This Saturday, it will be fifty years since England won the World Cup. Funny really; that final took place just over 12 years before I was born but I can tell you more about it than a lot of games that I’ve actually seen. Odd, too, that so much attention is being devoted to looking fifty years back into the past at a time when our present-day national side has been doing so monumentally badly. But maybe that’s the point; if dwelling on the present – or rather, the recent past given that that infamous defeat at the hands of Iceland was over a month ago – is just depressing, why not opt for wallowing in history, or rather history as remembered in the warm fuzzy glow of nostalgia?
Why do we English (and I include myself in this, for the only England football shirt I own is a replica of the red, heavy cotton one as worn for that game) look back so fondly to 1966? Simple – it is the only time our national side won, well, anything of note, and football fans are a notoriously nostalgic lot. It’s ubiquitous at club level; every club has its own specific time-period that its supporters fondly look back upon – there’s a whole sub-culture that includes but is by no means limited to retro shirts, long-retired pros revered by grown men who saw them play years ago and various publications (of which more shortly). Internationally I suppose that it is the same with other countries. I have, for example, met Hungarians who’ve been more than happy to remind me about what happened when Puskas and co. turned up at Wembley in ’53.
With unusually good timing, I have recently been reading a book called 4-2 by the film critic David Thomson; published in 1996, it is to all intents and purposes a blow-by-blow account of that famous final, interspersed with various diversion which touch on snippets of autobiography and the exploration of themes such as the nature of football fandom, the tradition of the English as ‘good losers’ and the contrast between living in a (football-induced) dream and getting on with life – shades, perhaps, of Fever Pitch here which is somewhat appropriate as it came out at the height of the mid-Nineties football literature boom. It’s an engrossing read, with the best part (in my opinion) being the seven-page chapter on Geoff Hurst’s second goal – you know the one I mean, don’t you?
4-2 was originally published to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of that World Cup win, meaning that it first hit the bookshops just before Euro 96 started. There was plenty of nostalgia about 1966 back then, and there is now a growing sense of football-related nostalgia about 1996. What with England having only ever won one major international football tournament, failed campaigns – not the bad ones like Euro 2016 and the World Cup two years ago, but the ones where England were genuinely in with a shout of getting to the final – are also being celebrated. Earlier this year, a book called When Football Came Home by Michael Gibbons was published; it tells the story (with the benefit of twenty years-worth of hindsight) of Euro 96; it’s a fascinating read even for those of us who think we remember it all (we don’t; memory can play strange tricks, sometimes) although the title, a play on the chant from the Baddiel & Skinner song, is hardly original (Des Lynam used it for a BBC doco on the tournament several months after it took place).
Gibbons resolutely refuses to buy into the rose-tinted view that England were brilliant – they weren’t; a few sublime moments (the bits everyone remembers) obscured what was basically an OK side that had the benefit of home advantage. The high point, the 4-1 win over the Netherlands – a match that was analysed in some detail in Jonathan Wilson’s superb book The Anatomy of England six years ago – is summarised thus: “In football the result is sacrosanct, and can drench any performance with a tin of industrial gloss. The received wisdom that has developed since the 4-1 – that England battered the Netherlands in open play – is spurious … the Netherlands had enjoyed more shots, more corners and more possession than their opponents … England didn’t outplay the Dutch, but they did outscore them.” Overall, Gibbons has done a great job in a book which doesn’t flinch from portraying the tournament as the mediocre, poorly-attended (Wembley aside) affair that it really was; even the ugly side of Euro 96, such as the accompanying violence and the ever-odious behaviour of Piers Morgan, gets an airing here.
As if there wasn’t enough footballing nostalgia in the air already, I have contributed something to it myself – although my latest published article is not about 1966 or even 1996, and it doesn’t concern England. There is a link with the 1966 World Cup, but only in passing – Eusebio, the highest scorer in that tournament, features in this story. It is the story of how the unfancied Toronto Metros-Croatia managed, against the odds, to win the North American Soccer League forty years ago this summer. My interest in football on the other side of the Atlantic was aroused when I found out that Toronto has its own MLS team, and I was intrigued to find that Toronto’s footballing history goes back way before Toronto FC joined said league in 2007. My retelling of the story of Toronto’s forgotten footballing triumph – and it’s a fascinating underdog story involving an ageing star, a player walk-out and a training-ground bust-up among other things – can be read in the latest edition of the retro football magazine Backpass. No prizes for guessing what the main focus is in the rest of the magazine...