Reminiscing about the football World Cup and its oddities

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Football World Cups through the years have never been lacking in drama, thrills and the momentous. Which is for the best, for what is sport if not an opportunity to look back in memory, fond or otherwise?

The FIFA World Cup has historically been a tournament that leaves a mark and a whole bunch of stories. |

‘Expect the Unexpected’ is the signboard on ghat roads, warning drivers of sudden dangers that they may have to encounter at the sharp bends and hairpins. This applies to World Cups too. The 2018 version about to be culminated in Russia also is no different — a number of unexpected upsets, the biggest being the exit of reigning champions Germany, the world No.1 in FIFA rankings, who hit the bottom of the group, and suffered the added humiliation of a lowly-rated Korean Republic pumping in two goals during injury time.

Other front-runners — Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Portugal — followed Germany in similar fashion. This is the game football, which brings in unexpected results. You win and you are heroes; or, you are the scum and villains.

Why is football like that? I grew up in a small Kerala town where people eat and drink football, and I am no exception. From Class I, through the college days as well as the job-seeking period afterwards, football was our main entertainment. Having become bracketed as senior citizen, the game today remains a passion for me.

I came to know of this single-biggest global sporting event during the 1966 World Cup in England, when I was in college hostel and had started reading English newspapers. There was no TV, and we had no access to radio commentary. Fellow soccer fanatics at the men’s hostel would gather information in tidbits, forming our own image of each match. The vivid picture seared in my mind from this era is that of Pelé, in tears, being carried on a stretcher after a vicious tackle in a match against Portugal and his announcement not to play in World Cup again. This prompted FIFA to introduce the ‘Red Card’ to punish the offenders and protect the football artistes. The ‘Red’ later empowered so many soccer greats as they exhibited their wares on the world stage.

Apart from Pelé’s injury there are many more memories to reminisce over: Eusébio’s magical four goals against North Korea for Portugal, Hurst’s hat-trick for England in the 1966 final, Pelé’s third World Cup title, the exit of the wondrous Brazil team at the hands of outsiders Italy in 1982 who emerged as champions later, the refereeing blunder that led to the ‘hand of God’ goal of Maradona, his goal in the same year’s final considered the best, Oliver Kahn of Germany sitting forlorn leaning on the goalpost after the 2002 final loss, the thrashing of Brazil in their home ground by Germany in the semis of 2014 and so many other moments.

 

 

That said, yesteryear players were very different from today’s stars. They were bold, and had commitment and confidence. They had no qualms in attempting ‘half-chances’ (a term not very familiar to today’s football-watcher). Today, a strike comes only when the player is 100% sure of converting. Still, most of their shots go wild and awry. In those days, the fouls were open and could easily be caught by the referees, unlike today’s, committed cleverly and in deception; not to mention faking injury as a tactic to win free-kicks and penalties. Where is the honesty and commitment to the game now?

 

 

Come rain or shine, Pelé would practise shooting everyday. He would take hundreds of shots from different angles. No wonder, Pelé’s classic strike from 70 yards against Czechoslovakia in the 1970 World Cup is a talking point. The ball was fluttering in the wrong direction when he struck it, and the people watched in disbelief of Pelé’s ‘senselessness’. But in flight the ball took a vicious turn towards the goal and before the Czech keeper, in an advanced position, could scamper back to his line the ball had thudded on the post and returned to play, a narrow escape for the Czech. How many of the present strikers would take such a bold strike?

The Brazilian teams of 1970 and 1982 were bracketed as the best of the World Cups thitherto. The ’70s team which won the Jules Rimet Trophy had greats like Jairzinho, Pelé, Gerson, Tostao, Rivelino and others. Brazil beat Italy 4-1 in the final. The 70-yarder of Pelé also had come in the same tourney.

The 1970 Cup semifinal between Italy and West Germany was a classic one, five goals coming in a span of just 17 minutes of extra time. Italy led 1-0 almost till the end of the match, but German Karl-Heinz Schnellinger found the equaliser in injury time. The two goals from ‘Bomber’ Gerd Mueller in extended time were not enough to carry them through as the Italians managed to score three for the win.

The 1982 World Cup was very special for me, personally. The Brazilian team of that Cup were the front-runners. What a team it was, with greats like Socrates, Zico, Oscar, Falcão and Eder in the line-up.

 

 

The Group C match between Brazil and Argentina was the cynosure with “New Pelé” (Maradona) facing off against the “White Pelé” (Zico). Brazilians, playing a fluid game, led 3-1. That was the young Maradona’s first World Cup. The Brazilians were in such fantastic form that he was unable even to touch the ball. In frustration, he kicked Brazilian Batista and was red-carded by the referee.

But ebullience did not take the Brazilians much further, as they were shocked out by a not-so-strong Italy. A hat-trick by an little-known Italian Paulo Rossi packed them off 2-3. This may be one of the greatest losses in the history of World Cup, as the Italians entered the Brazilian half only three times for Rossi to score, while the Brazilians were literally camping in the Italian half. Italy led 2-1 at half-time. Then it was Brazil who marauded the Italian citadel and targeted the Italian goal at least two dozen times in 20 minutes. After the score was 2-2, it was as if there was an invisible wall preventing the ball from going into the Italian goal. Meanwhile, Rossi had sneaked in to find the winning goal for the would-be champions.

I was working at the sports desk of the only English daily published from Cochin then. My extra interest in soccer saw me diligently staying back at the desk almost throughout the World Cup, without leave or weekly days offs. In those non-TV days, that was the best way to get the match reports and results the same day. I was on duty on the fateful final day. The page-making took much time in the lead-lino composing days. All others had released their pages early, the deadline being 1.30 a.m. However, for me, the final report was not coming to expectations. To beat the time, I composed the headlines: ‘Germany champions’ and ‘Italy champions’ in single, double, three and four columns for handy use.

Delaying the page is considered a crime. With the available material, I had already prepared a short copy and kept it ready. It was past 2:00 a.m. and the final result came on ticker. From that I typed out an intro, got it composed and released the page by 2.15 a.m. I went to the office next day prepared to receive a warning note from our disciplinarian Resident Editor, but what greeted me was an appreciation letter to the Sports Desk for doing a wonderful job and congratulations from my colleagues. Only our paper and a vernacular daily had carried the news on that day and we deservedly won the admiration of our readers.

The 1986 quarterfinal between France and Brazil is considered the cleanest of all the matches played in World Cup hitherto. No harsh tackles, fouls or yellow cards; it was smooth flowing game with inch-perfect passes, accurate through balls and deadly strikes. The match ended in 1-1 draw and France won the shootout 4-3, though captain Platini missed one penalty for France.

 

 

And where is the time and space to describe the exploits of Pelé, Beckenbauer, Cryuff, Eusébio, Maradona, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Platini, Sócrates, Uwe Seeler, Lev Yashin, Roger Milla and their likes?

The West German goal-keeper Tony Schumacher’s vicious foul on Frenchman Battison in the 1982 semifinal remains one of the blackest in the Cup’s history. The shoulder-charge by the gigantic custodian knocked him unconscious on a stretcher with cracked vertebra and damaged teeth. The most unbelievable thing was that Schumacher was not even warned by the referee.

Another unfortunate incident took place in 2006 final between France and Italy. The entire stadium and the viewers on TV saw a cool, cool French captain Zidane head-butting Italian defender Matterazzi to the ground near the end of extra time. Nobody knows even now why he did so. No doubt, the red card and expulsion of the captain upset France in the tie-break and Italy easily pocketed the title.

Refereeing has become a tougher job now. Tripping, jersey-pulling, shoving, elbowing, pushing and pulling as well play-acting are performed with clinical precision and referees are hard-pressed to cotton on at times. In the Costa Rica v Serbia match, nearing half-time, a Costa Rican pulled the white shorts of his rival down to reveal his black underwear on TV. Similarly, in the Germany-Sweden match, the Swede M. Beag was just about to strike when he was pushed down from behind by Jérôme Boateng inside the box. The Swedes did not get a penalty. On both occasions, the referees seem to have missed the misdeeds. There have been scores and scores of similar offences which have gone unpunished which, if caught, would have produced different results. Video Assistant Referee and Goal-Line Technology have helped referees to make the right call several times in this World Cup. In future, FIFA may have to extend the use of technology to help referees detect and address the unobserved fouls and violations.

There is a possibility of a new champion emerging in Russia. Until then let us cheer the magicians and artistes to do their best and make this World Cup yet another memorable memory worth reminiscing over in the years to come.

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