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Going to the World

June 14, 2010

I went to the World Cup in 1966. I was 14 and it was no big deal, at least, not in today’s terms. A friend and I sent away for tickets for three games at Everton’s Goodison Park. They arrived in the post and we were all set.

Getting there was easy too. A short walk to the local station  in the Southport suburb of Birkdale, and then a 25 minute train journey – the one I took to school every day, followed by a 15 minute walk to the ground.

As a Scot living in England, and in those pre-digital days, lacking much football news from north of the Border, I followed the England team’s preparations with mild interest. I don’t remember much about them being potential winners, just the controversy over whether the journeyman Roger Hunt should be preferred over the mercurial Jimmy Greaves in attack. I thought, and still do, that the choice of Hunt said all that needs to be said about Ramsay’s wingless approach to the beautiful game.

We were excited about going to the games, as you would expect any 14 year olds to be, but it was more about them being internationals, and seeing ‘foreign’ teams, than it was about it being the World Cup. There was inestimably less hype surrounding the whole affair then than there is now and those who weren’t interested in football took minimal interest in the whole show.

That’s  not to diminish its importance nor the sense of occasion, but it was about football rather than a sales opportunity for tv retailers and an advertising vehicle for multinationals.

The first game was Brazil v Bulgaria. The excitement was about Brazil – Pele and Garrincha, the goalie , Gilmar, and Santos the full back were all well known to us; the stir Brazil had caused in the 1958 Finals in Sweden had never really abated. Pele was the world’s best, but I specially wanted to see Garrincha – ‘the little bird’, the exquisitely gifted winger, with two ‘left legs’ after a car  crash.

However, there was mystery about the Bulgarians; there was very little football on television in those days – the Cup Final and Home Internationals, 30 minutes league highlights on a Saturday night and maybe 5 or 6 European and international games during the season. Very few foreign players played in the British Isles and, in addition, a very effective Iron Curtain meant we knew little about Bulgaria as a country, never mind its football.

I had started going to league games, at 4th Division Southport, three years earlier, so the gate of over 53000 was something new to me and there was also a strangeness in being part of a crowd of football enthusiasts, most of whom were there to enjoy the game rather than as supporters.

There was a small but noisy band of Brazilians and merely an official party of Bulgarians. Politically, as well as economically, the days of mass invasions by supporters were still far in the future, certainly from countries as far away politically as Bulgaria, or geographically as Brazil.

A feature of the games was the decision by the Liverpool crowd to support one side or the other. In this game it was clear that the Brazilians had our affections and there were some comical  attempts to approximate to the samba rhythms of the Brazilian drummer with familiar Merseyside handclapping.

Even without Brazil’s reputation, they would soon have gained the crowd’s sympathy as the Bulgarian’s quite cynically set out to intimidate the fast flowing Brazilians. They played in unadorned white strips with red edging on the sleeves, were all big, and, to our eyes, indistinguishable from each other, while the South Americans were in the more familiar, colourful, yellow, blue and green, and mesmerised us through Pele and Garrincha and their  cheeky skills.

In the end, it was a mix of emotions. We got to see Pele, he scored a great free kick and then the Bulgarians fouled him out of the whole competition, and with him any chance a fading Brazil side might have had. And I saw Garrincha score one of the best free kicks I’ve ever seen in nearly fifty years of spectating; I swear he bent it one way round the wall, and then the other way away from the keeper.  A great start!

The next game was, again, South America v the Iron Curtain, as Brazil took on Hungary. Ten years on from the Hungarian Revolution, I don’t know if the Iron Curtain was thinner in that area, but we certainly knew more about them than the Bulgarians. In particular we were aware of the skills of Ferenc Bene and Florian Albert, of Ujpest Dozsa and Ferencvaros respectively.

It was mixed feelings again, for me, and for many in the crowd; we wanted Brazil to be as great as they had been before, but we recognised the skills of Hungary, and, in addition, their base was a hotel not 200 yards from my house. They trained at Southport’s ground and also in the grounds of the hotel. Symbolic of the days that were in it, I used to go down to the hotel, watch them train and get all their autographs. Though I’m sure there were Hungarian Party officials keeping an eye on them, there was not a hint of the kind of security we would get these days, and I remember the friendliness of the players, especially Bene and Albert, as they signed my book and tried pidgin English, and, also, the smell of their aftershave!

(A sad aftermath to the fun of the autograph hunting: the entire Hungarian squad left without paying their bill and the following year the hotel closed for good, bankrupted in part by the Hungarians’ failure to meet their debts.)

The Hungarians scored first, through Bene, and  though  Brazil equalised through the youngster, Tostao, Hungary were just too good, running out 3-1 winners. It was a fantastic game, still claimed by many to be one of the best games ever in World Cup Finals, and enhanced by the Liverpool crowd, who were  eventually won over by the skillful Hungarians. There was a bigger crowd from Hungary than there had been from Bulgaria, and they made quite a noise. The Liverpudlians aped the sounds  they heard and ended up chanting Ooh Ooh Magyar, over and over again.

My pal and I were well pleased with our two games so far. Our last game would be a quarter final tie, but we would have to wait to see who would be playing.

Initially, we were disappointed to hear it would be Portugal v North Korea. The Portuguese, with their young sensation, Eusebio, were thought by many to be good bets for the Cup, but North Korea were an unknown quantity, and very much the freak side of the competition. True they had beaten Italy, but they had played their games in the North East of England, at Sunderland’s Roker Park and Middlesbrough’s Ayersome Park. In those days, with few motorways and infrequent domestic flights, the north east was pretty isolated and even from Merseyside, events up there seemed quite remote. In addition, if Bulgaria and Hungary had been mysterious, North Korea were truly the unknown. They operated behind a barrier of secrecy and few in the west had any idea of what life in North Korea was like. The players were uniformly dressed, all looked similar and had names with which  the BBC’s David Coleman had great difficulty: Pak Du Ik, Han Bong Jin and Yang Sung Kook.

So, though excited to be attending a World Cup Quarter Final tie, we were expecting a very one sided match with an easy win for Portugal. At least we would have the chance to see the new sensation, Eusebio, the Black Pearl.

Well, football thrills by producing the unexpected. What we got was one of the most incredible games of all time. North Korea scored in the first minute, and after 25 minutes were 3-0 up. This was amazing stuff and the Liverpool crowd were as close to hysterical as I have ever heard a football crowd. Much as we admired the Portuguese, the whole country had fallen in love with the cheerful wee men from the east and now it seemed an unprecedented result was on the cards. The crowd roared, the Koreans skipped and buzzed……and then Eusebio made his mark. Four goals from the magician and the final score returned us to the reality of 5-3 to Portugal.

It was  a brilliant, enthralling game where sympathy for the plucky underdogs was equalled by appreciation of Portugal’s mastery, especially in the guise of Eusebio. Again, often talked of as one of the most intriguing games of all time, I hadn’t seen anything like it till I attended Motherwell 6 6 Hibs a few weeks ago, where Motherwell came back from 2-6 down. The difference was that, all those years ago, that game was based on wizardry; my recent experience, for all its excitement, was largely based on errors and poor play.

So that was my World Cup experience in 66. I was already an avid attender at live football, but I suspect these games in July 66 confirmed me as a life long football supporter.

We all expected Portugal to win the cup after that display, but they fell to England in the semi final, and, as we all know, the rest was history – and a particularly difficult time for a teenage Scot living in England.

The other night I watched South Africans interviewed on what the World Cup meant to them. Life has pulled so many foul tricks on those people and yet, compared to the cynical attitudes evinced in the western hemisphere, their sheer joy at the event was tangible and very genuine. I was moved nearly to tears as I recognised in those wildly celebrating people a lot of the simple enjoyment and wonder engendered in this writer as a fourteen year old in those distant black and white days of 66.

Did we appreciate it? Not then, I don’t suppose. This was the decade of the Beatles, Swinging Britain, the 68 Paris Riots and the Moon landing. My generation thought life would always be that exciting, that the likes of Pele would always be at the end of a short train journey, and that sport would always be valued for its own sake.

Life has taught us different, but, anyway, long live the World Cup!

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