Notwithstanding that human error, pandemic disease and the failure of technologies are possible causes of the misfortune visited on some of the world’s afflicted populations, it is probably safe to say that much human suffering results from man’s own inhumanity to his fellow man. Notable examples are the wars of the last century and, in contemporary events, the physical and mental suffering caused by extreme ideologies. However, it is a testament to what is best, not darkest, in the human heart, that mankind is capable of rising above the actions of an evil cohort in its midst. In short mankind can, and has, offered hope to the many, and a way past the self-destructive efforts of a harmful few.
Sport offers one such ray of hope and a vehicle for bringing out what’s best in us. One has only to recall the exhilarating image of hundreds of thousands of pieces of ticker-tape illuminating the atmosphere that greeted, not only the fans in the stadium, but also the many millions of viewers who tuned into the 1978 FIFA World Cup final from the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to get a sense of how sport can lift the human spirit. That final was played out against an oppressive backdrop of events within Argentina itself. But World Cup football can offer a platform for rising above the despair caused by destructive and divisive elements within world communities.
Most events would struggle to compete with the FIFA World Cup for its impact on a nation’s mood. Whether it is a country which qualifies for the first time or one which wins the tournament and brings unbridled joy to its population, the social impact of a World Cup can be massive. As well as the euphoria that winning the global competition brings, there’s equally the despair which accompanies losing out, especially in the final.
The 1954 World Cup final between Hungary and post-war West Germany brought the two sides of the coin into sharp focus. West Germany was busy forming itself as a nation, dragging itself out of the shadow of its darkest hour while Ferenc Puskas, long considered one of the finest players to grace the game, spearheaded the greatest Hungarian team in its history. The ‘Magyars’ had just visited Wembley and dismantled England 6-3 in November 1953 to become the first team to beat the Three Lions in their home ground. Hungary then beat them 7-1 in Budapest.
There was a script for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland and it involved Hungary’s so called Golden Squad triumphing and for the others to lie down. The Hungarians were pitted in the same group as West Germany, managed by Sepp Herberger, who decided to field a weakened team in order to focus on a more realistic win against Turkey. A Hungarian team featuring Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Nandor Hidegkuti demolished the Germans 8-3.
Despite this, the two managed to meet again in the final in Bern on July 4 in the Wankdorf Stadium. Some 62,500 people filled the arena awaiting the moment this Hungarian team would win their place in history. And after the first eight minutes, the script was being acted out as expected. Goals from Puskas in the sixth minute and Zoltan Czibor two minutes later gave the Hungarians a 2-0 lead early on. However, the German captain on that day Fritz Walter, knew a thing or two about coming back from the brink.
As Hitler’s Germany collapsed to military defeat in 1945, Fritz Walter and his colleagues from a German airforce base surrendered to the Americans. After being transferred to the Russian army and shipped to Siberia, they were expected to face almost certain death. Some 40,000 German prisoners-of-war made the same trip. En route to Siberia, Walter’s convoy stopped at a Ukrainian detention centre where some of the police at the camp were playing a football match. Walter, watching from the sidelines, flicked a stray ball back into play and was soon brought into the game. Bizarrely, he was recognised by one of the guards who had seen him play a friendly some years previously for Germany in Budapest. Walter’s name was then removed from the list of those to head east to Siberia and he returned candidly to his home in Kaiserslautern. Nine years later, with heavy rain falling, he led his team out for the World Cup final.
In another bizarre turn of events, rain would play directly into the hands of the Germans as Adi Dassler had provided the squad with new football boots that boasted innovative studs. A tenth minute goal from Max Morlock and a brace from Helmut Rahn secured one of the most improbable of victories in World Cup history. Violent trouble subsequently erupted in Hungary forcing the team to stay in Tata for days after while they waited for things to calm down. Historians have said that the seeds of the country’s revolution were sown in the aftermath of the defeat while Hungarian football never reached those dizzy heights again.
In stark contrast, German historian and writer Friedrich Christian Delius felt “a guilt-ridden, inhibited nation was suddenly reborn.” The beginning of national pride could be felt again after years of tremendous horror.
“Suddenly Germany was somebody again,” said Franz Beckenbauer. “For anybody who grew up in the misery of the post-war years, Bern was an extraordinary inspiration. The entire country regained its self-esteem.”
Another World Cup victor that grabbed the hearts of its population was the 1978 Argentina side which brought happiness to a country that was in the midst of a darkly horrific period. Argentina’s win proved to be one of the most controversial in history given the background of the presidency of General Jorge Rafael Videla and his ‘Dirty War.’ While people around the world were thrilled by the intoxicating atmospheres and exciting football, two black bands placed at the bottom of goalposts symbolised the people who had disappeared, or to put it bluntly, had been killed by an erratic regime.
Even the Chairman of the Organising Committee, General Omar Actis, was assassinated allegedly as he was about to speak on the rising costs of running the tournament. Both Johan Cruyff, arguably Holland’s most famous footballing hero and West Germany’s Paul Breitner refused to take part in the competition. The 1976 military coup by Videla and his Junta had left countless numbers of people ‘disappeared’ in its wake. Thousands of Argentinians were killed in torture centres in remarkably plain view of the public. One such centre, called Club Atletico, due to its proximity to Boca Junior’s ground, was smack in the middle of the commercial centre
of Buenos Aires.
Argentina’s manager Cesar Luis Menotti went through his own moral dilemma of being a political pawn for the nation. He told his players not to win the final for the Junta, but for the factory workers, the mechanics, the working people of Argentina who grew up loving football and who were the essential fabric of Argentinian society.
In a dramatic final in front of an at-times hostile crowd in Buenos Aires made more intimidating by several delays to kick off, a brace from Mario Kempes and a 115th minute goal from Daniel Bertoni was enough to cancel out a Dick Nanninga equaliser in the 82nd minute. Argentina’s first World Cup win gave its people something magnificent to enjoy in contrast to the brutality of the political regime. The players themselves were told to focus on football and many were oblivious to the scale of the wider Argentinian problems. After scoring four goals in the tournament, striker Leopoldo Luque said many years later: “With what I know now, I can’t say I’m proud of my victory. But I didn’t realise; most of us didn’t. We just played football.” Ricky Villa also remarked: “There is no doubt that we were used politically.”
Maybe one of the most remarkable stories from a World Cup revolved around one nation just getting there in 2006 amidst a civil war. The Ivory Coast was embroiled in a ferocious conflict between a rebel-held Muslim north and a government-held Christian south. Hostilities increased and raids on foreign troops and civilians rose. The region was tense with many saying that the UN and the French military had failed in their attempts to calm the situation.
After Didier Drogba had helped the Ivory Coast team to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, he challenged President Gbagbo to end the civil war.
He made a desperate plea to the combatants, one which was answered with a ceasefire after five years of bloody violence. In October 2005, just moments after leading his nation to the finals in Germany beating Sudan 3-1 away, Drogba picked up a microphone in the dressing room. He fell to his knees around his team-mates live on national television and demanded that both sides in the civil war lay down their arms. Within a week, his bold wish had been granted.
“It was just something I did instinctively,” he said after the event. “All the players hated what was happening to our country and reaching the World Cup was the perfect emotional wave on which to ride. Inside, we wanted all that stuff to stop. When you play a match and you’re surrounded by rocket-launchers…okay, that’s for the president’s security, fine. But you’re playing with rocket-launchers everywhere. We wanted to play in a more relaxed atmosphere again. So, after that game, we were euphoric, and someone whispered in my ear that it was the right time to put out a message. Then we just improvised.”
As a teenager I attended Ivory Coast’s match against Serbia & Montenegro at the finals. There was nothing to play for with the Netherlands and Argentina already going through, but it was the most enjoyable experience I had at the tournament. Munich’s Allianz Arena presented a party atmosphere that the people of the Ivory Coast especially will remember forever, albeit that they were minus Drogba himself. There was a brief hope of qualifying when the Ivory Coast came back from 2-0 down after 20 minutes to triumph 3-2 and their fans celebrated with euphoria and sincere pride.
Of course, along with jubilation there are the many cases of tragedy which are synonymous with World Cups too. Brazil’s disastrous semi-final collapse against Germany at their own World Cup in 2014 saw a distraught nation reminded of the infamous Maracanazo (the Maracana Blow) in 1950.
Winning the 1950 World Cup, held in their own backyard, was a national priority for Brazil. The government hoped that football would unite the country and mark it out as an emerging international power in the mid-twentieth century. To the disbelief of the crowd which was one tenth the population of Rio de Janeiro, Alcides Ghiggia scored a goal that was a dagger to the heart of both the sluggish Moacir Barbosa, Brazil’s goalkeeper and the country’s population.
The following day, the Manchester Guardian’s match report read: “Women were prostrate with grief, and the announcer was so thunderstruck that he forgot to broadcast the result of the other cup match between Spain and Sweden to decide minor placings. Stadium doctors treated 169 people for fits of hysteria and other troubles. Six were taken to hospital seriously ill.”
FIFA President Jules Rimet was ushered onto the pitch by weeping policemen and the Uruguay captain Varela was advised not to lift the trophy, though he was content with being king of the world. Elsewhere in Brazil, there were suicides, besides the two in the Rio stadium itself. After a 2-1 scoreline, the match was over. The World Cup was over. For Brazil, everything was over.
In stark contrast to this, the French victory in 1998 at their own World Cup saw a dramatic decrease in the national suicide rate. Between 11th June and 11th July, a significant decline of 95 suicides was observed (-10.3%), this effect being the strongest among men and people aged between 30 and 44. A significant decrease was also observed for the days following French team games (-19.9%). A country historically divided by ethnicity, the French win was deemed a moment where the country came together. The match winner on the day and the player of the tournament, Zinedine Zidane, who was born in Algeria, was one of many immigrants in the team. Bar one crazed woman driving a car into the celebrations on the Champs Elysees, the country celebrated together as one triumphant nation.
There are countless more stories, most recently with Panama celebrating their ever first World Cup qualification for Russia 2018. The President gave everyone the next day off work celebrating the country’s more positive recognition on the world stage for the first time since the Panama Papers scandal. Like countries themselves, football is not immune to society’s darker influences of corruption, violence and greed but the power of the World Cup continues to capture the imagination of the people. Future tournaments are bound to throw up countless more examples. Who knows who will bring a nation together again, or apart for that matter?
Although sometimes known for being one half of electronic music group White Collar Boy, Gavin White is a journalist who has written for the Irish Independent and extratime.ie
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