Football, as we know it today, was created in England in the 19th Century, with rules solidified by the formation of the Football Association in 1863. After FIFA was founded in 104 and after managing other international competitions, began the World Cup in earnest in 1930. While England was responsible for the modern game, it would not win the competition for 36 years and, despite some close attempts, has not done so since. Thus, in England, the 1966 World Cup victory is viewed with reverence, a moment when England stood tall in the game it invented.
England won the chance to host the World Cup in 1960, being the first nation that was directly affected by World War II to play host. After the war, all the host countries had been neutral or outside of the active conflict area, including Brazil, Switzerland, Sweden, and Chile. In being selected as host, England managed to beat out bids from West Germany and Spain. Unfortunately, before the World Cup even started, the competition was marred with controversy. FIFA originally wanted 15 teams from Africa and the Middle East to participate. Still, after a 1964 FIFA ruling that meant three African winning teams would face off against three Asian teams in the second round, thirty-one nations from Africa boycotted the 1966 competition.
Despite being the host, the path to the Final for England was not an easy one. The first match in the group state against Uruguay resulted in a draw. Still, England successfully won its next match against Mexico 2-0, which was then followed by another win against France to finish in the top of their group. Going into the Quarterfinals, England faced Argentina in a touch match but ultimately came out on top with a 1-0 win, followed by a 2-1 victory in the Semifinals against Portugal. Despite the loss, the Portuguese earned a reputation for good sportsmanship after they players congratulated Bobby Charlton on his second goal and readily shook hands with the English team after the loss. Up to this point, England had played as if possessed, with an attack led by Charlton and Geoff Hurst that did not concede a goal until that Semifinal.
Despite all the victories, England fans were anxious about the prospect of facing West Germany in the Final. England had only lost one match and drawn one match against the Germans in the teams’ last ten meetings, Germany had much better luck in past World Cup knockout stages. It was a kind of apprehension that hung in the air where the English public realized the team had advanced so far that the only options left were to win or lose. However, none of this concerned England manager Alf Ramsey, who opted to keep the Germans on their toes by not giving out his final roster until the last minute.
The fears of England fans seemed almost assured when West Germany scored the first goal twelve minutes in at Wembley. England came back to tie it up at halftime and then another goal after winning a corner in the 77th minute. Hearts stopped when Germany got the equalizer at the tail end of the match to send things into overtime. England’s third goal has proved to be eternally controversial as Hurst’s shot hit the underbar before falling down on the goal line and bouncing away. The teams, of course, were divided on whether the goal counted, and after the refs consulted, they gave the goal to England to make it 3-2.
England managed to keep the win from being entirely controversial when it scored again in the last minute of play. West Germany opted to send its defenders out to make a desperate last-ditch effort to tie and keep play going. Bobby Moore then spotted Hurst uncovered and made a long pass which Hurst capitalized on for a 4-2 victory. As the match came to a close, announcer Kenneth Wolstenholme made one of the most famous calls in history as he saw England fans already trying to invade the pitch, saying “And here comes Hurst…he’s got some people on the pitch, they think it’s all over. It is now! It’s four!”
In the aftermath, the team members became legends. It’s little wonder that many of the names on that squad—Charlton, Moore, Hurst, Banks—are known as some of the greatest footballers to ever play. It’s a moment spoken with veneration by England fans even today. Every team since is compared to the 1966 victors, perhaps no more so than Gareth Southgate’s 2018 team that made it to the Semifinals before losing to Croatia. It’s unknown when another England team will make it to a final, much less win, but every four years, a mixture of worry and hope is felt across the nation. Every four years, the ghosts of 1966 rise as England dares to believe that another national team could repeat this win.