Under Wembley’s Lights

I am in Chicago, where few people, it seems, are aware that there is a major football tournament happening in Europe. It’s rather refreshing.

It is 55 years ago that England won the World Cup and ‘the beautiful game’ has changed almost beyond recognition. I do not, as a rule, follow football of any stripe. However, just like the rest of the country, I am invariably swept into the frenzy that surrounds the Euros. This is especially true in 2021. Just four months ago we were forbidden from gathering in groups of more than six. On Wednesday night 66,000 people converged on Wembley Stadium to watch England beat Denmark in the semi-finals.

When England beat Germany in 1966, WWII was still very much alive in people’s memories. There was one jingoistic chant doing the rounds – World War I, World War II, One World Cup –  but on the whole, supporters were not overtly racist or unnecessarily provocative. The nastiness that is rife today is often described as ‘banter’ by those careless about the feelings of others. It is patriotism without content, aggravated by Brexit and a supposedly reclaimed ‘Great’ Britain.

My friend John Buss has followed football all his long life. He remembers Bert Trautmann, who played in goal for England in the 1950s. He was accepted as a brilliant member of the team, in spite of the fact that he had been in the German Army during WWII before becoming a P.O.W. There was fierce rivalry between clubs, but club loyalty was what was important. There were no foreign players brought in at vast transfer fees. Financial rewards were minimal and wages were not much more than those of a skilled worker. There were few celebrities, just ordinary blokes. Pecs hadn’t yet been invented, chest hair wasn’t waxed and tattoos were the domain of merchant seamen. There were no stylists, no makeovers, no endorsements. The game may have been ‘beautiful’ but the players were, as John says, just ordinary looking blokes.  Who can forget ‘Nobby’ Stiles who decided, before the game in 1966, that even if England beat Germany, he would not wear his dentures in the line-up to meet Her Majesty the Queen.

It is estimated that the Sunday night final at Wembley between England and Italy will beat the 32.3 million estimated to have watched the 1966 World Cup Final. I am grateful to have successfully navigated the Covid minefield that enabled us to fly to Chicago for a family wedding next weekend. But I also feel a little disappointed that no one here cares much about a ‘soccer’ game 5000 miles away. I shall miss being part of the fever-pitch frenzy that will sweep England on Sunday night and of sharing in what will surely go down in history as one of the country’s biggest ever sporting occasions.