Under FIFA's control, football tourney hasn't always been a kick

June 27, 1994|By Phil Jackman

It's never too early (or late) for a little jingoism, which means to be overly chauvinistic or patriotic to the extreme regarding anything and everything American.

From the moment a few years back when the United States was handed the responsibility of being host to the World Cup, a feeling has existed that many of the competing nations did not want to see the 1994 tournament go off well.

No doubt the first six of 10 reasons why this country got the nod from the game's governing body, FIFA, had to do with money, television exposure, commercial considerations, sponsorships, advertising and, oh yes, money.

OK, there's nothing wrong with that considering today's askew value system. Still, it's a slap in the face, the European community of soccer-playing nations taking it upon themselves to attempt to maintain control and manipulate this sport known as the most popular in the world.

How free and open a tournament is it when, after a start in 1930, an African country doesn't show up in the field until 1970 (Morocco). And thereafter it was just one a year until 1982. And it wasn't until just four years ago that a substantial land mass known as Asia was finally represented (South Korea).

The way those good time Charlies at the Federation Internationale des Football Associations (FIFA) assured their select field is by placing improving Asian and African teams in qualifying sections with the world's best. It's only since going to 32 teams (from 24) this year that all corners of the globe are getting a chance at fair representation.

But then, the fact that some of the decrees laid down by FIFA during the past 90 years appear as if they were decided upon by a roomful of chimpanzees hammering away on typewriters has always been more than a suspicion.

FIFA can trace its beginnings to 1904 and Paris, but it wasn't until 22 years later that the organization, arguing that "International football could no longer be held within the confines of the Olympics because countries could not be represented by their best players [professionals]," had to have its own world championship.

One big happy family these guys were. England, where the game got its start, wasn't even in FIFA and didn't compete in the World Cup until 1950. Five countries bid to host the first World Cup in 1930, and little Uruguay got the nod by promising to pay all the travel and hotel expenses of the visiting teams and building a huge stadium for the occasion.

Great. Only problem was, the four European countries (actually cities) that put in a bid to host, Italy, Sweden, Holland and Spain, said they weren't interested in going to Montevideo. They were joined by Austria, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia and, up until two months before the start of the tournament, Belgium, Romania and Yugoslavia were on the fence. What if they held a party and no one came?

Surprising FIFA didn't check on the repercussions that could be expected with the selection of Uruguay as host beforehand. Fortunately, four European countries showed up thanks to King Carol of Romania, who picked the team, strong-armed the companies who employed them to give them time off and persuaded Yugoslavia, France and Belgium to make the trip to the 13-team test.

The most memorable game of this 18-game tourney was host Uruguay beating Argentine in the final, but Mexico and Chile getting into a brawl that news reports stated was brought under control only after "great difficulty" by the police. The day of the final, a newspaper in Buenos Aires ran the headline, "Argentine si, Uruguay no! Victory or Death!" The stage for future Cups was truly ready.

Upset by defections four years before, defending champion Uruguay didn't bother to show up in Italy four years later. FIFA, in a strange move, made the 1934 and subsequent tourneys a single-elimination event, meaning South American teams traveled up to 8,000 miles to play one game. Remember, travel in the 1930s wasn't a window seat in the Boeing 747 traveling 675 miles an hour. The United States made its first appearance and was nipped by the host, 7-1.

Argentina refused to go to the tournament in France in 1938 because of what was going on, the Germans just swallowing up the prized squad from Austria, and Argentinians rioted mightily outside its federation office in Buenos Aires. Play was getting really rough by now, but FIFA didn't see it as a problem, and it obviously spent its time looking straight up into the air.

A 12-year break to accommodate World War II didn't help. Cup historian Brian Glanville described the tourney in Brazil in 1950 as "dubiously organized and ludicrously unbalanced." The home team played all its games in Rio de Janiero while the others were sent hither and yon across the huge country. Uruguay was in a pool with just one other team, Bolivia, so it had only one game to play (an 8-0 victory) to advance. There was no "final" game, the standings being determined by a four-team round-robin.

Oh, England finally showed up, lost to the United States, 1-0, and went home to face the Fleet Street tabloids, which was much worse than losing to the "colonists."

Every tourney before and since has had its problems, right up to and including Italy in 1990 when the best player on the block, Diego Maradona, was almost crippled, the final game was devoid of skill and the supposedly rabid Italian fans forgot to show up at several of the preliminary and second-round games.

Notice how World Cup '94 has gone the first 10 days here. Was there any doubt the sports-mad United States wouldn't present a great show?

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