Matthew Monk

Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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A Tale of Two Countries - Part One

    The last twelve months have been a time of anniversaries and reflection in Britain. While the country at the moment is stable and seems to be at peace with itself, we have been reminded time and again of just how different it was only twenty years ago.

    Then Britain was full of social and political unrest - a civil war raged in Northern Ireland, workers fought against industry and the government as unemployment reached 15%, all the major cities burned after the worst riots seen for centuries and then the country went to war with Argentina over a tiny, rocky outcrop in the middle of the South Atlantic called the Falklands/Malvinas. Even when the Pope made his first (and only) visit to Britain, inspiring millions and ending centuries of conflict between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, it had only a limited impact on society. At times, the country seemed to be falling apart at the seams - huge events like the Royal Weddings gave a false impression abroad, but people at home knew differently.

    Right in the middle of all this came the 1982 World Cup in Spain. In today's world of never ending nostalgia this event almost singularly is ignored and lies forgotten. It certainly does not deserve to be. It marked the end of one era of English football and started another one that ended in Torino eight years later with England right back at the top of the world. It began with few expecting much, but ended with many wondering just how England had managed to return home undefeated, yet without the trophy. There is quite a tale to tell here.

    England had spent the 1970s stumbling from one failure to another. In 1970 they had travelled to Mexico as World Champions, and came as close to beating Pelé's magical Brazilians as anyone ever could. Then they lost to West Germany in two massively important, belief sapping games. First Alf Ramsey's team were knocked out of the World Cup by Gerd Müller. Although this loss hurt, most fans saw it as a one off, and pointed to Gordon Banks missing the game and Bobby Charlton being strangely substituted. It would not happen again was the image Ramsey and the English press put across. It did, two years later.

    This time it happened at Wembley. Inspired by Günter Netzer, the Germans ran England ragged and knocked Ramsey's team out of the European Championships. With English confidence now at an all time low, Poland came to Wembley and eliminated England from the 1974 World Cup - in 1973! Alf Ramsey was sacked and replaced by Don Revie, the most successful English club manager of his age. But instead of creating a new era of success the squad stagnated, weighed down by its huge size and constant chopping and changing. Revie jumped ship before the end of the 1978 qualifiers, leaving for sunnier Arabian climes. England lost out to Italy on goal difference, and missed out on the World Cup for a second consecutive time only twelve years after winning it.

    In 1980 England finally qualified for another tournament, this time for the European Championship in Italy. This was no new dawn, and again England failed, beaten by the Italians, held by Belgium and only able to beat Spain in the meaningless final match.

    All the more strangely, while this was happening English clubs absolutely dominated European club competitions. From 1977 to 1982 an English club won the European Cup every year (Liverpool three times, Nottingham Forest twice and Aston Villa once), and going back earlier, both Leeds and Derby County had reached the very final stages before being narrowly beaten. It seemed to be that whoever won the English league would win the European Cup the next year. Similarly, English clubs were regularly reaching the finals of the UEFA and European Cup Winners' Cups. Kevin Keegan, England's captain and best player, was twice voted European Footballer of the Year. It should have been a period of great success. Instead (and by a very long way) it was the worst period in England's long international history.

    So by the time the qualifiers for the 1982 World Cup came around few Englishmen expected much. England had been drawn into a tough, but winnable group along with Norway, Romania, Switzerland and Hungary, and started badly. After an easy home victory against Norway, England lost to Romania and Switzerland. Still in with a chance of qualification thanks to a great victory in the Nepstadion over Hungary, England travelled to Norway expecting to get the two points comfortably.

    Instead, in one of the biggest shocks in England's history, Norway won 2:1. England has seemingly thrown away any chance of making it to Spain with their sixth loss in the last ten internationals. To make matters worse, the Norwegian commentator had rounded off a night of ecstasy for the Scandinavians by exclaiming 'Admiral Lord Nelson… Winston Churchill… Maggie Thatcher, Maggie Thatcher… Your boys took a hell of a beating' - a commentary that was repeated many times in England over the next few weeks, much to the chagrin of the players and manager Ron Greenwood.

    Just when all seemed lost, Romania were beaten at home by Switzerland. England were thrown a huge lifeline. For the first time the World Cup was to include 24 teams. Therefore Europe would have 13 representatives, with both the group winners and runners' up going to Spain. England could no longer win their group, but could finish second if they beat Hungary again.

    The whole first division football programme was suspended for the first time since 1946 in the week before the match. 92 000 expectant Englishmen packed Wembley to its night time capacity, while millions more watched at home, and Hungary never stood a chance. England dominated the match like they had not done for years. There was only one goal, Paul Mariner - a big, clumsy target man - stabbing home the ball after a free kick. But Hungary could not even get a shot on goal in return, and England were able to coast back to the World Cup finals.

    The nation was relieved, but it was not too excited or expectant. After all, even Ron Greenwood admitted that England had sneaked into the tournament by the backdoor, and barely deserved to be there. Greenwood had also decided that he could no longer offer much to England. Several times during his five years in charge he had almost resigned, and at least once he had to be talked out of quitting on the spot following another bad performance. The press pulled his teams apart, accusing him of being out of touch and too reliant on old stagers like Kevin Keegan. Giving in to the pressure he hired Don Howe to organise his defence and announced his intention to retire following the finals. The press assumed this was an acceptance of failure even before the finals and while there was some comfort from being drawn in another winnable group, no one expected England to do well.

    Almost unnoticed, England then went on a thirteen match unbeaten run - including nine victories - and only conceding three goals throughout the whole process. That was to take them to the brink of victory at the World Cup. But there was too much going on at home for anyone to notice the wins mounting up.

    Even as England had been qualifying, Britain's inner cities had been erupting into huge riots. Millions of workers were sacked as the economy crumbled. Then as the football season was reaching its climax, Argentina invaded a tiny British colony, the Falkland Islands, and British pride took another major blow. Almost to escape the mayhem at home, 25 000 young English men travelled to Northern Spain to watch England in Group 4 of the World Cup. But even while this exodus was taking place few knew if it would be worthwhile. English participation was called into question by the government - how could England play football in the same competition as Argentina while hundreds of British and Argentinean soldiers were dying in the South Atlantic?

    Thankfully this bloody, unnecessary conflict came to a much needed end on June 14 - one day after Argentina had opened the tournament by losing to Belgium, and just two days before England started against France. So England were free to compete, or at least try to put up a creditable showing.

    As the thousands of English fans arrived on board car ferries in Bilbao few knew how their team would do against the French. Not much was expected of France, although they had been so attractive to watch in Argentina four years before. In qualifying they had eliminated Holland, but they had only squeezed past the Republic of Ireland on goal difference. But then again, England had hardly set the world alight in their qualifiers had they?

    In the build up to the match all the talk back in England was of who Greenwood would play up front instead of the injured Keegan and just how he would replace the equally injured Trevor Brooking in the centre of midfield. In Spain itself, most England fans worried simply about where they were going to sleep, and how they were going to pay for their tickets. So badly had the organising committee distributed the tickets the only people who seemed to have any were the ubiquitous touts. Thousands of English fans bought these, and ended up in the French section. Running battles on the terraces started straight away, with the police regularly baton charging anyone who got in their way. As well as running through their usual repertoire of chants about the Second World War, Argentina and Northern Ireland, many English fans had started to pick up the Basque nationalist songs and flags so popular in Pais Vasco but utterly hated in Castillan Spain. This made them even less popular with the Spanish police, and that mixed with huge amounts of cheap alcohol and hot sun meant for trouble wherever England went. Today that type of trouble would be magnified and reported in all its shocking depth, but in 1982 it was almost expected.

    With the front pages back home still dominated by the Falklands, this vicious violence was barely mentioned. Thousands of English fans returned home with injuries - black eyes, broken noses and arms, stab wounds - and some were even hospitalised as neo-fascist Spanish youth groups attacked any English fan they could find once they were away from the relative safety of the Basque country. The attitude of the Spanish police was to attack first and to round up any England fans unlucky enough to be in a small group. Once England got to Madrid for the second stage the trouble was to get even worse. But for now the worst was contained by the most unexpected of English performances.

    England outclassed France so thoroughly in Bilbao that few commentators gave the French much chance of getting out of the group, let alone having any chance of winning the tournament. England scored through Bryan Robson after only 27 seconds, officially the second fastest goal in World Cup history, a fast, well-controlled volley following a long throw and flick-on. England were rampant, and as the fans stopped fighting just long enough to celebrate, they ran out 3:1 winners. Only in the few minutes before and after Alain Giresse scored for France did England look troubled. Michel Platini hardly had a touch in midfield, crowded out by Robson and Butch Wilkins. Even Paul Mariner, retaining his place alongside Trevor Francis, looked international class, adding a third goal to Robson's two.

    It was the finest away performance by an English team since Guadalajara and Brazil twelve years before. Indeed, many went so far as to say it was the finest performance England had produced since 1966. The team was on a massive high. As their fans drank Bilbao dry, Greenwood tinkered with his team. Still without Brooking and Keegan, he now lost much of Robson's mobility to a groin injury - how often was that going to happen in the future! Still, the Czechs were bypassed comfortably with Mariner and Francis giving England a 2:0 victory. England were the first European side to qualify for the second stage, and so far only Brazil had looked as good.

    The football was starting to overtake war and unrest as the main news story back in England, and many fans in Spain were linking British success in the Falklands to English victories in Spain. The nation back at home was being told to rejoice in victory by Thatcher's jingoistic right-wing government and England's victories in Spain were just what she needed to boost her campaign. Even a poor performance against Kuwait was brushed over. Without Robson's movement, England could only win 1:0 (again thanks to Francis) but they looked weaker this time. True, some of the squad players were used in this game, and Keegan and Brooking were still unavailable, but cracks were appearing - no matter how small they were.



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