The World Cup happily defies neutrality
In this story:
June 12, 1998
Web posted at: 11:00 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT)
PARIS (CNN) -- There's no question football is quite rightly
the world's most popular sport.
Outside of possibly the United States, where it's known as
soccer, nearly every young boy dreams of playing for his
favorite football club or representing his country to score
the winning goal in the World Cup final.
And this, as you are discerning, is a less than completely
neutral observation of the game and its championship, now
under way in France.
England team players greeted fans during practice this week in La Baule, France
The year was 1966. I was 10 years old and, like thousands of
my London contemporaries, I had World Cup fever. England was
hosting the event that summer and, despite a somewhat
unimpressive start, went on to win the Cup.
I can still name the winning team members and those who
scored in each of England's matches, among other vital
statistics. No other World Cup was as memorable to me, even
though 32 years and seven other Cups have come and gone.
It was, without doubt, the most satisfying moment in English
football, which, let's not forget, is the precursor of them
all. The first football clubs were English, founded in the
1850s. Nottingham County, a team just promoted to the
English first division, has been around since 1867.
But back to 1966. The exploits of goalkeeper Gordon Banks,
captain and central defender Bobby Moore and key scorer
Bobby Charlton, of the devastating left foot (and now "Sir"
Bobby), have entered the realms of legend. Ever since, all
England teams inevitably have been compared with the boys of
The comparison has rarely been favorable. England managed to
come fourth in the 1990 World Cup, hosted by Italy, but
otherwise its performances have been less than adequate for
But I was hooked, back in 1966. An inspired performance, a
local hero, an extraordinary team -- all help to grab the
imagination of youngsters in any sport.
We all played football at school and during breaks. I played
other sports, as we all did: cricket in the summer, rugby in
autumn and running in the spring term at school.
It was good to do well in those sports, too, of course. But
at least on our fields, those football knockabouts produced
more passion and delight than scoring a six in cricket ever
And the satisfaction of scoring a goal with a devious flick
of the ankle, or dribbling past hapless defenders, or
kicking a thundering volley (just like Bobby Charlton) is
something I still get a kick from today (no pun intended).
The '60s were a glamorous decade for the game. Footballers
achieved the status of pop stars. The Beatles reigned
supreme, and football was part of the "scene."
All this rubbed off on a soccer-mad kid. Growing up in the
heart of London, my team was Chelsea. It's where I lived and
where, although I was oblivious to it at the time, the
miniskirt was invented.
Within a few months of England's victory, I moved to Rome. I
remember feeling vastly superior to my new Italian friends.
They were, in my mind at least, suffering from their
national team's humiliating exit in the 1966 Cup at the
hands of the unfancied North Korea.
Soon it was 1970, and the World Cup was being hosted by
Mexico. England, as the defending champion, did not have to
go through the two-year process of qualifying.
I had returned to London once more, and confidence was high
that the squad would give a good account of itself. After
all, the key players from '66 were still there.
England was drawn to play in the same group as Brazil -- and
the incomparable Pele. It was one of the best matches in a
World Cup with many memorable games.
Brazil beat England 1-0 in a hard-fought contest. Today in
England, the match is still best remembered for an
outstanding save (some say the best ever in the history of
the game) by England goalie Gordon Banks from a header by
that man Pele.
England won its other two group matches and qualified for
the quarterfinals, where it met West Germany in a rematch of
the 1966 final in London. England was winning 2-0, when the
Germans scored twice in the last 20 minutes and won 3-2 in
Like England's defense, my world had collapsed. England was
the champion no longer, and it was to be 12 long years
before the team even qualified for another World Cup.
Now it's 1998. England is taking part in the Cup, and, as I
have done ever since 1966, I will be watching and supporting
To a rational observer, perhaps, the current England squad
has no chance of winning. Brazil (again), Germany (revenge
would be so sweet!), Italy, Argentina and the host, France,
are the favorites.
But for the once 10-year-old fan who followed England's
triumph, football is still the stuff of dreams.
I have my ticket for the Paris final on July 12. And who
knows, the white shirts of England, with the three lions on
their badges, just may be there, too.
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