England, the country that established the sport in 1863, hosted in 1966 and, for the first and only time, won the Cup. It is not exaggeration to call the moments captured here in radiant 35mm 'Scope some of the country's proudest. The voiceover, narrated by actor Nigel Patrick and written by prestigious sportswriter/novelist Brian Glanville, labels the sport in the mid-Sixties "the football of negativity" due to its goallessness and emphasis on officious defense, but there is positivity and triumph in England's homeland victory here.
Goal! is a feat of judicious stylishness. There's playfulness in some of the zooms, and in the wry narration, but there is no overload of "Swinging London" decadence to undercut the movie's severe respect for the game. Airplane disembarking, views of an eerily quiet pre-Cup Wembley Stadium, and some shots of a tattooed demagogue in Hyde Park briskly set the scene. The filmmakers take a passive role, and every shot feels right. When the great Pelé from Brazil is felled early, it's a somber moment as we patiently watch him hobble off the field to the genuine sad sympathy of fans. When Argentine's captain Antonio Rattín is controversially ejected during a match with England (a game Argentineans still call "the robbery of the century"), the camera follows his long, defiant walk off the pitch, escorted by police.
The crucial games are given time to play out dramatically. There's a funny-looking match between giants on the USSR team and diminutive North Koreans, which the Soviets win. But North Korea would be one of the tournament's Cinderella stories, defeating Italy in a huge upset ("And so Italy went home to their tomatoes," Patrick deadpans). The attractively balding living legend Bobby Charlton, of England via Manchester United, dominates a game against formidable Portugal in the semifinals, made a nailbiter because of brother Jack Charlton's late handball, which led to a penalty kick goal.
England, of course, had other colorful stars, including the young, redheaded Alan Ball, tenacious midfielder Nobby Stiles, captain Bobby Moore, and the somewhat unlikely hero Geoff Hurst, who scored the only goal to defeat Argentina, and who scored an astounding three in the mythical final against stud striker Helmut Haller and the West Germany squad. This classic game logically has the most screen time, and watching the footage is intense, whether you know every detail or not. When the German Wolfgang Weber ties the game 2-2 at the close of regulation, the theatrics are just beginning. In extra time, Geoff Hurst bounces one off the crossbar, which then hits the threshold of the goal and bounces back into the field. Referee Tofik Bakhramov calls it a goal, and fans have been arguing the call's correctness ever since. (Some Oxford academics, using scientific "video metrology", later concluded that it was not, in fact, a goal.)
There's a freeze frame, but not much lingering on this infamous "Ghost Goal", and the film soon segues into England's victory celebration, in which Bobby Charlton cries, and the beaming Queen distributes her laurels. A shot of Wembley's owner walking down the litter-strewn steps of the stadium ends the doc on a plangent note, a final example of the dry understatement that marks the whole. Released shortly after the World Cup ended, Goal! has a hindsight-free immediacy. You often hear movies described as alive. This one is. An incredible place, an incredible moment—watching it, you're there.