Thursday, August 24, 2006
Tribal Minds, Part 2
George Orwell’s aversion to the institution of international football was, in fact, quite understandable when you consider some of the events surrounding the first three World Cups (the only three to have been played before he wrote his article). In 1930, Uruguay’s victory over their River Plate rivals Argentina was marked by riots in Buenos Aires. The shadow of European fascism hung menacingly over the two subsequent tournaments, with the Anschluss of 1938 resulting in Austria’s best players representing Hitler’s Germany.
Prior to the mid-fifties, it’s reasonable to conclude, I think, that the World Cup was largely a vehicle for the expression of national chauvinism. Each of the first four “finals” (the 1950 event technically didn’t have one, but the Brazil v. Uruguay match was a final in all but name) were reflective of either strong regional rivalry and bitterness, or current political struggles. Even the tournament of 1954, where Puskas’s Hungary had such a dazzling impact, might well have become a rallying cry in the incipient Cold War, had Hungary triumphed.
To my mind, it was the 1958 tournament which, in some ways, saved the competition.
Firstly, it set in stone the sensible format which was to last until 1974. The previous two postwar World Cups had suffered from ludicrous formats and lopsided match loading (Uruguay played only four games in winning the 1950 tournament), and the four-team round robin group system, with knockouts used thereafter, remains in place today. The complement of teams has doubled, but the basic method of whittling down the competitors is unchanged.
Secondly, and very importantly, the tournament in Sweden at last featured a final between teams from two different continents, neither of whom had an axe to grind politically. Brazil, after the disaster of 1950, clearly felt it had something to prove on the pitch, but there were no historical grudges towards their opponents.
And after the final, there was the ultimate gesture, one which has, to my knowledge, never been repeated, despite the goodwill it engendered. After their victory, the Brazilians set off on a triumphant lap around the stadium, first carrying their own flag, then the Swedish flag. Simply good PR, you might say, but this was the sort of thing that was desperately needed in international football’s showpiece event.