The World Cup has never lived up to its lofty ideals, says GLENN MOORE, as he recounts a history of corruption, match-fixing, boycotts and giving succour to dictatorships.
There is a lot of football to be played, 64 matches of it, but we already have one winner from the 2018 World Cup. Barring a dramatic catastrophe or scandal it will be Vladimir Putin’s triumph.
The Russian president does not appear to have any real interest in the world’s most popular sport, preferring more macho, singular pursuits that ideally can be performed bare-chested, but staging football’s quadrennial festival is as big a victory as winning the trophy.
At a time when Putin is being accused, credibly, of involvement in the downing of a civilian airliner, interfering in the US election, invading a neighbouring country, and the poisoning of two people in Salisbury, playing host to this year’s biggest event is a mighty two fingers to the West.
The guest list is not quite as glittering as usual. Putin will be denied the pleasure of watching Theresa May and Prince William standing to attention during the state anthem of the Russian Federation, but calls for England players to join the bigwigs’ boycott were never seriously entertained. The story is similar elsewhere in the EU, which provides ten of the 24 competitors, and beyond. Football royalty – Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar – will all be present, as will football politicians.
No one should be surprised. It is not because there is any naive belief that politics and sport do not mix. Only last week Messi’s Argentina pulled out of a friendly against Israel in Jerusalem following Palestinian protests. It is because everyone knows that politics is part of international sport and the World Cup has been steeped in it from the very start.
The first World Cup, in 1930, began with a boycott and finished with an Argentine mob stoning the Uruguayan consulate. In the decades since it has provided cover and sustenance for dictators, a platform for protest, riots and hooliganism, opportunities for corruption and match-fixing, and even provoked a war.
The World Cup has enabled the citizens of many nations to enjoy moments of unbridled joy, created lifetime memories and occasionally prompted positive social change. But it has never lived up to the humanist ideals of its founder.
Jules Rimet, a French grocer’s son who became a lawyer, was the founding father of the World Cup and the initial trophy – now held in perpetuity by Brazil – was named after him. Though not a keen footballer himself, Rimet was a humanist and idealist who believed the sport could be a unifying force for the global masses. As president of FIFA, the game’s governing body, he pushed for the World Cup despite opposition from isolationist UK associations and an Olympic movement keen to protect the primacy of their own football tournament.
Uruguay were chosen as the first hosts, partly as they were the Olympic champions, but mainly as they offered to cover all travel and accommodation costs and build a new stadium. Even then money talked in the bidding process.
Piqued, the Europeans initially boycotted, prompting Latin American nations to threaten to withdraw from FIFA. Four weak and middling teams, including Rimet’s France, relented but there were only 13 entrants. In retaliation Uruguay boycotted the next two tournaments, held in Europe, as did the British nations, but that was the least of FIFA’s worries. Fascism was on the march in Europe and football was not immune.
Uruguay wanted the tournament to celebrate the centenary of their independence. Four years on Benito Mussolini, like this year’s host, had darker aspirations. Il Duce attended the matches, watching approvingly in Rome’s Stadio Nazionale del Partito Nazionale Fascista as the Azzurri – and even the referee and linesmen at times – gave the Fascist salute. The German team, walking out with the swastika flag, also gave the salute. In a joyless tournament Italy emerged as winners, helped by brutal tackling permitted by weak, perhaps compromised, referees.
Four years on, in France, one of the qualifiers failed to turn up – Austria had been swallowed by Germany during the Anschluss a few months earlier.
England reportedly refused the chance to take their place. The Austrians were one of the best teams of the era and FIFA allowed nine of their players to be included in the German squad. Neither the new recruits or Nazi salutes could save Germany from an early exit as Italy won again.
It was to be another four decades before a government decided to use the World Cup as a propaganda vehicle as enthusiastically as Mussolini. Argentina had a democratic government when it was awarded the 1978 finals, but a military coup in 1976, and thousands of state-sponsored executions, changed the mood. Amnesty International’s highlighting of the atrocities influenced the withdrawal of Dutchman Johan Cruyff, who had replaced Pelé as the world’s best player.
However, as a senior FIFA official once said, ‘less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup’.
In between overseeing a terror campaign that ‘disappeared’ 15,000-30,000 perceived political opponents General Jorge Videla directed 10% of the national budget into a stadia construction programme that had fallen behind schedule. Even the junta’s treasury secretary complained. His house was bombed during the tournament.
Meanwhile thousands of Argentines had their phones disconnected to ensure the media could tell the world how wonderful it all was.
On the pitch, referees blatantly favoured the hosts. This is a recurring problem at World Cups, but this time it is widely believed there was also assistance from the opposition. Needing a 4-0 win against Peru to reach the final, the hosts won 6-0. Peru were said to have received a pre-match dressing room visit from Videla, accompanied by that master of realpolitik, Dr Henry Kissinger. Shortly afterwards vast grain shipments are alleged to have made their way from Argentina to Peru.
After the defeated Dutch were subjected to outrageous gamesmanship in the final it was Videla who presented the trophy to his victorious compatriots. As Chris Freddi, in the Complete Book of the World Cup, wrote in a droll reference to the torture practiced on dissidents less than a mile away at the military school, ‘the tournament had been vivid and unforgettable, but then so is an electric cattle prod’.
This was a volatile period in Latin America and other World Cups were affected. The 1970 finals are remembered fondly but the great Brazilian team that won that year was representing another dictatorship and spent several months training at a military camp ahead of the finals. During qualifying, existing tensions between El Salvador and Honduras, due to immigration and land reform, were exacerbated to the extent a short war broke out in which more than 3,000 people died.
The 1974 qualifying programme featured a play-off between USSR and Chile. After a goalless draw in Moscow the Soviet Union refused to play the return in Santiago’s National Stadium as it had been used as base for the torture and execution of political prisoners since the overthrow two months prior of Salvador Allende’s socialist government by General Augusto Pinochet. FIFA responded by disqualifying the Soviet Union.
The tournament did not return to South America until 2014 when Brazil hosted. Six of the 12 stadia built or refurbished for that tournament are now the subject of corruption investigations. This was nothing new. Construction projects offer considerable scope for corrupt government and football officials and questions have been asked about the contracts awarded – and venues chosen – at many World Cups, including Russia, where there have already been arrests relating to two stadia.
White elephant stadia are another regular feature, with several Russian venues likely to join a rusting pile of those used in the 2014 (Brazil), 2010 (South Africa) and 2002 (Japan and South Korea) contests as monumental wastes of public money, used for a handful of matches, then inhabited mainly by ghosts.
Corruption, of course, has become as closely associated with FIFA as football. Allegations of vote-buying have dogged the decision to award this year’s finals to Russia and 2022 to the desert micro-state of Qatar, a nation with no football history to speak of but vast financial resources and a desire to embed itself in Western life before demand for its gas reserves runs out, or regional enmity imperils it. The majority of the executive committee that voted have since been indicted or jailed by the US FBI, mainly for fiddling television deals, or simply forced out in disgrace.
Even honest executives have failed the game. FIFA, under the patrician Englishman Sir Stanley Rous, was slow to reject South Africa’s adoption of apartheid and slower still to recognise the game had outgrown the old Europe-South America axis. That eventually brought Rous’ downfall, but not before Africa had boycotted the 1966 finals in protest at being offered only one potential place, and that possibly dependent on a play-off against Israel – inconceivable opponents to many African nations.
Add the off-pitch hooliganism (by no means exclusively involving English fans), on-pitch brawls, and allegations of performance-enhancing drugs surrounding more than one winning team, and one is tempted to file the whole shebang as a bad idea.
But Rimet was right in one respect. The World Cup has, at times, been a force for good, not least in bringing together rivals and foes. Iran and the USA met on the pitch in 1998, as had East and West Germany in 1974. Japan and South Korea were reluctant partners in 2002, the USA are bidding with Mexico (and Canada) to host in 2026.
Players such as Pelé and Eusebio, the Mozambique-born Portuguese striker, were standard bearers not just for black athletes, but black citizens in general. In bringing the exotic and unfamiliar into the world’s living rooms the World Cup has helped pave the way for the multinational, multicultural sport of the present day in which players such as Liverpool’s Egyptian Mohamed Salah are challenging stereotypes of Muslims. From Switzerland to Australia, England to the USA, immigrants have made significant contributions to national teams.
Russia will hope that hosting changes foreigners’ perceptions, as happened with countries as disparate as South Africa, Japan and Germany.
Some visitors may be victims of violence, there may be outbreaks of racism, but since Putin wants Russia to show its best face it probably will.
Those that travel should find the World Cup a joy, just as long as they don’t look too closely or think too deeply.
Glenn Moore is a freelance sportswriter. He has reported from four men’s football World Cup tournaments.
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