Royal Garden Hotel, a virtual Babel of languages and enthusiasms. “Do you know,” he said, with a kind of awe in his voice, “that this is the first sporting occasion, with the single exception of cricket matches, that I have covered in years without once having to mention the United States? It’s unusual, when you think that this event is both the most universal and the most thrilling I’ve ever written about—it makes the Olympic Games look trivial by comparison. Why on earth haven’t the Americans taken to football? If they once did, they’d go mad about it. But then, football isn’t something you can master overnight. Look at us. We’ve been at the game for over a hundred years, and we’ve been outdone since the war by people like the Hungarians, the Spaniards, the Russians, and the South Americans. We’re just struggling back. Can’t somebody tell the Americans that if they were to take soccer seriously and build a national team that could make even a decent showing in something like the World Cup, their world prestige would soar? It seems so simple, and yet . . . ” And yet. The World Cup competition in London involved a playoff among the top sixteen teams in the world, who had struggled through a series of regional qualifying matches, playing as a rule some seven or eight games in order to qualify, over the past eighteen months. The United States did enter the qualifying rounds, in a small group composed of itself, Honduras, and Mexico. When, in the early stages of the Cup in London, England was playing Mexico, I heard a B.B.C. announcer say, in tones of genuine disgust, after the first sluggish half hour of the game had passed, “England ought certainly to have taken the lead by now over a Mexican team that has reached this exalted final stage of the competition by beating such inconsequential teams as Honduras and the United States of America.” The state of football, one felt in a bewildered moment, scarcely reflected the state of the world, particularly since one of the surprise qualifiers for the last sixteen was North Korea, a team of gentle, three-named Army officers who proceeded not only to astonish millions of goggling spectators but also, by their gentleness and small stature, to become the favorites of British housewives. (During the 1950 World Cup, in Brazil, the United States did somehow beat England by one goal to nil—a result that is still regarded as the most shameful in England’s long soccer history.)
There has been much talk of a soccer superleague due to start up in the United States in 1968, on a scale that would bring it immediately to the level of major-league baseball and football, but most of the sportswriters I have spoken to have been skeptical. “This is strictly a game that has to evolve,” one of them said to me. “You could, for instance, buy a team of superb players from all over the world, but all they would do would be to wither away. True footballers need constant opposition, but, more important than that, they need the kind of dedicated following from the public that they have in Brazil and in Italy and in Britain. They need to feel important, they need to be driven to surpass themselves. Football cannot be set in motion artificially. And yet, I feel that if the Americans were once to taste good football—for, you must admit, it’s not a complicated game to catch on to—they’d go wild about it. Give them ten years, I say. After all, something about this World Cup is bound to filter across to them . . . ”
Passion and excitement in sporting competition are hard to sustain on the best of occasions, yet the World Cup proved to be three weeks of mounting tension, with a conclusion that left the shrewdest and most seasoned football watchers limp and quenched. Before going into the cataclysmic stages of the competition, I feel that a word or two of clarification might be in order. Not only is the game eleven-a-side, the ball round, the pitch a grassy oblong, the goalposts rectangular and backed by a net, the object to score goals (literally, to lodge the ball in the opposing net)—these are the mere rubrics of the game, tantamount to saving that the game of baseball is nine-a-side and requires a bat and a ball. The origins of football are misty. A fourteenth-century carving in Gloucester Cathedral shows two armored men hovering over a round ball, in attitudes of war, and in Scotland, as an enthusiastic beginning footballer, I learned delightedly that the game began during the perpetual border skirmishes between the Scots and the English, when some Scottish soldiers began idly kicking about the decapitated head of an English captive, in an off-duty moment. There are still traces of the old, inter-village ball game in the British Isles, where the able-bodied of two villages would propel some ball-shaped projectile up and down the length of a street, using every physical means at their command. The question of origins, however, is best left to anthropologists, who would no doubt develop a well-argued and justifiable theory about them. Sufficient to say that the game of football existed substantially enough by the middle of the nineteenth century for a Football Association to be formed, in 1863, consisting of twelve clubs, all but one of which are still in existence. The game was gradually codified, and was carried not just to the outposts of Empire, as cricket was, but all across the world—perhaps spreading so ubiquitously because of its simplicity, since it required nothing more than players, a ball, and something to mark the goalposts. Given a modicum of space and time, games of football are likely to spring up anywhere, and footballs to be invented out of tightly bound rigs or newspapers. As children in Scotland, we would even set in motion imaginary games, bobbing, weaving, and scoring goals in the manner of our current heroes. The raw elements of football—namely, control of the ball and an accurate kick—can, of course, be practiced and mastered by anyone alone, and today, in any Latin-American city, there is always some small boy to be found rapt in his personal struggle with a football of sorts, making instinctual those incredible skills with feet, body, and head that will prepare him to play first for his street, then for his village, and, in turn, his locality, his district, a league club, and, eventually—dream of dreams—his country. Some of these onetime back-yard wizards, having realized such dreams, were busy dazzling English crowds in July, and one felt, too, that a few great ghosts out of the football past must have been hovering in sheer astonishment over London, Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesborough, Sheffield, Birmingham, and Sunderland, the centers where the sixteen qualifying teams were pounding away to find out which of them might carry the name of champion of the football world for the next four years.
Football, when we learned to play it as boys, seemed brutally simple—an affair of kick and run, with strength, endurance, and a touch of skill carrying the day. The official game then was not very much more complicated, and the teams at the top were those lucky enough to have gathered a handful of stars—individual players with an eye for an opening, a shot like a bullet, a burst of appropriate speed, a deceptive way, with the ball. As soon as the Latin countries came into the game at the international level, however, the game itself began to change radically, and tactics and teamwork, blending together the peculiar skills of individual players, became the rule. Blackboards and discussion replaced the simple will to win, and theory began to dictate practice. This change became most conspicuous after the first World Cup competition was played, in Uruguay, in 1930. Prior to that, football had formed part of the Olympic Games, as it still does, but on an amateur basis only, whereas throughout the world, as the game came to be taken more seriously, the players began to play it professionally, making winning a matter of livelihood for them. The World Championship was dreamed up by Jules Rimet, then president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the Zurich-based governing body of international football. (Rimet gave his name to the small gold cup awarded to the winning country.) Not all the footballing countries of the world accepted the legislation of the F.I.F.A. at first—it was not until 1950, for instance, that England competed for the World Cup—but gradually the trophy came to be recognized as the Grail of football, and, apart from regular international competition, countries now devise intricate four-year plans, which, they hope, will lead them, goal by goal, gasp by gasp, to the Cup and the aura of superiority that surrounds it. From 1950 until the present, the competition has been whirling in a kind of crescendo, especially since Brazil won the Jules Rimet Trophy in Sweden in 1958 arid again in Chile in 1962, and had only to win it this July in England to retain it in perpetuity—a feat that the bookies, at least, considered slightly more than probable, and that close followers of football would not have minded a bit, for the Brazilians have done a great deal to lift the game from a slogging state to the kind of spectacle which can be simultaneously lyrical, precise, and exciting. I once attended an ordinary league game in the enormous circular Maracanã Stadium in Rio, and I have never in my life seen a crowd that transmitted such appreciative emotion—a powerful thing to feel, for the stadium holds close to two hundred thousand people. Seventy-two countries were involved in the qualifying stages of this year’s competition. Brazil as the holders and England as the host country passed automatically into the last sixteen, which were divided into four groups of four, each four playing one another. The top pair in each group then played in a qualifying round, leaving four semifinalists, and, eventually, two finalists. (There is, in addition, a sub-final between the losing semifinalists to determine third and fourth places.) All this added up to thirty-two distinct games of football in a span of twenty days, with television making multiple watching and replaying endlessly possible. In prospect, one indeed did have to have a passion for the game to go through with the whole business; in fact, apart from the occasional lapse, the occasional dullness, the occasional fit of temper, the whole thing unwound in a quite legendary way. It was, of course, a statistician’s delight, and I almost always found a statistician within earshot at the stadiums themselves, or else was given more statistics than I really wanted by earnest television announcers. Statistics, however, hardly generate emotion, but good football does; and I can easily imagine myself boring anybody’s grandchildren with the facts, figures, and mythology of the World Cup of 1966 for an interminably long time to come—at least until 1970, when another sixteen qualifiers will assemble in Mexico. For them, too, 1966 will he something to surpass.
This year’s World Cup competition did suffer one rather embarrassing setback, in March, although it turned out to have comic rather than tragic consequences. The small gold trophy had been brought from Brazil, and was put on display in the Central Hall, Westminster, under a heavy security guard, as part of a sporting and philatelic exhibition. On the morning of Sunday, March 20th, while a Methodist service was taking place on the ground floor of the building, the trophy disappeared, and the police could manage no more explanation than a sheepish head-scratching. “Nothing at all went wrong with our security,” one red-faced official was quoted as saying. “The Cup just got stolen.” Rewards were hastily offered, the Football Association made plans to replace the trophy, and then the lid of the Cup was mailed to the secretary of the F.A., along with a ransom demand. The embarrassment was international, but Britain itself had a general election in the works at the time, and managed to conceal its national blush. The affair, luckily, had the most English of endings. One week later, a Mr. David Corbett was taking a Sunday-evening stroll with his mongrel dog, Pickles, in a South London suburb, when Pickles began to sniff under a bush, and Corbett uncovered a newspaper-wrapped bundle that proved to contain the Jules Rimet Trophy. One of the plotters, a Mr. Edward Bletchley, was eventually run to earth by a Detective-Inspector Buggy, and, after a bit of a squabble, Pickles collected a substantial share of the reward, was presented with a year’s supply of dog food, got himself a film contract at double the normal dog rates, and became a national canine hero. Just as I arrived in England, Bletchley was given a two-year prison sentence, but he was generous enough to say, prior to his hearing, “Whatever my sentence is, I hope that England wins the World Cup.” Even the sternest of citizens must have hoped that he could have at least a radio in his cell.
As spring becomes summer in England, and the sun begins to appear with spasmodic regularity, the whole country, and London in particular, begins to look like the setting for a giant sporting spectacular. Football generally comes to an end with the English Cup Final in May, and as the players who have been slogging their way through frozen pitches and a bitter winter hang up their boots, their place is taken by white-flannelled cricketers, who play lazily all summer long, and by a succession of such bucolic events as the Wimbledon tennis championships, the Henley Regatta, and a series of lavish race meetings, until there is hardly one stretch of green turf that is not being crisscrossed by somebody playing something. In consequence, the World Cup this summer was a giant bonus. The oarsmen and the tennis players hurried off the stage, and the West Indian cricketers, who were touring England, had to wait in the wings, along with Cassius Clay, while foreigners from all over the globe poured into the country. An acquaintance of mine was arriving from Colombia, and a weary immigration official, stamping her passport, murmured politely, “I suppose you’ve come for the football.” No, she replied, she was merely visiting a friend. He looked at her in astonishment. “Good heavens!” he said. “You’re the first in at least six days.” Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese resounded along sidewalks and in hotel lobbies. Television sets were posted judiciously at every turn. The B.B.C. appointed a team to work on phonetic recommendations, so that announcers and commentators might practice getting their tongues round the elusive names of Brazilian, Bulgarian, and Russian players (“The Brazilian Olegario Toloy de Oliveira is familiarly known as Dudu, or Doodoo”), and the television networks were cleared out to leave vast daily spaces for the voluminous proceedings. In the Royal Garden Hotel, stars of other epochs greeted one another cheerfully across language and age. The teams arrived with welters of managers, officials, and interpreters, and were hurried to their various outlying headquarters. The newspapers were full of football lore, including one alarming item announcing that Brazilian police had discovered that five of Brazil’s most notorious pickpockets were already in Britain, armed with fistfuls of tickets for the games.. At the World Cup Information Centre, in Piccadilly, I picked up, among stacks of pamphlets, a leaflet of World Cup Recipes. A special issue of footballing stamps began to brighten the mails, and in the House of Commons the Conservative Member for St. Albans rose to ask why the Queen’s profile should appear as an “insignificant silhouette on a World Cup Stamp, scarcely larger than the football in the diametrically opposite corner.” The bookies were laying vociferous pre-competition odds, in which Brazil was clearly the favorite at 6 to 4, with Russia, West Germany, England, Italy, and Argentina following, in various orders. World Cup Willie, the caricatured figure used to publicize the event, turned up everywhere—on car fenders, T-shirts, shop fronts, even in chocolate. The competition proper began on Monday, the eleventh, and on the Sunday before, the papers and television were thick with prediction. Odd names became quickly familiar, even to unfamiliar ears. Would Pelé, the Brazilian “king” of soccer, and probably the most dazzling individual player in the world, be enough to take Brazil to the final? Would Brazil’s 4-2-4 formation hold against the more advanced 4-3-3 of the Portuguese? And, above all, how would England fare? That was the question of questions, and everybody had his own answer.
In the previous World Cup, in Chile, England had made a dismal showing, and English football, officially a hundred and three years old and once dominant, had been in eclipse for a long and uncertain spell. In 1963, the Football Association had appointed a successfully unorthodox manager, Mr. Alf Ramsey, of Ipswich, to manage and coach the English team. A taciturn, withdrawn man, with a quiet confidence that drove many sportswriters into a frenzy of criticism, Alf Ramsey had said, quite simply, upon his appointment, that England would win the World Cup in 1966, and, indeed, he had said little else in the intervening time. He experimented boldly—and, to some, drastically—with new players and systems, never seeming to adopt any one of the formations that other outstanding countries, like Brazil, Italy, and Portugal, used with conspicuous success, and availing himself of, but not relying on, great individual players, but above all pursuing the ideal of a team whose members got to know one another’s game, with a reserve bank of players that he chose to mold rather than change. (Each country brings a squad of twenty-two players to the competition, chosen by national selectors on their reputations and their current club form.) Ramsey appeared now and again on television, but he refused to be drawn out, shrugging off criticism, smiling diffidently, and continuing to murmur confidently that England would “do it.” “He’d better he right,” the sportswriters growled, with more hope than faith. They conceded that Ramsey had brought the English squad to a notable height of physical fitness, and they hopefully invoked the legend of “home advantage.” (Uruguay, the home country, had won the World Cup on its own soil in 1930, as had Italy in 1934, and on every occasion the host country had played auspiciously well.) Ramsey himself commanded a positive dedication on the part of the English players, and I heard Bobby Moore, the English captain—an agile, fair-haired mid-field player—remark in a television interview that since Mr. Ramsey didn’t much like speaking, the English team would try to say what he meant. It was a well-taken point.
The World Cup began, the evening of July 11th, at Wembley Stadium, the vast ground in North London reserved for international matches, Cup finals, and games of like importance. England had drawn a group that consisted of itself, France, Mexico, and Uruguay, and it was against Uruguay that it opened the proceedings. I fought my way to Wembley, wielding a press card as pompous as a passport, and was seated well before the ceremonies began to unroll. Brightly polished bands were interweaving on the field like intricate pieces of mechanism, and the music, half Latin, half Olde English, floated up occasionally through the multilingual buzz. Soon after seven, out of the players’ tunnel came legion on legion of schoolboys, each group dressed in the footballing colors of one of the sixteen participating teams. (Except for England and Uruguay, the teams themselves were spread out across the country, poised to play the following day.) The boys marched past, and eventually took up positions on the floodlit, billiard-table turf, bearing their banners of identification. Abruptly, the bands all rumbled into the national anthem, the crowd stood up, and there, on a dais, appeared Sir Stanley Rous, Head of F.I.F.A., accompanied by the Queen herself, and the Duke of Edinburgh. Sir Stanley introduced the Queen, and she, in a couple of succinct sentences, declared the World Championship open, as if she knew that football, not homage, was the business of the evening. She shook hands graciously with both teams while we goggled in expectancy, suddenly aware that all the talk and anticipation were about to be translated into actual football—men-kicking-a-ball-about-on-a-field. Only the Uruguayan national anthem, an ungainly tune if I ever heard one, hung between us and the pheep of the whistle. The World Cup competition, destiny, the game itself were all set in motion at once.
During the course of the World Cop, I read so much and such varied sporting commentary, in armfuls of English newspapers and a sprinkling of Continental ones, that I became hypersensitive to every aspect of sportswriting, which, I discovered, had changed greatly since the days when the leather, or pigskin, used to be booted, nodded, or slammed between, above, or through the woodwork or the uprights. Now the wise men of sport have become half poets, half anthropologists, neither one too thoroughly. In mock seriousness, and sometimes even grimly, sporting sociologists began to erect vast edifices of analysis invoking the loss of the Empire and the future of the pound; and they were wont to treat Alf Ramsey as some kind of unofficial arbiter of national policy, in whose fateful dictates of attack and defense lay the well-being of the country. Metaphorically, the World Cup became a sort of benevolent warfare, a proving ground of national temperament and character, and the more renowned English players, like Bobby Moore, Jimmy Greaves, and Bobby Charlton, leapt into quasi-military prominence, “marshalling” or “generalling” the lower ranks of the England team. This would have been nothing more than linguistic exuberance, of passing amusement, had it not been for the fact that, almost within earshot of Wembley, the British government had a genuine crisis on its hands—a serious and continuing lapse in its export-import balance and a falling off of confidence in the pound sterling to the point where emergency meetings of the Cabinet were being called by Mr. Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, and serious austerity, measures seemed imminent. The anthropological analogy was almost inevitable, for, breaking open the morning papers and reading banner headlines like “england in trouble,” our hearts would sink for a while until, after a closer glance, we found that they applied merely to the state of the economy and Mr. Wilson, and not, as we first feared, to the football team and Mr. Ramsey. Even joining the European Common Market seemed, for the moment, the mildest of objectives, compared to conquering the football world.
The first game did a great deal to change the anticipatory tune of the public, for it proved to be an exercise in football science that could only be admired—grudgingly, at best—as a spectacle, and did little to inspire either confidence or assurance in the most dedicated English supporter. In the modern game of football, the basic elements are a strong defense, to prevent the other team from scoring goals, or even having the opportunity to score, and a sharp, sudden attack that is ready to seize any opportunity to penetrate the opposing defense. Uruguay chose to prove that an impenetrable defense can nullify an attacking guile, and the Wembley crowd and the expectant television watchers saw their energetic and inventive champions run into a wall of skillful anticipation, and saw all the possibilities for excitement and emotion muffled by sheer defensive foresight. The game ended in a goalless draw, 0 to 0, and even the most technically knowing among the spectators admitted to a long yawn of despair, as though they were watching once more the victory of technology over imagination, mechanism triumphing over emotional energy. The did not have long to brood, however, for the very next evening the competition broke out in all its fullness in Liverpool, Sheffield, and Middlesborough, and distracted the attention of even the English from the stalemate of the contest with Uruguay. Brazil was playing Bulgaria in Liverpool, West Germany faced Switzerland in Sheffield, and the Russians and the North Koreans—both mystery teams, in that few people outside their countries had seen them play—revealed themselves against one another in Middlesborough. Television chose to show us the Brazilians, but also, when the games were over, to give us at least a feel of the others matches, and they were all teeming enough to lift the inert weight of disappointment that had descended after the first game. Brazil disappointed nobody, not even the bookies. The Bulgarians had obviously decided not to lose, rather than to win, so we saw the Brazilians mostly with the ball, and were suddenly reminded of how beautiful the game could be, as Pelé and Garrincha would dart through a space in the Bulgarian wall, the ball appearing to accompany them as a part of their bodies. They looked to have all the time in the world, and would saunter leisurely with the ball in the middle of the field before sending a pass like an arrow to one of their flying teammates; excitement was at their command. Losing seemed something they had never even considered. Early in the game, Pelé took a free kick quite far from the goal, and the Bulgarians formed up in a wall to block his shot. Uncannily, however, the ball came off his foot in what the press called a “banana kick,” curved round the knotted defenders, and bulged the back of the net. Garrincha scored a similar goal in the second half, and we marked up our first statistics and wondered what the innocent zeal and energy of the English might do were they ever to come up against the laconic grace and confidence of the Brazilians.
The North Koreans proved to be the Teddy bears of the tournament—eleven little men in white with improbable names like Lim Zoong Sun and Pak Doo Ik, natural underdogs who ran themselves to exhaustion against a powerful and imperturbable Russian team, which won without difficulty, three goals to none. The crowd, however, had decided that the Russians needed no support, and put themselves noisily behind the Koreans. “Up the Wongs! Up the Diddies!” we heard them cry in the electronic distance, and the little men, when they got their breath, smiled inscrutably back and tore on to defeat. (It was always interesting how the English crowd, particularly the Liverpool crowd, renowned as one of the most graphically vociferous in the country, quickly put itself solidly behind one of two foreign teams, usually the unlikeliest, in an effort to balance the game. The one thing the Liverpool spectators could count on was pure football, the delight following from skill and grace, for the northwest group included Brazil, Hungary, and Portugal—the three foreign teams that have lent the game its greatest lustre and excitement in the last few years.) The other game, between Switzerland and West Germany, was less of a contest, more of an exhibition, a tactical lecture. The Swiss have always been out of their depth in European football, and had qualified for the finals only at the expense of Albania, Northern Ireland, and the Netherlands. Their game was earnest but orthodox, and the West Germans, whom some of the knowledgeable had favored as winners from the beginning, not only scored five goals against them without reply but played in a style as efficient as clockwork, with the addition of dazzling individual subtleties that quickly taught us a clutch of names to respect: Uwe Seeler, captain and center forward, a national hero in his way; Franz Beckenbauer, an electric defender, who materialized at both ends of the field at once; and Helmut Haller, young, blond, and dedicated, who seemed to have nothing but goals on his mind. From the beginning, the Germans were bent on attack, and, recalling the slow stalemate of England’s tactical tie with Uruguay, we realized that open, attacking play was still a matter of forceful possibility, and drew a heavy line under West Germany’s name on our scorecards. The bookies bore us out, for next morning West Germany joined Brazil as favorites, and became the choice of the knowing and unsentimental.
In the days that followed, we were, we realized, in up to our ears, and the newspaper pundits had their work cut out to keep abreast of the proceedings. There was little time left for poetry. Alf Ramsey appeared occasionally and laconically on television, murmuring his syntactical formalities and still reassuring us quietly, as conviction rather than prediction, that England would win the World Cup—a possibility that the course of the competition at least sustained when England beat Mexico at Wembley by two goals to nothing in an unremarkable game, and, left with no more opposition than France, which had succumbed to the Uruguayans, and drawn with Mexico, was practically certain of reaching the last eight.
The excitement, however, lay elsewhere. In the northwest, in a game distinguished not just by the astonishment of its result but more by the dazzling football it produced, Brazil, with Pelé out, injured (till misfortune of the great stars in the competition was to be watched over ceaselessly, and even brutally, by an opponent specially appointed to the task), lost to Hungary by one goal to three, sending spectators into a delirium of appreciation and bookies back to a hurried, worried reappraisal. Since Hungary had previously lost to a brilliant Portugal, it became tremblingly possible that Brazil might not even qualify for the last eight, and this is exactly what happened, for Portugal beat Brazil with a mixture of luck, inspiration, and ruthlessness, and made itself into bookie fodder overnight. The ugly element in Portugal’s victory was the virtual destruction of Pelé, who, recovered from his previous hurts, was bluntly kicked down quite early on, and who hobbled back from the dressing room more a ghostly presence than a player. His aura passed to the Portuguese forward, Eusebio, the so-called Black Panther, a native of Mozambique, who scored goals as though born to the craft, and whose childlike enthusiasm for the game propelled him into the forefront of everybody’s appreciation. As they bowed bitterly out of the competition, the Brazilians wept; and back home the nation went into mourning, filing away in silence from the public television sets and draping its windows with black crepe as its heroes packed and prepared to leave, presumably cancelling the hotel reservations they had made without the suspicion of a doubt that they would do other than take them up in triumph. So it was Hungary and Portugal for the quarter-finals, and England and Uruguay from the London group, but the two other groups had their share of surprise. Russia continued its relentless progress, and seemed to win by power rather than subtlety, but the other favored team in that group, Italy, one of the dominant European footballing countries, got itself booted out of the running after losing to the little North Koreans, who established themselves firmly as the mascots of the world footballing scene, and who defied prognostication by qualifying along with Russia, at the expense of Chile and Italy. (“ik kicks out italians,” one of the headlines read.) In the last group, the West Germans continued to unwind with metallic brilliance, and, apart from drawing with the dark horse of the tournament, Argentina, which followed them into the last eight, continued to substantiate the confidence of the bookies and preach the attitude of unrelenting attack, a mixture of science and bravado that seemed to be the most successful formula in sight. My own particular favorite—Spain—faded out wistfully. It suffered, like Italy, from the difficulty of forming a representative national team that would equal the brilliance of its individual club teams. I once lived cheek by jowl with the stadium of Real Madrid, the leading Spanish club, and it was directly responsible for my addiction to the game, but I soon learned that once the clubs have to weld their outstanding players into a national combination, something of the habitual weekly brilliance of individual players sputters out, and the whole proves less than the sum of its parts. By July 20th, we had the quarter-finals spelt out for us—West Germany against Uruguay, Portugal against North Korea, Russia against Hungary, and England against Argentina. In the breathing space before the games, the business of prognostication thickened. Some of us confessed to weariness, others to boredom, all of us to relief, for the World Cup was narrowing down, and from now on we would be holding fewer and fewer possibilities in our hands, and moving toward the cumulative emotional satisfaction of a final, a single name—a champion.
Between the process of qualification and the ultimate stages of the World Cup, we were able to take stock of the mythology of the competition, and to assess and reassess the prospect before us. We were also able to absorb some of the lore that had begun improbably to gather in the oblique personal columns of the newspapers. Nothing more was heard of the Brazilian pickpockets, but I did read one affecting story about two autograph-happy children who hung about patiently outside the dressing rooms after Uruguay had been dubiously beaten in one game, and, to their delight, managed to collect not simply two scrawled signatures from a pair of emerging Uruguayans but, instead, whole inscriptions in Spanish. When the children succeeded in getting them translated a day or two later, they proved to be unprintable imprecations against the character of the referee. In Italy, bitter questions were asked in Parliament about Italy’s “humiliation,” and the general disappointment and bitterness of the Italians caused eight deputies to ask for “a more dignified and moral reorganization in the most popular sport in Italy,” noting that the results had “placed the Italian sporting world in a condition of extreme embarrassment abroad.” Brazil, we gathered, was silent, stunned, still in a state of national mourning.
The quarter-finals were on us, and, in a competition that had to date been remarkably tranquil, scandal suddenly flared up. The international referees appointed to arbitrate the games by F.I.F.A. had so far kept control of the proceedings, and had given little cause for complaint beyond the usual and expected grumblings of the losers. None of the games had got out of hand, as, for instance, one between Italy and Chile did in the 1962 World Cup, which degenerated into a pitched battle. (Control is the responsibility of the referee. If any player is repeatedly guilty of fouling his opponents or otherwise violating the rules, it is within the referee’ jurisdiction to send him out of the game, no substitute being allowed.) In international competition, the Argentinians have consistently been characterized by sportswriters as “a smoldering volcano” and “Latin dynamite,” but so far they had shown no great impulse to explode, despite their world reputation for belligerent football, coupled with famous short tempers. They did, however, make it clear that they intended to beat England, for they, along with the Uruguayans, were the only remaining Latin-American representatives in the competition, and felt compelled to sustain the existing domination of South American football over European, by hook or by crook—or, rather, by both, as it turned out. The crowd at Wembley put itself behind England in full voice, as if song and legend might propel the small, white-shirted puppets of the team to a kind of legendary triumph, but, unfortunately, song and legend were rather more wishful than practical. A clutch of Argentinians in front of me were speaking of the game as an intercontinental war rather than as a sporting event, and what began to happen on the field more than bore them out. England poured its Ramsey-style energy into the game but faced an Argentinian defense that was satisfied to nullify everything positive that happened. Nevertheless, the Argentinians were playing good football, looking always as if they knew precisely what they were doing. There was a kind of subterranean growl to everything that went on, and the English team seemed to waver between the spirit of the playing fields of Eton and a far from blameless vigor. At any rate, the air was by no means clear, and one of the more controversial English players—a mid-field man from Manchester United, toothless and contact-lensed, Nobby Stiles by name, and a favorite of Ramsey’s—swept himself into conspicuousness by jumping the gun on the Argentinians and tackling so recklessly that it was clear he had decided to do rather than die. We hardly dared to applaud him, but we saw his point, particularly when the game began to develop the characteristics of real war rather than an anthropological substitution. Players found their feet being swept from under them, and there was some ill-tempered shirt-pulling and elbowing—all of this in open violation of the rules. The referee, a little West German, kept whipping out his black book and writing players’ names conspicuously in it. But what in the end caused the volcano to erupt was the behavior of the towering Argentinian captain, Antonio Rattin, who followed up a series of flagrant personal fouls with some obviously blunt gesticulatory confrontations with the referee, who, possibly feeling that the game was slipping out of his control, suddenly tapped Rattin on his massive shoulder and pointed to the dressing rooms. At once, pandemonium broke loose. Rattin appeared to believe that, as captain, he could not he removed from the game, and refused to leave the field. What he was saying to the referee was, luckily, out of our earshot, and we learned from our newspapers the following morning that the referee was blessed with an ignorance of Spanish. When Rattin did leave, the rest of the Argentinian team left with him, and it looked for a riotous ten minutes as if England might be awarded the game as a gift. Players and officials clustered excitedly on the touchline, and eventually we saw order prevail, as ten of the Argentinian team trailed back onto the field, leaving Rattin presumably fulminating in the showers. The game from then on continued as well as might be expected, the Argentinians trying hard to hold on to the ball. Possession in football has little to do with the law, however, and we were all relieved rather than delighted when, quite late in the second half, Geoff Hurst, who had come into the England team as a substitute for Jimmy Greaves, the idol of English football (he had been injured in the game with France), leapt up magnificently to get his head to a crossed ball and send it rocketing past the Argentinian goalkeeper. After that, all we wanted was for the game to end, and it did without further incident, allowing us to slink home in some relief. (Shouldering my way to the exit, I had odd moments of regretting my knowledge of the Spanish language.) The victory had a kind of sneaky tinge to it, which most of the crowd seemed glad to turn its back on. Mr. Alf Ramsey, for once, found the shenanigans too much for his imperturbability, and came onto the field as the game ended to prevent his players sternly from exchanging shirts with the Argentinians, a tradition in international football. On television, the same evening, he went so far as to say, “We have still to produce our best football. It will come out against the right type of opposition, a team who come out to play football and not act as animals.” Strong words for so noncommittal a man, and rather too much for the International Federation, which chastised Mr. Ramsey the following day; for the Argentinian press, which seemed to be agitating for something close to a declaration of war against England; and for Mr. Alan Scott, the honorary secretary of the National Dog Owners’ Association, who felt compelled to pronounce, “After Alf Ramsey’s description of the Argentinian team as animals, may I, on behalf of the Dog Owners’ Association, immediately dissociate the dog world from this description, as being most unfair to our many members and their pets who insist on control at all times.” Football aside, England was still England.
England, however, animality aside, was through to the semifinals, without conceding a single goal. Yet the prospect was a formidable one, for the three other qualifying teams were West Germany, Russia, and Portugal, all of which had been selected from time to time as likely winners of the World Cup. West Germany had brusquely dispensed with Uruguay in the quarter-finals, in a game that had some vestiges of the ugliness of the England-Argentina game (two Uruguayans had been ordered off); Russia had somewhat luckily scraped through against Hungary by two goals to one; while Portugal, in the one really exciting quarter-final match, had beaten the North Koreans by five goals to three, after being suddenly three goals down in the early stages of the game. The Black Panther, Eusebio, had scored four of Portugal’s goals, and had clearly emerged as the glittering individualist of the whole competition. Now, in the breathing space before the semifinals, we had time to speculate on the West German-Russian match, which seemed like the proverbial unstoppable force against the immovable mass, and, more passionately, on the game between England and Portugal, which promised more excitement than any game to date—a kind of contest between Portuguese poetry and English prose.
In those free days, I read the foreign press, including an Argentinian paper that printed diatribes as close to the unprintable as I had seen for long enough. (“English pirates,” “Secret pact between England and Germany,” and a renewed interest in Argentina’s recovering the Falkland Islands from Britain.) But I read the front pages as well as the back, and they led me to doubt whether the bookies would have given to the British economy anything like the odds for survival that they were giving the national team. Mr. Wilson had just come back from Moscow into the thick of an economic crisis that was hovering on the fringes of devaluation, and had announced that he was flying to Washington (after the semifinals, we noticed approvingly) to confer with President Johnson on Britain’s economic cliff-hanging. The stock market seemed in the doldrums, and the Prime Minister was expected to appear on television to warn us of the dire prospects in store for us. They were dire enough, as it turned out. The perennial problem of the national situation in Great Britain does not lie in any lack of planning (the reverse is true, if anything) but, rather, in the fact that workers manage to muddle through wage freezes and price raises without becoming any more disposed to working than they ever were—a brutal truth that even the Prime Minister can never quite bring himself to pronounce. In the past, there was the bounty of the Empire; in the present, there is the bounty of government schemes—health services, workers’ compensation, and the like, or a general concern for the well-being of the country without too careful a concern for what the country assumed in the matter of responsibility for itself. We had hardly begun to brood over these drastic circumstances when the balmy July air reverberated with another of the brutal murders that the English pastoral scene seems to specialize in—in this case, a gruesome corpse left in a carefully wrapped cardboard box in the London suburb of Hampstead. “ ’Orrible murder!” I heard the news vender shouting, his face a study in, and his voice a monument to, disgust and horror. The forthcoming semifinals took on a measure of relief. They were, if unpredictable, at least within a calculable context.
The first stage we faced was the semifinal round between West Germany and Russia, in Liverpool, and it proved to be an uninspiring game, flawed once more by the expulsion of one Russian player, and ending, rather than culminating, in one of those German victories we had grown used to—one of skillful force rather than forceful skill, and one that Russia’s great goalkeeper, Lev Yashin, bewailed as a disappointment. “I would rather be beaten by a bad team inspired than by an efficient team,” he was quoted as saying. In any case, West Germany was a finalist, as the more cunning of the bookies had been telling us from the beginning, and we were poised, the following evening, to see what happened between England and Portugal, both teams smacking of human unpredictability and possibility rather than of the well-drilled quasi-militarism of the Russians and the Germans.
England had never before appeared in a World Cup semifinal, and, almost by sudden instinct, the wise men and soothsayers of football stopped predicting and started holding their breath. One columnist reported fancifully that a strange, flickering blue light hung over the whole country, a kind of television halo, and certainly those who had grumbled the loudest about having to sacrifice some of their favorite television serials for the lavish coverage of the World Cup had by now stopped caring whether or not the serials ever came back. I had watched a fair proportion of the games on television, and not only was the treatment technically beyond reproach but the strange tampering with the sequence of time that television is so easily able to indulge in had become almost part of our expectation. We had grown used not simply to seeing a goal scored but to seeing it over again almost immediately, then possibly a third time, in slow motion, to say nothing of being able to watch it later the same evening, and even the following day. The B.B.C. and Independent Television sportscasters had grown into family friends, as familiar as mailmen. And yet nothing quite equalled the experience of the games themselves, even though the goals were over in a flash, and did not immediately and mysteriously repeat themselves.
As I travelled out to Wembley on the Underground for the semifinal, faces seemed grimmer than usual. The touts on the way to the ground were hoarse by this time, the variety of ribboned rosettes had dwindled, and I found myself waving aside programs and surveys, for I now knew all the names by heart and had grown as adept as any of the announcers at identifying the Portuguese. The scandal of the Argentine match was still very much in the air, however, and we wanted above all some kind of restitution—some omen that might make the inconceivable possible. So far, England had leaned heavily on its almost impenetrable defense, and on Gordon Banks, its brilliant goalkeeper, but defense, we knew, would never win against a team as mercurial as the Portuguese, and especially against an opportunist of Eusebio’s calibre. Wembley under the lights seemed as miraculous a setting as we could wish for, and when the teams walked out, the national chant ( a staccato sequence of claps followed by a cry of “Eng-land!,” which had first been borrowed from the Brazilians as a battle cry during the World Cup in Chile) had never been so urgent, never so hopeful. If England were to win against a team as dedicated and pure as the Portuguese, the combination of morale and “home advantage” Would obviously make it the favorite for the Cup.
The game itself proved to be the turning point of the whole competition. After the ugly incidents, the squabbles, and even the tedium of simply getting the games played out, the game with Portugal seemed a kind of unveiling, a revelation of all that was best in football, a game that must have converted even chess addicts, and that certainly won over clusters of people who had previously done little more than unwillingly suspend their disbelief. From the beginning, both teams seemed to have sworn solemn vows to demonstrate that the kind of fouling that had marred the quarterfinals had absolutely nothing to do with football at its best. The referee, in fact, scarcely had to use his whistle at all, and the spectacle of players helping their opponents up after a fall or patting one another’s backs in appreciation after a particularly brilliant piece of play sent the crowd into a roar. When Charlton scored for England after thirty minutes, the enthusiastic embraces of his teammates were punctuated with Portuguese handshakes, and the shouts that came from the crowd were of appreciation rather than partisanship. More than that, what we saw was a transformed England team, playing not the canny, covering, defensive game of its earlier, economical wins but a swift and deadly attacking game, a game it might have learned overnight from the Portuguese; a fluent, fast, and diagrammatic football, with long, clean passes that seemed always to find their man, the kind of game that would turn the closest of goal-line saves into a sudden spurt of attack down one of the wings; a game that scarcely any of us felt we could look away from long enough to make even the briefest of jottings in our notebooks. My Portuguese neighbor might have been a dedicated English supporter, so vociferously appreciative was he of the spectacle, while we, in our turn, took only delight in the graceful subtleties of Eusebio and José Torres. Bobby Charlton scored again for England with only ten minutes left—a rocketing shot that took him well clear of the ground, and did much the same for the crowd. Even then, Portugal seemed to be only beginning. England handled the ball in the penalty area, and from the consequent penalty kick Eusebio scored superbly for Portugal, sending the goalkeeper diving one way, with a wriggle of his body, and the ball the other. It was Eusebio’s eighth goal of the championship, and it set him up without question for the trophy awarded to the leading scorer. The end was trauma—England ahead two goals to one, and Antonio Simöes poised with the ball, fated, we felt, to score, until little Stiles materialized from nowhere and stole the ball and, we felt, the game. The final whistle had never seemed more of a relief, more of a sibilantly emphatic piece of punctuation. All twenty-two players were as eager to thank their opponents as to embrace one another, to trade shirts, to bask in the ovation of the moment. Eusebio wept as he left the field, and it was only as we were trailing out of the stadium, still dazed by football, that it began to dawn on us that England was in the final.
The following day, the press forgot itself in lyrical ecstasies. The front pages all showed us Eusebio either in tears or embracing Bobby Charlton. The economic crisis had retreated to page 3, and nobody seemed to have the time to see Mr. Wilson off to Washington, or even to notice that he had gone, so intent were we on the breathless possibilities ahead. Alf Ramsey pronounced the result England’s greatest victory since he had become manager, and Tass, the Russian news agency, in an uncharacteristic burst of poetic fervor, declared, “The World Cup semifinal between England and Portugal was like a spring of clear water breaking through the murky wave. It was beautiful, correct football.” The Portuguese officials were no less generous in their praise, and, however inglorious the Argentinian game seemed in retrospect, the bad taste it left had been more than obliterated.
Between Tuesday’s exotic semifinal and Saturday afternoon’s prospective final between England and West Germany, there was only the fairly pointless playoff for third and fourth places between Russia and Portugal, the semifinal losers—a contest so anticlimactic that the sportswriters almost unanimously plugged for dropping this consolation match from the 1970 competition. The crowd at Wembley turned out in large part for Eusebio’s sake, and he did not disappoint them, scoring another goal—his ninth—to insure his thousand-pound scoring prize, and keeping the pot of attention boiling. I myself passed up the game in favor of a play, and even the converted housewives seemed to be conserving their emotion for Saturday, so mild was the attention given to the game. Alf Ramsey was no longer the tantalizing, much criticized figure he had been, but, rather, a potential savior, a breathtaking Merlin of the impossible. The scientific had given way to the emotional, and we waited not for tactics but for miracles. One taxi-driver took me on two fee-less rounds of the block to finish his pronouncements. In all my sporting days, I had never run up against such fervor, such national zeal, such great expectations.
Unlike most of the other games, which had been played under floodlights, at night, giving them a theatrical intensity, the final took place in the afternoon, on a sparkling day, with sunlight and shadow chasing one another across the striped Wembley turf, and some ninety-three thousand people packed into the huge oval of Wembley Stadium. The previous day had thundered and showered, but Saturday seemed so set for football that we were quite ready to believe that Alf Ramsey had had a word with the weather—a terse, imperative word. He was fielding the team that had beaten Portugal, having resisted the cries of the critics for the return of Jimmy Greaves, and thus made it clear that to him this was the team that counted, and that Greaves, prodigious and electric goalscorer that he was, counted less at this point than the almost instinctive understanding of one another’s game and positioning that the English players had shown against Portugal. From the crowded terraces, clusters of German and British flags were being waved excitedly. On the way in, I caught sight of Eusebio, unfamiliar in a blue raincoat but still looking wistful. Round me were Spaniards, Italians, and a row of Russians, attending for football’s sake, and everybody was conversing with a fervent, speculative wisdom. Had yesterday’s rain slowed up the ground? Was England’s defense too confident by now, especially against a team that played much the same game as England, and was easily its equal in indefatigable fitness? Had F.I.F.A. and the referee been too hard on the Argentinians? Was I going to Mexico in 1970? So we filled in the ponderous waiting time, while the spick-and-span hands wheeled and blew their geometric way about the field. A great rumble and a craning of necks told us that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had arrived. The portentous minutes ticked away. Mr. Harold Wilson, we learned later, had, on his return from Washington, come straight to Wembley from London Airport, without even going home to change. He knew obviously on what side his national bread was buttered, and we liked him better for it. For all we knew, the Beatles were in the crowd. We were there, and that, we felt, was what really mattered.
All at once, the rumbles became roars, the chants swelled thunderously, and there were the teams walking out, the West Germans in white shirts with black shorts, the English in unaccustomed red (as the home team, they changed their regular white shirts in deference to their opponents, or their guests, as we preferred to say). When players and spectators froze for the national anthem, strong men who had never carried a tune in their lives sang their hearts out, and even the subsequent “Deutschland Über Alles” was accepted purely for what it was and without inferences. The game was the thing, and it was not too long before we got down to it, with an expectation, a sense of having an improbable translated into an actual, a Perhaps into a Yes. For my own part, I remained in bug-eyed silence, leaving it to the rest of the crowd to burst into their tribal chants. The football itself was fascinating enough to strike me dumb; and where, in the semifinal against Portugal, I had been driven to lyrical exclamation, I found this game too tense, too fast, too breathtaking to do more than gasp, as much as at what did not happen as at what did. It would be too much, however, to attempt to reproduce the consuming ebb and flow of emotion. The game was a series of separate, successive happenings, and some of these came miraculously to fruition, others to nothing. A German near enough for me to hear began to complain that the English had deliberately watered the field to slow his countrymen. Realizing, a moment or two later, that his life was in danger, he sat down, and satisfied himself with brooding. In the stands, we swayed, watched, hoped, wondered. On the field, it looked anybody’s game, a precise contest between two teams for whom luck might run suddenly and accidentally in either direction.
It at once became clear to all of its that possession in this occasion was going to be the entire law, for as soon as either the English or the Germans had the ball, they blazed it to the opposing goal and seemed to wait hopefully for the mistakes of their opponents. Grimly enough, it was England that made the first of those, when its implacable right back, Ray Wilson, delivered the ball to the feet of a German forward and paid for his error by finding England one goal down, early in the game. For England, work, rather than exuberance, became the rule, and Bobby Moore, England’s captain and the kind of taskmaster who works by example rather than by demand, managed to place the ball from a free kick in such a precise spot in the air that Hurst, hurtling in as he had so importantly against the Argentinians, headed a goal that was sheer, positive achievement. Half time came with the teams tied at one goal each, and the multilingual comment around me seemed to take a sudden turn in England’s favor—perhaps because the West Germans had begun to look more like some kind of football machinery, while England, occasionally fallible, remained eleven recognizable human beings, and thus capable of miracles.
Under such circumstances, ninety minutes is a long time, and we began to hope, in the second half, for relief rather than excitement. The German forwards, Helmut Haller and Uwe Seeler, created agonies of ominous danger whenever they got the ball at their feet, and we lost touch with the science of the game in quite simple apprehension. From the English point of view, a little fellow called Alan Ball kept turning up wherever the ball was, and seemed bent on refusing to let it out of his possession. The defense played to some brilliant grammar of Ramsey’s devising, and, just as the Germans were wont to pounce on any faint mistake, England did the same, but with rather more luck, as when a spontaneous shot, following a sharp English attack, rebounded from the German goalkeeper to the feet of Martin Peter, another young English prodigy, who ruthlessly put the ball in the goal. Two to one for England, and the remainder of the game a matter of clock-watching, of breath-holding. It might have finished that way, too, but my neighbor on the left produced a stopwatch as big as an alarm clock and began a kind of Spanish countdown. It was a bad omen, I thought, and events proved me right, for, as his second hand was describing its last semicircle, West Germany scored a goal that should not have happened, a goal that was suspiciously helped by human hands (an automatic foul in football) and easily tapped home by the German forward, Wolfgang Weber, Anticlimax. We had all been breathing the showery air (had the weather actually defied Ramsey? ), ready to explode in clamorous homage, when, suddenly, the final whistle went, the ninety minutes had run out. The teams, impossible to believe, were level at two goals each, and the result had now to be resolved by two fifteen-minutes-each-way periods of extra time—a gruelling prospect for both teams, which had not spared their ferocious energy for one moment of the game already play ed. They collapsed on the grass, and we collapsed in the stands, still not quite believing. The radio and television commentators had only a moment or two to articulate their hysteria, and then the game was off again, as unrelenting as ever, almost beyond the credible range of either football or imagination. This time, to escape the disturbing proximity of the stopwatch, I went up to the Press Box, high above the field, where I had the choice of a television set at my elbow, the game below me, or a typewriter at hand. It was, however, no moment for words.
The Germans looked the tireder of the two teams, I thought, as England kept pressing, whistling the ball close to the German goal, probing for a chink, a lapse, an unpredictable possibility. Yet the German center forward, Siegfried Held, escaped in a flash, and seemed certain to set up a goal, except that his companions were unable to produce the energy to keep pace with him. More England, and suddenly little Ball spurted into an open space, sent the ball into Hurst’s path, and the English inside forward blazed it at the net. It seemed to strike a defender’s fist and rocket upward, inside the crossbar, and just as suddenly to bounce out. Half of its were sure it was a goal, half of us hoped it just might have been, and all the Germans, whatever they had seen, roared in disbelief. The decision, however, lay with the referee, and he, for an agonizing moment, consulted with his linesman, who was better placed to tell if the ball had actually crossed the line or not. We saw him nod, and point to the center spot. A goal for England—and yet none of us were entirely happy with its inconclusive aura, nor even now, after seeing the thing happen over again on television, in slow motion, at top speed, are there many who would take an oath in its having been a goal. “Well, it bloody well ought to have been,” growled a tired commentator beside me, and there we thought it would have to rest. The teams changed ends painfully for the last quarter hour, and we read the weariness in their movements, in the relief with which they passed the ball to a colleague. Again, it was clock-watching, and the minutes were down to one, by my calculation, when Uwe Seeler almost scored for Germany. Bobby Moore was there in time to cut down the ball and send it upfield to Hurst, though, and we were ready this time to let loose all the victorious cheers that had been stifled before. Hurst, however, was not. With some unfathomable resource of energy, he burst through at top speed and let go a shot that fairly whanged into the German net—a goal so emphatic, so pure, so indisputable that in roaring at it we could not hear the whistle that ended the game.
This time it was over, and England had won, not with a shadow of a goal but with the last, rampant kick of the game! Four goals to two, and the whole stadium wearily insane with excited satisfaction. On the field, some of the English players were in tears, some in agony, but all of them certainly in ecstasy. We were all of us doing a bit of handshaking and back-pounding, and the announcers were positively squealing into their microphones. Alf Ramsey sat on his trainer’s bench, his face reluctantly and shyly beaming, his back being pounded by players and assistants; but he would not take a lap of honor around the field with the team. The moment, he said afterward, was theirs. Even though he must have been drowning in secret satisfaction, lie seemed determined to keep it to himself. What followed was a mixture of pageantry and delirium. The England team walked up to where the Queen waited to hand, first, the little gold cup to Moore and then medals to the players on both teams. The Germans took their lap of honor—at a fairly emotionless and efficient trot—and got the kind of sporting ovation that the English seem brought up to deliver on any occasion. But when Moore threw the Rimet Trophy up in a golden are and caught it, took it over to let Ramsey touch it, and then led his team in a capering, delighted circuit of the track, staunch Englishmen threw their bowler hats into the air without worrying where they would come down, and almost as many German flags rained down as did Union Jacks. Head-shaking, even tears, replaced language. The Prime Minister was beaming fit to burst, and had apparently forgotten for the moment all about his Washington conversations. I cannot remember how long the delirium went on, but we eventually prised ourselves away, to find ourselves comparing notes with clusters of strangers in the train, and stuffing our sheafs of statistics into station wastebaskets. The final had not produced, perhaps, the best football of the competition, but, being the final, and England having had to win it virtually twice over, it had certainly emerged as by far the most highly charged occasion. “Home advantage” unquestionably counted; but then, so did energy, coolness, preparation, and an incredible will to win, all of which Ramsey had been harping away, on for his gruelling three years. And, for once, it was not the old men looking back to a lost past, or comforting remarks about England as the “womb of the game,” that we were listening to—it was the roaring, present excitement over a young and tangible England team winning a world championship. “Even just winning something,” our first inclination was to say.
Emotion wound up to such a cumulative peak takes some time to die down, as the evening of the match more than demonstrated. There was hardly, anyone who had been at Wembley, I would bet, who did not bathe, dress up, and expand, even if it was only to entrench himself in front of his television set and watch Londoners whoop it up as they had not done since V-E Night. First of all, there was the spectacle of the members of the team arriving for their celebration dinner at the Royal Garden Hotel, picking their way through a crowd of some seven thousand devoted souls, to emerge presently on the balcony of the hotel, like a huge Royal Family, beaming above their boutonnieres of red carnations. Bobby Moore held up the cup, and, as it was passed from player to player, each one’s name was chanted fervently; but it was when Alf Ramsey raised the cup gingerly aloft, as though still not quite convinced that it was real, that the cheers became pure delirium, the delight pure ecstasy. Even Pickles, the dog who had found the missing World Cup, was present, along with the Prime Minister, who had obviously decided that his Washington homework had to wait. “He’s a football fan, if nothing else,” muttered one of his less enthusiastic constituents, “but he’d damn well better give Alf Ramsey a knighthood for this.” Indeed, when Mr. Wilson and Mr. Ramsey appeared together on the balcony, one could not help feeling that Mr. Wilson had all his political wits about him.
Meanwhile, the West End of London was busy celebrating in its own way, leaving the players and officials of the participating teams to their banquet. Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square were solid, singing masses. Cars, lined up for blocks on end, pumped out on their horns the rhythm that, in an odd, cryptic way, had become a most uncharacteristic national victory chant: “Ta-tah. Tah-tah-tah. Tah-tah-tah-ta. Eng-land!” The pubs were spilling out into the streets, and we noticed even a group of Germans doing their version of a reel, bouncing off the sides of the narrow lanes of Soho. Taxis had given up for the evening, and there was nothing to do but thread through the revellers, shake hands like a candidate, accept a slug from a proffered bottle, and squeeze eventually out of the lights into a friend’s house, where the television was getting under way again, going succulently over each goal, at top speed, in slow motion, replaying the immediate past as though anxious to keep it as the present and fearful of its slipping away while the tingle still lasted. We watched, with a kind of painful sympathy, the England players being brought, one by one, before the cameras, dressed in human clothing, stammeringly inarticulate, bewildered by a mixture of joy and disbelief, and we suddenly hated the glib-tongued commentator who fed them their lines. (Let him run himself ragged for two hours, and then try to say how it felt, we snarled.) Still, everybody’s face hurt with smiling, including mine, and when I walked home, close to midnight, the horns and hooters were still at it, and there was always a skirl of song round the next corner. I stopped to talk to a solitary policeman who was shaking his head on a street corner. “Never seen the likes of it in me life, sir,” he said in wonderment. “The end of the war, they say, but I were no more than a nipper then. Course, Christmas, New Year, well, you expect it then. But if you’d have said to me three weeks ago when the Cup began that we’d he watching a night like this here, I’d have said you was plain barmy, begging your pardon, sir.”
Waking up on a leafy Sunday morning, I went through, beyond the usual flounderings for identity, the sudden qualm of wondrous disbelief that always follows great happenings, so I wasted no time at all in sprinting to the newsstand, not for the usual judicious selection of English Sunday papers (can any city in the world provide such a Sunday-morning gamut?) but for the whole bundle, from the most raucous to the least committal. This Sunday, they were scarcely distinguishable from another. “england—champions of the world,” they screamed at my smarting eyes, and there it all was again, the scorers stopped in midair, Alf Ramsey and Pickles, Nobby Stiles and the Queen, fans swimming in fountains, and column on column of everything from technical analysis to quotes from Bobby Charlton’s mother (and a chilling news item about a young Berliner who, nagged persistently by his mother for staying home to watch the games, finally strangled her in exasperation), speeches, statistics, maps, diagrams, tear-out souvenirs, armfuls of grateful jubilation that easily wasted the time away until, on television, the final was replayed, every breath-rasping second of it, in the early afternoon. Enough was obviously not nearly as good as a feast, but enough was, for me, at least, not far off, and I began to give myself over to gravity. First, about the football itself (separated from the partisan emotions it generated, if it could be separated), I felt that England had been more than lucky, or, at any rate, had never been unlucky. I still am convinced that England could not have bitten the Brazilians, even though it did beat Portugal, who beat the Brazilians. The English game had been pragmatic throughout, incalculable, inspiring hope rather than confidence. The team had succeeded by not making mistakes, by having no weak links (both Hungary and Portugal, for example, had suffered through grotesque blunders on the part of their goalkeepers), by maintaining a level of form, and—I had to come back to it—by having a whole country behind it when it played on familiar ground. In fact, it could only have happened in England. But then, it did.
More than that, the win puts time English players in the position of having to maintain their position as world champions, and means they will have to evolve a greater variety of styles than they ever showed during the competition. South American football is still the craftiest of all, the most calculated, and the most exact. Although the Europeans dominated the semifinals, they were all playing in a manner both predictable and familiar, and I, for one, felt that the South Americans had taken a great deal of lustre with them when they departed. The fact is, there are many variations of footballing style, and nothing is more riveting to watch than two teams with vastly contrasting styles taking one another on. This did not happen in the final. I felt that the same game played in Germany would have been likely to go the other way. All in all, there was too much luck flying about for anybody to feel that the result had been the unwinding of some profound soccer justice, but that, precisely, is the point, for the game of football, while it can have a foundation in scientific strategy, while it can have its superhuman individualists like Pelé, like Yashin, while it can be planned, calculated, and prepared for, move by move, still boils down to a contest between fallible human beings in a particular atmosphere at a particular point in time and with a huge following powerful enough to sway the play by their approval or disapproval—it is just this that gives one an insatiable appetite for the game, or for any game that has not become a mechanism. And so I switched on the television set and settled down to watch the final for the last. breathless time.
London the following week was in a state of aftermath. The crisis crept back onto the front pages, and grim it was, with its prospect of austerity and its seemingly insoluble labor problems. The nation’s well-being seemed as unstable as its weather. A glow remained, though, and there were everywhere signs of that boisterous English good cheer that seems contingent upon crisis. The New Statesman set as its weekly literary competition the following hypothetical situation: “The story so far: North Korea have beaten England in the World Cup Final, but they cannot receive the cup because during the match it has been stolen (again). British prestige drops to a new low, and the nation awaits a broadcast by the Prime Minister. Now write on.” The readers’ entries were hilariously close to the hone. Honors kept falling on the players. Bobby Moore gained the distinction of being named the world’s outstanding footballer, and the bank accounts of the whole English squad bulged deservedly. Mr. Dennis Howell, the Undersecretary responsible for sport, proud of the country’s part in staging the competition, said, “This has been the best half-million pounds the Government has ever spent,” and not one solitary taxpayer raised his voice in protest. The Germans went home to a triumphal procession, and, like practically all the world’s press, were generous in defeat. The football used in the final, which had been promised for auction to Oxfam, a charity organization that collects for stricken countries, turned up in Germany in the possession of one of the German team, but Oxfam was pressing hopefully for its return. A new World Cup stamp bearing the added legend, “england winners,” was issued and quickly gobbled up. Slowly, stretching itself with satisfaction, England unwound. Cassius Clay bounded into the limelight, and cricket, which had been “waiting in the wings for civilization to reassert itself,” according to one of the snootier newspapers, wandered leisurely and grassily back into the public’s still goggling eye. Pundits were press ing Alf Ramsey to make pronouncements about the 1970 World Cup, but, inscrutable as ever, he went silently on holiday before the imminent beginning of the new season. Still dizzy with the perfection of it all, we rolled up the green turf of Wembley in our memory, and silently crept into the record books.