Tuesday, January 13, 2009


1966 Observations, Part 2

The story of England's sole World Cup triumph continues.

Their semi-final against Portugal is one of the best World Cup matches I've seen. Fiercely (yet fairly) contested, in the balance right until the end, and full of drama and fine football. Once again, England were the poorer side on balance...but they won a couple of crucial individual battles, and one mildly suspicious decision near the end also aided the English cause.

It's worth considering the contrast in the two sides' quarter-final fortunes. England had won a dour, violent game against Argentina, while Portugal had contested a thrilling match against surprise packets North Korea, coming back from three goals down to overwhelm the Asian side, who tired and lost their self-belief in the second half.

Ostensibly, then, Portugal should have been on a high, while one would expect the English to have experienced some self-doubt after a fairly hollow victory. Yet it was Alf Ramsey's side that came out of the blocks more quickly, attacking vigorously in the opening minutes, although a half-chance for Geoff Hurst was all they had to show for it.

Portugal were displaying the greater craft in midfield, but the ultimate target of most of their moves was the head of the tall forward Jose Torres...and thereby hangs a tale.

When accounts of this game are given in the history books, much is made of the nullifying of Eusebio by the tenacious Nobby Stiles. Yet the real key battle of the game was not this one (which Eusebio, incidentally, managed to get the better of later in the match), but the aerial clash between Torres and England's centre-half, Jackie Charlton.

Charlton has the beating of Torres in the air nine times out of ten, and it is this dominance which prevents the Portuguese from really making headway in the final third, since their strategy of utilising Torres' height and strength rarely varies.

England score their first after half an hour, Bobby Charlton slamming home a rebound after some fine lead-up work by Roger Hunt. The momentum is with England for the next few minutes, but then Portugal start to take over. Eusebio begins to shake off the attentions of Stiles, bringing others into play by drawing ever more defenders to him. The Benfica star has a shot himself just before the break, which forces an excellent save from Gordon Banks.

The second half continues in similar vein, with Portugal dominating possession but Jackie Charlton standing magnificently firm in defence against Torres, who is still the magnet for Portugal's moves. Eventually, England pull themselves back into the game, and score a second on 79 minutes, when Hurst forces his way to the by-line and prods the ball back for Bobby Charlton to thump home his second.

The initiative is still with the Portuguese, though, and on 82 minutes Torres finally eludes the other Charlton to win a header in the box, which his marker then handles. Eusebio whacks in the penalty, and it's game on once again.

And something strange starts happening: now Torres wins the aerial challenges! Including one that might have been pivotal, a couple of minutes after the goal, when he nods a cross down for the advancing Antonio Simoes, who is only prevented from shooting by an incredible last-ditch tackle from Stiles.

Torres wins another header a minute later, which reaches the Portuguese captain Mario Coluna. He sends a backward header at goal, which is...clearly handled by Bobby Moore in the box.

In the recording I've downloaded, which has Spanish commentary (many, many years after the event), the "expert" commentator, who happens to be English, says "It looks unintentional to me." I beg to differ. Yet the referee waves play on.

Portugal have one more chance, when Coluna beats a tired Martin Peters on the right and sends a searing cross-shot at goal, which Banks saves superbly. 2-1 it finishes, a great game of football. And again: one potentially important home-town call, but that's it. Pretty meagre evidence for a conspiracy.

Last but not least, the final against West Germany. Coming soon to a blog near you.

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