Unarguably, it was the most controversial goal in the biggest game in the football calendar. The ball crashed against the crossbar, bounced down and spun back into play. But did it cross the line? Two officials bereft of a common tongue consulted as players of both teams watched on, hoping not necessarily for justice but, more importantly, to be favoured by the fickle caprices of fate. Nods, gesticulations, more nods and then a blown whistle and two synchronised pointing of fingers towards the centre circle. The goal was given, England led the 1966 World Cup Final 3-2 and would notch another with time almost up, not that the late strike would detract from the controversy of the 101st minute of the Wembley showpiece, even though it carried some of its own.
Red-shirted heroes of the hour have on numerous occasions stated their certainty that the decision was correct, but very few of the England fans who celebrated the greatest day in the history of their international team will have heard the opinions of the man who was closest to the vital area when the ball bounced on the turf, either behind, on or in front of the line, depending on your point of view or perhaps adherence to a particular national team. That man was the West Germany goalkeeper Hans Tilkowski.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the 31-year-old Dortmund stopper, who celebrated his birthday during the tournament, takes an entirely different view of the events of that moment from those espoused by England players, and so many of their fans.
Donned all in black and wearing the sort of cap reminiscent of workers streaming out of factory gates at the end of their shifts, Tilkowski remembers the moment frozen in time. After a neat pivot, Geoff Hurst’s shot was hurtling towards his goal. He recalls getting a touch on the ball with his fingertips before it cannoned against the frame of the goal behind him. In that instant, Tilkowski claims that he turned to look back over his left shoulder as the ball then bounced down to the ground. In fairness to him, there are countless images of the moment that confirm this. He is then adamant about what happened next. “It was not a goal!” Others may demur from the view, but there has never been any image that conclusively suggest it was a goal, whilst a number to the contrary may support Tilkowski’s description.
Things get a little less certain from there, although apparently not so for the oldest man in Helmut Schön’s Mannschaft. In an interview with the ZEIT ONLINE website back in May 2010, Tilkowski recalled that, “The Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst wanted to continue play, but the English protested.” That may or may not have been the case, perhaps a little wishful thinking has swayed memories.
What is clear regardless though is that the referee decided to consult his linesman Tofik Bachramov who, in the following day’s newspapers, became lauded as the ‘Russian Linesman’, despite the fact he was from Azerbaijan. In the same interview, Tilkowski is reported as saying that “Dienst interrogated his linesman… He had seen the ball in the goal. However, he was eight to ten feet away from the corner flag, from the position he could not judge the situation.” Images suggest that when the ball is on the way down from the bar, Bachramov was almost level with the line of the six-yard box. Tilkowski’s estimation was not far awry.
Forty-three years after the game, Tilkowski visited Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan where a memorial to Toifk Bachramov, who had later become a famed administrator of Azeri football, was built. The goalkeeper takes up the story. “At an official reception, I said clearly my opinion: ‘It was not a goal!’ I stay that way. I could definitely make a lot of money if I suddenly said the ball was in there. But I will not do that.” There’s surely enough evidence to persuade even the most fervent England supporter that there remains some doubt about the authenticity of the goal.
Things got worse for Tilkowski when Hurst’s hat-trick goal ripped past him, but even then, the goalkeeper considers the Germans were unlucky. “Even the fourth goal should not have counted,” he contends. “Many spectators were already in the field.” That’s certainly something that Kenneth Wolstenholme wouldn’t argue with! “They wanted to party with the English. Both goals in injury time were thus irregular.” The discontent lasted until well after the final whistle and England players had completed their lap of honour brandishing the Jules Rimet Trophy. “After the final we had dinner together with the English,” Tilkowski recalled. “A funny situation, losers and winners together at the table. The mood was bad. The entire German team knew: The ball was not in goal.”
Whatever bitterness there was for the way West Germany lost their biggest game since they lifted the World Cup in 1954, Hans Tilkowski, the man with the best view of the most controversial goal in World Cup history, displays little of it, although there is clearly still an understandable a sense of injustice. Remembering that look over his left shoulder, he told his interviewer that, “We were just unlucky.” Later though the man who would play 39 times for his country, adds in the sentiment that perhaps, any number of England players and fans should take note of following the event 20 years later when a right-hander did for an England goalkeeper and sent the team home from Mexico. “Time heals all wounds.”
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Open Veins of Football’ website).