In English eyes and hearts it is the greatest sporting event of the year. In American terms, it is a Kentucky Derby and a World Series rolled into one.
It would take all the color and excitement of both U.S. classics, with perhaps a heavyweight championship boxing match thrown in, to match the outpouring of affection, enthusiasm and passion that is released late in the springtime in Britain when the two best soccer football teams in the land face each other in London's great Wembley Stadium before 100,000 spectators to whom, for this precious afternoon, nothing else matters in the whole wide world. This is the Cup Final; the ultimate battle for the world's most famous soccer trophy, the silver Football Association cup which stands 19 inches high and weighs 175 ounces. It is worth around $70 in cash—and it could not be bought for a maharajah's weight in diamonds.
This year the mixture was as before. Queen Elizabeth was there with the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Margaret. The two finest teams were there to fight it out: Manchester City and Newcastle United, giants of professional soccer's first division, the survivors of the Football Association's eliminations which began last August. The 100,000 who paid $140,000 to watch the final were considered the luckiest people in Britain. Certainly 500,000 would have bought tickets if there had been room for them; $7 tickets were selling for $140 on the black market. Every year, competition for tickets is so keen that fans try all sorts of ruses to gain admission. In 1952 a man almost slipped through the turnstiles with a 1932 ticket. The day before each year's game, attendants carefully search the entire stadium and invariably flush out fans who paid to enter Wembley for some other entertainment a day or so earlier and then hid themselves on tops of girders, in rest rooms, in holes and corners—anywhere, whatever the discomfort, just so they could sneak out on Cup Final afternoon. Some have even tried to dig tunnels under the gates.
However they get there, the spectators arrive early to enjoy the pregame Wembley spectacle. An hour before the game a community singing leader persuades almost everyone to join in well-known hymns which build up to a misty-eyed, lump-in-throat chorus of 100,000 voices in Abide with Me.
With the Coldstream Guards in scarlet, blue and gold against the rich green of Wembley's grass carpet, the final five minutes before game time are unnerving to spectators and players alike. Not only are there the hymns and the music of the bands, but there is also the arrival of the royal party, the brandishing of pennants and rosettes in the colors of the favored teams and finally there is the ear-splitting roar which greets the two teams as they jog up the tunnel under the stands and onto the field.
No soccer professional is ever quite impervious to the Wembley "final" atmosphere. Not that there is a lot of money in it for him—a mere $56 if he is on the winning side, plus a cut in $1,540 shared by approximately 25 teammates on his club roster. It is always easy to spot a nervous soccer player at Wembley. He can't step off a pitching mound to wipe his forehead nor out of a batting box to knock mud from his cleats, so he prances up and down even on a warm day as if he sought to restore his circulation—anything rather than stand still in the face of the drama before him.
As drama, this year's Cup Final had practically everything. First of all, it was an upset. Manchester City was favored to win. The club stood higher than Newcastle in the league table. When Hungary whipped England at Wembley two years ago and proved that England could no longer claim to be unquestioned world soccer masters, Manchester City was the only club which decided to change its style of play. Traditional British style is for the center forward to lie well up in the field while his two inside forwards hang back to feed him the ball. Manchester copied the Hungarians by pushing up their inside forwards and pulling back the center. This had the result of drawing the opposing center half, whose job it is to take care of the center, too far from his own goal, creating a gap which was exploited by the other Manchester attackers.
These tactics took Manchester close to the head of the league this season and made them 2-1 favorites to beat Newcastle at Wembley.
Newcastle, though, had something important in its favor: luck. It is a team apparently born under a lucky star. It was playing its 10th final (no other club has reached the final so often) and its third at Wembley in five years. "Wembley, indeed," remarked The Times, "has become to Newcastle what coal is to Newcastle."
THE MANCHESTER POETS