Why I Fell In Love with the Beautiful Game
“ Soccer is a game for wimps and pansies! ”
That’s what I thought about the sport that much of the world calls ‘futbol’ during my early years growing up in Toronto, Canada.
Real men played ice hockey or North American style rugby football, the type played in the NFL or Canadian football league.
Baseball was a pleasant summer pastime, but seemed slow and lacking passion. Basketball was completely off the radar.
The kids in our neighborhood played catch with a football or baseball, and ball hockey on the street.
No one owned a soccer ball, and I never saw anyone playing soccer until I entered the eighth grade.
In the fall of 1961 when I was thirteen, my parents decided to send my two younger brothers and me to a boy’s elementary private school, The Crescent School.
Crescent School was founded in 1913 in central Toronto and moved to a donated family estate property in the city’s east end in 1933.
Known as the Massey Estate, this place was really creepy, right out of the Munster’s haunted house movie.
The main residence had been turned into the school and once you walked through the front door it felt like you had taken a time machine back to nineteenth century England.
The teachers were all male and called ‘masters.’ Many were actually English, or spoke like they were. Masters wore black gowns, and handed out demerit points if you were bad, and accumulating a lot of demerits lead to detentions. They also were experts at throwing chalk and black board erasers.
My first few weeks there were absolute culture shock. White shirt and tie, green blazer and grey flannels, black Oxford shoes.
No more jeans, short sleeve shirts or running shoes. All boys, no more girls.
The property had beautiful grounds with enough land for a full sports playing field. The problem was that the sports that were played there were soccer and cricket.
Being in the upper form, grade eight, I was expected to try out for the school soccer team, even though I had never kicked one of those balls in my life.
Well, stiff upper lip and all that rot, so off I went to give it a go. I was really terrible at it.
Dribbling was something I thought a baby or an old person did, but trying to run controlling a soccer ball with your feet was totally foreign to me.
Hitting the ball with your head, are you kidding? Ouch, that hurts!
I did make the team nevertheless, and had a jolly good time with the lads, but my on field career was undistinguished.
Having tried the sport first hand, I did come away with some respect for the skill level necessary to play the game, but real men still played my kind of football.
I played Canadian football all through my years of high school and into university, but a series of events took place in the summer of 1966, just after my eighteenth birthday, that changed my sporting perspective forever.
The European Odyssey was a two month summer tour of England and western Europe arranged by a professor, Bernie Taylor, from the University of Toronto.
This expedition was exclusively for young men and women in their last year of high school.
We were to be chaperoned by a male and female high school teacher, and two university students, one of each gender.
Some of my friends had already gone on the Odyssey, so I signed up for an adventure that I will never forget.
We all congregated at Toronto airport in the last week of June set to fly to London England. Of the seventeen boys, thirty-four girls and four staff, I knew not a soul. But that didn’t matter for long.
By the time we landed in London a bond was forming amongst the boys, who were busy getting acquainted and checking out their female travelling companions for future prospective fun.
I’m sure the ladies were doing the same.
Of all the places in the world, if you were going to transport a planeload of young adults to a destination that resembled heaven, that place would be London in the summer of 1966.
First off, the legal drinking age was eighteen, not twenty-one as it was at home.
Secondly, our generation was experiencing a musical renaissance unlike anything that had come before, and the center of that renaissance was the English rock and roll scene.
The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dave Clarke Five Herman’s Hermits, Dusty Springfield, Eric Burton and the Animals, all these groups and many, many more gave us the sounds of our lives.
We bopped around Jolly Olde London Town hitting the pubs and the clubs for almost a week, soaking up the amazing culture and history.
The third thing that made this a trip to London heavenly was the fashion scene, as in ‘miniskirts.’
OMG. Absolutely jaw dropping!
Not to be outdone, the Mods and Rocker fashionistas had many our fair friends swooning.
There was another event about to take place in England starting in early July that none of us gave much thought to, something called the World Cup of soccer.
We landed in Calais France on the fifth of July, and set out to conquer the continent. The men had two Volkswagen mini buses to go from place to place, while the ladies rode in a large passenger coach, driven by a German man, Werner.
Werner, as it turned out, would play a crucial role in my forthcoming education of the ways and means of football.
Every country we were about to travel through in the next two months, France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany, was participating in the World Cup tournament back in England. I didn’t know it that first day in France, but I was about take a crash course in the psychological effects of football on otherwise normal people.
As has been mentioned in the first line of this story, I had my prejudices about a bunch of men running around a field in tight short-shorts kicking a ball in a game with little or no body contact. How could that be exciting?
I will come back to Europe in a short time, but I would like to take a few paragraphs to give you some facts and observations about this game, which will set the table for what is about to follow.
First of all, many people think soccer/football is about as exciting as watching paint dry. It is not unusual that very few goals, even no goals at all are scored in the ninety minutes of playing time.
Watching soccer can be a total snoozefest.
I get that. So why does the whole world go gaga over this thing?
Hang in there and I will try to explain.
Historically speaking, the game was played in many forms centuries ago, most notably the Chinese played something called ‘cuju.’
As early as the eleventh century, there are numerous references soccer in England and Scotland.
The sport gained its popularity in England as a means of recreation for working class men who were often employees of one particular industry, like the ship builders against the railway workers.
At the same time, well educated young gentlemen at renowned schools like Eton were forming leagues to assure physical as well as scholastic well being.
Mix it all up in a pot, and in 1863, out comes the ‘Association Football League.’
Now at the same time, there was also a sport in England called rugby football, much like the game of rugby that is played all over the world today.
To stop the confusion between the two sports, the Association chose to use the letters ‘s.o.c.’ in their name as an acronym. Thus their players were
‘soccer’ players and rugby players were ‘ rugger’ players.
I wonder why the Association didn’t use the first three letters of their name?
As the British Empire expanded, so did the game of soccer, with sailors, scientists, explorers, and investors sailing the seven seas and leaving football’s imprint in their wake.
In the hotter climates, the game was played with swaying rhythm building slowly to an outburst of finishing skill.
Northern football, because of the cold, windy weather, was more direct. Hard running up field with long high crosses to fleet footed wingers and deadly strikers.
So that’s enough of that, here endeth the lesson.
Let’s go back to France.
Remember that we now have a large group of eighteen year-olds, seventeen boys and thirty-four girls, congregating in Rouen France, about to be turned loose on the European continent.
What was amazing about this adventure, other than the freedom we were given, was that everyone took turns writing a diary of a certain day’s activities. As a result, there were two complete diaries, one from the boys, and another from the girls, which have enabled us years later to look back on all the silly things we did.
Often the entries read more like the National Enquirer than a chaperoned school educational excursion.
Our chaperones were very cool and really enjoyed themselves too, all the while discreetly looking after our best interests. They were essential in enabling our educational discovery of the ‘finer’ things in life.
World Cup soccer was one of my ‘finer’ things.
France was one of the countries competing in England. Because French was a compulsory language in high school, I had acquired a passable knowledge of how to speak it.
I would listen in the small cafés to groups of Frenchmen chattering about their team’s hopes for victory in the tournament. French newspapers were full of stories too.
France was not considered one of the favourites, and being grouped in the first round with host England, Mexico, former champion Uruguay, they were in tough.
By the time France played its first game on July 13th, a 1-1 draw with Mexico, we had crossed over the frontier into Italy. We took with us many fond memories, such as expanding our knowledge of libations, late nights, painful mornings, budding friendships, (some romantic) and amazing historical and architectural wonders.
Our last evening in France, in Nice to be exact, was rather boisterous to say the least.
That afternoon, West Germany had soundly thrashed Switzerland 5-0 in their first World Cup fixture.
Our German bus driver, Werner, had been extolling the vast virtues of German football ever since we hooked up in Rouen, one week earlier.
It would be fitting to refer to Werner as ‘der professor,’ because he was always trying to educate his charges about the poetry and artistic tactics of the world’s most popular sport.
His lectures often fell on deaf ears, but I for one listened intently.
If there is a prototype of a typical German male, it would be Werner.
He was huge, well over six feet tall and broad as a barn door.
He wasn’t shy about showing off his well sculpted physique, especially on the beach, where his undersized bathing attire made even the men blush.
There was no nonsense about Werner, although he liked to laugh and tell jokes. He was generally a good guy… generally.
That night in Nice after the German victory, Werner hosted a great celebration on the beach. The wine was flowing and Werner, who had a booming singing voice, taught us his favourite songs from the Fatherland. He was in high spirits, and everyone had fun.
I was glad I didn’t have to drive in his bus the next day though. Pass the aspirins.
Early in the evening upon our arrival in Rapallo, our first sleepover in Italy, the streets seemed totally deserted. After checking in we went to a small ristorante that was jam packed with Italian men intently watching a small black and white television mounted high in a corner of the dining room.
Italy was playing Chile, and the two time world champion Italians were giving their South American adversaries a football education.
I was mesmerized by the atmosphere, the shouts, the pleading, the agony and ecstasy. All of my fellow Canucks left for other activities after dinner, but not I.
A 2-0 triumph for the Azzuri, as they are called in their homeland, made for many happy inebriated patrons as they staggered down the vias into the night.
Our expedition continued on to the magnificent city of Rome, chock full of history, culture, and men who would make lewd comments about our girls and try to pinch their behinds.
Their savior was none other than Professor Taylor himself, who loved Rome so much that he personally took us under his wing for our entire stay in the Eternal city.
Bernie Taylor was a legend, a larger than life character that could quote the classics and drink anyone under the table. He always had a smile on his ruddy face, and loved wine, women and song.
He also showed the boys how to throw small stones at the scooters of the men bothering our ladies. I can’t translate their reaction, but it wasn’t friendly.
The highlight of our stay was a semi-private audience with Pope Paul VI, right in the Vatican. Truly a lifetime experience!
Over four days we soaked up everything this great city had to offer, including its all night discos.
While our spirits were high in more ways than one, the Italian populous suffered a severe shock on July 16th, their beloved footballers falling to the Soviet Union 1-0 back in England.
That meant they had to beat the lowly North Koreans in their next match to keep from being eliminated.
The Soviets had already beaten the Koreans 3-0.
July 16th was also a bleak night for a certain German bus driver and his countrymen. West Germany had been held to a 0-0 tie by a skillful Argentine team, and Werner was seen crying in his beer.
Our next cultural enlightenment happened in the artistic capital of Italy, the city of Florence. We visited the Uffizi Gallery, seeing works by Michelangelo and Rembrandt. The Duomo Cathedral was awe inspiring. We also visited a leather factory and the famous Flee Market.
It rained in Florence for all three of our days there, which reflected the pall that had shrouded the entire country of Italy.
On our first night, July 19th, millions upon millions held their breath as the national heroes took to the pitch in that must win game against North Korea.
We were staying in a quaint little hotel with the standard black and white television in an upstairs parlor room. I was the only non Italian that showed up to watch.
The favourite sons owned the ball and were the supreme aggressors for the entire match, BUT…
The North Koreans scored the only goal of the game, sending the Azzuri out of the tournament in shame, with buckets of rotten tomatoes waiting to be tossed at them when they arrived in Rome.
In my little corner of this tragedy back on the third floor of that Florence hotel, the world stopped at the final whistle. There were about thirty people crammed into the room and by the end you could barely see the television for the cigarette smoke. Lots of vino had been consumed as these partisans cheered, shouted profanities and prayed in their mother tongue for their blue shirted countrymen to score a goal.
The sudden silence was kind of scary, and I didn’t know what was going to happen next.
There was a man sitting just in front of the television, which was on a high table. I could see him slowly start to stand up, reach out and grab the T.V., then turn toward an open window. One step later he hurled the vile object down three stories onto the street below.
Cheers filled the room for a moment, then screams of anger and tears of futility.
I made a hasty exit and tried to find some friendly faces to calm my nerves.
Up to this point in my sporting experiences I had never witnessed such raw, all consuming feelings. What I witnessed in that small room in Florence was the start of an awakening that became my love of soccer.
There was one really happy person in Florence as we left the rain and a very depressed city behind. On July 20th, West Germany had defeated Spain 2-1, earning first place in their group and advancing to the quarterfinals.
Werner’s swagger had returned in spades!
Venice, ‘The Floating City,’ with all its canals, lagoons and bridges connecting one hundred and seventeen little islands was our next port of call.
There is no place like Venice in this world, and with lots to see and do for fifty young Canadians, so we tried to do it all.
On our second day there, July 25th, I took a leave of absence from the gang to watch two World Cup semi final matches.
The first round of play had contained some surprise upsets.
Brazil, with the amazing Pele, had been upstaged by a young Portuguese player, Eusebio, and failed to advance.
Host England and two time champion Uruguay went through as did their neighbor Argentina. The tough Soviets, the storied Hungarians, the Cinderella Italian-killers North Korea, and of course, Werner’s knights in shining armor, West Germany all were invited to the party.
As the quarterfinals turned out, Portugal beat North Korea, 5-3, the Soviets handled Hungary 2-1, and England beat the temperamental Argentines 2-1 in a game full of dirty tactics and hard feelings.
That night on the beaches of the Lido Island in Venice lagoon, a large figure in a skimpy pair of swim trunks could be found once again strutting his stuff, singing the praises of the Fatherland.
West Germany had trounced Uruguay 5-0.
We said ‘arrivederci’ to Venice on July 25th, and peeled up the autostrada in our mini buses to Italy’s fashion center, Milan.
We only had one day here, so we visited another Duomo and cruised around a bit before all the gang went out to dinner together.
This just happened to be the night that West Germany was playing the Soviets in one of the semi final games. I was grateful that the ristorante we attended had a T.V. once again mounted high on one wall.
Werner was in fine form, encouraging us to sing along with his loud vocals, even though we didn’t know his language. As the wine flowed, things began to get rowdy.
Being a student of history, I knew that there was no love lost between the Germans and the Italians. World War II was just over twenty years in the past, and people had long memories.
The Italian proprietor of the ristorante took offence to what had become Werner’s obnoxious behavior, and reached up and turned off the T.V. with the game tied 1-1.
Werner went ballistic!
Some of the boys managed to get him outside before the police arrived, and we found a nearby outdoor café that was showing the game.
West Germany’s winning goal quickly changed Werner’s spirits, and the Odyssey’s gals and guys spent the rest of the evening drinking on Werner’s tab.
Five days later, as soon as we reached West Germany, the girls had a new bus and driver.
Apparently Professor Taylor had witnessed some of Werner’s antics in Rome, and with a few other negative reports from the chaperones, it was ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ Werner forever.
There were mixed feelings about his departure, but his inability to control his emotions were his kiss of death. He could be friendly and lots of fun, but he could also be terrifying.
In the end, it was the right decision.
July 26th saw us cross into Switzerland and England beat Portugal 2-1.
England would face West Germany in the World Cup final on July 30th.
Our tour spent two days motoring through the beautiful Swiss Alps and then on into the Austrian city of Innsbruck.
Austria has always been an enigma to most North Americans. We have the impression that its ties to Germany are strong, but it is an independent country, with its own history and culture.
By this time I had convinced almost all of my travelling companions that it would be worth while watching the World Cup final, Werner or no Werner.
As with the Italians, tensions and ill feelings had not disappeared between the English and Germans twenty years after the war’s end.
The International Herald Tribune that I had purchased on the day of the final game had a cartoon of an English lion eating a German eagle with the caption, ‘World War Three.’
I had never seen such a thing involving a North American sporting event.
Canada was a comparatively young country, and other than fighting in the Boer war and the two World Wars as part of the former British Empire, we had a comparatively short international military history.
For years we were known as ‘The Dominion of Canada.’ Our maple leaf flag had replaced the British Union Jack flag only one year prior in 1966.
So, historically and culturally our football passions flowed for the English. On the day of the final we hung all the Canadian flags we had with us on the walls of our hotel T.V. room.
The game did not disappoint, being called the most exciting of the century by the international press.
Ninety-six thousand fanatics filled London’s Wembley stadium to overflowing, and the West German fans were every bit as vocal and boisterous their English counterparts.
The West Germans started aggressively, scoring in the twelfth minute. England countered seven minutes later, with star player Geoff Hurst getting the tally.
The teams were equal at the half, but in the seventy-seventh minute Martin Peters put England ahead 2-1.
West Germany pulled out all the stops, desperate to score the tying marker. With less than one minute remaining in regulation time, a free kick by the West Germans found its way onto the foot of uncovered Wolfgang Weber, who tapped in the equalizer.
The match would go to extra time.
But not without controversy.
Gordon Banks, the stalwart English keeper, protested that Weber’s goal had rebounded to him off the arm of his teammate Karl-Heinz Schnellinger.
No player is allowed to touch the ball with their hands or arms, except the goalkeepers. The play is called dead instantly if this infraction occurs, and often a penalty shot is awarded against the offending team.
Now we must remember that in 1966, there were no instant replays in sports, so all the on field decisions during a soccer match were made by the referee, sometimes with consultation with either of his two linesmen.
In this case, the referee got it right.
I have in my possession an old VHS tape of the 1966 final game, and with the benefit of the slow motion/pause functions on the remote control, I can confirm that the ball hit Schnellinger’s back, not his arm, so the goal was legal.
Thus, extra time was legitimate, the first time a final had gone to extra time since 1934 in Rome.
But an even greater controversy waited.
England had every reason to be disconsolate as they took to the pitch again, having been within seconds of hoisting the Jules Rimet trophy, symbolic of world football supremacy.
But they stormed the West German goal, hitting the cross bar and sailing several shots just wide of the net.
In the eleventh minute, Englishman Alan Ball sent a cross onto the foot of Geoff Hurst. Hurst trapped the ball, swivelled to face the goal, and let fly high a shot that thwacked the underside of the cross bar and landed… deep breath, in one of the most controversial places in football history.
According to the laws of international football, ‘the whole of the ball must pass over the goal line to be counted as a goal.’
The English players instantly celebrated their ‘goal.’ The Swiss referee sprinted to the nearest linesman who supposedly had the best vantage point to see the play. This gentleman was from Azerbaijan, part of the Soviet Union, and had no common language with the referee. After several gestures by both officials, the play was ruled a goal.
England 3, West Germany 2.
Geoff Hurst scored his third goal in the final minute of play for his hat trick and England were crowned champions of the world.
In Vienna, we felt as if the score was Canada 4 – West Germany 2. That’s how elated we fifty Canadians were.
This is what sport can do to people who previously have never felt such an emotion.
That game also completed my transformation into a soccer junkie. I was hooked!
Our once in a lifetime Odyssey expedition sailed along for another three weeks with all kinds of stories to tell, but this story is about my love of soccer, so let’s get back to it.
It has since been proven by several different studies that the ‘whole’ ball did not, in fact, cross the goal line. Even on my VSH tape, it is plain to see the West Germans were shafted.
Delving more deeply into the controversial goal, the linesman who made the questionable call, Tofiq Bakhramov, later admitted he thought the ball had hit the back of the net, not the crossbar, so it didn’t matter where the ball hit the ground.
Some West Germans claimed that the call was revenge for their team eliminating the Soviets out of the competition a few nights earlier.
The most outrageous story, one that cannot be verified, is that when asked why he allowed the questionable goal, Bakhramov simply said
“Stalingrad!” in reference to the World War II battle between the Germans and the Russians.
On the day of the World Cup final, somewhere in West Germany, most likely a large beer hall filled to overflowing with men in Lederhosen waving red, yellow and black flags, and singing loud songs, our old friend Werner would be distraught at the final outcome and enraged enough to kill a certain linesman.
What if he had still been with us? Don’t even want to think about it.
If the truth be known, it was Werner that played a large part in me falling in love with the beautiful game.
His passion for his country and the sport of soccer was honest and clear, so all consuming you had to admire it.
He bared his sole and wore his heart on his sleeve.
He was a unique person in my life, and I will never forget him.
The magnitude of the game of soccer on the international stage was an eye opener as well.
But it’s not all about the game. Just take a look at those players.
Ladies, these guys are HOT!
Don’t believe me, ask my wife.
I took her to see the Argentine national team play Canada at Toronto’s intimate Varsity Stadium for a warm up game before the 1994 World Cup in the U.S.
This was Diego Maradonna’s team, and with their short-short’s, bulging thighs, and disrobed torsos after scoring a goal, they quickly had her full attention.
She was amazed at their speed, stamina, and skill with the football, and left the match a true soccer convert.
In North America, the sport has become totally family friendly.
To wrap things up, in the years since 1966, I have become not just a fan, but someone who tries to look inside the game and see what makes it tick. At the highest level, soccer is a game of sociology, different cultures competing against each other, not with guns and bombs, but with a football.
We know that soccer has started wars and inflamed ethnic and religious rivalries, but it can also transcend those same rivalries and differences to unite opposing faiths and points of view for the benefit of their national football team and all the citizens of their homeland.
When you are standing on the terraces, wrapped in your team scarf, waving the colours to and fro as part of a football tribe, there is no feeling like it in the world.
So, I will officially retract my opening remark.
Soccer is not a game for wimps and pansies. It is played by some of the most highly skilled, physically fit athletes in the world, and it is a grueling, rough and tumble sport.
That is why I fell in love with the beautiful game.