Now that the World Cup has started, and the United States has come up with a miracle victory, I thought this would be a good time to tell the story of not only one of the greatest, unknown World Cup miracles, but one of the all-time great sports miracles, period.
It's how my family and I got to see the World Cup in London, 1966.
And I'm serious.
Okay, no, it's not the upstart United States hockey team beating the Soviet steamrollers. Or the unknown Roulon Gardner defeating the unbeaten, invincible legend Alexander Karelin. It's not Kirk Gibson hitting a home run on one leg, or Doug Flutie's Hail Mary. But those are more remarkable physical achievements by talented athletic. This was an act of otherworldly intervention.
When I was but a wee kidling, my family took a summer trip to Europe. One of our stops was London, where as fate would have it, the British were hosting the World Cup that year. As maniacal as we know the rest of the world is over soccer, England might be the home of soccer insanity. In a land known for tradition, soccer riots are de rigeur there. If you're not rioting, you're not trying.
Nonetheless, my dad thought it would fun to see a World Cup match. (Note: The concept of it being "fun" to see a World Cup match is not relatable for most soccer fans, most especially those who are the aforementioned British. "Fun" is a nice get together for tea, or taking your dog for walkies. Being able to see a World Cup match in England is closer to being life-affirming.) And so, uncaring of the obstacles, my dad found out how to apply to the world lottery being held to get tickets He sent in his form and enclosed his check, and then went on with his life. Meanwhile, throughout England there was national prayer held nightly in homes throughout the country, if only the Almighty would grant them a ticket.
We got four tickets.
But that's not the story, it's not even close to the miracle. It's just the heavens warming up. Because, you see, we just get four tickets to the World Cup, we got them for...the Opening Match! Which would be filled with grand celebration and royalty. But thing is -- that's not the story, either. Because, again you see, featured in the Opening Match of World Cup 1968 was a team that it was likely British fans -- so knowledgeable of all the great teams in the world -- would dearly would love to see.
That team was England.
Yes, that's right. By just randomly sending in to the worldwide lottery, we got four tickets to the Opening Match of the World Cup between England and Uruguay, held in London at Wembley Stadium. And here's the thing: no, that's not the sports miracle, either.
I should note that we were very happy to get the tickets. Not "mad-crazy-happy, my life has been made whole" like anyone in England would have been to get those four tickets, but certainly happy. But happy as in, boy, this will be fun. I mean, to be honest, one has to put this in perspective. Wembley Stadium is huge, after all. It seats 90.000 people, which is 80,000 more than the town, Glencoe, we lived in. So, the chances of seeing the match very well were small. And not being mad-crazy soccer fanatics, not being able to see the game very well in the nosebleed section would certainly lessen the majesty of the moment. But still, that didn't matter all that much, since I was pretty young and didn't know the rules of soccer all that well. (I can't speak for the rest of my family, though I suspect I knew more than my mother. You kick the ball and hope it goes in the net.) But just being there in the massive crowd, somewhere, anywhere, amid all the excitement, that would be cool. Just to be able to say we were there. Wherever "there" was.
Where "there" was turned out to be -- okay, are you ready: mid-field, center line, halfway up, directly across the field from where the Queen of England was sitting in the Royal Box.
Okay, that's the sports miracle.
Let me repeat. With the entire world of sports fanatics converging on London, England, for the World Cup, we got four tickets to the Opening Match in which the host country England was playing, seated at midfield halfway up Wembley Stadium across from the Queen of England.
And to be clear, this isn't the fuzzy memory of a little kid recalling things far better than they actually were. Exaggerating for posterity. No, I have photographic evidence.
I took pictures.
(Sorry for the guy's head. I wasn't great at composition at that age.)
Look directly across the field. Do you see that "box" just below the horizontal white line, marking the upper level? That's where the Royal Family is sitting. Directly opposite us. If you look closely, I believe that Queen Elizabeth is waving at you.
I told you I wasn't lying.
It was pretty remarkable. As I said to my dad just a couple days ago, reminding of the story, if he had decided to sell these tickets it would have paid for the entire trip. "And," he added, "your college education. And your brother's."
The crowd, the ceremony, the excitement, the game, it was great. Memorable to one's bones. Absolutely wonderful, historic. There was only one disappointing thing about the match. Ever since I knew we had the tickets, one of the things I was looking forward to seeing was England score a goal amid that maniacal crowd going soul-bursting wild for the home team. (Even at that age, I grasped the concept of such drama.) And the final score of the game between England and Uruguay was...0-0.
Zippo. Or as the soccer folks like to say, "Nil." Or more accurately, nil to nil.
(More action photos from the collection of photo-journalist Robert J. Elisberg. Notice the compositional improvement after many minutes of experience represented here by the lack of heads getting at least completely in the way. Hey, when you're a little kid, people are bigger than you are.)
So, no bursting of massive cheers by the heart-loyal English crowd at the site of the goal for their beloved home team. No cheers over a goal from anyone. On the good side, at least we weren't there to see England lose. In fact, just so you know, the zero goals were not the result of a mediocre team. Indeed, host England went on to win the world championship. They just didn't choose to get any goals that particular day.
Hey, that's the way some miracles go. Sometimes, the fates decide to put the miracle in perspective. After all, you shouldn't take the good and miracle for granted.
But a dozen years before Al Michaels asked the question of sports fans at the Lake Placid Olympics, I had already been able to answer the sports question. Yes, I do believe in miracles.
When I next get together with the Queen, I'm sure we'll swap tales of that day. No doubt it wasn't as much a sports miracle for her -- I'm sure she had an in, or went to a scalper -- but it was nonetheless quite a day of national pomp and circumstance, so I'm sure she had to have written about it in her journal. For all I know, she's got snapshots of me in return.
When talking with my dad about this the other day, he noted one other thing. "How did I get those seats??"
It was a miracle, dad. The greatest sports miracle ever. At least to some people.
To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.