In the modern day, sports coverage is more informed by the 'tabloid' approach: often resorting to sensationalism and hyperbole. Newspaper coverage of football (or soccer, depending where you are in the world) in the United Kingdom is largely focused on scandalous stories of player’s private lives, complaining about how much money they earn, or – the current topic of concern – how the extraordinary sums of money being thrown around by the Chinese Super League clubs are going to ruin the sport.

That raises an interesting question: in the days before the tabloid approach took hold over sports coverage, how did the ‘newspaper of record’ cover England’s World Cup winning year in 1966? The coverage of England's run to their most famous victory looked very different to sports journalism in today's major newspapers, before the cult of celebrity made the players bigger than the sport.

 

Pre-tournament matches and the group stage draw

 

The road to the tournament wasn’t smooth. In January of 1966, England were held to a 1-1 draw by a young Polish side in the first match between the two nations. Played at Goodison Park, Bobby Moore redeemed himself by equalizing with a header after making the mistake that gave Poland their goal. Not helped by pitch conditions that were one of the “dominating factors” that “bogged down much of England’s fluid play”, England’s 6:1 shot ratio (with some poor luck) did not cover up the fact that “England as a side were disappointing”. In a line easily dismissed with hindsight, the correspondent wrote the day after the match (the day on which the World Cup draw was made): “Not that England played badly last night, but they scarcely looked as if they were going to be champions of the world” [view article].

 

The draw was seen as being kind to England, one of the two seeded teams (as hosts) along with Brazil (as current holders). England were drawn in group one against France, Mexico and Uruguay: three teams that England had beaten in their last matches against them, including an 8-0 victory over Mexico in 1961. The assessment for the early stages of the tournament was positive, and “taking a bird’s eye view of the whole picture, it would seem that England can have no complaints”. Reaching the knockout stages should be easy, but “whether Moore and his men can go beyond that and reach the semi-final round for the first time in history is something that will duly be unfolded” [view article].

 

Later in 1966, April saw England become British champions after a 4-3 victory over Scotland, reported in a story that carried the subhead “Misleading Guide to Chances in World Cup”: another victim of hindsight. The lacklustre defending of Scotland would not be replicated by countries like Italy and Argentina, the two tournament favourites. Despite the reassuring sight of England finally starting to score goals, “While punishing Scotland’s defensive errors professionally, England may need second thoughts about their rearguard”. There were some positives: the formation that was used inefficiently against Poland in January was “economically and fluidly used”, with Bobby Charlton particularly influential (it being no coincidence he missed that match against Poland, and the tactics did not work so well without him) [view article].
 

The tournament begins

 

By the opening day of the tournament on July 11th, there was a certain degree of optimism. Italy were firmly the tournament favourites, but another prophetic subhead announced: “England’s Chance Never Better”. In a competition in which “no one team seems eminently outstanding”, the correspondent nevertheless believed that England “will go no farther than the semi-finals”. This was the correspondent’s slightly dismissive response to Alf Ramsay’s unflinching claim from three years earlier that England would win the World Cup, a view he had not changed. Interestingly, the Italy manager, Edmondo Fabbri, had said the day before the start of the tournament that he could “see no other country than England winning on July 30”.

 

In a footballing world where tactical approaches and formation changes can be the difference between managers keeping or losing their jobs, it is reassuring that some things do not change. On the eve of the tournament in 1966, the correspondent suggested a pattern for the way teams play in the tournament that is still true to this day: “Each phase could well demand a different strategic approach. The emphasis at the beginning perhaps, more than ever, will be on defence as the various groups uncoil themselves. Later, as the last eight survivors take their places, we may see more of the fineries and the expressive, creative range of the game that, when played freely, can be a matchless spectacle” [view article]. Anybody who watched Germany’s 7-1 demolition of Brazil 50 years later in 2016’s semi-final will testify to that.

 

England’s group would have some significant matches: as first time hosts they would play their opening match against Uruguay (the first winners of the cup in 1930), and Mexico (who would host the next World Cup in 1970). After a 0-0 draw with Uruguay, they beat Mexico 2-0 in front of 85,000 fans, only their fourth victory in a World Cup match (though they had only appeared in four World Cups, and only had 16 matches in the tournament up to that point).

 

After the strong defensive performance holding England to a draw, Uruguay “proved themselves to be dangerous opponents to anyone” as they easily transitioned to a “a more versatile and adventurous performance” to beat France 2-1 [view article]. Going into the final matches of the group stages, it looked like England and Uruguay would progress. Uruguay would draw 0-0 with Mexico in their final game, securing their quarter final spot against West Germany.

July 19th: the day the landscape of the tournament changed

 

On the evening of July 19th, the road to the trophy looked to clear for England after two matches that changed the landscape of the tournament. At Ayresome Park, Italy - the pre-tournament favourites for many - lost 1-0 to North Korea. In a match that also saw Italy’s captain injured, they crashed out of the tournament, and North Korea looked set to face Portugal in the quarter finals, a result that “wrote a fairy tale into the history of the World Cup”, the North Korean commentator “left…with tears streaming down his face as he sent the fantastic news to the Far East” [view article].

 

The fairy tale came true: Russia beat Chile 2-1, and North Korea qualified for the quarter finals. Italy were subjected to the wrath of both government and fans on their return, with newspapers calling them a “Disgrace” in their headlines, M.P.s calling for explanations for the performance [view article], and being pelted with tomatoes and fists upon returning to the country with crowds of nearly 700 claiming they were “assassins, [who] dishonoured Italian sport” [view article].

 

On the same evening, Goodison Park witnessed a similar match that would shape the rest of the tournament: Brazil’s most influential player, Pele, was injured after half an hour, and they crashed out of the tournament after losing 3-1 to Eusebio’s Portugal. Their second 3-1 defeat in row, their previous match against Hungary had been their first World Cup defeat in twelve years, Portugal became their second. Brazil were gracious in defeat and rightly commended for it: “If Brazil now say goodbye they said it like real sporting champions, congratulating their opponents warmly, shaking hands with the referee and his linesman and saluting the crowd as they left”. Hungary would then beat Bulgaria 3-1, ensuring their place in the quarter finals.

England did the job at Wembley, beating France 2-0, scoring two goals in the last eight minutes. The pre-tournament worries about defensive frailty seemed to have evaporated: “England have reached the last eight as the only side in the field that has not yet conceded a goal”, but they “were not perfect”, being carried by Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore as they had for the run-up to the tournament. England were safely through, but the prospect of Argentina in the quarter final gave England “a difficult problem to solve” [view article]. Twenty years later, this World Cup quarter final would repeat itself, with Argentina this time beating England through Diego Maradonna’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal.

 

England’s performance in the early stages of the tournament was mixed, but by the knockout stages there was “no dominating team in the final stages”, and up to that point none of the tournament favourites had “really convinced in successive matches”. There had been “more attacking football than expected, with a mere four draws so far”, and the discipline showed by the teams was commended, with “only three penalty kicks and one man sent off”. It was not just the football itself that was getting praise. By the half way point of the tournament, it was being generally praised: the “general sportsmanship…has been above average”, with an average match viewing figure of 41,000 “surpassing any other World Cup” [view article].

 

With Jimmy Greaves ruled out through injury, the press were reserved about England’s chances heading into the match. Playing at Wembley would give them the chance to “circumvent the cleverly packed Argentina defence” due to the size of the pitch, and rain would almost certainly “point in their favour”. Argentina’s quick transition from defence to attack made them a “fiendishly clever side”, and the correspondent seemed reluctant to decide on a winner [view article].

The quarter finals: "a black day for South America"

 

England would make history, beating Argentina 1-0 to reach their first semi-final, but the match gained attention for more negative reasons. The correspondent gave a damning indictment of the game, concluding that “If England won narrowly, football itself lost widely”: “The 88,000 crowd hooted and booed, cheered and laughed in succession as the travesty of pushing, jostling, chopping, holding and tripping unwound”. IN fairness to the writer, he did point out that England were just as bad as Argentina, but the crowd were lucky that “an afternoon of brilliant sunshine that was draped in black came to a merciful end” at the final whistle. A seven-minute stoppage just before halftime saw players and officials nearly reach physical blows, with sympathy shown for the crowd, where “Thousands of pounds had been expended on a farce” [view article]. So much for the good discipline!

 

The match would also land Alf Ramsay in trouble afterwards, prompting FIFA to call for disciplinary action against him after a television interview in which he said “Our best football will come against the team who come out to play football and not act as animals”, which FIFA felt were remarks that “did not foster good international relations in football” [view article].

 

This was not exclusive to the England vs. Argentina match, in what was described as “a black day for South America”. West Germany beat Uruguay 4-1, with little sympathy for the latter from either the press or the crowd in attendance: “In five minutes of indiscipline early in the second half, they abandoned any claim to sympathy from spectators and all hope of survival to the semi-finals”. After Uruguay had their captain sent off for kicking the referee, they had a second player dismissed, leaving West Germany to pick them apart.

 

In the other two quarter finals, Russia beat Hungary 2-1 in an unspectacular match, while the match of the round was undoubtedly Portugal’s against North Korea, ending 5-3 to the Portuguese. North Korea scored three times in the first 25 minutes, displaying “neat constructive work”, but Portugal’s Eusebio would step up and almost single-handedly turn the game around. Scoring four goals and setting up the fifth, the opening line of the report says it all: “Eusebio; one word, one name is enough to explain Portugal’s climb from the trough of adversity to tomorrow night’s semi-final against England”. England knew who they needed to keep an eye on.

The semi-finals, where reputations were restored

 

In the semi-finals, West Germany beat Russia 2-1 in a game that hardly had the reporter enthused. A tie that proved to be “neither light-headed or light-footed, but a battle of dreadnaughts and of heavy armour”, with Germany helped by their 15,000 fans in attendance. A physical contest, “one could almost hear the crunch of tackles high up in the stand”, with Russian player Chislenko sent off just before half time, mere minutes after West Germany’s opening goal. The correspondent did pick out a potential weak spot in West Germany for whoever faced them in the final: after going 2-0 up, “…the Germans perhaps relaxed, feeling it was all over”, but Russian pressure meant “the Germans nearly paid for their arrogance”. The ‘heavy armour’ clearly had a gap in it [view article].

 

In the other semi-final, England finally conceded their first goal of the tournament in a 2-1 victory over Portugal, with two goals from Bobby Charlton enough to win the match – of course Portugal’s goal came from Eusebio, arguably the star of the tournament. Holding off relentless pressure from a “fine Portuguese side”, the two teams showed “no stultifying fear of defeat”, putting on a match that was “a triumph for the game of football itself sufficient to silence all the cynics” [view article]. The ‘blackness’ of dirty play in the quarter-finals was eradicated, and the match restored “the tarnished reputation of the competition, and the game, for it was played throughout in a thoroughly sporting spirit”. The Portuguese were singled out as a credit to sportsmanship, especially when “a number of their players were seen to congratulate Charlton on his second goal, and they were ready with their handshakes when the match was over” [view article].

Controversy on the way to the final

 

Despite the quality of the match, optimism for England becoming world champions was still very muted. As the correspondent wrote, “So now England play West Germany in the final on Saturday, and though every match is different let it be said here and now that never once in all their meetings have the Germans yet conquered England”. The final three words of the paragraph are the most telling: “We shall see”.

 

Controversy and debate already came to the fore before the final. In the semi-final against Russia, West Germany’s leading scorer Franz Beckenbauer had seemingly received his second booking of the tournament, meaning he should be illegible in the final. It would have been a significant blow for West Germany, but FIFA did not uphold the caution, with Herman Joch, secretary of the west German football association saying the decision “must have been an error. Possibly, the referee confused Overath with Beckenbauer, who did not protest because we do not encourage our players to do so” [view article].

 

On the English side of final preparations, Alf Ramsay played a more psychological game, “keeping Germany guessing” about his choice of players for the final up until the last minute, limiting preparation time. England knew that Beckenbauer would be “one of [the] greatest dangers” as “one of the outstanding players of the championship”. The German public were certainly confident in their team, with “a random poll of west Germans shows that 89 per cent think their team can win”, and the German press were bullish, with Suddeutschse Zeitung quoted as saying “we will win” [view article].

England are in the final, but there is not much optimism

 

There was still little real confidence that England would win from the English press. Despite reminding the public that England had won eight and drawn one of the ten games against West Germany (and yet to be defeated by them), and that Germany “always fear English football and with good reason”, their greater experience at the knockout stages of the tournament might prove decisive. Home advantage might narrowly have made England the favourites, but confidence was not absolute, with the paper stating that “even if Moore and his men just fail at this last touch they have done magnificently even to reach the final in a tough, uncompromising field, a feat many of us though beyond their capabilities” [view article].

 

The final became one of the most iconic of all time, England eventually winning 4-2, a match of “high drama…rich in excitement”. 93,000 people watched the match at Wembley, with an estimated 400 million television viewers around the world. The match was won by morale and stamina: “all were heroes”, especially Bobby Moore and Alan Ball who led by example. England did not “possess the greatest flair”, but won through by being “the best prepared in the field, with the best temperament based on a functional plan”. The limelight may have been stolen by Geoff Hurst, the first man to score three goals in a World Cup final match, but praise was given by the reporter to the whole team in equal measure.

 

There was no degrading of the opposition in the report: the Germans were “equally powerful physically, equally determined, equally battle-hardened”, and given absolute respect in the write-up of the game. The “honourable losers” were not just praised by the press, but by the crowd in the stadium, acknowledging the quality and resolve of their performance. Neither were the German fans disappointed by their team: on their return to Germany, “[had they] won the World Cup…the German team could not have been received home with greater enthusiasm than they were today”. “Received with honour” in Frankfurt, it provided a stark contract to the Italian team’s reception on their homecoming [view article].

How did the 1966 coverage journalism compare to today? Gossip, exposes, and muckraking are nowhere to be found. The closest they came was commenting on Alf Ramsay's outburst, but that was a question of lapsed decorum rather than an attempt to fuel controversy. The absence of celebrity allowed the journalism to focus on reporting the matches themselves, and relaying the action to readers, rather than treating the matches as a backdrop to the footballer's lives. Compared to our current climate, it is noticeable that the football coverage was about the football.

Rarely did The Times lapse into opinion or overt criticism of either the England team or the opposition: on the contrary, the pessimism was based on respect for the other nations rather than the desire to undermine the England players and criticise the performances, the most common undertone of modern day coverage. It may well be a long time before the BRitish press get to cover an England World Cup victory again, but the guarantee is the coverage will look very different to the last time.

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