Mapping the field
Take a look at the countries in the World Cup, their strengths, weaknesses and resources compared to the other entrants.
For many, perhaps most, football is an escape. It's a chance to lose oneself in entertainment and passion for ninety minutes on a weekend; to fraternize with like-minded fans; to celebrate your local pride in style.
Yet it's undeniable that for millions worldwide, football is simply more than that. What happens on the pitch can collide quite dramatically with other aspects of life, not least politics. This is true of the club game, where teams founded by workers quickly found themselves exceeding the capabilities of more genteel organizations early in football's history, and where divisions ranging from the ethnic to the religious to the cultural persist to this day. But it's in the realm of international competition that such matters really come to a fore, and nowhere is that more true than in the World Cup.
Indeed, the World Cup itself is built on a political divide of a sort. The first edition of the competition in 1930 was hosted by Uruguay, on the quite reasonable grounds that they had won the last two world amateur titles at the Olympics. But, feeling snubbed, European countries declined to enter. Particularly sniffy were the constituent countries of the United Kingdom, who refused to consider membership in the FIFA, much less make the long journey abroad.
Among the four European teams who were coaxed across the ocean. France made history by scoring the first ever World Cup goal through Lucien Laurent, an amateur forward and factory worker. (That French side was intriguing for all manner of reasons: captain Alex Villaplane, for example, returned home to become an enthusiastic Nazi collaborator before being executed in 1944.)
In any case, Uruguay (which inevitably won the tournament) declined to return the favor four years later, boycotting the World Cup's arrival in Italy due to the ill-feeling from the poor European showing.
Three teams crossed the Atlantic; Brazil, Argentina and the United States all lost their only matches. The narrative of the colonized versus the colonizer made little sense in light of the fact that football was not yet the sport of the people — Brazil's representatives came in large part from the well-to-do and overwhelmingly white Botafogo club — but still the rivalry of Europe against the Americas came to define much of international football in its early days. It still does so now, particularly from a South American perspective.
War and peace
Even the Brits were tempted. England won the Home Nations Championship, and went to the Cup. Scotland, at the time a formidable team, declined to attend despite being invited, reasoning that second place did not merit such a reward. (Fast-forward 60 years and one imagines that the Scots would feel slightly different.) Only the withdrawal of India prevented the 1950 World Cup from being the truly global event that it promised to be.
That came later as the Cup’s prestige grew. For those hoping that greater global acceptance would bring an end to politicking, though, there was to be disappointment. In fact as the tournament grew in stature in soccer terms, so too it became a global and social commodity.
In other words, the World Cup was a big deal, and was thus far more likely to attract off-pitch attention.
The Soviet Union, for example, qualified at the first time of asking in 1958 in a bid to flaunt more sporting muscle to the world. (This they did, brilliantly so, drawing with the much-fancied England and beating Austria.) Meanwhile Turkey withdrew yet again after being placed, inexplicably, in the Asian qualifiers. This gave their opponents, Israel, a bye to the next stage. In that round neither Indonesia nor Egypt were able to take part, so Israel and Sudan — who had beaten Syria — moved on to the next and final match. Sudan refused to play against Israel for political reasons and thus withdrew from competition altogether. Thus there was Israel, the conqueror of Asia and Africa, alone as a World Cup entrant without playing a single game. FIFA decided this was unacceptable, so arranged an impromptu play-off with a random European runner-up, Wales. Wales beat the Israelis and thus qualified for their one and only World Cup. And all because Sudan wouldn't travel to Israel!
As for 1982, European alliances came to the fore as West Germany and Austria contrived to play out a 1-0 win for the former in what will forever be known as the 'Shame of Gijon'. This non-event was a fixed match that allowed both the German language-speaking countries to progress to the next stage at the expense of Algeria thanks to a complex arrangement — one again created at the behest of television — long since abandoned. The end result was 1-0 to West Germany, as if it matters.
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