Early days of World Cup marked by chaos, turmoil and infighting
JUN 07, 2014 9:08a ET
The World Cup will be unavoidable. Even in America, a final bastion of mainstream indifference towards soccer, it will dominate the national discourse for a little while. But trace the tournament's long, historical sweep back to its origins, and you'll find a grand idea built on humble beginnings, and a remarkable story.
There is a great irony that underpins the very existence of the World Cup. While today it is the bane of the professional clubs, who must relinquish their best players to their national teams for qualifiers, training camps and friendlies without cease or compensation, it was actually invented to accommodate professionalism.
The World Cup, or the idea of it anyway, knew its genesis in 1904, when in the very first meeting of the nascent FIFA, a world governing body for the sport, the idea of a worldwide tournament came up. Foreboding FIFA's obsessive protection of its brand today, it was decided even back then that it held the exclusive rights to the World Cup. The rise of professionalism - disqualifying paid players from the Olympics - created a need for another way to measure who was the world's best.
At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Uruguay was assigned the first tournament for 1930. Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden had also vied to host the inaugural edition. But Uruguay had promised to cover every last expense incurred by the participating teams and to build a stadium for the occasion. Childishly, the also-rans decided not to go in protest. Germany, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia could not bestir themselves to travel either. The British Isles didn't believe in international competition in "their" sport. The South American countries were offended and threatened to pull out of FIFA. At length, Belgium, France and Yugoslavia went to represent Europe, as did Romania, on the orders of its king, who picked the team himself. The United States went too. They were even seeded and reached the semifinals. But on its home soil, Uruguay, a country of just two million people, won the first World Cup as the best of 13 teams.
Four years later, they became the only team in history not to defend their title, as Uruguay were still incensed over the callousness the Europeans had shown them. So they were absent in Italy. The tournament took a big leap forward, but it was blighted by the long shadow of Benito Mussolini. Just as Adolf Hitler would with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Mussolini leveraged the World Cup to propagandize his fascist regime. A qualification process was put on for the first time, to allocate 16 spots. The tournament was spread over several cities, unlike in Uruguay, and to Mussolini's delight, Italy won the whole thing.
By 1938, Europe roiled politically. Spain was fighting a civil war and Germany had annexed Austria. Uruguay still would not come, and Argentina also petulantly pulled out because France had been picked to host the tournament in their stead. There were a few oddballs in the field, like Cuba and the Dutch East Indies. But Italy won its second World Cup all the same. And then the world went to war, and there would be no tournament for another dozen years.
Politicking was still a factor in 1950, when the tournament went to Brazil and its new (almost-completed) 200,000-capacity Maracana stadium. Scotland refused to participate, even though it had qualified, because the British Championship final had been lost to England. The English did deign, for the first time, to take part in the World Cup. But several others pulled out, like Czechoslovakia, India and Turkey. Portugal refused to take Scotland's place and France demurred too, on account of the brutal travel schedule within the tournament, which somehow spared hosts Brazil. Germany was banned because of the war. Hungary and Russia now resided behind the Iron Curtain and did not participate either. The USA shocked England in a 1-0 win but did not make the championship round and Uruguay won a second time, shocking Brazil in the final.
As the 1950s wore on, the World Cup's Wild West days were seemingly over. The event gained in importance and matured quickly. But FIFA continued to tinker with the format. In 1954, two of the four entrants in each of the four groups were seeded, meaning they did not have to play each other. Somehow, towering favorites Hungary beat unseeded Germany 8-3 in the group but then lost the final to them 3-2. Four years later, and back to a regular format in Sweden, the show was stolen by two sensations. Just Fontaine of France, went from being a reserve to the record-holder for goals in a single World Cup with 13 goals. And Brazil's 17-year-old prodigy Pele, who went into the tournament with an injury but nevertheless led them to a first World Cup title.
Pele injured himself again in the second game of the 1962 tournament in impoverished Chile. But his peers nevertheless won the tournament again. In 1966, Pele was hampered by injury once more. And in England, the home team, which claimed the sport as its own, lifted the trophy for the first and, at present, last time. Geoff Hurst's winner over West Germany in extra time of the final remains controversial, since it was ruled to have bounced off the bar, over the line and back out. In the tournament, the South American teams did so poorly that they insisted they had been the victims of a conspiracy and threatened to pull out.
They hung around though, and in Mexico in 1970 - a locale picked over Argentina in spite of the heat and elevation - television would tread on the players' comfort for the first time. Games were scheduled at noon, when it was hottest, for the benefit of European broadcasters. Unsurprisingly, a team from a hot country won out - a brilliant Brazil team, for a third time, with Pele finally fit.
In 1974 and 1978, the host team won both times by beating the Netherlands in the final. The Dutch had reinvented the game through their Total Football - a system premised on the fluid interchange of positions - but they never quite put it together, losing to West Germany and Argentina, respectively. In the latter case, a brutal military junta had just seized the country, and question marks still hover over the validity of Argentina's win. (Crucially, Dutch star Johan Cruyff skipped the tournament out of fear.)
1982: Spain. The tournament was expanded to 24 teams by long-time FIFA president Joao Havelange, who was disgraced over bribery in old age, in a maneuver to garner more election votes. Italy were the champions. They had beaten West Germany, who would make the next two World Cup finals as well. They lost to Argentina and the possessed Diego Maradona in Mexico in 1986 - the tournament was relocated from Colombia because of its shambolic preparations. In 1990, the Germans would get their revenge in Italy, by beating the Argentines this time around. The USA made it back to the World Cup for the first time in 50 years, but they were not a factor.
By the time 1994 rolled around, when the tournament was finally held in the United States, commercial interests had changed things. The European clubs, who now employed most World Cup-bound players, played seasons so bloated that World Cups were played on fumes. It was also hot in America, and the travel long. It was an imperfect and sluggish event, ultimately won by Brazil, on penalties over Italy. The most notable memories were Maradona's suspension for using recreational drugs and the post-tournament murder of Colombian defender Andres Escobar. His team was a favorite, but flamed out in the group stage, wherein he scored an own goal against the USA.
In 1998, it was much the same languid story, made worse when the tournament was swollen to 32 teams. The French hosts were not a terribly strong champion and the torpor that had set in during the summer tournament was best illustrated by Brazilian star Ronaldo's collapse right before the final - apparently from some kind of cocktail of fatigue and stress. In 2002, Brazil outlasted Germany in the final in South Korea and Japan, a tournament of Cinderella stories, as the Korean hosts and Turkey reached the final four and the Americans reached the quarterfinals, their modern high-water mark.
Italy won the tournament for a second time while in the throes of a domestic match-fixing scandal and fourth time overall in 2006, overcoming the final act of a great French generation on German soil. The Germans, for once, had been rebuilding, and somehow still claimed third place. They repeated that feat in South Africa in 2010, a tournament plagued by construction delays and security concerns - to be echoed in the run-up to the 2014 edition in Brazil. The true competitors looked drained again, and tactical nihilism set in when the Dutch lost a third final to Spain, the game's other underachievers had finally come good.
La Furia Roja had won Euro 2008 as well and would go on to win Euro 2012. In Brazil, they hope to become just the third team to win consecutive World Cups, and the first to win four straight major tournaments.