Written By: Ben Cosgrove
The World Cup has come a long way in popularity since 1966—which happened to be a magnificent edition of the tourney, as England won it all, on English soil, defeating West Germany in the final. While LIFE sent the great Art Rickerby to photograph the event, his pictures never ran in LIFE magazine. Viewed today, they provide a unique look at the planet’s greatest sporting event during a fascinating period in its history. Prominent in the photos is the legendary Pelé, who died on November 22, 2022 at age 82. Even though his Brazil team did not make it out of the group stage that year, he was a natural player for Rickerby to focus on, given that his Brazil teams had won the World Cups in 1958 and 1962 (and would win again in 1970).
In 2014 LIFE.com chatted about the 1966 photos with Alexi Lalas, the former U.S. national team star and current TV commentator.
Of the third photo in the gallery, of Pelé in Liverpool, Lalas notes that the picture “really got me thinking about the aesthetics of the sport, and it’s a reminder of one attribute shared by most soccer players that helps explain why so many people adore the game. Namely—these guys are not huge. They’re not giants. They look, in a way, like you and me, and that guy sitting across the aisle on the train, or wherever. In Pelé’s case, you have probably the single most famous athlete on the planet at the time—but he’s not a seven-foot-tall basketball player, or a 300-pound defensive end. Still, seeing him here, there’s no question you’re looking at an athlete. The way he carries himself, his undeniable presence. Despite his unimposing stature, you can just sense his physical power.”
Not all of Rickerby’s photos from England in the summer of ’66, however, were of official World Cup matches. In fact, some of his best, most revealing work captured moments far from the sold-out stadiums in London, Sheffield, Manchester or Birmingham.
“Look at that shot,” Lalas said of English kids riveted by Brazil’s goalkeeper, Gilmar, leaping to block a shot during practice in Liverpool (the second photo ). “There’s no way those kids ever forgot watching those players, that close. Their body language shows how thrilled they are. And no wonder! There’s something about watching practice sessions that’s totally different—and better, in a way—than watching a big game. I remember training at Oakland University in Michigan before the World Cup in ’94. The fans who came out to watch us might remember that experience more fondly than watching the game we played in the Silverdome in Pontiac. There’s a reason baseball fans go to batting practice and spring training — the chance of a real, authentic interaction with the players, away from the hoopla around a game.”
Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.