There’s at once something touching and bitter about the English nation’s sense of attachment to their one and only World Cup win.
The men’s achievement in 1966 has coloured the entire country’s footballing history in the half-century since, with no other England team coming close to matching it on the global stage.
To celebrate the 50-year anniversary of Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet trophy, Wembley threw open its doors. In the stadium’s entrance foyer was an exhibition of memorabilia along with multimedia displays – footage of the match plus audio interviews, just to keep the millennials happy. To see the size and texture of the match ball and the players’ shirts is to see just how the game has changed in the 21st century.
There was also a neat demonstration of 1960s culture, both in football and at large – in one of the glass cases sits an orange ashtray with a cartoon figure of a scantily-clad woman; apparently some of the England players marked their win by heading off to the Playboy Club.
Heading down the ramp, past a bronze statue of Moore, to the Arena, there were small clusters of replica-shirt-clad fans. The decorative fountains in the piazza attracted plenty of young children, not there to indulge in nostalgia, but simply to enjoy a sunny Saturday in London. An intriguing stall opened to the side – a van with a cinema screen attached, showing archive footage from all sorts of London footballing events, from the 1935 International Games for the Deaf (now known as the Deaflympics) to Arsenal’s 1971 double-winning victory parade.
Inside Wembley Arena was the focal point of the day. Presented by the BBC’s Jeremy Vine and Louise Minchin, it was a live simulcast on radio, TV, and cinema beamback, a real-time performance of events from 50 years ago, combining clips from the 1966 World Cup final with stories from everyday folk and performances of the chart hits of the time from today’s musicians – the cast of West End musical Sunny Afternoon sang their title song, Reef did the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint it Black’, soul singer Shaun Escoffery gave his interpretation of the late Cilla Black’s ‘Alfie’.
— Carrie Dunn (@carriesparkle) July 30, 2016
A quartet of actors added in the words of some of those unable to be there for whatever reason; Martin Freeman, of The Hobbit and Sherlock fame, read the words of Moore, who died of bowel cancer in 1993.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 30, 2016
Each of England’s goals was applauded wildly by the audience in the arena, but one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon was for Chris Farlowe, who on July 30th 1966 was at the top of the hit parade with his song ‘Out of Time’. Not for him a tribute act; no, this septuagenarian bounded on stage to sing his hit himself, accompanied by the brilliantly lush BBC Concert Orchestra.
Of course, there were standing ovations for Sir Geoff Hurst, scorer of a hat-trick 50 years previously, who kissed the match ball; and for Sir Bobby Charlton, perhaps the most recognisable member of that England team, who represented them all when he accepted a pennant from the FIFA president Gianni Infantino.
It was Infantino who put his fingers on an uncomfortable truth, directing his words to the country as a whole, and asking England to look ahead and add another major trophy win to that glorious, single and singular World Cup. However enjoyable the celebrations were – and they were – an audience of thousands paying huge ticket prices to watch the nation’s one global footballing triumph 50 years on had a strange sense of poignancy about it.
A raucous rendition of The Who’s ‘Substitute’ later – ironic, bearing in mind there were of course no substitutes allowed in football in 1966 – and it was all over. As the fans headed back down Wembley Way, they walked past handfuls of men in dinner jackets, clutching their invitations to the evening’s gala dinner, where most of the 1966 squad would be reunited. Moore’s place would be absent, likewise Alan Ball, who died in 2007; others were too unwell to appear, with dementia clawing a hole through the ranks of that generation.
For all the plaudits those players accept now, this has been a recent development; as it becomes increasingly obvious that there will be no World Cup win for England in the near future, those who achieved it have become legends.
Manager Alf Ramsey was knighted the year after the World Cup, then sacked ignominiously in 1974 by a Football Association who had long harboured snobbish animosity towards the Essex-born manager. Captain Moore,too, was awarded the Order of the British Empire in January 1967, receiving this public award on behalf of the rest of the squad, who went empty-handed.
Bobby Charlton received his knighthood in 1994 in recognition of his long and illustrious career; Geoff Hurst, the man who scored those three goals, was knighted in 1997. It was not until 2000 that six of that starting eleven (not the whole squad, mark you) received public honour – the Member of the British Empire – and even that came after a noisy media campaign based on real outrage at the neglect of the stars of ‘66. For 50 years, those players have had lip service paid to their achievements but little genuine recognition; many of them, including goalkeeper Gordon Banks and right back George Cohen, had to sell their winners’ medals due to financial struggles later in life.
— Mick Quinn (@mickquinn1089) July 30, 2016
Their World Cup triumph came too soon for mass media coverage, and too soon for them to make much money from it. Their names are uttered and remembered with affection; yet their achievement is not a real, living memory now. 50 years on, the World Cup of 1966 has boomed into a myth told and reconstructed by every English football fan.
Those who speak of the World Cup win – who cheered as they watched the goals go in on the big screen at Wembley Arena in 2016 – may not have even been born at the time it actually happened; those who were would have struggled to watch it live with so little access to television sets. The fuzzy glow of nostalgia envelops the World Cup win of 1966, casting into the shadows the real-life neglect of the men who managed it.