How I won the World Cup (from the comfort of my sofa)

A nostalgic look back at sports games of the past.

I don't like to boast but, in my time, I've scored a goal in the World Cup Final, got a hole-in-one at St Andrews and beat Roger Federer on a grass court. That's because, in the virtual world, it doesn't matter if you have two left feet, so long as your thumbs are in tip-top condition.

Sports computer games have been around pretty much since the beginning of the medium and even though real-world sport completely passes me by, I've played a surprising amount of it from my sofa.

The first video game I ever played was a cricket simulator, its code lovingly typed from a computer magazine into my older brother's ZX Spectrum.
The gameplay was not thrilling: after spending what seemed like an age debating where to put your fielders -- what if I went crazy and just played everyone in the slips? -- you got to the match.

The bowler did his run-up, the ball-pixel whistled across the green-and-white screen and then the moment of truth came . . . "Run (Y/N)?" Edge-of-the-seat stuff.

In the early days of home computing, developers had a crack at making titles around some unlikely sports. World Games on the Commodore 64 allowed you to prove yourself at log-rolling and sumo wrestling (sadly not at the same time), while an entire generation ruined their wrists through the frantic waggling of the joystick required to triumph in Daley Thompson's Decathalon. (To this day, my house mate James claims to have invented a new and better way of playing this. He is unwilling to reveal his secret, save that it involved a sock.)

Daley's success kicked off a lucrative trend for popular sportsmen -- and, occasionally, women -- to lend their names to games. There was Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (yes, with two exclamation marks) on the Nintendo, from the pre-ear-chomp era; it featured some pretty brisk racial stereotyping, although at least the Russian boxer called "Vodka Drunkenski" earlier in the Punch Out!! series had been changed to "Soda Popinski". He still did a Cossack dance, though. And sparred alongside a Spaniard called Don Flamenco and a German called Von Kaiser.

There was more innocent fun to be had in Graham Gooch's Cricket, which was followed by Brian Lara Cricket; while the modern era has Tiger Woods PGA Tour, released every year since 1998 with the grim inevitability of a tax return. You might ask if golf changes drastically enough in 12 months to justify EA trying to charge you £49.99 for an updated version. But that's why you'll never succeed as a games publisher -- because they sell extremely well, even since Tiger's unfortunate stumble in the rough. The latest version boasts a "sumptuous and flexible" control scheme, so there's that.

Champing at the bit

The most popular sport in video-game land, unsurprisingly, is football. And what is the best football game? The popular vote right now would go to Fifa, another EA mega-brand, which has overtaken Pro Evolution Soccer to sit on top of the charts like . . . well, Arsenal? (Or was it the other lot?)

Most gamers over 25, meanwhile, will have a special place in their heart for 1994's Sensible Soccer -- "Sensi" -- which was so good that it was placed in a canon of ten games worth preserving for posterity at Stanford University.

I've dabbled in both of these but they were a bit too footbally for my liking. My choice would be the magnificently epic Championship Manager series.

If you love statistics, you'll love "Champ Man", which puts you in charge of a team of low-grade layabouts and challenges you to skilfully navigate the transfer market to craft them into a world-beating force.

I discovered it during my final year at university, and -- given that the alternative to guiding Ibrahima Bakayoko and team-mates to European glory was translating Piers Plowman -- it might be that I can't make an objective assessment. But I have to tell you, in the closing seconds of the final, when the screen flashed "GOAL!", there was a moment when I thought: oh, this sport thing. This is what everyone sees in it.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

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The joy of only winning once: why England should be proud of 1966

We feel the glory of that triumphant moment, 50 years ago, all the more because of all the other occasions when we have failed to win.

There’s a phrase in football that I really hate. It used to be “Thirty years of hurt”. Each time the England team crashes out of a major tournament it gets regurgitated with extra years added. Rather predictably, when England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016, it became “Fifty years of hurt”. We’ve never won the European Championship and in 17 attempts to win the World Cup we have only won once. I’m going to tell you why that’s a record to cherish.

I was seven in 1966. Our telly was broken so I had to watch the World Cup final with a neighbour. I sat squeezed on my friend Colin’s settee as his dad cheered on England with phrases like “Sock it to them Bobby”, as old fashioned now as a football rattle. When England took the lead for the second time I remember thinking, what will it feel like, when we English are actually Champions of the World. Not long after I knew. It felt good.

Wembley Stadium, 30 July 1966, was our only ever World Cup win. But let’s imagine what it would be like if, as with our rivals, we’d won it many times? Brazil have been World Champions on five occasions, Germany four, and Italy four. Most England fans would be “over the moon” if they could boast a similarly glorious record. They’re wrong. I believe it’s wonderful that we’ve only triumphed once. We all share that one single powerful memory. Sometimes in life less is definitely more.

Something extraordinary has happened. Few of us are even old enough to remember, but somehow, we all know everything that happened that day. Even if you care little about the beautiful game, I’m going to bet that you can recall as many as five iconic moments from 50 years ago. You will have clearly in your mind the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous lines, as Geoff Hurst tore down the pitch to score his hat-trick: “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now”. And it was. 4 - 2 to England against West Germany. Thirty minutes earlier the Germans had equalised in the dying moments of the second half to take the game to extra time.

More drama we all share: Geoff Hurst’s second goal. Or the goal that wasn’t, as technology has since, I think, conclusively proved. The shot that crashed off the cross bar and did or didn’t cross the line. Of course, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you will know that the linesman, one Tofiq Bakhramov, from Azerbaijan (often incorrectly referred to as “Russian”) could speak not a word of English, signalled it as a goal.

Then there’s the England Captain, the oh-so-young and handsome Bobby Moore. The very embodiment of the era. You can picture him now wiping his muddy hands on his white shorts before he shakes hands with a youthful Queen Elizabeth. Later you see him lifted aloft by his team mates holding the small golden Jules Rimet trophy.

How incredible, how simply marvellous that as a nation we share such golden memories. How sad for the Brazilians and Germans. Their more numerous triumphs are dissipated through the generations. In those countries each generation will remember each victory but not with the intensity with which we English still celebrate 1966. It’s as if sex was best the first time. The first cut is the deepest.

On Colin’s dad’s TV the pictures were black and white and so were the flags. Recently I looked at the full colour Pathe newsreel of the game. It’s the red, white and blue of the Union Jack that dominates. The red cross of Saint George didn’t really come into prominence until the Nineties. The left don’t like flags much, unless they’re “deepest red”. Certainly not the Union Flag. It smacks of imperialism perhaps. In 1966 we didn’t seem to know if we were English or British. Maybe there was, and still is, something admirable and casual about not knowing who we are or what is our proper flag. 

Twelve years later I’m in Cuba at the “World Festival of Youth” – the only occasion I’ve represented my country. It was my chance to march into a stadium under my nation’s flag. Sadly, it never happened as my fellow delegates argued for hours over what, if any, flag we British should walk behind. The delegation leaders – you will have heard of them now, but they were young and unknown then – Peter Mandelson, Trevor Phillips and Charles Clarke, had to find a way out of this impasse. In the end, each delegation walked into the stadium behind their flag, except the British. Poor Mandelson stood alone for hours holding Union Jack, sweltering in the tropical sun. No other country seemed to have a problem with their flag. I guess theirs speak of revolution; ours of colonialism.

On Saturday 30 July BBC Radio 2 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final, live from Wembley Arena. Such a celebration is only possible because on 16 occasions we failed to win that trophy. Let’s banish this idea of “Fifty years of hurt” once and for all and embrace the joy of only winning once.

Phil Jones edits the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. On Saturday 30 July the station celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final live from Wembley Arena, telling the story of football’s most famous match, minute by minuteTickets are available from: www.wc66.org