- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 3, 2006

If you happen to be a devotee of football (sorry, soccer) there is no end of delights piled high in our local bookshops. A glance reveals some of the titles released in the last few weeks: “The Complete Book of the World Cup,” “World Cup Stories,” “Football in Sun and Shadow: An Emotional History of World Cup Football,” “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup” and — for those more interested in drinking than thinking — “The Good Beer Guide to Germany.”

I could go on and on. The sports commentators certainly will over the coming month, as the globe’s leading soccer nations compete for the ultimate prize. The opening match takes place in Munich on Friday, with the final due to be contested next month in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, scene of Jesse Owen’s triumphs in the 1936 games.

(I paid a visit to the stadium last year during a vacation in the city, and for all the sulphurous history surrounding the edifice — not to mention the suitably ubermenschlike Nazi sculptures adorning the equestrian lawns — there’s no denying its sleek beauty.)

All this is by way of warning American readers that the pace of life in England is about to undergo a marked change. E-mails will go unanswered for days at a time; phone calls will be returned at a positively Mediterranean tempo; the streets of London will be mysteriously quiet on certain days. The red and white flag of St. George, a banner once synonymous with far-Right demos, will be hanging from countless houses and flying from the windows of millions of cars. Do not be alarmed. The country is simply undergoing a bout of mass patriotism — or obsession, the cynics might say — that recurs every four years.

Behind all this fervor lies the thought that this might just be the year when England’s players repeat the triumph of 1966, when the country’s team beat the then West Germany in an extraordinarily dramatic final. I was six at the time, and remember only fragments of the match, yet it still counts as one of my formative experiences. As some American readers may know, the match — which eventually ended 4-2 — turned on a controversial goal which may or may not have crossed the goal line after striking the crossbar. No TV replay has ever been able to establish the truth one way or another.

For 40 years English fans have blithely assumed it was a valid goal; German supporters have brooded over what seemed to them an epic injustice. (I hate to say it, but they’re probably right. After years in denial, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that it wasn’t a goal after all.) In English eyes, the game functioned as a bloodless equivalent of World War II — with the same happy ending, of course — and somehow the knowledge that the official who made the crucial decision was a Russian underscored the historical parallels.

In pub banter, “the Russian linesman…” has become a comic catchphrase, a synonym of sorts for the hand of Fate. In the post-Iron Curtain era, we belatedly discovered that we should have called him “the Azerbaijani linesman,” but somehow the words don’t have the same ring.

Sadly, the 1966 victory failed to usher in an era of World Cup glory. In the next tournament, England was knocked out in the quarter-finals, by the Germans, of all teams, and since then the story has been one of false hopes and squandered opportunities.

No wonder that the summer of 1966 still exerts such a hold on the nation’s imagination. One of the best of this season’s crop of soccer books was journalist Leo McKinstry’s biography of the ‘66 team’s manager, Sir Alf Ramsey. To read how he rose from grim poverty in the outer reaches of East London to become a national hero is to revisit a world which seems as distant as Charles Dickens’ bootblack factory. At the time of his death in 1999, he was living on a meager pension; his home was the same unpretentious semi-detached house in which he had spent most of his life.

The interest in Mr. McKinstry’s book reflects our dual attitudes towards the game. For many people, footballers now inhabit the same fantasy realm as movie stars and pop singers; tabloid papers breathlessly speculate about the spending habits of the latest multimillion-pound star. (The biggest sensation of recent years, Wayne Rooney, is only 20, yet he has already signed the biggest sports book contract in British publishing history.) At the same time, though, you sense a longing for a simpler, nobler idea of sporting prowess. Alf Ramsey, who spoke in a clipped pseudo-officer accent, embodied that ethos to perfection.

But there is, of course, no possibility of turning back the clock. Football’s institutions have been transformed beyond recognition. Only twenty years ago, it was still rare to see black players on teams — and those who did show their faces could find themselves being pelted with bananas by opposition supporters. Now, black players are so commonplace hardly anyone notices them. (British-Asian footballers, on the other hand, are still a rarity.)

Even more striking is the relentless influx of skillful foreign players, which has reached the point where successful teams such as Arsenal often field a side containing not a single Englishman. At dinner with some American political researchers the other day, I mentioned that the arrival of European talent has had a much bigger impact on British attitudes to the EU than any law passed by our politicians.

The researchers thought I was joking. I wasn’t. Europe may be a fragmented, incoherent entity in lots of ways, but on the football field, its transnational character is already taken for granted. Sport, you see, can sometimes outstrip politics.

I sometimes think that one of the quickest and most painless ways of defusing anti-Americanism here and across continents would be for the American players to reach the World Cup final. Imagine how much goodwill that would unleash. Provided, of course, that they didn’t win. I have a feeling that the idea of America as world champions of football would be too much for the rest of the planet to handle.

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