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Published: December 26th 2022
The genesis of this article is the extraordinary World Cup Final between Argentina and France last Sunday, December 18th, 2022. The greatest World Cup Final ever, it stirred memories of 1966 and other World Cups I have enjoyed.
England played in the 1958 and 1962 World Cup Finals, but I remember nothing about them. In 1962 I was a fanatical Spurs fan – my idol Jimmy Greaves – but the 1962 World Cup - with Jimmy playing for England - passed me by.
Then came 1966. Desmond Hackett’s Daily Express
report of the final, on yellowing paper, is among the memorabilia I have kept from my early life. Rereading it now, it is a pedestrian and clichéd piece of writing but has sentimental value. What a final that was! Geoff Hurst became the only man, until Mbappé last Sunday, to score a World Cup Final hat trick. Hurst’s hat trick was, arguably, better than Mbappé's, because all three of his goals came from open play, whereas Mbappé's included two penalties. Conversely, one of Hurst’s goals – the second that hit the underside of the bar – is still the subject of debate: did the ball cross the line or
not? And Hurst’s third goal, when England were leading 3-2 with a minute left, was facilitated by the entire West German team, desperate for an equalizer, being in the English half of the field.
I have other 1966 memories. Of World Cup Willie, the England mascot. Of Pickles, the dog that found the World Cup trophy after it had been stolen. Of Bobby Charlton’s long-distance screamer against Mexico. Of the great Eusebio being harassed by Nobby Stiles in the semi-final. Of North Korea leading Portugal 3-0 after 25 minutes but then being taken apart by Eusebio, who scored four goals in a 5-3 victory. And of the notorious quarter-final against Argentina, when Ratin was sent off, and Alf Ramsey described the Argentinian players as “animals
”. Alf was typically undemonstrative when England won the final; as everyone around him jumped for joy, he remained unsmiling in his seat.
Nothing quite compares with England’s triumph in 1966, but 1970 runs it close. This was the Pelé World Cup. He was part of a great Brazilian team that, defensively suspect, swept everyone aside with brilliant attacking football. They won all their games. Jairzinho scored in every game. Gerson delivered inch-prefect passes
and crosses, and Rivelino (nicknamed 'Revelation' by TV pundit Malcolm Allison) had the fiercest left-foot shot I've ever seen. In the semi-final Pelé sold the greatest dummy of all time to the Uruguayan goalkeeper. In the final, Pelé's headed goal and delayed pass to Carlos Alberto, who smashed home the fourth goal, were things of beauty. Until 2022, this was surely the greatest final.
Never have I seen a footballing team as exciting as the Brazil of 1970. They struggled, though, in the group stage against Sir Alf Ramsey’s (he was knighted in 1967) England, for whom Jeff Astle missed a sitter. Banks’s save from Pelé's powerful header was miraculous. And I’ll never forget Banks punching away Rivelino’s left-foot thunderbolt, a shot so powerful it was practically invisible.
I’ve always thought the 1970 England side might have beaten Brazil in the semi-finals if they had overcome West Germany in the quarters. Leading 2-0, England were let down by Peter Bonetti’s poor goalkeeping and by limp defence. If they’d been at full strength – Banks in goal and Jack Charlton at centre half (instead of Brian Labone) – they might have won. West Germany lost to Italy in the
semis. The sight of Beckenbauer playing with his arm in a sling after breaking a collar bone is indelible. I remember their manager, Helmut Schon, saying that if they’d reached the final, they would have lost 5-0 to Brazil. Such was the fire-power of those Brazilians.
My other memory of the 1970 World Cup is of watching the football on BBC but switching channels to ITV for the commentaries. The ITV panel – comprising Malcolm Allison, Derek Dougan, Bob McNab and Paddy Crerand – were vastly more entertaining than the staid old BBC pundits.
The 1974 World Cup Finals had three tremendous teams: Holland, Poland and West Germany. Holland were said to be exponents of ‘total football’ – meaning they were very fluid with players capable of playing in any position. They had, perhaps, the outstanding individual player of the 1970s: Johann Cruyff. Poland were a well-oiled attacking force with Deyna in midfield, a striker called Szarmach who had a walrus moustache and a deadly winger, Grzegorz Lato. Germany were formidable with Beckenbauer at the back and, leading the attack, the scoring machine Gerd Muller. England had failed to qualify for the finals after losing to Poland. A
mistake by Norman Hunter led to a goal that Peter Shilton might have saved.
In the group matches, Brazil were a bitter disappointment. The artistry of 1970 had been replaced by thuggery. Their formidable centre back, Luis Pereira, was sent off for a foul against Holland. Holland looked impregnable, reaching the final with ease.
The final between Holland and West Germany was refereed by Jack Taylor, a butcher from Wolverhampton. Before blowing his whistle, he noticed the corner flags were not in place, and the kick-off was delayed. The match opened in spectacular fashion with Cruyff receiving the ball for the first time, setting off on a dribble into the German penalty area and being brought down. Taylor correctly awarded a penalty, and Neeskens scored from the spot. West Germany, however, were resilient and scored twice before half time. Their first goal was a penalty, again correctly awarded by the superlative ref. The second came from ‘Der Bomber
’, Gerd Muller. Johnny Rep might have levelled the score but fluffed his chances. I felt that Holland were, by far, the more talented team. Poland, too, looked better than West Germany. However, German grit and home advantage saw them through.
The 1978 World Cup was won by Argentina, with Mario Kempes their star player and Daniel Passarella, later their manager, a commanding captain and centre back. Maradona was good enough to play but was only 17, so the manager left him out. Once again, England failed to qualify. I have no vivid or specific memories of this World Cup.
The 1982 World Cup was chiefly memorable for the brilliant Brazilian team that failed to reach the final. They scored many beautiful goals and had a player called Socrates. Against Italy, they scored twice but made some terrible defensive errors, and Paolo Rossi scored a hat trick. Italy went on to lift the trophy. A tragedy that Brazil did not win again, because this team was very special - probably the best team, along with Holland in 1974 and Hungary in 1954, not to win the World Cup. You can admire their superlative goals on Youtube.
1986 is, along with 1966 and 1970, the tournament I remember most vividly. The Maradona World Cup. I was in Cairo at the time and watched the games either in the Roy Rogers Restaurant inside the Marriott Hotel or at my friend’s
apartment. Probably no World Cup has ever been so dominated by one man. Messi was outstanding in 2022, Pele in 1970, Cruyff in 1974, but Maradona in 1986 was something else.
In 1986 the world knew little about Diego Armando Maradona. He burst upon the World Cup like a shooting star. Every time he received the ball, he seemed to do something special. This strongly-built little man had supreme skills, and the Egyptians adored him. Several cafes changed their name to ‘Café Maradona’. If an Egyptian asked me where I was from, I would say ‘Argentina
’, and a crowd of football fanatics would gather round to discuss their hero.
In the quarter-finals, Argentina defeated England 2-1 thanks to the infamous ‘Hand of God’ Maradona goal. But his other, legitimate, goal - a dribble from the halfway line - was sublime. When I went to Buenos Aires in 1996 to teach, the students asked me what I thought of Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal. I replied that it was cheating but that his other goal was fantastic. They realized then that I knew my football. In the semi-final, Belgium gave Maradona too much space and he punished them. He
had a quiet final but supplied the assist that allowed Valdano to score the winning goal.
In 1990 I was working in Cairo. Egypt had qualified for the finals for the first time in their history, and the football-mad Egyptians were going berserk. I had booked a flight back to England but decided I wanted to watch this World Cup in three countries: Egypt, Italy and England. The host country was Italy, and I wanted to sample the atmosphere of the World Cup there. I had visited Italy many times but had never seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa, so I asked my travel agent to book me a flight to England with a stopover in Pisa. After watching some games on Italian TV, I flew to England for the closing stages.
Argentina reached the final but, although inspired by Maradona, lost 1-0 to West Germany. Maradona at that time was playing for the Italian club, Napoli, and had guided them to two Serie A titles. The Napoli supporters were so besotted with him that many of them openly supported Argentina during this World Cup.
England did well to reach the semi-final against West Germany but lost
on penalties. My abiding memory is of Paul Gascoigne, England’s most creative player, breaking down in tears after being booked - knowing that if England won, he would miss the final. Gary Lineker, England’s star striker, realized that Gascoigne was emotionally disturbed and unfit to continue and signalled so to the England bench.
Maradona played in his third World Cup in 1994 and was looking fit and sharp until he failed a drugs test. That was the end of his World Cup career.
I have to say I found all the World Cups between 1994 and 2018 fairly bland. Not one of them compared with the thrillers of 1966, 1970, 1974 and 1986. I suppose I have become slightly blasé about sport in my old age, although a really good sporting contest – in football or cricket or boxing or tennis – still excites me.
During the 1998 World Cup, though, I had an interesting experience. I'd just finished a two-year stint of teaching in Buenos Aires and was watching the Round of 16 match between Argentina and England in a crowded pub in Birmingham. Everyone was supporting England - except me, that is. I knew what
winning the match meant to the people of Argentina, many of whom are dirt poor. I silently supported Argentina and was happy when they won the penalty shoot-out. If I had shown my true emotions, I might have been lynched because, after the 1982 Falklands War, there was a great deal of anti-Argentina feeling in the UK.
And so to 2022. Before this latest World Cup began, I felt sure it would be a flop. There is no football tradition in Qatar, and the afternoon heat would surely be unbearable for the players. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar. The workers who built the stadia had been treated badly, and many had died. There were rumours that the mega-rich Qataris had bribed FIFA officials into voting for Qatar. Then I began to see some positives. I learned that the stadia were, in fact, air-conditioned, so players would not be falling down from heat exhaustion. Perhaps staging a World Cup for the first time in the Middle East, in a country with no football tradition, was a good thing because it might stimulate interest. All Muslim countries oppose homosexuality, and so does the Roman Catholic Church, so picking on Qatar for
that reason was slightly unfair. There was no proof that FIFA officials had accepted bribes. The only blemish I cannot explain away is the appalling treatment of foreign workers, which cast a shadow over an otherwise excellent World Cup.
When they beat South Korea 4-1, Brazil looked amazing – their goals reminding me of the glorious teams of 1970 and 1982. I was shocked when Brazil lost to Croatia and switched my allegiance to Argentina. I wanted them to win because I had lived in Buenos Aires and because I revere Leo Messi. Winning the World Cup would be a fitting climax to the great man's career.
Well, Argentina did win. I watched the final alone, on Vietnam TV, in the privacy and comfort of my living-room, at 10pm. The great downside of watching the World Cup in Vietnam was that the matches took place at either 10pm or 2am, mostly the latter. I was a working man and needed my bed rest, so throughout this World Cup I relied on watching highlights of games the morning after. In retrospect, I should have watched the final in a noisy sports bar with English commentary and legions of fans,
but I never dreamed it would be such a classic.
Yes, this match had everything: six goals, including a hat trick by Mbappé and a brace from Messi; a stunning comeback by France after they had looked well beaten; and a dramatic penalty shoot-out. I wondered, though, about the French team; it had so many black players, it resembled a team from Africa. Time was when a French team was mainly white. In no way am I being racist; I’m just surprised by the high percentage of French players with African roots. Someone once said that eventually a team from Africa will win the World Cup; that happened when France won in 2018 and nearly happened again in 2022.
It gladdened my heart to see Messi victorious and named player of the tournament, but I was sad to read the obituary of George Cohen, England’s right back in 1966, who passed away just days after the final. Now only Geoff Hurst and Sir Bobby Charlton are left from that great team. Pelé , too, looks to be on the way out. On a more positive note, roll on the World Cup of 2026, set to be jointly hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico in a new and expanded format.
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