England’s victory in the 1966 football World Cup is one of the most celebrated events in 20th century British sport. Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick, the disputed third goal, the commentator’s line ‘They think it’s all over!’ have become legends. But at the time, during the tournament itself and in the weeks afterwards, England was the subject of widespread popular hostility in some parts of the world, especially in South America.
World Cup football is extremely important in South America. Of the seven World Cup tournaments before 1966, South American countries had won four times: Uruguay twice and Brazil twice. However, of the three South American teams in the 1966 World Cup, Brazil failed to qualify in their group, and Uruguay and Argentina were both knocked out in the quarter finals.
The South American protesters claimed that England, also the hosts, had rigged the whole tournament, with the help of West Germany. They particularly complained about the referees. English officials refereed most of Brazil’s games. The England-Argentine match was refereed by a German; it was a bad-tempered match and the England manager, Alf Ramsay, described the Argentinians afterwards as ‘animals’. The West Germany-Uruguay match had a British referee and two Uruguayans were sent off. Strong anti-British feeling showed itself all over South America.
The World Cup
In the early 20th century, football between national teams took place as part of the Olympic Games. Then clashes developed between the Olympic organisers, who insisted on everyone taking part being amateurs, and the professional game. Several teams pulled out of the 1928 Olympics and called on FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) to organise an international tournament. This was held in 1930 in Uruguay. Few teams outside South America were prepared to make the long trans-Atlantic sea journey and only 13 took part. The trophy, a gold cup called the Jules Rimet trophy after the Frenchman who played an important part in FIFA, went to Uruguay. They won an exciting final 4-2 against Brazil in front of a record crowd of 200,000.
The 1966 World Cup was the 8th tournament. The next one, in 2014, will be the 20th.
South American dominance
Traditionally South American nations had not been seen as playing a big part in world affairs and were not even regarded as great all-round sporting countries. However, even by 1966, they had unquestionably dominated World Cup football. To date, South American countries have won eight of the 18 World Cups: Uruguay twice (1930, 1950), Argentina twice (1978, 1986) and Brazil no less than five times (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002). In Europe, only Italy (four times, 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006) and West Germany (three times, 1954, 1974, 1990) have come near to challenging this South American dominance.
Britain sends ambassadors, or other representatives, to most foreign countries. These people live there and have a two-way role:
- to keep the British government in London well-informed about events
- to promote the reputation and interests of Britain in the country where they are living
The topics they usually deal with are trade, tourism, military affairs and diplomacy. It was unusual for football to become the subject of such a flurry of diplomatic messages as took place in 1966. There is clearly some uncertainty on the part of both the Foreign Office and Embassy staff as to how to handle the issue.
Diplomatic messages are usually secret. The law concerning secrecy at that time in Britain was that government documents should normally be open to the public after 30 years. However, the documents are reviewed prior to release and some can be held back for longer.
This is not just a football story, although the fact that the World Cup is at the centre of the row may draw in some students.
This is a story about football taking over other parts of life, including international relations. Should it? Why shouldn’t it? If, as Bill Shankly famously said, ‘Football is not just a matter of life and death: it’s more important than that’, then this is a story about real concerns breaking in on the comfortable world of diplomacy. One can sense, in the part-jokey, part-serious tone of the exchanges between the diplomats, that they are not sure how to handle it. This uncertainty can also be seen in their eventual decision to do nothing. But it must have been important enough to delay release of these documents for four years beyond the normal 30.
Sources 1 and 2 are taken from FO 953/2334. The advertising image is COPY 1/304/296.
1966 World Cup at FIFA.com
FIFA’s page on the competition contains a photo gallery, video clips, the official tournament poster and full results of all the matches.
BBC On This Day: 30th July 1966
The BBC combine memories of the final match with video of the fan reaction to the win back in Britain and audio from the famous commentary.