England v Uruguay, 1966 World Cup
After the excitement of the preparations and build-up, the 1966 World Cup Finals kicked off at 7.30 p.m. on Monday 11 July 1966 at Wembley. After the low-key opening ceremony, hosts England took on Uruguay, twice winners of the tournament, in front of an expectant crowd of over 87,000 at Wembley. Alf Ramsey, England manager since 1963, had been shaping his side and playing system ahead of the tournament; he developed a hard-working and pragmatic style, ignoring criticism that his team lacked flair and insisting they would win the World Cup. A 3-2 defeat at home to Austria in an October 1965 friendly was followed by 10 games undefeated, only one of which was drawn. A notable victory came in February 1966, a win against West Germany at home, when the starting line-up included nine of the players who would lift the World Cup. After beating Yugoslavia 2-0 at Wembley in early May, at the end of June the team embarked on a three-match tour of Scandinavia before a 1-0 win in Poland on 5 July completed England’s warm-up fixtures.
The Times predicted the Uruguayans “will be strong but ponderous” – they were noted for being a tough, well-organised side with an outstanding goalkeeper in Ladislao Mazurkiewicz. Contemporary match reports confirmed England’s struggle to break their opponents down, with the Daily Telegraph’s Donald Saunders praising the “superbly disciplined, highly skilled Uruguayan defence”. The Daily Mirror reflected on “the dourest of defensive battles”, while for The Guardian it was a “night of disappointment and frustration”. Norman Giller reported that: “A dull and uninspiring start to the World Cup left neutrals wondering on what Alf Ramsey based his confidence that England would win the tournament. Uruguay played with nine men back in defence and defied all England’s attempts to break them down… The Uruguayans celebrated at the final whistle as if they had won. They had squeezed exactly what they wanted from the game with their stifling defensive tactics. It was not a pretty sight.” Jimmy Hill, then Coventry City manager making an early appearance as a television pundit, insisted “England will not win the World Cup, but don’t blame Alf. No one could win with this lot.”
Uruguay manager Ondino Viera declared himself “proud of his players” while Ramsey’s confidence was unshaken despite this disappointment – it was the first time England had failed to score at Wembley since before the Second World War. He continued to make minor adjustments to his side; of the starting line-up for this opening game, nine retained their places for the final, the unlucky pair being John Connolly and Jimmy Greaves, replaced by the inexperienced West Ham duo of Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst. Uruguay finished second behind England in the group stage, conceding only a single goal, before they were beaten 4-0 by West Germany in the quarter-finals at Hillsborough, with two men sent off. They confirmed their pedigree by winning the following year’s Copa America on home soil, before reaching the semi-finals of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, where England lost a two-goal lead in the quarter-finals against West Germany to surrender their trophy. The nations had only met once before 1966 at a World Cup, when Uruguay won 4-2 in 1954, and once since, when Luis Suárez scored twice to knock England out of the 2014 competition.