The last day of July in 1966 was the date of England’s finest moment as a sporting nation. The hosts and winners of the 8th FIFA World Cup, England’s iconic team of the Charlton brothers, Jimmy Greaves and Bobby Moore swept away all who came before them.
There was plenty more going on in the tournament, however, with a lost trophy, an African boycott and the emergence of Portugal’s black superstar Eusebio also making the headlines.
Politics overshadows the sport
After England was granted the next World Cup in Rome in 1960, the preparations were inevitably overshadowed by politics. This was nothing new; already the 1942 and 1946 incarnations had been cancelled by the more pressing issue of World War Two and the 1938 tournament had featured a German side full of stolen Austrian players after Hitler’s takeover of the country earlier that year.
This time, the issue was Africa. In an era of decolonisation – some violent – the emergent African countries were arrayed in protest against the inclusion of apartheid-era South Africa in FIFA qualifications, despite being banned from football on the African continent.
As a result of this, and qualification rules that did not garuantee an African team a place in the competition, most of Africa’s developing football nations boycotted the tournament – though their pressure did lead to a belated ban on South African participation in 1964.
The trials of the organisers did not end there, however. As was customary, the famous Jules Rimet trophy was on display in England in anticipation of the tournament, but on 20 March its custodians found it to have disappeared. The next day, the custodians received a phone call demanding an extortionate sum of money for the trophy’s return.
This dragged on for weeks, and the English Football Association agreed to have a replica made for the presentation on 30 July, before an unlikely saviour was found in the form of a dog called Pickles.
Pickles sniffed out the cup that Bobby Moore would lift from under some bushes in London before going on to enjoy brief fame as a national celebrity.
Events on the pitch
While all of this was going on, the tournament itself still had to be organised, with 16 teams reaching the finals, including England, Italy, newcomers Portugal, Brazil, the Soviet Union and West Germany. The draw was made in January, and the hosts were placed in a tough group with Uruguay, France and Mexico, playing all their group games at the famous Wembley Stadium in London.
Under pressure from a rapturously expectant home crowd, England got off to a disappointing start by failing to beat Uruguay in the opening game, but two 2-0 victories then saw them safely through to the quarter finals.
Group 2, meanwhile, was a fairly straightforward affair, with fancied teams West Germany and Argentina going through, but Groups 3 and 4 – which contained newcomers Portugal and North Korea, were more interesting. The Portuguese made an instant impact in defeating two-time champions Brazil 3-1, and had their legendary striker Eusebio to thank for two of their group stage goals.
Born in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, the man nicknamed the “black panther” would end the tournament as its top scorer and end his career with an astonishing 749 goals in 745 matches.
In Group 4, the North Koreans – who weren’t even recognised as a country by the West during the Cold War, pulled off an even bigger shock by defeating Italy and qualifying at their expense alongside the Soviet Union.
The next stage was also full of incident. In England’s match against Argentina, the Argentine Antonio Rattín was sent off but refused to leave the pitch, resulting in a squad of policemen having to drag him away. This decision, and England’s narrow 1-0 margin of victory, means that the match is still known as the “robbery of the century” in Argentina.
The Germans, meanwhile, also benefited from some questionable refereeing decisions as they beat nine-man Uruguay 4-0, while one of the best matches in World Cup history saw the Portuguese progress. The unfancied North Koreans had raced into a 3-0 lead, only for Portugal to come back to win 5-3, with Eusebio scoring four of the goals in an immense solo performance.
In the other game, the Soviet Union triumphed over Hungary to set up two semi-finals between four European powers. England’s subsequent match against Portugal was a narrow 2-1 win, with Bobby Charlton scoring twice to trump Eusebio’s penalty.
Meanwhile, the Germans beat the Soviets due to a Franz Beckenbauer strike, setting up a tasty final against England – a country that many Germans still associated with invading and occupying their broken nation at the end of World War Two.
The match on 30 July was one of the best ever in a World Cup. The Germans opened the scoring in an entertaining match after just 12 minutes, only for England’s replacement striker Geoff Hurst (first choice Jimmy Greaves was injured) to equalise just four minutes later.
Midfielder Martin Peters then sent the 98,000-strong crowd into raptures with another goal with 12 minutes to play. England held out, hoping to grind out the momentous win until the very last minute of the game, when a German free kick was lashed into the net by the centre-back Wolfgang Weber.
With the scores now level, the match went to a half hour of extra time. Eight minutes later, Hurst scored again after lashing the ball against the crossbar and onto the goal line. Decades before goal line technology, the referee granted the goal, which incensed the Germans and remains contentious to this day.
The Germans then pushed back, but as the 120th minute approached, delirious fans began to encroach onto the pitch, causing the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme to comment “they think it’s all over”, just as Hurst scored one more goal to put the result beyond doubt.
Wolstenholme then finished his own sentence in one of the most famous lines in football history “…it is now”. England’s inspirational captain, Bobby Moore, was then awarded the trophy by Queen Elizabeth II. The tournament remains the country’s only World Cup win to date.