So, let’s see if we’ve got this right. Geoff Hurst scored a hat trick in the 1966 World Cup Final (though some spoilsports still mutter darkly, in German, about his second goal). After the match the ball was spirited away to Germany by Helmut Haller, who had scored the opening goal. Geoff himself doesn’t seem to have been unduly bothered about getting his ball back until roughly a month ago when he endorsed rescue missions by the Sun and the Mirror, the latter able to make the Hallers the best offer (all money to charity, of course) after receiving help from Eurostar and the ubiquitous Richard Branson.
A few days later, an orange ball brought over by Helmut’s son is handed over to Geoff at an emotional scene at Eurostar’s terminal, where it will go on display (“so hordes of fans arriving for the Euro ’96 tournament can pay homage to it”). Geoff seems happy, but his agent wonders if the ball is genuine and Jimmy Greaves declares that over the past thirty years he has auctioned several footballs purporting to be the one with which Geoff did the business. But, then, Jimmy makes this claim in the Sun, clearly stung by their defeat, so it’s possible that his own memory may have been playing tricks.
Still, anyone could be forgiven for being a little confused when the advanced publicity suggests that a football tournament called Euro ’96 will be taking place simultaneously in 1966, 1939-45 and 1914-18. The Sun began their quest with a front page headline labelling the Haller family as The Greediest Krauts on Earth and took opinions from the likes of Bernard Manning and Stan Boardman, the latter pictured (hold on to your sides) in a stormtrooper uniform. The Mirror, making better progress with the Hallers, could afford to be a little more benign, though their sister paper the Sunday Mirror dug out The Day We Soccered It To The Huns, a tale of a First World War regiment who kicked a football ahead of them while charging enemy lines on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. There were 57,000 casualties that day, “but in the end we won the battle, World War One, World War Two and the 1966 World Cup.”
For both papers it represents little more than a quick skirmish in the circulation war, just a good, entertaining story, from a fertile source – we may yet get to hear about Stanley Matthews and Tommy Lawton standing beside the burning rubble of the Reichstag.
Except it isn’t funny; in fact, it stinks. The biggest odour comes not from the casual bigotry, but from the hypocrisy, because if there’s any trouble during Euro ’96, on whatever scale, from a fight in a city centre pub to attacks on cars with foreign licence plates, as happened after the 1990 World Cup Semi-Final when disgruntled drunks gave vent to their frustrations, you can be sure that the front pages of the Mirror and the Sun will be screaming of the nation’s disgrace.
Just like after the Dublin riots, they’ll go on at great length about how disgusted and perplexed they are and will demand that firm action be taken – stiffer prison sentences, boot camps, conscription – against the madmen who lash out at innocent people whose only crime is that they’re not English. You can guarantee, though, that among all the opinions offered by their reporters, columnists and leader writers, there will be not even the slightest hint of a suggestion that the blind chauvinism of the tabloids helps create the atmosphere in which such events take place. This particular dark corner of the national consciousness wasn’t brought into being by the newspapers but the fact that they tap into it at will, almost as a reflex, means that they are the last ones who have the right to complain when others follow suit.
And they’ll so disappointed if there isn’t trouble at Euro ’96. All that pent-up outrage, dribbling out in the relish with which they have reported crowd trouble in the last month of the season, always placed in the context of the countdown to Euro ’96, will go to waste. They want to be revolted so they can tell of their revulsion over and over again, rage fuelling more rage.
As well as snapping up the World Cup ball, the Mirror have also stolen a march on their rivals in devising the most inflammatory story of the Euro ’96 build up so far. Under the headline of Soccer gangs set to KO Brits, they presented a handful of “vicious skinheads” and “neo Nazi thugs” from Europe who’ll be “invading Britain” in June. Clearly each has confirmed that they would be prepared to defend themselves if attacked, which is sufficient for them to be presented as though they were planning a military assault. A challenge thrown down to ‘our’ thugs, then, one you feel sure the Sun will pick up in the few weeks that remain before the start of the tournament.
On this evidence, it’s scarcely surprising that the tabloids are so fond of suggesting that a poor result for the England team has ‘let the nation down’; they’re the experts, after all.
From WSC 112 June 1996. What was happening this month