Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Dark Side of the Beautiful Game is Nothing New

In the build up to this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil, the BBC broadcast some official World Cup films from yesteryear. I didn’t watch the 1966 one, for obvious reasons, but I did catch some of the official stories of the 1970 and 1974 World Cups. Now those of you who have read my occasionally inane ramblings in these pages - and I thank you both – may well be thinking ‘here he goes again, football was so much better when it was played in black and white etc. etc.’ But bear with me on this.

A good friend of mine – who is even older than I am – quite often bemoans the fact that the first aim of too many football teams these days is not to lose. He despairs at the cynicism in the game today, the diving, the harassment of the officials, and the lack of discipline. Old Charlie infers that the game was much more of a sport in days of old and that rampant commercialism and money-making has made football all the poorer. He might have a point but a look back half a century or more shows these traits are nothing new.

The 1970 World Cup in Mexico is the first finals I can recall, being just 8 years old at the time. By this time, television was making its mark and these finals were the first to be transmitted by colour television. Brazil, of course, lifted the trophy for the third time by defeating Italy 4-1 in the final and this game, dominated by Brazilian superstars such as Pele and Jairzhinho, is seen as the benchmark to which all football sides should attain. However, as the official FIFA film shows, cynicism, negativity and indiscipline were rife even during the self-proclaimed golden era of football.

The gifted Pele, arguably the best player the world has ever seen, was challenged by an Italian during the final and performed a dive which wouldn’t have been out of place in the pool for the Olympic Games held in the same country two years earlier. Pele fell to the ground clutching his ankle and appeared to be in agony. There seemed to be minimal contact, a suspicion enhanced moments later when Brazil scored and Pele bounded across the turf like a gazelle on heat.

Earlier in the finals the Russian team, concerned by the effects of the baking heat at a midday kick-off, opted to put those squad members who weren’t playing to line up for the pre-match presentations to officials prior to the game against hosts Mexico. Thus, those players who were in action were spared the rather unnecessary long wait in the sun before kick-off. Then there was the game between the hosts and El Salvador.

Mexico reacted to the apparent award of a free-kick to El Salvador by kicking the ball away. As El Salvador watched in bemusement, the referee did nothing, permitting the Mexicans to head up the park and score the opening goal. Rightly incensed, El Salvador hustled and bustled the Egyptian referee and even booted the ball out of play from the kick-off in protest. Mexico went on to win 4-0 and progressed to the quarter finals. Let’s face it, having the host nation in the knock-out stages would surely be preferable to having some no-hopers who were in their first ever World Cup finals…?

You may think a lack of discipline is recent affliction to the game. Not so. Forty years ago, Scotland headed to the World Cup finals in what was then West Germany with high hopes. The Scots had qualified from a group which included Czechoslovakia and Denmark and were on their way to their first World Cup finals in 16 years. In the build-up to the tournament, Scotland defeated England - who had failed to qualify for the finals – 2-0 at Hampden and optimism was again a welcome visitor to Scotland. However, it’s ne’er do well pal, indiscipline, was never far away. Celtic winger Jimmy Johnstone got involved in an incident two days before the England game which saw him cast afloat on a dinghy with only one oar on the Firth of Clyde. Of course, ‘Jinky’ as he was affectionately known, had imbibed on one too many alcoholic refreshments. Scotland manager Willie Ormond was under pressure to drop Johnstone for such indiscipline but played him anyway – and the little winger proceeded to destroy the English with a masterful display.

However, when Johnstone was involved in another incident during Scotland’s pre-World Cup friendly against Norway in Oslo – yet again, alcohol was the temptress – the S.F.A. chiefs made their feelings clear to manager Ormond. The result was that one of the best players this country has ever produced didn’t play in the World Cup finals even though he remained part of the squad. And the Scots went out on goal difference due to the fact they only defeated Zaire 2-0 – draws against reigning world champions Brazil and Yugoslavia weren’t enough. Thus, Scotland were the only undefeated team at the 1974 World Cup – champions West Germany lost a group game to rivals East Germany – but may have achieved so much more had the squad maintained their discipline. We can only dream of what Jimmy Johnstone would have done to Zaire had he been given the chance.

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil was a splendid tournament. It produced more positives than negatives. Something not every World Cup finals - even those from the so-called ‘golden age’ – can claim….

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