Friday, February 17, 2006

sprechen sie fußball?

16 weeks to the start of the World Cup Finals 2006 in Germany, and I feel duty bound to spread the word about the planet’s most popular sport’s biggest festival, so I will post every Friday until after the tournament is over.

This week’s bout of nostalgia is all about the 1982 finals in Spain.


Paolo Rossi had much to celebrate in ’82, but it isn’t just the Italians who will have fond memories of the tournament.

It was with a far more educated eye that I watched the 1982 version of the World Cup finals which were held in sunny Spain.

Though the ’78 tournament was the one that got me hooked on football, I was only 9 years old, and thus wasn’t fully aware of what was going on – it was more everyone else’s excitement that attracted me.

This time, I was 13, and I had spent the previous four years immersing myself in the weekly dramas of the English professional game. What’s more, the club I had chosen to support, Tottenham Hotspur, were going through a purple patch, having won the previous two FA Cup competitions prior to these finals, ironically with two Argentinian players in their squad.

I had also been introduced to a new aspect of the World Cup – the qualification process. Since so many countries enter the event, the sport’s governing body FIFA (who have more affiliate nations than the UN) has to somehow whittle them down to a smaller number of teams to contest the final tournament.

Up to 1978, sixteen nations qualified for the finals. Most of these would come from Europe and South America, and the so-called “unfashionable” continents of Africa, Asia and North America, were allocated just one slot each. For the 1982 finals, FIFA decided to expand the number of finalists to 24 in order to double their representation.

Despite the extra chances of qualification, my hometown team the Republic of Ireland just missed out by the skin of their teeth, with France edging them out on account of having beaten Cyprus by more goals than we did. However, that did not mean the island of Ireland did not have something to look forward to when the summer of ’82 came around.

Most people who grow up here are told stories from when they are in diapers about the country’s history, from whichever standpoint the narrator wished to tell. You can be sure that at some point in the tale, someone was bound to have been oppressed by someone else.

As for me, I was transplanted here at the age of 8. All I knew was that for some reason, there were two Irelands, and being absolutely 100% indifferent to politics, I didn’t really care why. And so, since a team called “Northern Ireland” had reached the World Cup finals, it seemed natural to me that I should support them.

I would have been totally unaware of the history of the game north of the border, particularly its extremely close links to the blatant sectarianism that has crippled the community over the years. I wouldn’t have even known that the success of the 1982 team was a legacy of the late great George Best, who despite having achieved icon status the late-sixties/early seventies, sadly never graced a finals tournament himself.

None of that meant anything to me. These guys were Irish, so they had my unconditional support. I also didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t root for the English and Scottish teams who also qualified for the finals, since having closely followed the English league, I was familiar with all of the players.

So you can be sure that once the finals kicked off on June 13th in Barcelona, I was ready for action. Of course I had my wallchart poised ready to record the results, of course I had my “schedule” totally cleared so that I could take in every second of every game, of course I was full to the brim with anticipation.

Well, what a start the tournament had. The tradition was such that the reigning World Champions would contest the first game. The Argentinians with their new wunderkid Dieg Maradona were expected to sweep all before them. Shame noone told that to the Belgians, who produced what at the time seemd to be one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history by actually beating the holders 1-0.

As it turned out, the Belgian victory would be long forgotten by the time the tournament ended.

To understand the World Cup, you have to understand the nature of a "first round group". To make sure all the teams that qualify for the finals play more than one game, the finalists are first divided by way of a lottery into “round-robin” groups of four teams each. Each team plays the other within the group once, and generally the two teams with the best records advance to the next phase of the tourament, with the other two catching the plane home.

And so, despite Argentina’s loss, they still managed to win their next two games and sneak through, at the expense of Hungary, who raised a few eyebrows themselves by calling into question the wisdom of expanding the representation of North American teams by hammering El Salvador 10-1.

The real drama of the first round, however, was happening elsewhere. Three days after Belgium’s victory, it was eclipsed by the rank outsiders Algeria, whose supporters back home would have been dancing in the streets as if they had won the trophy itself after their stunning 2-1 win over the mighty West Germans.

However, like I said, your first game does not necessarily guarantee that you will advance beyond the first phase. The games that ensued involving the other teams in the group, Austria and Chile, left it all down to the last match between West Germany and Austria to see who qualified.

Not surprisingly, there were a lot of Algerians in the crowd to watch the big game. Never before had an African nation made it past the first round of a tournament. The entire nation came to a standstill for what could have been an historic event. Being predisposed to rooting for the underdog as I normally am, I too was caught up in the hype.

What transpired was to change the World Cup for ever. When West Germany took a 1-0 lead in the game, the two countries worked out between them that if the score stayed exactly as it was to the end, they would both advance to the next round. And so, with the cameras constantly focusing on bewildered Algerians openly weeping in the crowd, the two German-speaking countries proceeded to kill the remaining time in the game by simply passing the ball around rather than try to score more goals.

The result of this was to be that FIFA was to insist that in future, the last two games in every first round group were to be played at the same time, so that noone would be absolutely sure what they had to do to qualify. This was quite a concession when you think about it, since two big games running concurrently puts a big dent in advertizing revenue.

Then there was Northern Ireland’s group. Having impressively drawn with Yugoslavia and then being disappointed in only doing likewise with Honduras, manager Billy Bingham’s side were not given much hope in their final game against the host nation Spain. Once more, the form books were to be thrown out the window as Gerry Armstrong scored a legendary goal (even if it was extremely difficult to find a picture on the net) which won the game for them 1-0.

Much like the Algerian win over Germany, the jubilation in the media back here would have you think they had won the World Cup. Whatever was to happen to them after that night, the players’ status as heroes was assured.

Elsewhere, England were impressive in winning all of their first round games, while Scotland seemed to be on the verge of an upset when they took a 1-0 lead over tournament favourties Brazil, only to let in four at the other end which was to mean they were to go home early once again.

For the second round this time, the twelve remaining countries were put into four groups of three. Northern Ireland bravely drew 2-2 with Austria yet succumbed 4-1 to the French. England were all of a sudden unable to score and bowed out to the Germans. Poland caused a shock of their own by reaching the semifinals at the expense of the Soviet Union.

Then there was Italy v Brazil. If I had thought the games leading up to this were thrilling, I had no idea what was in store. The mathematics were simple for this game – Italy had to win to advance, otherwise their opponents would. Since the boys from Brazil were considered the best in the world, I was up for the underdog.

Paolo Rossi socres, 1-0 Italy. Could there be an upset? Oops, Brazil equalize. Surely the Italians won’t score another against this great team. Up steps Paolo again, 2-1. Then Falcao curls in an amazing free-kick, 2-2. With me on the edge of my seat, Rossi completes his hat-trick to win the game. It is impossible in one paragraph to describe just how much I enjoyed this game. It was definitely football at its best.

It was such an amazing contest that the following ones were not to match up, with the possible exception of the semifinal between West Germany and France, which will be best known for three reasons – it was the first to employ the “penalty shoot-out” method of choosing a winner, the Germans came back from 3-1 in overtime, and it involved the most famous example of dirty play ever to go unpunished when German goalie Harald Schumacher executed a running ninja-style kick on Patrick Battiston.

And so after a few questionable tactics from West Germany, it was rather fitting that Italy won the final 3-1 so their inspirational goalkeeper and captain Dino Zoff could lift the trophy.

For the first time and definitely not the last, the final for me was an anti-climax. Still, I was sad when the tournament was over, in that back at the start there were so many possiblities, and the drama that unfolded was unforgettable.
Once again I was eager for the new club season to begin, but if truth be told I was bemoaning the fact that the next World Cup finals were a long four years down the line.

Next week – MEXICO ’86 : The One That Got Away

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