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Oct 11, 2013

How the 1966 World Cup was won

Football Association chairman Greg Dyke has set England the target of winning the World Cup in 2022, replicating a feat that the country has achieved only once in its history.

As the memories of 1966 grow ever more distant, we look back on how Alf Ramsey's men became world champions.

The backstory

As the game's creators, England considered themselves football's standard bearers. When football grew in popularity around the globe in the early 20th century, British clubs would be paid to go on tour and educate and entertain the neophytes.

Satisfied that their greatness was assured, England had declined to compete in the World Cups prior to World War II, and certainly they retained a special standing in the game. When they did finally partake, though, it ended in humiliation.

The first-round exit at the 1950 World Cup may have been a little unfortunate, but it was revealing. In 1953, Hungary hammered home England's decline when, with a 6-3 victory, they became the first side from outside the British Isles to beat them at Wembley. A trip to face the same opponents in Budapest the following year saw Walter Winterbottom's men thrashed 7-1. Subsequent World Cups only emphasised the reality that, as other countries developed and excelled, England were left trailing.

Such was the sense of dissatisfaction with the team under Winterbottom that the FA had considered turning to leading foreign coaches such as Bela Guttman and Helenio Herrera after the quarterfinal exit to Brazil at the 1962 World Cup. Instead, it appointed Alf Ramsey, the inspirational Englishman who had led Ipswich Town from the third tier to the title.

Self-belief

Ramsey refused to tolerate anything but the highest aspirations. After officially taking charge in 1963, he announced: "We will win the World Cup in 1966."

He had been part of the team beaten 6-3 by Hungary in 1953 but would not accept the notion that England had been exposed as an inferior force. "Four of those Hungarian goals came from outside our penalty area," he said after what proved to be his final international appearance. "We should never have lost." Confidence in the majesty of English football was part of his makeup. In his first months in charge of the national side, England took on a Rest of the World side featuring legendary stars such as Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano, Eusebio and Lev Yashin, but Ramsey warned the visitors: "The FIFA team have been invited as artists with outstanding reputations. They will have to play up to them or we shall destroy them." England won the match 2-1.

In the face of a hostile English media, disenchanted with the post-war decline, Ramsey was restoring the notion his side were a genuine force. However, for a time results trailed rhetoric and, as Ramsey's men found their feet, they were savaged in the press. His first match in charge, a 5-2 defeat to France that saw England fail to qualify for the European Championship, was called "pathetically fumblefooted" in the Daily Mirror. In May 1963, a 1-1 draw with world champions Brazil appeared in a report under the heading "Ramsey's men slip even further from world class." When England were humbled in a mini-tournament in Brazil in 1964, the Daily Express headlined its coverage: "Ramsey style flops!"

Tactics

It was not until the end of 1965 that Ramsey hit upon the formula that would allow England to reach their potential.

In October that year, England had been booed from the field after a 3-2 home defeat to Austria, leading The Times to write: "Clearly this morning Mr Ramsey should be a troubled man." Just two months later, he found the solution: During a 2-0 defeat of European champions Spain, Ramsey unleashed his "wingless wonders".

The new system -- effectively a 4-1-3-2 -- brought a new midfield organisation that saw Bobby Charlton in a central attacking role, with two players, including the industrious Alan Ball, operating alongside him in the middle. "I think it was Alan Ball's form that prompted the change," Ron Flowers, a member of the 1966 squad, tells ESPN FC -- though he believes England "sort of fell into a system that didn't include proper wingers".

The width was provided by overlapping full-backs, while Nobby Stiles was used as an out-and-out ball winner ahead of the centre-backs -- which, he later told The Guardian, saw him "absolutely slaughtered" by a media pack unfamiliar with the role. He was, nonetheless, key to England's success as they hit form in the months leading up to the 1966 World Cup.

"The side just jelled at the right time," Flowers says. "I remember being sat alongside Jimmy Armfield on the tour of Scandinavia and Poland just before the tournament and saying: 'Nobody is going to beat this team.'"

Players

Where his predecessor had worked with a selection panel to pick the players, Ramsey took full control and, in the three years leading up to the World Cup final against West Germany, he tested out over 50. He was, though, blessed with a handful of clear world-class players. As Helenio Herrera noted in 1965: "England have the best talent."

"Each passing year has reinforced my belief that the boys of '66 were touched by genius," Armfield, a nonplaying member of the England squad, told the Daily Express in 1991. "Ramsey had a specialist in every position, including four world-class players in Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Gordon Banks and Geoff Hurst." Stiles, too, cited Bobby Charlton, goalkeeper Banks and centre-back Moore as "world-class players," and felt Everton left-back Ray Wilson had the same status.

Flowers, another squad player unable to break into the first XI at the finals, adds: "You don't win anything without good players, and the system was in place to develop good players. We were so good defensively."

At that time, the defence was considered by some to be the best of all time, and Manchester United manager Matt Busby said prior to the final: "Perfection is an ideal seldom achieved. The defence has almost achieved it."

Geoff Hurst had his chance only when the great goal scorer Jimmy Greaves suffered an injury, and he told this reporter in 2010 that squad depth makes or breaks sides. "You're playing a lot of games close together," he said, "and winning a World Cup is about winning all the games."

Spirit

After 2006, Sven-Goran Eriksson was attacked for allowing the players' wives and girlfriends to distract the squad. Four years later, Fabio Capello was blamed for failing to keep the players entertained. In 1966, Ramsey got it exactly right.

"We had a fantastic spirit going," Stiles recalled, while Armfield was "amazed" at the mood in the camp. "He forged the most formidable team spirit I have encountered at international level," the Blackpool defender added, crediting the manager for allowing the players to watch films, to visit Pinewood Studios, and not allowing the tournament to become an obsession.

As captain Bobby Moore noted ahead of the final: "Before the opening game against Uruguay, it was a job to fasten your bootlaces -- we trembled like jellies on a rough crossing. After that there has not been even a trace of nerves. The boys joke and gag and I think we are a length in front of the other team for the march out and our lads are still laughing. I cannot remember any team that has enjoyed their football so much."

Home advantage

"Nobody knows more than me and the other 10 players who played in the final how important and significant it is to host the World Cup," Hurst told ESPN. "Players on home ground are always likely to do better." Flowers, too, felt playing in England was "a big part" of the success, adding: "That Wembley crowd was special."

There are also those who believe that, with former FA secretary Sir Stanley Rous in charge of FIFA, England may have had a little extra help. The quarterfinal success came after Argentina captain Antonio Rattin was sent off by German referee Rudolf Kreitlein for "violence of the tongue".

Ramsey's men -- Stiles in particular -- had adopted a rough approach against a side considered contenders but, during an era when hard tackling was deemed acceptable in many European countries, the Argentines' more surreptitious attempts to bend the rules were deemed worthy of greater punishment. "I don't think he was going to be sent off but he kept on and on with his protests," Flowers says of Rattin. "He talked himself into being ordered off."

That dismissal can be attributed to cultural conflict, but the selection of a German official drew talk of conspiracy in South America in light of the fact an English referee was in charge of West Germany's controversial success against Uruguay in another quarterfinal. The Argentines dubbed their defeat "El Robo del Siglo" (The Robbery of the Century), and one Buenos Aires newspaper would describe England's eventual success as "a farce."

Flowers also believes the decision to move the semifinal against Portugal from Goodison Park to Wembley -- on the basis of attendance -- could not be considered decisive. "I don't recall the possibility that we might have played Portugal at Goodison, but my reaction is that we were such a good side we would have been favourites to beat them anyway," he says.

He accepts, however, that England did "obviously get a break" in the final, when they took a 3-2 lead against West Germany in the 101st minute as Hurst's shot cannoned down from the crossbar onto the goal line and back out. Linesman Tofik Bakhramov, mistakenly believing the shot had bounced down from inside the netting, signalled a goal, leading to outrage in Germany -- "Linesman decides world championship" was Die Zeit am Sonntag's interpretation. By the time it was finally established beyond doubt that the goal should not have been awarded, the matter was in every sense academic: Oxford University researchers concluded in the mid-1990s that the ball definitely did not cross the line.

That it was a decisive moment is without question, but England were able to add gloss to the scoreline when, as the game entered its dying moments, Hurst fired home his hat trick goal to seal a 4-2 win.

Reaction

"England are the champions," The Times reported. "They are still pinching themselves. So, too, are others of us, the sceptics, who from the start thought the feat beyond our reach."

Despite the doubts, despite the controversies, England's triumph was hailed across much of the world's press. "The cup is at home and deservedly so," Sweden's Aftonbladet reported. "England deserved victory not only yesterday but in the entire tournament, for they were the best team." Portugal's Diario de Noticias said England's victory was "fair", while Marca praised England's fighting spirit and physical fitness, and Paris' L'Humanite Dimanche called it "a triumph of strength and determination". Uruguay's El Pais declared: "The masters of football are now undisputed."

Their reign would not last but, for a time at least, the game's creators were officially its masters.

Ron Flowers was speaking to ESPN FC correspondent David Instone.

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