This is it, easily the biggest sporting spectacle on the planet. Cricket fans often quote Mike Marqusee’s iconic description of an India-Pakistan cricket match as ‘war minus the shooting’; in football, El Salvador and Honduras actually went to war after a bitterly contested World Cup qualifying tournament in 1969. Nothing quite matches the kind of passion and interest a FIFA World Cup generates. And in its 92-year history, the tournament has had almost everything happen on and off the field, from head butts and sheikhs invading the pitch to the ‘hand of god’ and phantom goals.
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Here are some of the lesser-known, but fascinating, characters that made this tournament so special in its early years.
There are few players who have contested two consecutive World Cup finals. Only one has had the distinction of playing two consecutive finals for different countries. The man in question, Luis Monti, was quite a character. A skilled Argentinian centre-half, he had been the main thorn in the flesh of the Uruguayan defence during the 1928 Olympic final.
In 1930, with the finals in Montevideo, the Uruguayan fans were taking no chances. After a tense first-half, the Argentinians were actually ahead 2-1, when a series of messages came to their dressing room threatening Monti, his wife and sister with dire consequences if Argentina won. They ended up conceding three goals in the second half and Monti and his teammates managed to return home safely.
The next time it was a little more complicated. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, like many after him, had figured that sport was a great way to build his brand. He was looking to make the best possible team for the 1934 World Cup to be hosted by Italy. Monti, of Romagnol descent, was a natural target and lured to play for Italy after a club offer from Juventus worth 20 times his salary. Monti duly transferred citizenship and was one of the stars of the Italian team as they reached the finals against the Czechs.
And then the threats came, this time not from the fans, but from Il Duce himself. And as Monti and his teammates knew, it was far easier to deliberately lose a match than to win one. After a really tense 90 minutes, where the Czechs led almost throughout before the Italians finally equalised, the Italians managed to get a winner in extra-time to everyone’s huge relief.
When they finally posed with the trophy with Mussolini, they found that in addition to the Jules Rimet trophy for the winners, the Italian leader had commissioned another, much larger, trophy so that the historic win could be properly commemorated.
A 50-year sentence
If Monti finally found redemption, another star spent all his life searching but never found it. Moacir Barbosa was Brazilian goalkeeper, one of the stars of the 1949 Copa America winning team. Brazil were the hosts of the 1950 World Cup and had only to draw their final match against Uruguay to win in front of almost 2,00,000 people at the Maracana stadium, the largest ever crowd in World Cup history. With 11 minutes left, the game was 1-1 when Uruguayan striker Alcides Ghiggia broke through. Barbosa anticipated a cross and left his goal line to deny the pass, but Ghiggia instead just drilled the ball through the gap the keeper had left. The crowd was stunned and Uruguay had won their second World Cup and Barbosa was blamed for the defeat. After retiring as a footballer, he worked in the stadium and had to suffer the sight of the same goalposts for another 13 years, before they finally presented him the posts, which he took home and burnt. He died in 2000, one of his last statements being, “The maximum punishment in Brazil is 30 years imprisonment, but I have been paying, for something I am not even responsible for, by now, for 50 years.” Barbosa has been forgiven but the goal, known as the Maracanazo, has still not been forgotten.
The historic triple
Brazil fans managed to recover from the heartbreak of 1950 in a few years primarily thanks to Pele, and a man whose right foot was six inches shorter than his left with both turning in different directions. Rosa, an elder sister, noticed that Manuel Santos was much smaller than his friends and decided to name him Garrincha, Portuguese for wren. Garrincha was an absolute freak as a footballer, able to dribble through almost any defence, and totally uncontrollable off the field as well. By the time he became a professional footballer, still in his teens, he was already a husband and a father. The Brazilian selectors were reluctant to pick him because of his showboating and when he finally made the World Cup squad in 1958, he was dropped from the first two matches because just 10 days earlier, he had decided to show his skills by dodging past a goalkeeper and then waiting at the line for the keeper to return before dodging past him again. At any rate, when they did decide to play Garrincha in the World Cup, Pele and he together were irresistible. Brazil never lost a match the two played together, and more importantly, when Pele was injured in the 1962 World Cup, it was Garrincha who took them home, ending up with the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball and the World Cup trophy, a triple no other player has achieved. He retired at 39 and died when he was just 49 due to cirrhosis of the liver. Next to his epitaph, fans wrote ‘ Obrigado, Garrincha, por você ter vivido’ (thank you, Garrincha, for having lived).
There were many heroes in England’s 1966 World Cup triumph at home, but the most celebrated was just four at the time. In March 1966, the trophy was stolen, and while there was a ransom note and a subsequent arrest, the trophy was not returned. Pickles, a black-and-white collie was on a walk with his bargeman owner when he sniffed out the trophy. A grateful nation named him dog of the year and he even starred in a film, The Spy with a Cold Nose. As it turned out, the trophy Pickles recovered was also stolen in Brazil in 1983, but this time there were no canines to the rescue.
The Hall of Fame of the eccentrics who have graced this tournament range from Kuwaiti Prince Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, who stormed on to the pitch and got a French goal disallowed by a befuddled referee, to Rene Higuita, the Colombian goalkeeper known as El Loco (the madman), who tried to dribble past Roger Milla and cost his team the tournament. Paul Gascoigne, the England star midfielder, who, while endorsing Adidas, actually forgot his shoes and borrowed Nike studs and cost himself a lot of money. And of course, the one and only Maradona. His retirement never stopped him hogging the headlines; he once promised his 2010 Argentine team that he would run naked down the streets of Buenos Aires if they won.
And this year’s World Cup promises to keep the flag flying, with the likes of Luis Suarez, remembered for his skill as a striker and his tendency to bite opponents, most recently Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini; and Neymar, whose insane skills have not taken away from his ability to take a graceful dive.
We’ll be watching!
The writer was project director, FIFA U17 World Cup 2017.