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In the new British film Sixty-Six, Bernie’s bar mitzvah clashes with the football World Cup final of 1966. Practically everyone skips his party to watch the match. “I think the only person who could say they had a worse bar mitzvah than me,” says Bernie, practising his speech on the day, “would be Rabbi Josephs, who had to strangle a Nazi on his bar mitzvah.”

The day that England won its only World Cup, beating West Germany 4-2 in the final at Wembley, remains postwar Britain’s biggest cultural event. It was watched on television by 32.3m Britons, a touch more than saw Princess Diana’s funeral. That makes Geoff Hurst’s last goal probably the most shared moment in British history. A measure of the game’s magnitude is that the film’s title instantly evokes 1966, and not 1066, the year of modern England’s creation. Sixty-Six helps us understand the day and era. It also shows how far removed we are now from then. The movie presents the latest English take on English history – the past as quaint memory, no longer as lost Eden.

Sixty-Six evokes July 30 1966 so well partly because we have never seen the game as clearly. Those 32.3m television viewers watched in black-and-white. An official film of the World Cup appeared in colour later and Pathé shot a colour newsreel for cinemas but the quality doesn’t compare with today’s. It is therefore startling in Sixty-Six to see mythical moments from that afternoon – moments you know best from the telling – almost as sharply as if they were filmed yesterday on digital television. Paul Weiland, the film’s writer and director, told me his team “cleaned up” every frame of the Pathé footage used in Sixty-Six. “The only people who would have seen it as clearly were the people actually in the stadium,” he says.

Sixty-Six joins a burgeoning genre: art about World Cup finals. Germany has had two great films about 1954, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (Maria dies as Germany wins the final) and Sönke Wortmann’s Miracle of Bern. In Britain, Sixty-Six has curious echoes, not merely of Jack Rosenthal’s play Bar Mitzvah Boy, in which the main character also flees his bar mitzvah, but of Kate Atkinson’s brilliant novel Behind The Scenes at the Museum. In her book, it’s a wedding that clashes with the 1966 final.

Atkinson’s novel and Weiland’s film together add up to a social history of 1966. The film, for instance, casts the match as a rite of masculinity almost like a bar mitzvah – it’s the closest bond Bernie and his father will ever experience. Similarly, in Atkinson’s novel, only the men sneak out of the wedding to watch the game. The bride chastises her missing groom: “Aren’t you ashamed? Isn’t your wedding day more important than the World Cup?” The groom can’t help himself somehow: “Of course not,” he says. “It’s the bloody Final!” Today it would be different. Both genders would watch the match and any wedding would make a viewing part of the celebrations.

The enormity of the match surprised most people in 1966, because football had never been so important before. Britain’s national heroes had been royals, soldiers, cricketers or posh masochists, who inflicted pain on themselves for no apparent reason: Captain Scott, who died at the South Pole, Edmund Hillary, who climbed Everest, or Roger Bannister of the four-minute mile. Only from 1966 onwards, says Krishan Kumar, sociologist and author of The Making of English National Identity, did football become central to English identity.

That day the team became the nation. The only question was which nation. The English fans in Weiland’s film wave the Union Jack, the flag of Britain. In 1966, they still felt comfortable claiming the whole island. Today, English fans limit themselves to the St George’s Cross, the English flag.

The victory produced less hysteria than it would now. Only about 8,000 people came to see the players waving the cup from their hotel balcony. The English knew it was just a game. A generation that had lived through one or two world wars could put football in its place. Sixty-Six never even touches on the game’s significance to the nation. Jimmy Greaves, England’s unlucky reserve, remembered: “Everybody cheered, a few thousand came out to say ‘well done’ and within a week everybody had disappeared. That was the end of it.”

And then the English spent decades remembering it. As they slipped into economic, political and sporting decline, 1966 became the symbol of lost glory, “a place from which we had fallen,” says David Winner, author of Those Feet: A Sensual History of British Football. Kumar adds: “The 1970s were pretty awful. There was a real dip in morale. We’ve never got back to the peak of the late 1960s.”

But each generation creates its own memory of 1966. Weiland’s cheerful film marks a new era. No longer are the English using the match to beat themselves over the head for today’s failures. That’s because the English past no longer obviously outshines the present. Fourteen straight years of economic growth have eroded the usual sense of decline. The country has transformed. In Weiland’s film, the London of 1966 is so poor as to be almost unrecognizable as today’s city. Bernie’s father has to sell his grocery store when a supermarket opens down the street. “You look at the match footage and the faces in the crowd are remarkable. It was just a different world,” says Weiland.

Britons then thought they were living in fantastically modern times. Winner says: “The notion that people would look back on 1966 as a sweet innocent black-and-white subject for nostalgia would have been astonishing.” And yet they do now.

Visiting London this week, I heard laments for the poorer and supposedly happier Britain that has disappeared. The English retain their tendency to idealize the past. But, as Sixty-Six shows, they are now rendering that past as cute rather than glorious.

Simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

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