LONDON, England ● World soccer’s oldest governing body returned to its roots on Wednesday as the Football Association kicked off its 150th anniversary celebrations with many favourite sons and a few familiar old foes on Wednesday.
In a glitzy banqueting hall in a street near London’s Covent Garden, the site of the former Freemason’s Tavern where a group of enlightened gentlemen conceived the FA in 1863, England coach Roy Hodgson was joined at the launch of a year of special events by the great and good of English football.
Bobby Charlton, Martin Peters and George Cohen revived memories of the national team’s finest hour at the 1966 World Cup while Peter Shilton, the country’s most-capped player, was flanked by England stalwarts Alan Shearer and Trevor Brooking.
Former Germany internationals Oliver Bierhoff and Lothar Matthaeus, who caused England fans plenty of disappointment during their careers, were among the overseas guests, although, thankfully for Shilton, there was no sign of Diego Maradona.
The Argentine’s infamous “hand of God” goal past Shilton at the 1986 World Cup finals failed to make a breathless 150-second video sprint through the organisation’s first 150 years, narrated by young Arsenal and England forward Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The FA’s recent woes, including its frosty relationship with world governing body FIFA and domestic racism rows, were not surprisingly forgotten but it did mark many key moments in the evolution of the “beautiful game” such as the original book of 13 rules, described as the “DNA of the modern game”.
David Bernstein, the soon-to-be former chairman of an association battling to retain its influence alongside the ever-powerful Premier League, said what happened in a small room at the Freemason’s Tavern had changed the world.
“150 years ago a group of people met on this site and they changed the world by producing the first laws of the game,” he said at the launch, which featured video messages of goodwill from FIFA president Sepp Blatter, UEFA’s Michel Platini and former England captain David Beckham.
“Throughout that extraordinary journey the FA continued to sit at its heart. Even after 150 years there remains a simple beauty to the universality of football – from Wembley to parks football a single unbreakable thread runs through.”
FA President Prince William said via a recorded video link to the 400 guests that it was a huge honour to lead the FA.
“Over 150 years, football has become part of the very fabric of our society and I hope the year ahead will allow us to celebrate every aspect of this great game,” he said.
A series of events, including home and away matches against Brazil, will culminate on the FA’s 150th birthday on October 26, by which time England should know whether they have qualified for next year’s World Cup finals.
“The first thing we have to do is qualify for the World Cup, that’s vitally important,” said Hodgson, sitting alongside Fabio Capello, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Terry Venables and Graham Taylor, all of whom failed to lead England back to the promised land.
“And when we qualify we have to give a good account of ourselves in Brazil and once you are there you have a chance of winning it.”
Hodgson’s optimism, given the nation’s recent performances, was admirable, but there was no shortage of gushing goodwill heading the FA’s way during a 90-minute presentation.
Even Blatter, whose relationship with the FA has been strained after England’s failed bid to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cups, was effusive in his praise.
England may have been overtaken as a force but Blatter called the FA “pioneers” of the world game.
“It’s called The FA, that’s because it’s the number one in FIFA,” he said.
“The privilege of being called The FA is because the modern game has been organised in England, and more than that, they have organised what we call, “The Beautiful Game”.