World Cup News

<strong>Taken from the <em>New Statesman</em> archive, 8 July 1966.</strong>

Scepticism about the

Let me bring you up to date before we or Uruguay kickoff in 84 hours times. First, at the opening ceremony watched by billions, the Queen will give a prize to any foreign visitor who has discovered what our World Cup stamps mean (we don't care). The 4d one is particularly intriguing – two left-footers in individual combat, at least one them kicking the air with gusto. The red-blue player must be Chilean, while the all-blue one is a country-less ghost: maybe that's why he's allowed to dangle his foot under the Chilean's nose (breach of Law 12, section on indirect free-kicks, clause l). The 6d and 1s 3d stamps are goalmouth scrambles of the type that brings soccer into disrepute. On the one, another ghost is charging the goalkeeper in the air; admittedly, the keeper is holding the ball, but he can only just have caught it, during the charge. On the other, what must be an Argentinian (blue and white stripes) climbs on an opponent's shoulder in order to head; a straightforward foul (Law 12, clause g).

How easy it would have been to reproduce photographs of some of the world's greatest players in characteristic action. Nobody would have objected to singling out Pele or Eusebio, and only Ramsey would have objected to including Greaves. Would have, but no longer. For this is my second piece of stop-press news: Ramsey and his journalistic support have discovered that England's leading scorer – 43 goals in 51 internationals – might score goals. It is indeed surprising that they haven't yet talked our striker out of it. With this discovery, our World Cup chances increase, all the more so since Mexico and France, unlucky members of our group, promise to be weaker than Poland last Tuesday. In fact, of the 16 countries participating in this last lap, at least five could be outclassed by one or the other side eliminated in those ridiculous qualifying rounds which, geographically divided, made it possible for Mexico to make it through by beating Jamaica twice and collecting three points from Costa Rica – and this in the age of air travel.

There were two other things to be discovered by Greaves in the game against Finland – his improved heading and his improved right foot. He used to joke about his heading and say that he tended to hit the goalkeeper's chin instead of the ball. As late as in his recent book on Soccer Techniques and Tactics, he writes at the beginning of his chapter on heading: “If you have ever seen me play you may well feel that this chapter carries less authority than some of the others, for there is no doubt that when it comes to heading I am quite a good kicker of the ball. But I think I can honestly say that this is the result of a deliberate application of the strongest elements of my game rather than a failure to appreciate what constitutes effective heading of the ball.” We can no longer regard his head goals as so many flukes: there is a new, palpable zest for heading, and there must have been some “deliberate application” behind it. His first two international goals after his recovery from hepatitis were headers – in the respective first halves of the matches against Yugoslavia and Norway, and in between, in the second half against Yugoslavia, there was another stunning header that just went over the bar – from as narrow an angle as the one from which he scored his left-footed, fourth goal in the match against Norway. As for his right foot, I cannot remember a single match in which he had scored two goals with it, as he now did against Norway.

Asked about that performance in Oslo, Ramsey is reputed to have said something about the achievement of '11 men', counteracting any overestimation of Greaves's contribution. Well, I'm all for 11 men, but Ramsey has being playing about with 22 – a further symptom of those trepidations in view of outstanding talent which have kept Johnny Haynes out of the World Cup: Ramsey learnt at Ipswich how to make do with a minimum of talent. To make a squad match-fit is one thin; never to let a first side settle down – worse, not even to admit its existence – is another. Fortunately, there may be times during the easier group matches to develop the side as a side.

Indeed, if Ipswich could win the League the other year, there is no reason why we shouldn't win the World Cup. This is, in fact, my last bit of World Cup news: I'm getting soft, and so are you. Our omniscient pessimism is gradually giving way to pleasantly megalomaniac optimism: we are accumulating confidence on the basis of little. But let us not forget that the human mind and body are so constructed that illusion can become, if not the father, at least the uncle of reality. The rightest observation Ramsey ever made in public was his grotesque opening fantasy, trumpeted across the world from Ipswich: “We shall win the World Cup.” At the time, the forecast sounded as it would now if Mexico made it. Meanwhile, we haven't become all that much better – in fact, against Finland and Denmark, we were a long sight worse. Yet there is one difference: fighting optimism is building up with the approach of battle and, any moment now, Ramsey's words will acquire a prophetic ring. The players themselves are hardening in proportion as they are getting as soft as we are. Their world-conquering fantasies stimulate ours, and ours theirs, until, maybe, they become reality – can you beat it? The Wembley sneer will be absent for the first time in living memory; instead, we shall hear what used to be the Tottenham roar.

Over the Brazilians, we have two inestimable advantages. We are playing at home, and our dreams aren't reality yet: we are not world champions. It must be jolly difficult to work up a fantasy that's true anyhow – which shows you how good the Brazilians must have been last time, under the pressure of the time before. If they win again, one's admiration will almost compensate for one's disappointment: whereas if, say, the Argentine – not to speak of West Germany – make it, the Wembley sneer will return for a long time to come – perhaps we get a Great Britain side.

One inestimable advantage the Brazilians do have over us: they don't call Pele a problem as soon as he is as inconspicuous as he was against Scotland, or as Greaves was against Denmark. They don't pick or drop him on form, because they realise he has no form. Yet they don't depend on him as much as we do on Greaves. The odds are still against out fantasy coming true. It certainly won't without the type of effective improvisation and the determined off-chance-hunting of which Greaves is capable. Some countries' players are more equal than others; ours are the least. Did you see Greaves beat three men in the middle against Poland? The next three weeks will see whether anyone else can do that in modern defensive circumstances, Pele and Suarez apart.

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