Wednesday, 11 June 2014

World Cup Babylon

Murder. Riot police. Drugs. Corruption. Fisticuffs. Do I refer to the EastEnders Christmas special? I'm sorry to say I do not. I refer to the four-yearly celebration of the planet's most popular sport: The World Cup. And with only hours to go until kick off, now is as good a time as any to look back on the wilder side of the tournament's history.

 The tone was set back in 1930 at the first tournament, which was hosted by Uruguay. Thirteen countries competed, but there was no show from the British contingent who were in some post-Victorian huff because they hadn't come up with the idea first and them damned Frenchies had conceived the whole thing.

England did not compete until 1950, when they were ignominiously beaten 1-0 by the USA and it would be a further four years before the world could have a bloody good laugh at Scotland.

The 1930 final was fought between hosts Uruguay and bitter rivals Argentina. The Argentinean fans were searched for weapons as they crossed the River Plate into Uruguay. And when I say weapons, I don't mean improvised blunt implements. We are talking guns, here. The home side won by four goals to two, and the Uruguayan Consulate in Buenos Aries was stoned by an angry mob, which only dispersed when the riot police opened fire. It's always nice to see a group of fans with everything in perspective, isn't it?

Italy took the poisoned chalice as hosts four years later and Mussolini wasted no time in turning the competition into a massive PR rally for Fascism. Lowlight of this particular tournament was the Quarter Final involving Italy and Spain. The match ended in a draw, and was replayed the next day. The Italians had been so wild in the tackle that the Spanish side for the rematch was bereft of seven of their first team regulars through injury. The effete Spaniards had managed to crock a meagre four of the opposition, including only one broken leg. Spain lost both the match and the body count. As Oscar Wilde once wrote: "Football is all very well for rough girls, but it's hardly suitable for delicate boys."

After a gap to accommodate a real war, the World Cup kicked off again in the 50's. In 1954 it was handbags at ten paces in the famous Battle of Berne. The world's strongest side, Hungary, beat Brazil 4-2 in a fractious match, and went on to credit themselves equally well in the ensuing locker room fracas. As the Brazilians entered the dressing room after the match, a famous Hungarian player was alleged to have struck a Brazilian in the face with a bottle, causing a gash eight centimetres long. The 22-man free-for-all that ensued is unlikely to feature in any pre-watershed World Cup montage on the BBC.

Not to be outdone, hosts Chile staged the Battle of Santiago in 1962. Italian journalists had slated the host nation in the press and when the two sides met on the pitch, chaos reigned. Ferrini, the Italian inside forward on the day, was dismissed for retaliating to an x-certificate challenge. But he refused to take a bath, and it took almost ten minutes to remove him from the field of play. Eventually, the police were called to sort it out. Later, the Chilean winger Sanchez (who had originally kicked Ferrini) planted a left hook of such power and accuracy in the face of Italian David, that he knocked him out and broke his nose. Sanchez remained on the field, but David was later sent off for violent conduct.

And so to England 1966, where, in true dodgy cockney form, the trophy was nicked. Classy.

Disappointingly, football ruled the 1970 and 1974 tournaments, and we had to wait until 1978 for some scandal. Willie Johnston, the Scottish winger, failed a drug test and was found to have been taking performance-enhancing drugs – although precious little evidence of an enhanced performance could be seen when he took the field. Indeed, if the Scots had been on any kind of drug, then their woeful on-field antics would suggest that tranquilisers were the order of the day.

Argentina, the hosts of the 1978 tournament, remain the undisputed kings of World Cup mayhem. Aside from the aforementioned incident in 1930, they have in the past kicked lumps out of England in 66, boycotted the 1938 tournament and ran their economy into the ground to fund the 78 tournament - covering up a welter of human rights atrocities in the process. And that's not to mention Maradona's hand, with which he scored against England back in '86. Or, indeed, his nose – which he used after scoring in quite a different way altogether.

Unlike the left hooks and needles of the reprobates mentioned here, this brief history has barely broken the skin of international sport's longest running soap.

Have a fun World Cup, everyone!

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