Political football - politics and the World Cup

The beautiful game and the world’s second oldest profession have often collided, colluded, and clashed on the big stage of the World Cup, so as the current tournament continues in South Africa, Talking Politics takes a politically slanted look at the competition’s history.

Uruguay 1930: Uruguay hosted and won the first World Cup. In recognition of the national team beating Argentina 4-2 in the final, the Uruguayan government declared the day after a public holiday and gave each of the team players a new house.

Italy 1934: Mussolini was determined Italy’s hosting of the World Cup would show off his regime in the best light to the international media. He demanded the Italian team win the cup and when they did he gave each of the players a gold medal and an autographed picture of himself.

France 1938: Hitler loathed football, but that didn’t stop the Nazis pinching newly annexed Austria’s best players for the German national team. The players gave the Nazi salute before their match with Switzerland. French and Swiss fans protested and pelted them with broken bottles.

Switzerland 1954: West Germany was still regarded as a pariah state less than 10 years after the end of WWII and any show of nationalism was unwelcome. Yet, when the German team beat the “magical Magyars” of Hungary, the greatest team of the era, 3-2 in the final, it was the biggest upset in world football. The win lifted the mood of the nation, and Germans took to the streets in their millions, spontaneously chanting “Wir sind weider wer” (“We are somebody again” ). Soon after the German economic miracle kicked in.

Sweden 1958: Northern Ireland qualifies for the World Cup and plays one of its matches on a Sunday. They players aren’t bothered but back in Ulster there is shock, horror, and outrage at this breaking of the Sabbath. The Irish Football Association is called upon to explain itself.

Mexico 1970: For footballing genius and the sport elevated to an art form, this was Brazil’s tournament. For controversy and mayhem it was (who else? ) England’s.

During England’s warm up matches in Columbia, captain Booby Moore is arrested and accused (falsely ) of stealing jewellery. Cue frantic, behind-the-scenes, diplomatic efforts by British PM Harold Wilson to secure Moore’s release ahead of England’s opening game against Romania.

England (and Moore ) progress to the quarter-finals and face old nemesis West Germany. Goalkeeper Gordon Banks gets a bout of Montezuma’s Revenge and is replaced by Peter ‘The Cat’ Bonetti. English over-confidence (Alf Ramsey took Bobby Charlton off three-quarters of the way through ), Bonetti’s lapses in concentration, a thunderbolt strike from Franz Beckenbauer, and an acrobatic kick by Gerd Müller, saw the Germans win 3-2.

Harold Wilson had been leading by seven points in the opinion polls ahead of that year’s British general election. Four days after England’s defeat, Britain went to the polls, voting Wilson out and Ted Heath’s Tories in. Forever after Wilson blamed that match for costing him the election.

West Germany 1974: West Germany found itself drawn to play against East Germany. Cue a match that was seen as symbolising the Cold War and Capitalism v Communism. West Germany huffed and puffed, but a goal from Jürgen Sparwaßer gave victory to East Germany and the Commies.

Argentina 1978: Argentina was in the grip of Jorge Rafael Videla’s vicious and brutal right-wing military dictatorship.

The Dutch publicly debated if their team should attend the tournament. In the end they did and reached the final. However as an act of protest against the junta, the Dutch team, led by Ruud Krol, refused to accept their silver medals from Videla and boycotted the after match banquet.

Argentinean defender Alberto Tarantini pointedly asked the junta about friends and relatives that had ‘disappeared’ (ie, were killed or imprisoned by the military ). He received no answer.

Mexico 1986: The quarter-final meeting between Argentina and England was the first since the Las Malvinas/Falklands war. The players tried not to let that affect them but as Maradona said in his autobiography El Diego, the war was in everyone’s mind. In that match Maradona also scored two goals against the Eglish. Both were perfectly legitimate.

Italy 1990: Germany had just been reunited and to cap it all they went and won the World Cup, the first time they had done so as a unified nation.

France 1998: French racists like Jean Marie Le Pen were put in their place when France’s multi-racial team, led by Zinedine Zidane, thrilled with a 3-0 victory over Brazil. The wife of the then French president Jacques Chirac admitted to having a thing for Emmanuel Petit.

Japan/South Korea 2002: Roy Keane’s controversial exit from the Irish squad created the biggest split in public opinion since the abortion and divorce referendums. Then taoiseach Bertie Ahern was asked to get involved, but Roy’s mind was made up.

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