Not so Much Football Fever, More Like Mild Summer Symptoms: An alternative perspective on the build up to the 1966 World Cup

‘History is written by the victors’ is a quote often miss attributed to Winston Churchill, what he actually said was something along similar lines when challenging the then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in the 1930’s. “I shall write the history”[1] was his portentous prediction, so when Churchill came to write that ‘History of the English Speaking People’ in 1956 all that he wrote was coloured by what he knew to be ‘so’ and what his readers expected from their esteemed wartime leader. 

Why is this of any relevance to the myriad of books, films and articles that study the 1966 World Cup? Let’s take “Two World Wars and One World Cup” the jingoistic chant, thankfully now rarely heard, this draws on such familiarity of received knowledge. Ignoring for a moment the evidence that Germany, as recipients of the taunt, has not only won four World Cups (in various guises) but arguably post ’45 in economic terms did not ‘lose the war’ either, what such bellicose popularism does demonstrate is that, in England at least, almost all that is written regarding the 1966 World Cup has been produced in the knowledge that England did indeed win that World Cup, and as such continues to glory in such familiar trope as Hurst’s hat trick, Ramsey’s prophecy of victory, little Alan Ball’s tireless running, Nobby Styles dancing toothless holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft et al. History indeed written by the victors. 

A cursory search of any online book site will offer up tens of publications on the 1966 World Cup written from this victorious knowing perspective, the familiar denouement to the story. On a macro level this falls into the trap of popular history, evoking as Whannel describes it, ‘re-inscription’- that is seeing the past through the prism of the known present.[2] So it is that we find it almost impossible to appreciate or understanding, say, eighteenth century attitudes to slavery when studying its abolition, or early 1930’s attitudes to Fascism given what followed. Avoiding this trap is why such contemporary research tools as Mass Observation diaries and recorded oral historical record have become so important to historians. 

This then is the context of my study of the '66 World Cup. To take a broader perspective that takes in an interrogation of English, and the English media in particular’s, perception of the tournament not in the knowledge of victory but before the tournament, before victory, before the grip of World Cup fever culminating in this country’s largest ever television ratings[3], celebratory commemorative stamps, knighthoods, oh and fifty-six years of subsequent shared national hurt. 

The ‘build up’ to the 8th FIFA World Cup by modern standards appears at best modest. On being elected Prime Minister of a new Labour government in 1964, avowed man of the people, pipe smoking, self professed Huddersfield Town supporter, Harold Wilson had to be reminded by his Minister for Sport, Dennis Howell, that England was to host the tournament in two years time and funding was urgently required to upgrade stadiums to meet FIFA’s expectations. Closer to the event the media, following the conventions established over the preceding seven decades, still strictly adhered to the seasonal nature of domestic sport. The football season and with it media interest ended with the FA Cup Final in May, cricket as the summer sport and arguably still the national game dominated the sports pages. By way of illustration six weeks before the tournament kicked off The Times ‘World Cup Diary’ received half a column in the fifty-six page newspaper, by contrast the ‘Schools Cricket Report’ received twice that coverage. 

In popular public consciousness, beyond the committed football fan, probably the first communication of the impending tournament was the launch of three general issue commemorative postage stamps by the General Post Office on June 1st becoming the first British stamps to feature sport. As expedient diplomacy was required so as not to feature or offend specific teams or star players these stamps are graphic and non-specific, arguably inaccurate in their representation of the game.[4] 

Pre tournament television build up was, by modern standards, extremely limited. Not by the norms of the day however. Beyond the FA Cup Final and the odd Home International there was no live football on television. ‘Match of the Day’ had only been launch two seasons earlier as a forty-five minute highlight show in black and white of one game, on the limited access newly launched BBC2 channel available in London and the South East only. Whilst the BBC were to televise all of the England games with more cameras than at domestic matches, ITV took a more commercially expedient route to the point of joining the action for certain games well into the action so as not to disturb the scheduling of the top rating ‘Coronation Street’. 

This was a time of nascent event merchandising. The Official FIFA Tournament Programme is a dry black and white factually accurate but uninspiring document of record rather than an entertaining curtain raiser, managing only to have a colour cover which, inexplicably, included the wrong flag and an outline map that showed part of Scotland and all of Wales. Most memorably the England tournament mascot ‘World Cup Willie’ was a football boot cartoon lion wearing, again incorrectly, a Union Flag waistcoat. The Union Flag also appeared as a dominant feature of the official FIFA logo, this a reoccurring yet ill-suited theme in tournament ephemera.[5] Willie offered versions of now familiar but then exciting and new ‘collectables’: stickers, mugs, t-shirts, themed balls, tumblers etc. Not to mention the subsequently ubiquitous 45rpm vinyl single release. The designs and audio of these items reflect not so much the ‘swinging Sixties’[6] of re-inscription but the horse brass and net curtain middle England of contemporary reality. 

The GPO stamps aside there is little recognition in the pre tournament materials of an international stage, these were not so much a celebration of soccer, not even football coming home, implicitly they suggest our game on our turf, our rules, being played where it belonged. Indeed the popular media seemingly found it difficult to accommodate the arrival of albeit invited interlopers on to our shores. How then to acknowledge sixteen ‘foreign’ teams on domestic soil? The solution, flags. By way of example the flags of competing nations, in various designs, feature on the covers of ‘The Radio Times World Cup Number’, ‘The Daily Express World Cup Guide 1966’, ‘Football Monthly’s World Cup Souvenir’ and many more besides, although even the use of such an obvious graphic would demonstrate an insensitivity if viewed through 21st Century ‘reinscribed’ eyes. 

The red white and blue of the Union Flag not only featured on Willie’s waistcoat as mentioned above, it was there on all the aforementioned magazine covers and even as a key element to the official FIFA World Cup logo. England might be about to play all their games in Group 1 at Wembley but seemingly Great Britain and Northern Ireland would be parading their flag in preference to the red cross on a white ground flag of St. George. This should not be seen as a media vagary it was a social norm of the day, studying multiple images of the crowd at Wembley for the Final show Union flags with little or no evidence of the St George Cross. As an empirical aside it is worth noting that in such photographs, the West German flag is also evident mixed in amongst unsegregated supporters, the crowd is almost exclusively male and many wear dark suits collar and tie. ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’ to quote L.P.Hartley.[7]

If quantitative, rather than qualitative data is the preferred research point to better appreciate the preceding antipathy towards the World Cup, then the crowd attendance at early group matches can provide stark evidence. 15,000 tickets for England’s opening game against former winners Uruguay remained unsold, a 0-0 formulaic draw for the ‘Ramsey’s Robots’ moniker ascribed by some press sources doing little to fan the flames of excitement. Photographs of a number of the regional group games show sparse crowds in certain areas of the grounds – who knew in advance that North Korea’s games against Italy or Portugal would be such thrillers. What does the decision to play the France vs Uruguay Group 1 game at the decrepit White City Stadium, home to the 1908 Olympics, because there was a pre arranged greyhound race meeting scheduled for Wembley Stadium on the same day tell us and puts the early stages of the tournament into context. 

England's opener against Uruguay

What the football watching public and especially the wider audience, who prior to the growing momentum behind the competition as England looked more and more like potential winners had little or no interest in the game, were not to know was that this World Cup would increasingly capture the public imagination more as an evolving popular soap opera than the pinnacle of global sporting excellence. Ratin as comedy villain being sent off by a pantomime gnomic Swiss referee, plucky little Korea with Gilbert and Sullivan names going three up against tournament favourites Portugal, Brazilian stars like Pele kicked off the park with assassin like brutality, Eusebio in tears as England win their semi, extra time for the first time, the questionable third goal, the hat trick and defeat of the old enemy on home soil were to fuel the plethora of folk tales and platitudes that were to follow. 

All that though was for the future. In what remained of the summer of 1966 the country was actually more concerned about the day to day cost of living, the government’s announcement of a six month wage increase freeze, the seven thousand job losses in the car industry or amongst the more forward thinking the launch of the first ever credit card The Barclaycard. To put the World Cup win into perspective, on the Monday after Saturday’s victory, The Times dedicated less than half a page to reporting the game and subsequent celebration. At least the GPO pulled out ‘all the stops’, overprinting the 4d commemorative first class stamp with the words ‘England Winners’!

This piece was kindly written for @TFHBs by Doctor Graham Deakin - You can follow him on Twitter @GrahamDeakin4. Graham was awarded his PhD in The Visual Culture of Football from The International Football Institute UClan. He led an MSc module at the University Centre For Football Business at Wembley, has lectured at Cranfield, Plymouth, Worcester and Reading universities, at The National Football Museum and is a regular contributor to the Football History Conference Manchester


[1] In Command of History, David Reynolds
[2] Media Sports Stars, Gary Whannel
[3] 32.3 million viewers in the UK watched the final live on TV
[4] Jimmy Greaves, the starting striker for the England team, reportedly dismissed the images as representing three infringements – a high boot, off side and foul on the keeper
[5] The England ‘Flag of St. George’ one element of the Union Flag only came to prominence with England hosting the 1996 European Championships
[6] As exemplars of the air-brushed popular culture of the 1960’s ‘The Sound of Music’ film soundtrack LP outsold The Beatles ‘Sgt. Pepper’ album
[7] The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley, (1953)

©The Football History Boys, 2022


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