Today, 30 July, in 1966, England won the World Cup.The 1966 FIFA World Cup remains the most significant moment in English football. It is, to date, England’s solitary World Cup success. It has the iconic imagery of hat-trick hero, Geoff Hurst, lashing home England’s fourth goal as fans streamed onto the Wembley pitch.
Also his elegant skipper, Bobby Moore, hoisting aloft the gleaming Jules Rimet trophy has been seared into the national consciousness. 32.3 million viewers (roughly 60 percent of the population) tuned in to make it the most watched event ever on British television.
Alf Ramsey’s “wingless wonders” were a tactically-wizened team. Shielded by Nobby Stiles, England’s defensive backline of goalkeeper Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore, Jack Charlton, George Cohen and Ray Wilson proved almost impregnable. Offensively, England were organised meticulously around Bobby Charlton, whose supreme talents were allowed to blossom by the industry of Alan Ball and Martin Peters in midfield. Shorn of the attacking prowess of the injured Jimmy Greaves, Roger Hunt and Geoff Hurst stepped up to supply England’s goals. Difficult to beat, England easily topped their qualifying group, overcame an aggressive Argentinian side in an ugly quarter-final, before powering past a Eusébio-inspired Portugal to book their place in a Wembley showdown with West Germany.
The Times They Are a-Changin’
The world of which England were crowned champions was in the midst of profound political, economic and social change. The two world wars that had scarred the first half of the twentieth century were a fading memory. Few under the age of 25 were able to recall their horrors, while the older generations that could, did not want a return to the old political regimes and ideologies that had plunged the world into chaos.
The post-war prosperity and ‘baby boom’ of the 1950s pointed to the promise of a bright new future. New trends and social attitudes reflected this newfound optimism, and England’s triumph in the heart of ‘swinging London’ completed the ‘holy trinity’ of music, football and fashion that would come to redefine cultural life in Britain well into the twenty-first century.
Football, of course, had been a central feature of working-class life across much of Britain since the mid-nineteenth century. The game now, however, was not simply popular, it was fashionable. A new age of commercialism had arrived. Footballers would come to assume the celebrity status previously afforded only to actors and musicians, becoming as famous for their activities off-the-pitch as their performances on it.
Independence in Football
If the 1966 World Cup symbolised the social and economic changes experienced in Britain at that time, it was also a vector for the prevailing “wind of change” that was blowing through Africa. At the turn of the twentieth century, the “scramble for Africa” had seen the continent carved up and exploited by the great European powers. Some sixty years later, however, this age of empire was in retreat as a new spirit of nationalism and pan-African solidarity galvanised the politics of many across the continent.
At the forefront of this march towards independence was the Ghanaian politician, Kwame Nkrumah. When in 1957 Ghana became the first West African nation to achieve independence from British colonial rule, Nkrumah was elected as the country’s first president. One of the ways in which his pan-Africanism and internationalist instincts would be realised was through football. Nkrumah wanted to use the game to unite both Ghanaians and Africa as a continent. A year after gaining independence, Ghana was admitted to FIFA, and Nkrumah himself became instrumental in the expansion of the Confederation of African Football.
The Black Stars
Ghana’s victory at the 1963 African Cup of Nations made the Black Stars strong favourites to qualify for the 1966 World Cup. Named after the Black Star shipping industry line incorporated by the civil rights leader Marcus Garvey, the odds of the Ghanaian national team reaching England were stacked against them. Of the 16 nations who would take part in the 1966 tournament, the president of FIFA, Englishman Sir Stanley Rous, made just one place available to a representative from either Africa, Asia or Oceania.
The newly independent African nations were apoplectic. As well as being economically unfair, Nkrumah and his fellow African leaders were angered by the lack of FIFA’s recognition. Nkrumah instructed his Director of Sport, Ohene Djan, to put African football on the world stage, and Djan worked with the Ethiopian footballer-turned-sports administrator, Yidnekatchew Tessema, to mobilise the other African nations to threaten FIFA with a boycott of the tournament.
Making a Global FIFA
FIFA and Sir Stanley, however, rejected Africa’s demands. There was to be no African representation in England, and it was the eventual quarterfinalists, North Korea – who encountered a diplomatic row of their own before entering Britain – who qualified in their place. Yet two years after Africa’s boycott, FIFA unanimously voted to give Africa and Asia a World Cup place all of their own. For Rous, his ambivalence would cost him dearly. His rival at the next FIFA presidential election, the Brazilian João Havelange, had backed the African boycott, and in his campaign promised a more “global” FIFA. Havelange duly won, and while Europe remains to this day the central force in world football, Africa’s presence at subsequent World Cups steadily increased, growing exponentially as the overall size of the tournament has expanded from 16 to 24 and then 32 teams.
The Men Who Were Not There
In the years since Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy, football and society have changed to an almost unrecognisable degree. Yet it was 1966 that deepened football’s pre-eminence in social life, with England’s triumph signalling the start of an economic and cultural revolution that continues to this day.
Five African nations appeared at the last World Cup in Russia, and today players drawn from across the continent are celebrated at Europe’s biggest clubs. Yet the story of African football in the modern era cannot be told without Nkrumah’s commitment to pan-Africanism and the sacrifices that Ghana and other African nations made in boycotting the 1966 tournament. In terms of the global game, perhaps the most significant legacy of 1966 was bequeathed by those Africans who denied themselves the opportunity to appear in England on the greatest footballing stage of all.
Find out more
This article is based on research and usage of the various academic works, including the books England and the 1966 World Cup. A Cultural History, White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties and Africa, Football, and FIFA: Politics, Colonialism, and Resistance.
You may also find out more in the following scholarly articles “Let us rally around the flag”: football, nation-building, and pan-Africanism in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, The untold story of FIFA’s diplomacy and the 1966 World Cup: North Korea, Africa and Sir Stanley Rous and The diplomatic background to the 1966 football World Cup.
Today in 1966, England won the World Cup. This represented a key moment of change, both in post-war Britain and for the post-colonial politics unfolding across the globe.