Karl Lindholm: Sir Alf, Nobby and Johnny America
It was not so much a lonely existence as it was solitary.
During the week, I was surrounded by people, co-workers in the factory, Italians mostly, though we were in the German part of Switzerland in the town of Brugg, 25 kilometers from Zurich, and I could speak neither Italian nor Swiss-German.
I quickly learned the standard greeting, “Gruezi-vol!” and the universal valediction, “Ciao.”
After I had been there for a couple of weeks, I was greeted daily by a hearty call of “Johnny America!” when I punched in in the mornings at 7:00.
And when we punched out at 5:00, I was designated to announce loudly “Quittin’ time!” in the Swiss-German I was taught: “Schluss fur huete!”
This was 1966, between my junior and senior years at Middlebury College. After eight summers working on a golf course in Maine, I was 21 years old and desperate for an adventure, expand my horizons, but my dad was reluctant to subsidize “mere” travel.
So we managed to find this factory job in Europe that would allow me to break even financially for the summer, mid-June to mid-August. A change indeed.
Though I was playing sports at Middlebury, sports were hardly the centerpiece of my life that summer (this is a sports column after all — time to make the connection).
I did try to follow the Red Sox from a distance. At the end of my workday, I rode my bike from the Fabrik Fischer the two miles back to the train station in town where I bought the Paris Herald-Tribune. Sitting on a bench with the trains coming and going, I read in English the news of the day and checked the ball scores, though they were three days old.
I didn’t miss the Red Sox particularly as they were terrible that summer, ultimately finishing ninth in the 10-team American League, 26 and a half games out of first. The consolation was that the Yankees finished 10th, 27 games out.
I fell in love with a different sports team that summer in Switzerland.
1966 was a World Cup summer, so all the news was about that grand event, hosted by England. Pele was in mid-career, but he was marked very closely (“beat up,” many said) and Brazil was eliminated early.
I found, not quite by accident, a bar in the middle of this small town of about 6,000, where I could join many football fanaticos on Saturdays in July and watch games in grainy black and white on a TV mounted on the bar.
I was the solitary American in the room, a familiar face by this time, acknowledged with a nod or smile and a lifted bottle of beer.
England and West Germany were fated to meet in the championship game in London’s enormous Wembley Stadium on July 30.
There was no neutrality among the Swiss in this bar: they were rooting hard and loudly for the Germans. Not me. I was rooting hard and quietly for the lads on the englische side.
They were irresistible, the English side, a motley crew of personalities and body types, all terrific players, coached by Manager Alf Ramsey, a tactical master.
The heart and soul of The Three Lions (the national team nickname) was a player even more gnomelike than the 5’8” Ramsey: Norbert “Nobby” Stiles. Though only 5’6”, balding and appearing much older than his 26 years, Stiles was nonetheless a ferocious defender.
One of the definitions of “knob” is a “small lump of a substance.” And Stiles was “nobby” indeed, though courageous in the extreme. He smothered the magnificent Eusabio in England’s 2-1 defeat of Portugal in the semi-final game.
The English team had the stork-like 6’3” Jackie Charlton (quite a contrast to Nobby), and Jackie’s brother Bobby, an attacking mid-fielder with a terrific long-range shot, and their nonpareil goalkeeper, Gordon Banks, one of the best ever to play the position.
The championship game was an epic 4-2 win for the Brits. The winning goal by unheralded Geoff Hurst in extra time, the 98th minute, is disputed to this day — a blast off the crossbar which ricocheted straight down to the goal line.
There were no video reviews in ’66: the referee and linesman huddled and declared that the ball had crossed the line, to the hysterical delight of the 98,000 at Wembley, — and to the fury and despair of a few dozen Swiss partisans in a bar in Brugg. Hurst scored another goal in the game’s waning minutes to become the only player ever to score a hat trick in a Cup final.
That 1966 World Cup team is legendary. Of course they weren’t legendary that summer — they were in the process of becoming legendary. In the aftermath, all the players were honored, with Ramsey, Charlton, and Hurst being knighted: Sir Alf, Sir Bobby, Sir Geoff.
They gave their country a lift in the mid-1960s when England was down and divided, losing its imperial authority in the world.
They also gave a lift to a lonely American — check that, a solitary American, a young man on the cusp of the rest of his life.
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