'What an ugly mess of a World Cup'

England's home victory in 1966 came at a cost for the country's reputation around the globe

A Uruguayan player receives treatment for an injury during the opening match of the 1966 World Cup at Wembley Stadium between England and Uruguay, while Nestor Concalves takes a drink, also seen are Jimmy Greaves and Bobby Charlton. Photo: Cattani/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Simon Burnton

On July 23, 1966 a full house at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires gathered for a performance of Aida. At the allotted time the lights dimmed, the chatter stopped and the conductor walked out and took his place in front of the orchestra. Upon seeing him, a different noise swept across the audience. The crowd started to boo. Some rose from their seats and jeered.

There was only one thing wrong: the man holding the baton, John Pritchard, was English.

Argentine fans cheer their team prior to leaving Buenos Aires for the 1966 tournament. Photo: Getty Images

Earlier that day, some 7,000 miles away in Sheffield, nine-year-old John Blagden and his 12-year-old sister Jean waited outside the dressing rooms at Hillsborough in the hope of getting some autographs when the players from Uruguay and West Germany left the ground after their World Cup quarter-final. They had some success and were delighted that a couple of the Uruguayan players took the trouble not just to sign their name but to write messages, an act of kindness notable given that they had just lost 4-0. The only problem was, they couldn't understand what the messages meant. It took two full days of searching before they found someone who could translate the Spanish.

One message read: "The referee is a thief," and the other: "German criminals stole the game from Uruguay."

While the 1966 World Cup has been mythologised in England as the high point of the nation's sporting achievement, a feast of football and organisational and technical firsts - the first World Cup broadcast in colour, the first mascot - in other countries and in one continent in particular the principal reaction was outrage. And July 23, the day when all four quarter-finals had kicked off simultaneously at 3pm, was particularly infamous. On that day one of the eventual finalists, West Germany, beat a South American side who had two players sent off by an English referee, and the other eventual finalist, England, beat another South American side, who had one player sent off by a West German referee.

Already Brazil had been knocked out of the tournament in the group stage. Their best player, Pele, was kicked so much in the first game against Bulgaria that he could play no part in the second, a 3-1 defeat by Hungary when Brazil had two goals disallowed, and he then spent much of the third as a virtual spectator after Portugal's Joao Morais fouled him and, when he tried to get up and play on, fouled him again a bit harder. Morais was not cautioned. Brazil's first game had been refereed by a West German, the other two by Englishmen.

"When I first came back to Brazil after the World Cup games of 1966, my heart wasn't in playing football," Pele later said. "The games had been a revelation to me in their unsportsmanlike conduct and weak refereeing. England won the games that year but in my opinion she did not have the best team in the field." On another occasion he said that in 1966 "football stopped being an art, stopped drawing the crowds by its skills, instead it became an actual war".

It might have helped if the organisers had the media on their side. In a time when many fewer fans travelled to tournaments, coverage in the foreign press was fundamental to how a competition was perceived. The 1966 World Cup organisers, however, managed to start their first argument four months before anyone even arrived, when in Brazil newspapers realised that they would be allowed to have only two photographers between them at each of the country's matches, while 14 Britons would get a place. Brazil's National Federation of Professional Journalists got involved, their vice-president calling on the organising committee "to remedy the grave injustice of these discriminatory and odious regulations" and warning failure to do so would result in "a series of reprisals throughout the world".

In March 1966 the British ambassador to Brazil, Leslie Fry, started a correspondence with the Foreign Office about the problem. "Press comment this week is voluminous and uniformly abusive," he wrote. "Offence has even been taken at our requesting competing countries to supply their own national flags, a skin-flint exaction contrasting badly with Brazil's regular production of the flags of all teams playing here. I very much hope something can be done, and quickly, to satisfy opinion here."

The request was considered, and rejected, by the organising committee, who insisted "any increase in the allocation [of photographers] would be unmanageable" and also explained their request for flags was only to ensure they did not make any mistakes - "not meanness but our normal desire to do the right thing and not display out-of-date flags, flown upside down" (an admirable but not entirely successful precaution - in Birmingham a display of the competing nations' flags was taken down when it was discovered that those of Argentina and Hungary were wrong).

When the Brazilians said they would position additional photographers in the stands, the organising committee responded that the terms and conditions expressly forbade professional photography. It was later reported that these regulations were "flouted on a huge scale".

Relations did not improve once the journalists arrived. On July 13, two days into the competition, the Jornal do Brasil reported that "the English have failed completely in their organisation of this great competition. They have taken no trouble whatsoever to offer good service . . . and have substituted instead concern for something else: for charging excessively for all the poor and inefficient services they manage to offer. The greed and lack of organisation of the English is evident everywhere."

Trains, they complained, were always late. Matches sometimes started late. There were not enough tickets for foreign journalists. The telephones in the press centres did not work properly. Telegrams to news desks had been taking as long as three hours to arrive. Media accommodation in London, at a university halls of residence, was "like a boarding school", with residents "awakened at 8 o'clock in the morning by a strident siren". A meeting of foreign journalists was called at which one declared he would "go to the Queen, if necessary, to put a stop to these abuses".

Relations with Brazil had first become strained when a BBC crew sent to the country to report on their preparations was denounced as spies. Brazilians also reacted with concern when it was announced, days before the finals began, that mandatory drug-testing was to be introduced, with the system designed by England's team doctor. This was the subject of so much confusion that the Brazilian delegation felt it necessary to check they were still allowed to drink coffee. "In our opinion tea is a greater stimulant than coffee," said Carlos Nascimento, the head of Brazil's technical commission, "and, if we are not allowed to drink coffee, we feel the England team should be banned from drinking tea."

This was one of a number of perceived slights. When Brazil arrived at Heathrow their team bus was nowhere to be seen. When they arrived at their training ground, Bolton's Burnden Park, the grass was too long, there were no goalposts and they were told to go somewhere else. When some of Brazil's delegation accepted an invitation to a party thrown by the lord mayor of Liverpool, the cars sent to take them got lost and they turned up an hour late.

Argentina's training ground also had no goalposts, so they got a local carpenter to knock up some stanchions and borrowed a crossbar each off Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion; when they arranged a session at Lilleshall their coach got lost and the 30-mile journey took over two hours; when they left their Birmingham hotel before their quarter-final at Wembley they were expecting to be put up in central London and were dropped off instead in Welwyn.

But it was not just South Americans griping. In the middle of the tournament the Paris-based Association of Sports Writers decried the tournament's "regrettable and deplorable" arrangements. The Swedish journalist Torsten Ehrenmark, writing in Dagens Nyheter, included in his description of a match at Goodison Park that "this is the first report ever written by a journalist in a mousehole".

A week into the tournament 88 Mexicans turned up at their country's embassy in London. They had all booked and paid for first-class accommodation through an English travel agency but were unhappy with their hotels. "Some had paid for single rooms and had been placed into double rooms, some had paid for private bathrooms and had not been given them," wrote Ruben Gonzalez-Sosa from the Mexican embassy, who "thought they were, by any standards, third-class hotels". In some cases tourists who had booked a single room with an en-suite had been told to share a room without a bathroom with three strangers. Though 85pc of the people concerned were placed elsewhere, the scandal was widely reported in Mexico. Later the Mexican weekly Siempre reported that every Mexican tourist staying at one of the hotels had been arrested on suspicion of robbery, a story that turned out to be entirely false.

But the big problem was the refereeing. Some European teams had reasonable complaints - when England beat France 2-0 the first goal was possibly offside and the second was scored as Jacques Simon writhed injured on the grass after being hobbled by the unpunished Nobby Stiles, while England's third goal in the final surely did not cross the line - but the South Americans felt particularly victimised.

Argentina's 0-0 draw against West Germany at Villa Park in the group stages was, according to the Birmingham Evening Mail, "everything the World Cup knockers had been hoping for: a negative, petty, defence-locked affair".

Argentina's Rafael Albrecht was sent off with 25 minutes to play for kneeing Wolfgang Weber in the groin, and his manager, Juan Carlos Lorenzo, ran on to the pitch to confront match officials. "I couldn't believe I was being sent off," said Albrecht. "I thought my rugby tackle earlier in the game might have got me sent off - I was worried about that foul but not about this one." The West Germany coach, Helmut Schon, said that "the standard of our play suffered because many of the players were frightened".

Then came the quarter-finals. Uruguay had their captain, Horacio Troche, sent off for kicking Lothar Emmerich in the stomach in the 49th minute and Hector Silva followed five minutes later. "They appear to have no idea how to tackle properly," said Schon. "They lose their heads and their regard for the rules." Julio Cortes, Uruguay's No 7, kicked the referee on his way off the pitch at the end of the game, earning a six-match ban.

Even more controversial was the game between England and Argentina at Wembley, described by Hugh McIlvanney as "not so much a football match as an international incident", in which the Argentina captain, Antonio Rattin, was sent off after 35 minutes for dissent and refused to leave, delaying the game for nine minutes, and Geoff Hurst scored the only goal with 12 minutes to play. "It was clear," Rattin later said, "that the referee played with an England shirt on".

But it was only after the final whistle that it all kicked off. Alf Ramsey stopped George Cohen from swapping shirts with an Argentinian player, shouting: "George, you are not changing shirts with that animal."

Argentina's Roberto Ferrero attacked the referee and the forward Ermindo Onega spat in the face of the FIFA vice-president, Harry Cavan, both earning three-match bans. An Argentinian player urinated in the tunnel and a chair was thrown into the England dressing room. The Argentinian squad then attacked the England bus and, when someone tried to stop them, he had half an orange squeezed in his face. The problems continued when the Argentina squad got back to their hotel in Welwyn Garden City: Bob Bryant, a reporter at the Welwyn Times, said "they desecrated the hotel - they left a lot of food in the rooms and defecated into handbasins and things like that".

"I do not approve of the conduct of our players and officials," responded an Argentinian FA spokesman, "but they were provoked by the referee. He was absolutely biased in favour of England. The referee and those who selected him were, in my view, responsible for the trouble." When FIFA met to consider its reaction to the quarter-finals, the head of Argentina's delegation, Juan Santiago, called Stanley Rous, the English FIFA president, "a moron".

To be fair, Argentina were not the only ones unimpressed with the West German referee Rudolf Kreitlein. In the Sunday Times Brian Glanville described "a small man, strutting portentously about the field, bald, brown head gleaming in the sunshine, [as he] put name after Argentinian name into his notebook. One was reminded of a schoolboy collecting railway engine numbers."

Eusebio, whose Portugal team would play the winners, said: "The referee always seemed to see only the worst faults of the Argentina players. He could not see the faults of the England players."

The Italian newspaper Il Messaggero wrote an article headlined 'Scandal in London - too much favouritism for the England team', which described Rattin's dismissal as "a colossal injustice which offended against the very essence of sport" and "succeeded in surrounding the England team with a hearty and definite dislike from all who are not blinded by fanaticism".

"I just want to forget the whole dreadful experience," said Kreitlein. "The match was the roughest I have ever refereed. It was terrible. A disgrace. I sent Rattin off because he was following me and shouting at me. I had no option. He was trying to be the referee."

England's captain, Bobby Moore, insisted the Argentinians "did do nasty things. They did tug your hair, spit at you, poke you in the eyes and kick you when the ball was miles away and nobody was looking. I just said the only way to deal with them was to beat the bastards. That's what would hurt them."

In South America the sense of injustice was simmering. The British embassy in Buenos Aires wrote to inform the Foreign Office that in the wake of the quarter-finals "the press in Latin America are mounting an emotional and irrational campaign against FIFA and the United Kingdom".

On the night of the quarter-finals the British embassies in Argentina and Uruguay came under attack. The Argentinian FA started to talk openly about leaving FIFA altogether. "I am not in a position to say we will split with FIFA and organise our own competition. But we are definitely in favour of this move," said one official. "I felt that England were favoured."

The repercussions were felt in opera houses and boxing halls - Argentina's Horacio Accavallo pulled out of a planned defence of his WBA and WBC flyweight titles in England against Walter McGowan because he believed the officials would be biased. "What England have done to the game of football does not bear a name," he said.

There was also the issue of radio coverage. The BBC had arranged Spanish-language commentary on games involving South American teams - and Portuguese commentary of Brazil's matches - and distributed this among stations on their home continent. This proved popular, although the decision to appoint a Chilean commentator was perhaps unwise.

"His comments tended to be highly anti-European and pro-Latin American and in various cases, when Latin American teams got into difficulties with the referees, he sounded very prejudiced," wrote Patricia Hutchinson from the British Embassy in Lima. "His coverage of the England-Argentina game was particularly distorted. Such is the great reputation of the BBC for 'accuracy' that the unfortunate result has been that local Peruvian opinion has tended to take the line that, if the BBC commentator thought the referees were wrong, then this really must have been the case."

Before they left England the Argentinians received a telegram from Club Universidad de Chile, sending "best wishes to the moral champions of world football". When they arrived home their plane was met by thousands of supporters and the players were immediately whisked to the presidential mansion, where the president thanked them officially for the way they had represented the nation.

At one stage it was suggested that public opinion might be swayed in Britain's favour if the Foreign Office could find a friendly Italian journalist to write an article praising the World Cup and the British embassy in Rome was asked to propose a potential author. "Sportswriters in the Italian press were universally critical of the organisation of the World Cup, and in particular of the choice and performance of the referees," came the reply.

On July 26, the day of England's semi-final against Portugal, the far-left Italian newspaper Avanti! wrote an article headlined 'Quel brutto pasticcio dei Mondiali' (what an ugly mess of a World Cup), in which it alleged that the organisation of the tournament amounted to match-fixing, and that the referee at the West Germany v Uruguay game had been motivated by revenge for the way Uruguay made the England team, their fans and the Queen uncomfortable when drawing 0-0 on the opening night. "The article goes on to say," wrote Patrick Fairweather, a member of staff at the Foreign Office based in Rome, "that all the South American teams had to be eliminated because they were a threat to the English team and because the Germans brought more sterling to Wembley."

On the day after the final the Observer reported that "the reaction in other world capitals was applause for England's victory". However, on the same day in Bolivia the country's biggest-selling newspaper, Presencia, had published an opinion piece which was less a celebration than a wake. "There are things that cannot be sold. Not at any price," they wrote. "I don't understand either politics or sport but I can understand, as millions of people around the world understand, that England has sold its hard-earned reputation for chivalry, for fair play and for correctness, for a football trophy. Today there are thousands of people who have always admired England who no longer admire England, because accomplishments that are dirty and fabricated can inspire only contempt. They hatched a football conspiracy against Latin America. We may be animals and savages but we would never consider what the cultured and civilised English have done. England may now be the world champions but it is no longer the country of culture, of education, of gentlemen."

Or, as Fairweather put it in a report from Rome, "the World Cup in England has provided further proof, if proof were needed, that a very good way to damage international relations is to have a really big sporting competition".