On 30 July 1966, in the 101st minute of the World Cup final at Wembley, with the score drawn at 2–2 between England and West Germany, Geoff Hurst met an Alan Ball cross with his right foot. It was a near-perfect shot from the centre-forward, whose inclusion by manager Alf Ramsey at the expense of Jimmy Greaves had caused national uproar. But not quite.
The ball rocketed toward the West German goal, hit the crossbar and ricocheted down towards the goal line. England supporters – still, in 1966, wearing suits and ties – erupted with joy. The thousands of Germans who had made the journey to London rose to their feet and shouted, “Nicht im Tor!” Not a goal.
With many players reaching the limits of their physical endurance, whichever team scored now was likely to win a game that was being watched live on television by a record 32.3 million people in the United Kingdom alone.
West Germany had won the World Cup in 1954 but England had never lifted the trophy before; indeed for much of the World Cup’s history the Football Association had turned its nose up at a “foreign” competition.
A further frisson was added by recent history. Barely two decades had passed since German bombers had been over London (there was an uncomfortable reminder of this in 2015, when an unexploded Luftwaffe bomb was found near the stadium). “As a child Nobby Stiles had been in an air raid,” says Jonathan Mayo, author of The 1966 Word Cup Final: Minute by Minute.
“Martin Peters’s wife was named after her three aunts who were killed in an air raid. So it was there below the surface for the players: that need not to let the Germans win.”
In such an atmosphere, did the England players really care if the ball had fully crossed the goal line before the German defender Wolfgang Weber headed it away? Hurst would never know for sure, as he fell over when he kicked the ball. All he saw was the nearest England player to goal, Roger Hunt, lifting his arms in triumph. When an ecstatic Bobby Charlton lifted his as well, the outraged German defenders, who had seen what had really happened, turned to the referee, Switzerland’s Gottfried Dienst, and shouted “Nein! Nein! Nein!”
But Dienst wasn’t sure, either, and he looked to the linesman, Tofiq Bahramov of the Soviet Union, who had so far signally failed to do the one thing a linesman must do if he believes there has been a goal scored – run back to the halfway line.
In the crowd a 26-year-old Kenneth Clarke, future Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, shouted at Bahramov in Russian. “I can’t quite remember what I said,” Clarke would later recall. “But it seemed to work.” Dienst ran over to Bahramov and asked, “Is the ball behind the line?” Bahramov nodded his head. “Yes, behind the line,” he said. “Tor!” Dienst blew his whistle for a goal.
Germans have disputed the flamboyantly moustached Bahramov’s decision ever since and a conspiracy theory quickly emerged based on Bahramov’s supposed hatred of Germans. It was rumoured that when the German players complained he simply said, “Stalingrad” – scene of a bloody Soviet victory over the Nazis. Mayo doubts it happened: “I could find no evidence Bahramov ever said that – I think it’s an urban myth. He always denied it and Stalingrad really wouldn’t bother him. He was from Azerbaijan, so what happened at Stalingrad is a terrible thing, but it’s not really uppermost in his mind.”
England captain Bobby Moore later said, “We won the World Cup on the best appeal of all time. I believe old Bahramov was convinced by [Roger’s] reaction.” Eventually Bahramov would admit that he had not actually seen the ball cross the line, but had been persuaded by the strength of Hunt’s reaction to Hurst’s shot.
Hurst went on to score his third and England’s fourth goal in the game’s final moments, causing BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme to utter the deathless words, “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over… it is now.”
Afterwards Moore was hoisted with the trophy on to the shoulders of his teammates. The photograph of that moment has come to be a totemic symbol of a national success that, as England’s continual failure at each passing tournament makes clear, may never be repeated.
Not so Germany. Since 1966, playing as West Germany or Germany, they have won the World Cup three times, most recently in 2014. Logic would suggest then, that 1966 should hardly matter to them any more. But it still rankles. On the eve of the Brexit vote the German tabloid Bild invited Britons to vote remain. If we did, the paper said, then Germans would finally admit that the ball was over the line.
Perhaps the Germans have a point. Look at the slowed-down footage on websites where, a half-century later, the trajectory of the ball is still assiduously tracked, and you can see the puff of chalk as the ball hits the goal line. Then, as further proof, a white chalk mark is visible on the leather of the ball as it bounces back up.
“I was open-minded when I began the book,” says Mayo, “but having looked at interviews with Alan Ball saying, ‘Yes, it was a metre over the line,’ then bursting out laughing… I think most of the evidence suggests that it wasn’t a goal. Though I might get in trouble for that.”
World Cup 66: Minute by Minute will be played 2:50pm Saturday on Radio 2 and Radio 5 Live.
Don’t miss a moment with your complete Olympics TV guide – on sale Tuesday 2nd August