World Cup 1966 and Germany : Don't mention the goal

Fifty years ago, England won the World Cup at Wembley against West-Germany. Here is a German view by Markus Hesselmann, published in the new book "1966 And Not All That".

Martin Peters justs fails to get to a cross that is headed away by Wolfgang Weber.
Martin Peters justs fails to get to a cross that is headed away by Wolfgang Weber.Picture: imago/United Archives International

It took some time until Wolfgang Weber appeared on the scene. “Today? Really? I thought we were to meet on Friday…” he said when I called him on the phone to say that I was waiting for him at Geißbockheim, the club house of 1. FC Cologne’s training ground on the greenish outskirts of the Rhine metropolis, and wanted to talk to him about the World Cup 1966 and his role in it. “Oh dear I must have mixed something up in my diary. I’ll be over in half an hour. Got to take a quick shower because I had a gardening job to do today.” Weber did not mention that gardening jobs for him include picking up litter along the green banks of the River Rhine as a member of a local volunteer initiative.

Could you picture any of the stars or ex-stars of ’70s or ’80s football — not to speak of the stars nowadays — regularly picking up litter in their spare time? Wolfgang Weber is very much your guy next-door even though he was a successful international, a technical, stylish defender who scored in the World Cup final at Wembley. And very good-looking he was on his autograph cards with his Beatles haircut. In that German team of 1966 Weber fitted in well and was surpassed only by an über-normal guy: Uwe Seeler, the team captain, famous for not accepting an offer of 1.2 million Deutschmarks in 1961 from Inter Milan because he did not want to leave Hamburg, his beloved hometown. Wolfgang Weber only played professionally for one club, 1. FC Cologne, Uwe Seeler did the same for Hamburger SV. (Few but the most diligent football-fact trivia collectors though would know that Seeler did play for one other club: and that was a single match for Cork City in 1978 where he scored both goals in a 2-6 defeat against Shamrock Rovers and later claimed that he had not known that it was a regular League game into which he was lured by kit-manufacturer and sponsor Adidas for whom he was working.)

Hanseatic fair play

Uwe Seeler was also renowned for his hanseatic, almost English, sense of fair play, having been sent off only once in his career spanning two decades. He stuck to his principles even in a decisive, career-defining situation: “The three youngsters in the team, Franz Beckenbauer, Wolfgang Overath and I ran to the linesman and protested,” recounts Wolfgang Weber. “Then Uwe came and chased us away. He said: Stop protesting, the referee has made his decision. That was how the older players thought and reacted. But we were young and wanted justice.” Weber is talking about that situation of course; the situation of situations in the 1966 World Cup final. As the defender closest to the ball he had seen — and maintains to this day — that the ball had not crossed the line. I’ll leave this question at that — don’t mention the goal — and come to a more sociological point. Even a mild protest like this involving only those three young players of the team was seen as disrespect. Instead a situation like that should be met with fairness and a stiff upper lip. No furor teutonicus was to happen on the Wembley pitch by the likes of Seeler, Tilkowski, Held or Haller. And only mild instances of “wanting justice” by the young Turks. “Just think of how well-behaved and harmless our reaction to the Wembley goal was. Can you imagine that today?” Weber takes pride in mentioning that “we did not have a single player sent off during the whole tournament. We did not have any deceitful or sneaky players in our team.” And interestingly he chides English players like Bobby Charlton for play-acting while celebrating a goal that was not. “I told him: Stop it! What’s the point?” Weber recounts. “Somebody must have taught the English players to raise their arms as early as possible in order to influence the referee.” And this while many German fans still uphold the view that English players feign and protest less than continental ones do.

Uwe Seeler, ever the fair player.
Uwe Seeler, ever the fair player.Picture: Imago/Sven Simon

Weber, Seeler, Tilkowski. Theirs is an in-between generation. With the oldest guys in the team, Uwe Seeler and goalkeeper Hans Tilkowski, born in 1935 and 1936 respectively, they were old enough to remember the war but not yet of the generation when footballers were treated like pop stars. 1966 was also the year in which the Federal Republic’s second chancellor Ludwig Erhard, a Christian Democrat and father of the West German post-war Wirtschaftswunder (our economic miracle) but not a successful leader, had to give way to the first grand coalition between Christian and Social Democrats. That was however only a prelude to the few but important Willy Brandt years. Under Chancellor Brandt and his first Social Democrat-Liberal coalition, West Germany opened up to Eastern Europe via Ostpolitik and started to acknowledge and come to terms with German responsibility for Nazi atrocities. These were also the years of the ’68 student revolt, which introduced new ways of political campaigning and whole new ways of life to a so far rather bourgeois West Germany. More glamorous or, up to a certain point, even rebellious players like Günter Netzer or Paul Breitner represented these shifts in German society on the football pitch as well. Beckenbauer did so at least with his flamboyant, always relaxed-looking style on the pitch. If Erhard was the politician in between chancellors Adenauer and Brandt, two defining politicians for West Germany, then Seeler was the sportsman in between the hero of our first World Cup win in 1954, Fritz Walter and Franz Beckenbauer. Parallels between politics and football were never again that clear-cut.

A strengthened Bundesliga

The German media theoretician Norbert Seitz even devoted a book to exploring this analogy: Doppelpässe. Fußball und Politik (One-twos, Football and Politics). "A new era began, Germany was eager for experiments, repressed utopias were revived,” Seitz wrote. “Visions of reform as well as new football aesthetics started to captivate German minds in a republic that was conservative and defensive up till then.” Willy Brandt’s slogan “To dare more democracy” also promised a more creative and offensive football, according to Seitz. My colleague Michael Pöppl, who wrote his dissertation on “Football in German Literature,” references Seitz and concludes with respect to “football reform” that the new Bundestrainer Helmut Schön “was now able to recruit the personnel for this football reform from a strengthened Bundesliga.” It was only in the beginning of the ’70s that Schön, who had succeeded our 1954 World Cup-winning coach Sepp Herberger in 1964 and epitomised a more democratic and laissez-faire approach to managing players, really became his own man. The Schön era therefore began at about the same time as the Brandt era. Both the great politician and the great manager were incidentally known for not exactly being cut out for the rough environments of politics and professional football. Instead they were softer, more modern men.

In 1966 Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach, the defining teams of Germany’s football miracle of the ’70s, had only one player between them on the pitch in the final, Bayern’s Beckenbauer. Both teams had been promoted to the Bundesliga only in 1965. Bayern Munich won the European Cup Winners’ Cup two years later, anticipating what was to come in the ’70s, when Beckenbauer’s team won the European Cup three times in a row from 1974 to 1976. Meanwhile Mönchengladbach won UEFA Cups in 1975 and 1979 and lost against Liverpool in the 1977 European Cup final.

No shouting, please

The 1966 team in the final was instead dominated by players from Borussia Dortmund — European Cup Winners’ Cup winners of the same year after a 2-1 victory over Liverpool at Hampden Park. Dortmund was represented at Wembley by three players, Hamburg SV and 1. FC Cologne by two each. Dortmund, German champions in 1956, 1957 and 1963, only became champions again in 1995. In fact they were even relegated to the second level of German football in 1972 where they had to stay for four seasons. The great days of Hamburg SV, champions of 1960, only began again in the late ’70s winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1977, the German Championship in 1979, 1982 and 1983, culminating in their 1983 winning of the European Cup. 1. FC Köln were the first Bundesliga champions in 1964 and after 1966 also only became Championship contenders again when the first era of Bayern and Gladbach started to fade, winning German Cup and Championship in 1978.

Compared to the cultural, political and football revolution that built up towards the end of that decade and the beginning of the next one, the mid-’60s were prosaic times. This was underlined by the aesthetics of football coverage in the media. Everything seemed to be done to avoid any comparison with the Nazi newsreel and radio reporting. In 1954 the legendary radio commentary on Germany’s victorious final by Herbert Zimmermann might as well have occurred in exactly the same excited, exciting and partisan shouting style to describe far darker events and results ten or twenty years earlier. In contrast the TV reports in 1966 are marked by a longing for objectivity and modesty with next to no emotion and long stretches of silence that you may wish to occur in our overexcited times today now and then. This happened not only in defeat as in the 1966 World Cup final but also when a German team won and even while commenting on a very special achievement such as Reinhard Libuda’s 1966 winner for Dortmund against Liverpool scored at Hampden Park in the hundred-and-sixth minute from almost thirty metres. This artistic feat was greeted with a more or less descriptive “Libuda’s ball is a goal in the hundred-and-sixth minute of the match,” by the commentator. He allowed himself to repeat “goal” twice and added a cautious “unbelievable,” but that was it. It was dryness with a view.

The class of 1966

Weber, Seeler, Tilkowski. Theirs is also a tragic generation. It seems reasonable to suggest that even if the class of 1966 had won that World Cup final they would still not be legends today on the scale of the 1954 or 1974 teams that came before and after them. 1954 stands for a post-war miracle, a feeling of coming back from the ruins that was in many ways jingoistic then but miraculously has lost most of that touch by now. What is left of it is a largely positive myth, infused by the 2003 movie "The Miracle of Bern" by Sönke Wortmann or earlier in the 1994 novel "The Sunday I Became World Champion" by Friedrich Christian Delius. “I had never felt so light,” writes Delius in this autobiographical piece, “and beneath the pulsing emotion of victory was a deep desperate hint of what it would like to be liberated from the curse of a world divided between Good and Evil, liberated from the occupying forces, from an insatiable god, and perhaps also a hint of the limited duration of this happiness at being able to say one time an unchecked Yes!” Yes, it was that urgent, and the author got away with his pathos.

Both filmmaker and novelist are decidedly non-nationalist and more or less left-wing protagonists in their areas of work. Both works allowed a fresh view on Germany’s past while the country was going through a post-unification phase of searching for a new national identity, which climaxed with the World Cup 2006 in Germany for which a new “soft patriotism” emerged that was no longer seen as a threat at home or abroad any more. "Easier Fatherland" is the title the author and former Berlin correspondent Steve Crawshaw uses for describing this unfolding process: “Memory is important for understanding and absorbing dark lessons in history – thus making it possible to move on.” The final chapter in his book is called “And Now,” where Crawshaw makes the point: “Another kind of memory deserves encouragement, too: the memory of miracles achieved.”

Wortmann filmed for his official film of the 2006 Tournament, Sommermärchen, a new and young German team playing creative and non-destructive football reminiscent of the early ’70s, which was celebrated although it did not win the World Cup. In an interview with Der Speigel, when asked why as a filmmaker associated with the German Left he was now also able to call himself a patriot, Wortmann said: “I have no problem with this word any more today.” In his book World Cup Diary Wortmann tried to figure out how this was possible for somebody who grew up in a post-’68 Germany which was defined by coming to terms with its Nazi past. “I was sceptical about the German anthem and flag which was typical for my generation and had to do with German history and a feeling that its darker parts were still hushed up.” When protagonists of the ’68 generation took over, Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer in their red and green coalition, Wortmann finally overcame his distance towards his own country. “I liked it that the Germans had voted a Green Party into government.” His is a German variant of a “Progressive Patriotism,” a term that Billy Bragg coined for his own “search for belonging” from an English viewpoint. Here we have the German perspective that is heavily laden by our history. Billy, you think you have problems.

Winning at home

Meanwhile 1974 for Germany was about winning at home much like 1966 is for England. But ’74 was also the grand finale and swan song for the Beckenbauer generation. Many people say that the German team that won the European Championship in 1972 was the better and particularly the more creative one, but a World Cup victory on home soil provides better stuff for legend as the English know only too well. Plus it was won as a victory over Holland, an aspect that became more and more important over the years. As much as 1966 has in retrospect been seen as part of a rivalry between England and Germany, 1974 functions in the same way for the rivalry of Germany vs Holland. And both are not really accurate since Germany could have been no real rival to England in 1966 because they had not won a single match against them by then. In 1974 the Dutch had qualified for a World Cup for the first time since 1938. Their total football was a fairly recent phenomenon then. Even mentioning the war and joking about it and using it to base a football rivalry on was a later phenomenon, as Maarten van Bottenburg and Christopher Young have examined in the book "Favourite Enemies". When Holland beat World Champions Germany 2-1 in 1956 in their first post-war friendly, “the war was not mentioned in any of the football reports,” writes Marten van Bottenburg. “There were no traces of bitterness or glee against the German people in commentaries.” Chris Young adds an English perspective reflecting on 1966: “Newspapers mostly eschewed militaristic rhetoric even though they allowed themselves some hints at the war”; adding that during the ’60s and ’70s, football matches between England and Germany “were seen as apolitical events most of all.” The England vs Germany and Holland vs Germany rivalries only built up after those finals of 1966 and 1974, those finals have become redefined as a starting point only in retrospect.

According to Young the strong, politically laden rivalry between England and Germany really only began with Margaret Thatcher and her decidedly anti-German stance. And that rivalry has always been asymmetrical. Whereas Germany is a defining factor both for England’s political and “military finest hour,” World War II, as well as in football with the World Cup victory in 1966, in contrast England is a country that Germans do not seem to bear a grudge against. German football fans do like to beat England, especially after penalties, but at the same time they have a soft spot for the country for being the home of football and popular culture. Most Germans have a favourite English club next to their Bundesliga team. Union Jacks, mistakenly seen as the national emblem of England, have always been part of fan attire over here. You would even find them on grainy black-and-white photographs of stadium scenes from the old East German Oberliga. Whereas there is a liking for Dutch clubs only amongst fans of German clubs with a strong legacy of Dutch players or managers such as Schalke. “Germany is England’s Holland,” as Christopher Young puts it. And Holland is Germany’s England.

Der Kaiser comes full circle

Even the 1990 World Cup Winners, who are respected in Germamy as strong and successful players rather than worshipped as legends, would most probably be held in a higher esteem than those players if Germany had won in1966. Though of course there is a link between both squads that gives the story added appeal, Beckenbauer. Der Kaiser, the emerging young star of ’66, the victorious manager of ‘90, his career coming full circle. What will become of the stature of the winners of Brazil 2014 is too early to judge. Grabbing the World Cup in South America, being admired for putting up the only real team effort among the big guns in that tournament. And beating the World Cup record-holding Brazil 7-1 on their home soil may be helpful for an enduring legacy.

The legacy of the 1966 German team and the 1966 final largely relies on it all having happened at Wembley on its holy lawn, Heiliger Rasen von Wembley, right in the heart of football’s motherland, Mutterland des Fußballs. “Wembley is the Neuschwanstein of football,” says Wolfgang Weber, name-checking the Bavarian castle which draws up to 10,000, mostly foreign, tourists per day to add an entirely new superlative to all the praise for this most holy of grounds in our affectionately respectful German football lexicon.

It may have added to the lack of legendary status that Germany today attaches to her 1966 tragic heroes that a German team won a trophy at Wembley thirty years later at Euro ’96 while football was supposedly coming home. Baddiel, Skinner and Broudie’s “Football’s Coming Home” was added to the motherland-worshipping repertoire and is still sung even today by German football fans. Not least because our team won that tournament.

Demolishing Wembley

And, without rubbing it in, there have been other recent footballing feats that put 1966 in the shade from a German perspective. There is beating England in the semi-final of the World Cup 1990 with a crying Paul Gascoigne and then going on to win the tournament. There is the last game at the old Wembley Stadium with a goal by Dietmar Hamann, who is ironically now more of an English than a German hero. And there is England’s first defeat at the new Wembley, by Germany of course, even though you may not find many German fans who pay much attention to this particular result to be honest. The supposed rivalry is just not such a big deal over here.

And Wolfgang Weber? As if to underline his lifelong status as an ordinary bloke from Cologne, his homecoming to the English motherland was a road-trip in a camper van from stadium to stadium to watch the Euro 1996 matches. The tragic hero of 1966 paid for his own tickets and sat in the stands like any other football fan.

All that’s left of 1966 for us is the Wembley Tor which has shed most of its emotional connotations and reminiscences and became a more or less technical term. While Wolfgang Weber, protagonist and by-stander at the same time, grew slightly tired of it over the decades, the Wembley Tor became a set phrase that pops up instantly when a ball hits the underside of the bar and plunges towards the goal line no matter at what level a German team is playing, from amateur league to a World Cup. Of course at South Africa 2010, in the game between England and Germany, the English ball had indeed passed the line and no goal was given in a reverse of 1966 proceedings; all the talk back home was of our Wembley Tor. Don’t mention the goal? I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it.

This piece is a chapter from the book "1966 And Not All That" which was edited by Mark Perryman and published by Repeater Books in Great Britain. You can find a shorter German version here..

Follow Markus Hesselmann on Twitter