Not 1966 and all that all over again

The past weighs heavy on English football, and the current team will have to shake it off in order to succeed.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852.

Oh how the tradition of England’s one and only World Cup-winning generation of 1966 weighs like a nightmare on the brains of English football, from the team in South Africa to the mass of fans and (especially) the media back home.

It was no surprise that the current World Cup number one, ‘Shout for England’, should feature Dizzee Rascal rapping about Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and the England heroes of ’66, while the gormless James Corden prances around acting the part of patriotic Jack the Lad in a red shirt like the ones they wore that day.

When another (better) song, ‘Three Lions – Football’s Coming Home’ became the anthem of the New Football around the Euro ‘96 tournament, it too looked back to 1966 for its memorable references – ’30 years of hurt’ – and images – ‘Jules Rimet still gleaming’. It was if some wanted to make a leap straight from the sepia memories of 1966 to instant nostalgia for Gazza’s World Cup of Italia 90, erasing all the unpleasantness in between – such as the hooliganism and England’s failure even to qualify for two World Cups in the 1970s. Now they are keener still to conjure up the spirit of ’66, in a bid to lay to rest the ghosts of the horrors and humiliations of England’s more recent World Cup campaigns.

Today the media obsession with 1966 appears, if anything, to be growing even worse. The further that singular triumph retreats into the past, the more its mournful influence seems to overshadow the present. With each passing major tournament the references become more nostalgic and angsty. Bobby Moore, England’s captain fantastic in ‘66, is now lionised in a way he was not when he died in 1993. Sir Alf Ramsey, the England manager, died before him as English football’s forgotten man. It was not until the New Football had become fashionable, that in 1998 Hurst, England’s hat-trick hero from the final against West Germany, was knighted for his one afternoon’s work 32 years before.

Before looking at what 1966 means today, let us try to separate some truths from the myths and legends of that summer in England.

First, let’s accept that England won the World Cup because they were the home team – just as other hosts such as Uruguay, Italy and France did before and after them. It has ever been a huge advantage to play a World Cup at home, where teams have tended to play above themselves – Sweden got to the World Cup final in 1958, while Chile in 1962 and South Korea in 2002 reached the semis as host nations. The fact that the home side seems unlikely to progress far this time is a measure of how poor South Africa probably are.

Second, the England team of 1966 was not even the best-ever – for those of us old enough to remember, that title surely belongs to the side that went to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, the only team that could live with the all-conquering Brazilians, but contrived to commit suicide against the Germans in the quarter final (another, bitter, history story).

Nevertheless winning the World Cup in 1966 was a remarkable achievement. Especially since, as Ed Barrett has recently observed, England won the final with three world-class players – Moore, Bobby Charlton and goalkeeper Gordon Banks – yet did so arguably without several of the best players of their generation, most notably the colossus Duncan Edwards, killed in the 1958 Munich air crash, and Jimmy Greaves, the greatest-ever England goal-scorer, who was injured when the tournament began and replaced by Hurst. It is one of the minor tragedies of 1966 that generations since have grown up thinking that the decent Hurst was better than the incomparable Greaves. (Even Greavsie has now made a comeback of sorts on the wave of 1966 nostalgia, as an ‘England football legend’ advertising ‘a real legend’, the Burger King Whopper.)

The longer-term influence of 1966, however, proved rather less glorious. In one sense it might even be seen as the worst thing that happened to English football, since the triumph of Ramsey’s ‘wingless wonders’ helped to institutionalise the dull, workmanlike ‘English’ style of play that stilted generations of players and is still being mocked on the international stage today.

To suggest any such thing in England now, however, is heresy. We cling to 1966 as the one distant beacon of light in an English Channel of footballing mediocrity. Yet it has also become something of an albatross around England’s neck. As Michael Ballack put it this week with surprising perspicacity, Germany are inspired by their football history – and England are intimidated by theirs.

Yet it seems there is no forgetting 1966, nor even putting it in some perspective. For decades, British politicians sustained the appearance of greatness by banging on about the Second World War, the Empire’s last great triumph on the world stage. Now even that long-ago historic victory is losing its political purchase on the public imagination (though it renders the British elite incapable of coming to terms with their diminished status in the world). But 1966 still dominates the mindset of English football and beyond in our age of ‘soccerism’. British leaders would love to be able to use national success in football as a substitute for politics and even posh prime minister David Cameron feels obliged to mark the World Cup by flying the Cross of St George over Downing Street and playing keepy-uppy inside Number 10 with Gary Lineker…

The little gold Jules Rimet trophy that England won in 1966 somehow weighs them down, with a mix of false expectations, delusions and fear, 44 years later. Italian manager or no, see how the team was stymied by caution and conservatism yet again versus the USA on Saturday. The weight of the dead (in football terms anyway) has rarely seemed to bear so heavily on the brains of the living.

But it does not have to be this way. As Marx observed in that same passage: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ Yet make it they can. And in Wayne Rooney, England at least have their best player since the real ‘golden generation’ of Charlton, Greaves and Moore 40 years ago. That is unlikely to be enough to get an average team near winning the World Cup. But with a different outlook they could get considerably closer than the distance between here and 1966.

Football is perhaps the one area of life where we can afford to be nostalgic and revel in the past without doing too much damage to the present. But even a football team will have to throw off the weight of history in order to make History. As Dizzee Rascal wisely recognises in his ‘Shout’ rap, alongside the obligatory doffing of baseball caps to ’66: ‘We’re tired of bragging about 40-odd years ago…Think about the future/Surely it’s the right time/I wanna see you win it in my lifetime…’

So long as we’re still in thrall to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous saying as Hurst bangs in England’s fourth goal in the 1966 final – ‘They think it’s all over. It is now!’ – it is likely it will be all over for England, all over again and again.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked. He will be writing on the World Cup for the next three weeks.

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