Hugh McIlvanney on the World Cup 1966 ⋆ An Old International

Hugh McIlvanney on the World Cup 1966

What follows is a collection of quotes by Hugh McIlvanney who has passed away this week on the World Cup tournament 1966, held in England.

More than 50 years ago The Observer, England’s oldest Sunday paper assembled a team of five writers to cover the 1966 World Cup in England. The team were Hugh McIlvanney, Arthur Hopcraft, Bob Ferrier, John Arlott and Tony Pawson. What follows here is a slice through the book to present some of McIlvanney’s writing who sadly has passed away last Thursday (24 January 2019).

On the opening match between England and Uruguay he wrote:

“The evening of July 11, when at last it came, was brilliantly sunny, but the game that it brought was dark with omens of aridity. No one had expected an avalanche of excitement, for it was inevitable that the first, tense confrontation of the tournament should reflect the world-wide emphasis on defence, but we had the right to hope for something better: even the roughness was mainly a clinical contribution to the destructive tactics.”

He had no high hopes of the tournament. The story of the tournament is well known and should not be repeated all over again. Though some phrases McIlvanney coined during his long career have become classic lines such as this about the quarter-final between England and Argentina:

“England’s quarter-final with Argentina was not so much a football match as an international incident.”

The blame lay of course not solely with the Argentinians; the appointment of Rudolf Kreitlein, a German did not help:

“The likelihood of ill-feeling was not diminished by the appointment of a German, Rudolf Kreitlein, as referee and an Irishman, Harry Cavan, as FIFA’s commissar to oversee this match.”

Since Argentina have already had an encounter with the German team, surely their mood was not the best upon receiving this information:

“…their views on Teutonic fairness were slightly coloured.”

As if proven right, the referee was partly blamed by McIlvanney with his

inefficient and over-punctillious refereeing.”

Kreitlein was a “…small, rather comically imperious figure with a tanned bald head”

About Germany themselves McIlvannes witnessed their semi-final with the USSR and gave us an idea what the game sounded like

“If those who did not want to pay money to watch had hung around outside they might have been able to follow the game by ear, for its most memorable feature was the frequency with which the players met in tackles of audible ferocity. These were teams built and trained for the contact game and when their strong men collided it was with a crunching of bone and a tearing of sinews, awesome as a ramming at sea.”

The Germans were technically better but did not use to their advantage and instead engaged in a brutal match were both sides exchanged fouls and hard tackles. Russia were unlucky not to equalize and the journalist’s words are just perfect for the scenario.

“Porkujan leapt alone above the six-yard line and appeared to take aim in the air before striking the header. But when he did it was two feet too high. Porkujan clutched his head as if he were contemplating a replacement. He showed plenty of remorse but that is a debased currency among losers.”

The Final McIlvanney used to dish out some criticism towards his colleagues, namely the Daily Express and his chief writer Desmond Hackett:

” … The Daily Express, having decided that victory was inevitable (they must have been deeply insulted by the need to play extra time), concerned themselves with the details of the celebration. A drive of honour along the Mall and an appearance beside the Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace would, suggested Desmond Hackett, be the only ritual that would satisfy an ecstatic nation after the formality of collecting the Jules Rimet trophy. One wondered what would happen if Bobby Moore’s players were unfortunate enough to take a thrashing.”

After putting Hackett in his place he did the same with the Germans:

“Of course a little chauvinism was in order. Reaching the final was in itself a good reason for celebration and it was hard to sympathise with the German journalists and broadcasters who claimed to be appalled by the intensity of English reactions to the team’s success. Nationalism, of course, has not done as much damage in England as it has in Germany and men like Werner Schneider, the famous TV commentator, and Ulrich Kaiser, of the Sports Information Agency in Düsseldorf, admitted that their apprehensions were heightened by the experience of their own people.”

About Wembley he said that “Wembley does not always stir the spirit. As a football stadium it is overrated … The closer you come to the place the shabbier it looks, twin towers notwithstanding … But Wembley is lucky enough to have occasions that work a metamorphosis, … FA Cup finals can do that … one wondered if a World Cup Final could do as much … In the event, it did far more.”

Surely, Wembley 1966 did a lot for England and English football though that is a story that has been told time and again. The book in question is called World Cup ’66 and was published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in London in 1966. It offers match reports from all five contributors on ALL matches played and finishes with an outlook provided by Hugh McIlvanney. He finished by underlining the achievement of Geoff Hurst, to date the only player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup Final.

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