1950-70: The golden era


NO sport denotes the universality of character as much as soccer. For the innumerable aficionados - from Tahiti to Thailand, from Toronto to Timbaktu, in the nook and corner and in the backstreets and alleys of Europe and South America - it is more than a mere sport. It is a religion with all its fervour, spirit, icons, demi-gods and dogmas. And we do see and feel all these manifestations in such a fascinating fabric on the eve of a World Cup, which will unfold, for the first time in the Orient which is renowned for its culture, tradition and hospitality.

Every World Cup, since the launch in 1930, brings before the mind's eye an enchanting panorama of human endeavour in all its irrepressible quest for excellence. The tension, drama, folklore and ballads are part of the mega event. Is soccer a passion, an obsession, an addiction or a mania.... Well, it will be difficult to fathom what it really is.

Amazingly, very little is spoken or written about the man who conceptualised the whole idea, which, unfortunately, crystallised only 26 years after it was discussed. When the International Football Federation (FIFA) was baptised on May 21, 1904, Robert Guerin, the first President, a journalist working for the French daily newspaper, La Matin, suggested an international competition. He also drafted the byelaws, giving the exclusive right to FIFA to host the international competitions. A year later came the draft prepared by the Dutchman, Carl Anton Hirshman, but not a single country agreed to venture out, citing financial reasons.

Not until April 1, 1921, did Guerin's dream show signs of reality. And the man who pushed the package was another Frenchman, Jules Rimet. Even as the idea of professionalism was gaining ground in Europe and what with South Americans showing enormous interest, as evidenced by the gold medal win by Uruguay in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, Jules Rimet met with the Ambassador of Uruguay in Belgium, Enrique Buero, and sold the idea of conducting the inaugural World Cup in 1930 at Montevideo. The FIFA Committee, set in 1926, investigated the factors favourably, and four years later came the launch of a maginficent competition, which ranks next only to the Olympics, both in conception and in execution.

For over 33 years, Jules Rimet remained at the helm of football till a Belgian, Rodolphe Suldrayers, picked up the reins briefly before handing over the baton to conservative Englishman, Sir Stanley Rous, who paved the way for the authoritative and somewhat autocratic, Joao Havelange, the first and the only South American to head FIFA in 1974. Havelange's reign continued till 1998 when the then Secretary, Sepp Blatter donned the mantle on June 6, 1998.

The soccer world today is indebted to the French visionaries, Robert Guerin and Jules Rimet, for giving the sport a World Cup competition that is the Alpha and Omega of the millions and millons of fans across the globe. After three editions in 1930, 34 and 38, the competition came to a halt. The World War ravaged and destroyed everything, including the World Cup and the Olympics. During this traumatic phase the trophy had to be protected from the fascist forces.

When the War clouds disappeared amidst the devastation and loss of lives, that are yet to be computed conclusively, and when the world began to breath the fresh air of freedom in the Fifties, Jules Rimet revived the World Cup championship which came as a balm to the wounded psyche. No country in Europe could manage the financial muscle to host a World Cup. The FIFA Congress, on July 25, 1946, granted Soviet Union the right to claim a seat as Vice-President, and this remained mandatory till the disintegration of the Soviet empire.

For over five decades, since 1950, the soccer summit, which the World Cup is and ever will be, made a profound impact on the social, economic and political fabric of the society in varying measure though. The euphoria that a World Cup generates should more be felt than imagined. Its hold on the masses cannot easily be measured, nor its mystique assessed. Such a state would not have been possible but for the regulated growth of the sport by FIFA and its dynamic Presidents who saw great potential in Africa and Asia, unlike the early heads whose view was limited to Europe and South America.

One often wonders, which period, or point of time in the history of World Cups can be described as the golden age. Historians may differ as do their yardstick; but it is generally perceived that golden peak are the two decades when the event was revived in Brazil after a lapse of 12 years. It was during this six editions that soccer witnessed a tremendous transformation in skills, styles, strategies and systematisation. Again, it was during this phase that the world saw a phenomenon called Edson de Arentes do Nacimento, (Pele), in action. He is widely acknowledged as the greatest ever. "Soccer and Pele are synonymous," wrote that brilliant essayist, Brian Glanville.

It was in this period that Brazil recorded three trophy triumphs, twice in succession (1958, 62), to take home the glittering Jules Rimet Trophy for ever after the win in 1970 at Mexico. It was in this golden age that the Brazil's great mid-fielder, Mario Zagalo, claimed three gold medals, twice as a player in 1958, 1962, and as the coach in 1970. It was also during this time that England, which came into FIFA only 1950, won the Cup in 1966 at Wembley amidst the controversial goal against West Germany. This era also witnessed some of the finest battles in the history, the tie at Berne between Brazil and Hungary and another thrilling encounter at Santiago in 1962 involving Chile and Italy, prompting the English referee, Ken Aston, devise the card system. It is difficult to fathom why critics had not come down heavily on the tie between England and Argentina in 1966, where the Argentina skipper Rattin was sent out. "We don't swap shirts with animals" thundered the English coach, Alf Ramsey, running into the field after the match when he saw English players exchanging jerseys with the Argentines.

Again it was during this saga of Brazil's classic domination of World Cups that individual artistry - symbolised by the South Americans, headed by a crop of brilliant attackers from Brazil like Pele, Didi, Vava, Garrincha, and Tastao - combated successfully the solidity of the European defence cocooned in the WM formation, which later took avatar in a different form under the Italian concept called catanacchio, which literally means, bolting the route to the goal. Under this system, as many defenders guarded the area from anyone taking advantage of the space.

But there is a lively debate whether the transformation from the traditional 3-2-5 to the more vibrant, ingenious and vivacious 4-2-4 and later 4-3-3 was the result of research work of Brazilian coaches under the leadership of Vincent Feola, with the academician Dr. Ernesto Santos heading the faculty of football in the University of Brazil. Some historians record that even as early as 1954 in Switzerland, the Hungarians, known then as the "Magical Magyars" adopted at varying points the 4-2-4 and the 4-3-3 devised by their coach, Gustav Sebes, who was a Deputy Minister in the Hungarian Government. Even Michail Iakustin, coaching the famous Moscow Dynamos then, had employed these systems long before the Brazilians marvelled the audiences at Sweden in 1958, where the immortal Pele made his debut against Wales. But the Brazilians established these formations on a permanent basis than the Hungarians and Russians who flirted with them briefly.

Quite conceivably, getting the World Cup re-launched in the face of the pestilence and poverty haunting the world in the aftermath of War was a Herculean task. One critic describes the start of 1950 in Brazil as "chaotic" what with a mass of withdrawals. The Brazilians came up with the idea of building the biggest stadium in the world, a 200,000 seater Maracana Stadium at Rio, but the fare was said to be poor.

The Eastern bloc stayed away as were leading outfits like Argentina, Austria, Belgium. Even minnows such as Burma, India and Peru were unwilling. Strangely enough, France turned down a FIFA invitation as did Portugal. So a 13-country format, ill-conceived and lop-sided, with only two teams, Bolivia and Uruguay, in one pool, was accepted. It was first appearance for England, which included such stalwarts as Alf Ramesy, Billy Wright and Stanley Mathews. The Italians refused to fly the distance, nervous and psyched after that air crash on May 4, 1949, when 18 players of Tornio perished in the flight between Lisbon to Turin. Among the dead was star-player Valentino Mazzola. A capacity crowd of 199,854, witnessed the tragedy of Brazil buckling, against Uruguay in the final.

Subsequent editions saw the format regularised at 16 after the qualifiers. Switzerland became the first European venue after the War in 1954. For the first time, the matches were broadcast live, and the event produced as many as 140 goals in 26 matches, at an average of 5.33. Sweden in 1958 won the vote for maintaining strict political neutrality as football was slowly becoming an instrument to settling political scores. Sudan, Egypt and Indonesia refused to play Israel in the qualifiers, but Brazil was magnificent from start to finish. It won all the six matches, tharshing the home team 5-2 in the final.

Ever heard of Carlos Dittborn? He was the brain behind Chile getting the nod in 1962. But what a poignant story his life came to be in the end. A severe earthquake left many wondering whether to persist with Chile as the venue. Tears streaming down his cheeks, he told the FIFA congress, "We must have the World Cup, because we have nothing left." FIFA agreed to his plea but the tragedy was that Carlos Dittborn was not alive to see the World Cup in Santiago. He died at the age of 38. The Chilean authorities painted a huge Poster of Carlos Dittborn over the Santiago Stadium. Here Brazil recorded its back-to-back trophy triumph, under the coaching genius of Aimore Morreira, substituting for the indisposed Vincent Feola.

Portrayed as the most violent competition in which Pele was injured in the first match, this edition was infamous for the off field happenings involving Spain's maestro, de Staffano, and coach, Hellanico Herreira, who never gave a game to the former. A statistical survey of injuries shows that as many as 25 were put on the list and after the event almost 12 had to be escorted or wheelchaired to the airports.

It was in Chile that the mascot, a 17-year-old Molina Gonzalez, dropped dead in his room when the news of Uruguay's defeat was conveyed to him. High fever prevented the boy from attending the match. Small wonder, the players pooled their resources to pay for the boy's funeral, and a book on that World Cup by a British author was dedicated to him.

On field violence during this edition prompted an English referee to inventing the cards (yellow and red). Ken Aston, who died on October 23 last year at the age of 86, did an impeccable job in the opening match as referee. He officiated the match between Chile, the host, and Switzerland. Posted for the second as a reward to the good first match report, Aston, witnessed something close to a nightmare, when Italy came to grips with Chile. "I was not reffering a football match, I was acting as an umpire in military manoeuvres," Aston recalled. He used his military experience, as he was the Lieutenant Colonel during World War II with the British forces. Aston sent two Italian players out. The police had to rush into the field three times to quell trouble among the players. Chile won 2-0 as a revenge, to silence some Italian critics who had questioned the morals and looks of Chilean women in their despatches.

After watching the England-Argentina match in 1966, the marching orders for Rattin, and the hint by English newspapers that the Charlton brothers, Jack and Bobby, were also warned, Aston thought something ought to be done. "As I drove down Kensington High Street, the traffic lights turned red. I thought, yellow, ' take it easy ' and red stop, "you are off." The FIFA accepted the idea, and the cards came into use four years later, in 1970 at Mexico. which was not the original choice. Argentina backed out because of financial problems, and it is in Mexico that Brazil claimed the Jules Rimet for the third time to take permanent possession. Sadly, the Trophy, which was stolen and later found by a mongrel, Pickles, in 1966, was lost on December 20, 1983, when thieves broke open the National Football Federation office in Rio and disappeared with the Cup. The gold cup valued at $47,000 was melted and remains untraceable.

It is no exaggeration to state that soccer's golden age, 1950-70 coincides with the incandescent phase of a great career of Pele. He was so much in focus and so much talked and written about, that some others, as good or as gifted, never hit the headlines. His colleagues like Vava and Didi were not so well projected, and only Pele's injury brought the class and calibre of Garrincha in 1962. And Pele sacrificed a chance to underline his sportsmanship in 1970 to allow Jairzinho to score the fourth goal in Mexico. Another memorable occasion in 1970 was when Pele swapped shirt with Bobby Moore after a fantastic league contest. "If Pele had not been born a man, he would have been a ball," commented one Brazilian journalist. Pele himself said once that "I was born for soccer, just as Beethovan was born for music."But, admittedly, no team sport can remain focussed on one individual, however great and gifted he may be. In the golden age there were marvellous men who missed out much because of War. Puskas, de Staffano, Sandor Kocsh, Juste Fontaine, Ademir, Valentin Ivanov, Eusebio, Gerd Muller, to name a few, were magnificent in their own right and need a place in the Hall of Fame. It must also be mentioned that two players, Erik Nilson (Sweden) and Alfred Bickel (Switzerland) played in the last pre-War and first post-War World Cups, and four had donned the colours of two nations in the golden age. Luis Minti played for Argentina in 1930 and for Italy in 1934, Puskas for Hungary in 1954 and for Spain in 1962, Jose Santamaria for Uruguay in 1954 and for Spain in 1962, and Altafini for Brazil in 1958 and Italy in 1962.

To define a golden age of anything amounts to shaping logic out of established canons. And that is precisely what the soccer academicians have done in identifying the six editions between 1950-70 as symbolising a golden era. Measured in terms of mirroring individual skills, superhuman efforts, changing trends in technique and tactics, and, above all, the memorable dramatic components that went into the matches in every layer, be it in goal-keeping, defensive play, midfield manoeuvres and sharp attack, there is so much to introspect and grow nostalgic about while recapturing the first six editions of the post-War World Cup. And that is enough to fill the heart of a genuine soccer fan.