The year the world switched on: how the 1966 World Cup kicked off football’s TV revolution

PUBLISHED: 03:00 15 June 2018

England's 4-2 win over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final. TopFoto

England's 4-2 win over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final. TopFoto

©2004 AP / Topham

ROGER DOMENEGHETTI explains why the 1966 tournament established the template for televised football that still holds today, even if the replays did take a little getting used to

When referee Gottfried Dienst consulted the Russian linesman, Tofiq Bahramov, about Geoff Hurst’s controversial goal in the 1966 World Cup final it wasn’t just the players and the 91,000 fans inside the stadium who waited with anticipation. Another 400 million people around the world were watching on television. At the time it was the biggest global TV audience, surpassing the 350 million who had tuned in for the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill the previous year and – at 32.6 million – the game remains the most-viewed programme in British history.

The 1966 World Cup was not the first to be televised, though. That honour goes to the tournament held in Switzerland 12 years previously. In the early 1950s the BBC was one of a number of European public service broadcasters which had formed the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). As part of a ‘Television Continental Exchange’, which would later be renamed Eurovision, the group joined forces to broadcast nine games from the 1954 tournament to their members. The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation provided the coverage which was relayed via 44 transmitters strategically dotted across the continent, plus 4,000 miles of connecting landlines.

This created the template for the coverage of international sports tournaments which remains in place today, with the host nation’s broadcaster providing pictures for widespread use. In the early days, though, there was one huge downside: you only got what you were given. On the first day of the 1958 tournament in Sweden the first eight group games, which involved all four Home Nations, were played simultaneously. However only coverage of the hosts’ victory against Mexico, and West Germany’s defeat of Argentina was available. Four years later, with the age of satellite television still in the future, it was impossible to broadcast live to Europe from the World Cup in Chile. However, the growing importance of sport (and in particular football) to television was clear. The BBC still aired around 18 hours of coverage during primetime. To ensure viewers would get to see games as quickly as possible, film was flown between Santiago, Lima, Panama, Miami and New York, where it was processed, before being flown across the Atlantic for transmission in the UK a couple of days after each match had finished.

Due to these limitations, the rights for the 1962 tournament were effectively used as a loss leader and bundled together with the rights for the 1966 tournament. FIFA recognised that with the latter tournament being held in England, which – the USA apart – had the most sophisticated TV facilities, there was the opportunity to really showcase the event.

Thus, FIFA sold the rights to the Chile tournament to the EBU for $75,000 but managed to get $800,000 for the rights to the England tournament. Given the EBU had paid nothing for the rights in 1954 and around $5,000 in 1958, the growing value of sport to television was clear.

However the EBU, at the behest of the BBC, ensured they protected their investment. Given what had happened in 1958, the contract for 1966 stipulated that the semi-finals would not be played at the same time, so that they could both be broadcast live. The opening game between England and Uruguay was brought forward a day and the hosts’ game against Mexico moved from an afternoon to an evening kick off to ensure better viewing figures.

Furthermore, when the venues were chosen it was considered crucial that they could cater for the requirements of the more than 2,000 press, TV and radio journalists, with broadcast paramount. As the FA’s report into the tournament later stated, if a stadium did not meet the standards required of the broadcasters ‘all the other facilities it might possess would be of little value’. This was the first time that TV coverage was recognised as a key component within the planning for a World Cup.

When FIFA and the EBU made their rights deal neither party could have foreseen the impact satellite broadcasting would have. In 1965 the world’s first commercial communication satellite, IntelSat I, nicknamed Early Bird, was launched and it was able to transmit pictures between Europe and America. Mexicans were able to watch their team’s three groups games plus the final, which was also broadcast live in the USA. Sports Illustrated estimated that around 10 million watched the broadcast, an unexpectedly high figure for a match that kicked off at 9am on the West Coast.

The coverage was also significant for a series of notable innovations which are still hallmarks of broadcasting today. The draw for the tournament, held in January 1966 at London’s Royal Garden Hotel, was shown live across western Europe and to all the competing nations other than North Korea. For the first time, seedings were introduced, which kept hosts England and favourites Brazil apart and also separated the South American teams.

During the tournament the BBC brought together a panel of expert analysts, including the likes of former England boss Walter Winterbottom and ex-captains Johnny Haynes and Billy Wright.

The usual practice of journalists entering changing rooms after games was banned and instead an ‘interview room’ was set up at each game where post-match interviews with managers could be conducted by the TV commentators as well as a journalist from each competing country and a representative of the British press. These were relayed into the press room so other journalists could get the quotes they needed.

The most significant development was the replay. The technology was first introduced into sport by CBS during the annual Army v Navy gridiron game in December 1963 and prior to the World Cup BBC engineers travelled to the USA to see how the machine worked. They then built their own version specially for the tournament. The technology was used for the first time during England’s opening match against Uruguay and it had an instant impact.

One viewer wrote to the Radio Times to say how it had left them ‘quite breathless’. Others were so bemused that they inundated the BBC with calls asking if there was a problem with the broadcast. A caption with the words ‘action replay’ was inserted to make it clear what was happening. The technology also reinforced the importance of Hurst’s controversial goal in the final. It is not just a football moment but a television moment.

The coverage also instigated a shift in the make-up of the football audience. Executives at the BBC had felt the increased amount of football would cause complaints about disruption to the normal TV schedule, particularly from women. However the opposite was the case. At the start of the tournament viewers were mainly men, but come the final the gap between the numbers of male and female viewers had narrowed considerably, and Peter Dimmock, the BBC’s director of outside broadcasts, noted that “housewives have begun to appreciate that football is not just 22 chaps kicking a ball about, but something involving a great deal of skill”.

Indeed, such was the interest that the majority of the four million people who watched ITV’s coverage of the final were women. One of those watching was Sue Lopez, widely considered to be a pioneer of the women’s game in Britain. Lopez had been on the verge of representing Hampshire at hockey when the 1966 World Cup inspired her to switch to football. Three years later she helped launch the Women’s Football Association and in 1971 the FA lifted its 50-year ban on women’s football.

In England, the 1970 World Cup is often seen as the pioneering TV event, not least because it was in colour and also because the country received images via satellite. But it is the 1966 World Cup which should really be viewed as the cementing the relationship between television and football.

Roger Domeneghetti is a lecturer in Journalism at Northumbria University and the author of ‘From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football’s Journey through the English Media’.

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