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The World Cup happily defies neutrality

Peter Humi

By Peter Humi
CNN Paris Bureau Chief

In this story:

June 12, 1998
Web posted at: 11:00 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT)

PARIS (CNN) -- There's no question football is quite rightly the world's most popular sport.

Outside of possibly the United States, where it's known as soccer, nearly every young boy dreams of playing for his favorite football club or representing his country to score the winning goal in the World Cup final.

And this, as you are discerning, is a less than completely neutral observation of the game and its championship, now under way in France.

It began like this

England team players greeted fans during practice this week in La Baule, France   

The year was 1966. I was 10 years old and, like thousands of my London contemporaries, I had World Cup fever. England was hosting the event that summer and, despite a somewhat unimpressive start, went on to win the Cup.

I can still name the winning team members and those who scored in each of England's matches, among other vital statistics. No other World Cup was as memorable to me, even though 32 years and seven other Cups have come and gone.

It was, without doubt, the most satisfying moment in English football, which, let's not forget, is the precursor of them all. The first football clubs were English, founded in the 1850s. Nottingham County, a team just promoted to the English first division, has been around since 1867.

But back to 1966. The exploits of goalkeeper Gordon Banks, captain and central defender Bobby Moore and key scorer Bobby Charlton, of the devastating left foot (and now "Sir" Bobby), have entered the realms of legend. Ever since, all England teams inevitably have been compared with the boys of that summer.

Sir Bobby Charlton talked with CNNSI's Phil Jones in Paris on Tuesday
Jones and Charlton
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The comparison has rarely been favorable. England managed to come fourth in the 1990 World Cup, hosted by Italy, but otherwise its performances have been less than adequate for nostalgic fans.

But I was hooked, back in 1966. An inspired performance, a local hero, an extraordinary team -- all help to grab the imagination of youngsters in any sport.

We all played football at school and during breaks. I played other sports, as we all did: cricket in the summer, rugby in autumn and running in the spring term at school.

It was good to do well in those sports, too, of course. But at least on our fields, those football knockabouts produced more passion and delight than scoring a six in cricket ever did.

And the satisfaction of scoring a goal with a devious flick of the ankle, or dribbling past hapless defenders, or kicking a thundering volley (just like Bobby Charlton) is something I still get a kick from today (no pun intended).

Facing defeat and learning loyalty

The '60s were a glamorous decade for the game. Footballers achieved the status of pop stars. The Beatles reigned supreme, and football was part of the "scene."

All this rubbed off on a soccer-mad kid. Growing up in the heart of London, my team was Chelsea. It's where I lived and where, although I was oblivious to it at the time, the miniskirt was invented.

Within a few months of England's victory, I moved to Rome. I remember feeling vastly superior to my new Italian friends. They were, in my mind at least, suffering from their national team's humiliating exit in the 1966 Cup at the hands of the unfancied North Korea.


Soon it was 1970, and the World Cup was being hosted by Mexico. England, as the defending champion, did not have to go through the two-year process of qualifying.

I had returned to London once more, and confidence was high that the squad would give a good account of itself. After all, the key players from '66 were still there.

England was drawn to play in the same group as Brazil -- and the incomparable Pele. It was one of the best matches in a World Cup with many memorable games.

Brazil beat England 1-0 in a hard-fought contest. Today in England, the match is still best remembered for an outstanding save (some say the best ever in the history of the game) by England goalie Gordon Banks from a header by that man Pele.

England won its other two group matches and qualified for the quarterfinals, where it met West Germany in a rematch of the 1966 final in London. England was winning 2-0, when the Germans scored twice in the last 20 minutes and won 3-2 in overtime.

Like England's defense, my world had collapsed. England was the champion no longer, and it was to be 12 long years before the team even qualified for another World Cup.

En France, j'espere anew

Now it's 1998. England is taking part in the Cup, and, as I have done ever since 1966, I will be watching and supporting my team.

To a rational observer, perhaps, the current England squad has no chance of winning. Brazil (again), Germany (revenge would be so sweet!), Italy, Argentina and the host, France, are the favorites.

But for the once 10-year-old fan who followed England's triumph, football is still the stuff of dreams.

I have my ticket for the Paris final on July 12. And who knows, the white shirts of England, with the three lions on their badges, just may be there, too.

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