(By Matthew Taylor/History Today) World Cup fever seems to have been with us since modern sport began. It has certainly helped to define and position football as a key measurement of national identification and self-confidence within the nations of the United Kingdom.
However, it is worth remembering that Britain’s relationship with the tournament took some time to develop and has never been straightforward.
The British football associations stayed away from the first three World Cups during the 1930s. They were not members of FIFA, the world governing body, anyway, and rejected requests to travel to Uruguay, Italy and France. Stanley Rous, secretary of the FA and later FIFA president, was in favour of competing at the 1938 competition but the FA Council was not. The finals were barely covered by the British press and administrators and fans regarded the results as inconsequential. The FA Cup, the Football League and the ‘British International Championship’, or the home internationals, were what mattered to the British.
Under Rous’ guidance, the British associations re-entered football’s international community in the late 1940s. England played in Brazil in the 1950 tournament but they were poor, and suffered a defeat in the group stage to the USA. When they were knocked, the British press contingent simply returned home. There was little excitement around the tournament in Britain, according to BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme. The Scots hadn’t even bothered to attend, even though they’d qualified as runners-up in the home internationals. They did send a squad to Switzerland in 1954 but only 13 players were named (rather than the 22 permitted under FIFA rules). And the Scottish FA allowed Rangers players to take its best players on a tour of the United States at the same time.
All four nations qualified for the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden. The British press gave more attention to the tournament than ever before. The Times, for instance, treated all four as representatives of the UK and linked the character and fortunes of the teams to a wider sense of British identity. For Northern Ireland and Wales, both of whom progressed beyond the group stage, the competition was important in fuelling patriotism and promoting the nation internationally.
Ultimately, though, 1958 was about Pele, Garrincha and Brazil – in Britain as much as in the rest of the world. For the first time, television coverage alerted the British supporter to the quality gap between the home nations and the best international teams. Writing in 1960, George Raynor, the British coach of the Swedish runners-up in 1958, bemoaned the failure of the British to prepare properly for the World Cup and take it seriously enough. The British still allowed individual victories on home soil to convince them that they were among the best. But, as Raynor pointed out, ‘the true test is what a country does in the World Cup’.
England’s triumph in 1966 obviously had an impact on how the World Cup was viewed in Britain. From that point on, it has been difficult to separate achievements in international football from broader narratives of the health of the nation. For most of the 1970s, when England failed to qualify for two World Cup finals, and through much of the 1980s, the failures of the national football team were connected by journalists and political commentators to the supposed economic, political and cultural decline of the nation.
For the Scottish, political and sporting self-confidence became closely associated during the 1970s. The presence of the Scottish team at the 1974 and 1978 finals was linked to calls for devolution and independence. Their ignominious failure in Argentina, a tournament that manager Ally McLeod and others thought they could win, has even been posited as one of the reasons for the failure of the 1979 devolution referendum.