Jul 23

50 Years Ago Today: England beat Argentina to reach the World Cup semi-finals

Posted by SoccerHistory

Fifty years ago today England played Argentina in one of the most controversial games in the 1966 World Cup tournament. England had qualified for the quarter-finals after finishing top of Group One, while Argentina had been second to West Germany in Group Two.

For the first time in the tournament England lined up without a winger in the side. There were two changes in the line-up from the previous game: Alan Ball replaced Liverpool’s Ian Callaghan and Geoff Hurst took the place of the injured Jimmy Greaves. 

The game began rather tensely, with fouls on both sides. Nobby Stiles hacked down Ferreiro and escaped punishment, but within half an hour four of the Argentines had found their way into the referee’s notebook – Rattin and Perfumo for fouls, Solari for kicking the ball away at a free kick and Artime for a trivial foul. There were few clear chances, with the Argentines playing a defensive game, biding their time for the opportunity to strike, and England seemingly unable to make significant headway.

Then on 36 minutes came the incident that defined the match and probably also decided the ultimate fate of the trophy. Following the booking of Artime, the Argentine skipper approached the referee apparently with the innocent intention of asking for an interpreter to be brought on. Kreitlein interpreted the approach rather differently and raised his arm, pointing to the dressing rooms (these were the days before red and yellow cards). Uproar ensued as Rattin refused to walk and for what seemed like an eternity play was stopped, officials came on the pitch and as time passed the possibility of the match being abandoned was raised by commentators. The abiding memory is of the giant, muscular Rattin towering over the balding Kreitlein, the two locked eyeball to eyeball, neither flinching. How long this lasted depends on which newspaper you consult: anything from 7 to 11 minutes before Rattin was eventually persuaded to leave the field of play and slowly trudged off.

What followed was something of an anti-climax with the match generally at stalemate and few chances created at either end. The decisive (indeed the only) goal of the match came 13 minutes from time when Geoff Hurst glanced home a long cross from the left by Martin Peters to give England victory and a place in the quarter-finals for the first time in their history.

Reading through the reports in the popular press there is a general sense of relief that England had won, despite the controversial events that had precede the victory. Newspapers were more restrained than those of today, but even so the reports are characterised by sensational headlines and a certain level of xenophobia aimed at Argentina; widespread criticism of referee Kreitlein’s performance; and perhaps most surprisingly a degree of sympathy for the plight of the losers.

To take these issues in order. Firstly, if the events on the field were not enough the comments of England manager Alf Ramsey only stoked the fires further. The People’s front page headline said it all: “Animals! Says Ramsey”, and indeed this is the phrase that has endured as the description of the events. It refers to a rather longer quote from Ramsey to the press after the game, “We have still to produce our best football. It will come against the right type of opposition, the team who come out to play football, not act as animals,” (The People, 24 July 1966). The News of the World used the same quote, but further down the front page: “Animals! – that’s how Argentines acted, says Ramsey.” (24 July 1966) The following day’s Daily Mirror, in true xenophobic style, led its story on the sports pages with “Latin Lunatics plunge Soccer into chaos.” Ramsey’s actions after the game, both his ‘Animals’ quote and his intervention to physically prevent George Cohen exchanging shirts with Oscar Mas, appear to be those of a man pushed to his limits. Yet in reality although there had been some brutal fouls from the Argentines in the opening 15 minutes or so, what followed was essentially a tense, defensive game from both sides.

Ramsey had certainly heaped pressure on himself by predicting that England would win the tournament. The match with Argentina was perhaps the closest his dream came to ending and thus his reactions probably reflect this situation more than the reality of the events. Overall the Mirror seems to have been the worst offender in its treatment of Argentina: Peter Wilson (‘The Man They Can’t Gag’) rather excitedly wrote, “This is sporting anarchy. Soccer in chaos, warfare for national aggrandisement run riot.” The “South American bandits” should, in his view be banned from international football for four years. Further clichés came from the News of the World. Argentina were “The Wild Bulls of the Pampas” and “Argentinian butchers”. Meanwhile the Mirror informed its readers that Rattin was “a burly millionaire forest owner,” and therefore, presumably, a man who could not be trusted.

Rudolf Kreitlein did not get off lightly. Peter Wilson in the Mirror fudged the issue, “I am not prepared to discuss whether German referee Rudolf Kreitlein was or was not too whistle-happy.” Others were more open in their criticism. Frank Butler in the News of the World noted, “I blame much criticism on the shoulders of the referee … Herr Kreitlein was too fussy, too dictatorial and notebook-happy.” The People’s Maurice Smith added, “It looked as if Herr Kreitlein was out to do more name-logging than any juvenile train-spotter.” Over in the Daily Express, which provided the most balanced coverage of the four titles, Norman Giller wrote a telling piece on the referee, quoting him as saying, “The look on Rattin’s face was quite enough to tell me what he was saying and meaning. I do not speak Spanish, but the look told me everything.”

The most surprising element is certainly the implied sympathy for Argentina. Maurice Smith (The People) was the most clear on this: “I felt sorry for these perplexed South Americans … they scarcely deserved this.” Others, with the exception of the Mirror, expressed their sympathy in terms of criticism of the referee, as outlined above. Eric Cooper in the Express was rather more subtle, raising two of the crucial questions that perhaps could have come from the Argentines themselves:

1. Why were an Englishman and a German selected to referee two of the quarter-finals when their countries were still involved?

2. Why do England play their semi-final match against Portugal at Wembley on Tuesday in contradiction of the principle laid down at the time of the draw last January that the qualifiers from these quarter-finals would play at Everton on Monday?

One of the outcomes was to fuel anti-British feelings in Latin America where it was felt that England’s victory had been ‘fixed’. In Montevideo there were protests outside the British Embassy which was plagued with abusive telephone calls. In Buenos Aires the Embassy required additional protection. The Argentina team was welcomed back by the country’s ruling General as the moral winners of the competition and the country’s press made connections between Britain’s occupation of the Falkland Islands and the match result.

Ill feeling within FIFA was also directed at Stanley Rous, the President, whose apparent support for Apartheid had lost him the support of the Black African nations (all of whom boycotted the tournament) and whose alleged bias towards the European countries lost him further support, particularly within Latin America. When challenged by the Brazilian Joao Havelange at the 1974 FIFA Congress he was defeated by 68 votes to 52.