World Cup Time: How Did Sports Get so Big?

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Once, it was only a game. Now sport is a never-ending drama, a soap opera watched all over the world. Tim de Lisle works out how it happened ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2010

On a long July afternoon in 1966, in north-west London, England’s footballers won the World Cup. By the time they beat West Germany, after extra time, with the help of a dubious goal, it was too late for the early editions of the Sunday papers. Only on the Monday was Fleet Street able to register the moment in its full glory. The Mirror, then the most popular daily ever published in Britain, with sales of 5m, knew a piece of history when it saw one. Its front-page splash proudly announced: A BOUNCING BABY GIRL FOR PRINCESS ALEX. Winning the World Cup was not as big as the birth of Marina Ogilvy, the Queen’s first cousin once removed.

The Sun didn’t lead with the football either, preferring a story about a pay squeeze; for weeks there had been a sterling crisis, and the prime minister, Harold Wilson, had loomed far larger than any footballer. Even the two papers’ sports pages, which in those days were tucked inside, went less than crazy. The Mirror had two pages reflecting on the final, the Sun a little less. In the broadsheets, two-thirds of a page did the job, as it had done throughout the tournament. Three months earlier Time magazine had run its famous cover on Swinging London. And yet, even as London swung, and Britain’s bright young things, led by the Beatles, conquered the Western world, it was as if the national mood was still being dictated by Rudyard Kipling: if you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those twin impostors just the same…