With another World Cup upon us, LIFE.com journeyed into LIFE magazine’s archives in search of a way to celebrate the happy pandemic of what might be characterized as fútbol delirium now affecting billions around the globe — and discovered some photographic gems from one of the greatest-ever World Cups: the 1966 tourney when England won it all, on English soil.
The pictures we found, made by the late Art Rickerby, never ran in LIFE magazine, but they provide a unique look at the planet’s greatest sporting event during a fascinating period in its history. We also chatted with Alexi Lalas about the photos, and got some insights from a former pro footballer on the profound appeal of the “beautiful game.”
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 says of English kids riveted by Brazil’s goalkeeper, Gilmar, leaping to block a shot during practice in Liverpool (slide #2). “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.”
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.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.