Down memory lane

The 19th World Cup is just round the corner. Every edition of the previous 18 cups has had its moments to remember. The first part — covering the period from 1930 to 1958 — of the series by Ayon Sengupta.

1930

Uruguay hosted the first ever FIFA World Cup and despite its small frame (only 13 participating teams) the tournament had enough ammunition to announce its entrance to the sports landscape. Uruguay was celebrating its independence centenary, but most teams from Europe decided to give the competition a miss due to the long, laborious and expensive sea journey.

Tournament favourite, host and defending Olympic champion Uruguay played neighbour Argentina in a volatile final at the newly constructed Estadio Centenario in Montevideo on July 30. As emotions ran high around the La Plata Basin, dispelling any uncertainty as to whether the tournament had captured the imagination of the public, the host secured a controversial 4-2 victory. That at least secured the life of Belgian referee Jean Langenus who had reluctantly agreed to officiate in the match only hours before kick-off after a boat was kept handy for him at a nearby harbour in case of any eventuality. The final also saw the use of two different balls in each half as the teams failed to agree over the choice of the match-ball. The first half was played with a ball brought by the visitor while Uruguay had its pick for the second session.

Despite such absurdities in the final the glorifying moment of the first championship had to be the first goal of the tournament scored by Frenchman Lucien Laurent in his team's 4-1 win over Mexico. Recalling that moment of history, Laurent says: “We were playing Mexico and it was snowing, since it was winter in the southern hemisphere. One of my team-mates centred the ball and I followed its path carefully, taking it on the volley with my right foot. Everyone was pleased but we didn't all roll around on the ground — nobody realised that history was being made. A quick handshake and we got on with the game. And no bonus either; we were all amateurs in those days, right to the end.”

1934

The bane of fascism had descended upon Europe and Italy's Benito Mussolini saw a great opportunity in holding the second edition of the football World Cup in 1934 to promote his regime. 3.5 million Lire was earmarked by his government for the sporting spectacle and no stone was left unturned to ensure a home victory. Coach Vittorio Pozzo was sent to England to study tactics, as players were bought from outside to achieve the dictator's goal. A host of Argentines — Raimundo Orsi, Enrico Guatia, Luisito Monti and Atilio DeMaria — of Italian descent were lured to play for the host with promises of rich rewards and they formed the backbone of this Italian side led by legendary goalkeeper Giampiero Combi.

Such was Mussolini's desire to showcase his country's strengths, that he even had an additional trophy commissioned — the Coppa Del Duce — which dwarfed the real one.

Italy met the other tournament favourite, Czechoslovakia, led by another outstanding 'keeper Franticek Planicka in the final and as Mussolini presided over the Stadium of the National Fascist Party in Rome, pressure was on the host to deliver. Sending his message loud and clear, the dictator sent a personal note to the team to “win or die”, and another to coach Pozzo that read “May God help you if you do not win”. Swedish referee Ivan Eklind, too, was invited to dinner and rampant allegations of corruption came to the fore after the game. Eklind was blamed for cheating the Czechs of a legitimate penalty and also on being too lenient on the foul-happy home players.

The match, nevertheless, pitting the elegant Czechs and the tactical Italians reached epic proportions. With no goals separating the teams even near the half-way mark in the second half and the Italian public and more importantly the ruler getting increasingly agitated, the Czechs finally surged ahead 25 minutes from time, courtesy its nimble-footed forward, Antonin Puc.

The goal, or perhaps the fear of Mussolini, galvanised the Italians and Orsi equalised from a brilliant individual effort. Orsi, after receiving the ball, turned quickly inside the box, dodged a defender and scored with an outstanding shot, but failed to repeat his feat the following day as he was asked to relive the moment in front of the Press. The physically strong Italians took charge from there on and five minutes into extra-time Angelo Schiavio scored the winner.

1938

Casanova Guiseppe Meazza lost his shorts but still Italy managed to defend its title and shrug off the corruption charges that marred its win four years back.

With war clouds hovering over Europe, the 1938 championship was awarded to France and only 15 teams competed after Austria pulled out in the last minute following its annexation by Germany. Italy downed Hungary 4-2 in a hard-fought final. Meazza, one of the most popular footballers in Europe, playing for Inter Milan at that point, provided one of the most hilarious Cup moments during the semifinal against Brazil.

Italy was awarded a penalty after Silvio Piola was chopped down in the box by Brazilian Domingos da Guia. Brazilian goalkeeper Walter, celebrated back home for hypnotising rival forwards, arrogantly claimed his superiority. Meazza made no fuss and stepped in to take the kick and with all eyes on the duo, theatrically the forward's shorts fell down to his knees supposedly due to the elastic waist band being pulled and stretched earlier by a defender. (But many fans still believe it was part of the striker's ploy in the lead up to the kick.) Without unduly getting affected by such travesty, Meazza pulled up his shorts with one hand and shot past the confused Walter, who was still busy laughing. Meazza's team-mates joined in the celebrations and a new pair of shorts was duly produced. The goal sent Italy to its second consecutive World Cup final.

Earlier, in the first-round, Brazilian forward Leonidas had struck a hat-trick as the South American side triumphed 6-5 after extra-time over Poland. But one must spare a thought for Poland's Ernest Wilimowski as he became the first man to net four goals in a World Cup match but still finished on the losing side.

But for Leonidas the tournament was far from over and the ‘Rubber Man', as he was known in Brazil for his acrobatic skills, ended up as the top-scorer with seven strikes. Surprisingly, he was kept out of the semifinal clash against Italy, which Brazil lost and had to settle for the third spot.

World War II forced a break on the World Cup till 1950 and Italy remained the world champion till then, for a record 16-year stretch.

The Jules Rimet trophy itself was saved from falling into the hands of the occupying Allied armies as the Italian Vice-President of FIFA, Ottorino Barassi, kept it hidden in a shoe-box below his bed during the war period.

1950

The newly built Maracana and its 200,000 noisy spectators were all geared up to rejoice Brazil's first World Cup triumph in 1950. But as always there was a twist to the tale. It was smooth sailing for the home team in the final against Uruguay as Friaca put Brazil, playing in white, ahead. But Juan Schiaffino found an unlikely equaliser for the visitor and 11 minutes from time Alcides Ghiggia turned the Brazilians' joy to despair, scoring what turned out to be the winner. So upset was the host that it forgot to give Uruguay the trophy and the crowd sat in a silence too difficult to bear. The national team refused to wear white ever again.

The brightest spot of the meet, though, was produced by an unknown Haitian Joe Gaetjens, who was drafted into the USA side and played only three internationals. However, his solitary goal pushed out Walter Winterbottom's England, playing in the competition for the first time, following a self-imposed exile from FIFA for 17 years. England which had thrashed a combined European XI 6-1 ahead of the Cup was considered favourite, but went home early after two defeats to USA and Spain. Back in England newspapers thought the result a typing error by the news agencies and changed it to 10-1. The reality was that England — the team included Alf Ramsey, architect of its 1966 triumph — was bound for an embarrassingly early exit as the game's founder had arrived ill-prepared and over-confident for such a high profile competition.

1954

It's difficult to decide whether one would remember the 1954 World Cup finals for the “Galloping Major” Ferenc Puskas and his indomitable Hungarian side, its heartbreaking loss in the final to West Germany or for the bloodthirsty brawl the team was involved in during its quarterfinal match against Brazil.

The ‘Magical Magyars' from Hungary led by the legendary Puskas was almost unstoppable, coming to the Cup after taking England to the cleaners at Wembley. Brazil, still fretting over its Uruguayan heartbreak four years back at home was also a force to reckon with and had a genuine chance of becoming the first South American team to win the competition in Europe. The two sides met in Berne, but the beautiful game soon descended into a violent farce.

Now called the “Battle of Berne”, the game is regarded as the dirtiest match in World Cup history, a day when Brazil opted for brutality over beauty and Hungary was only too happy to join in. The result, a 4-2 victory for Hungary, had become a barely remembered footnote. Hungarian coach Gustav Sebes had to receive four stitches to a facial wound after being struck by a broken bottle in the aftermath.

With the injured Puskas watching from the stands Hungary had gone 2-0 up after 10 minutes, but Djalma Santos pulled one back from a penalty to keep Brazil in contention. But English referee Arthur Ellis' decision to award another spot-kick to the Hungarians, which Lantos duly converted, marked a quick deterioration in the situation. The assembled Brazilian journalists and officials invaded the pitch and were involved in several scuffles with the local police. Niggling fouls and sly punches peppered up the second half, and the match soon went out of control. The final whistle brought little respite as the Brazilians raided and smashed the Hungarian dressing room where anything and everything was used as a weapon.

Referee Ellis bore the brunt of the anger. His car was spat on as he left the stadium, with shouts of “communista” ringing in his ears. The Brazilians lodged a formal protest to FIFA terming the game as a Communist conspiracy to demean them.

“I am convinced, after all these years of reflection, that the infamous Battle of Berne was a battle of politics and religion,” Ellis said later in his 1962 biography. “The politics of the Communist Hungarians and the religion of the Catholic Brazilians.”

One of the mysteries of the match was, however, the precise involvement of Puskas (who is generally projected as the tragic hero of the 1954 competition, who undeservedly lost the final to Germany) in the melee after the final whistle. Reports suggest that the Hungarian maestro smashed a bottle into the face of a Brazilian player in the tunnel, while others vaguely blame a spectator. Puskas had since admitted that he did in fact get hold of a Brazilian player and dragged him into the Hungarian change-room but then decided to let him go.

Keeping with the spirit of Berne, the unanticipated 3-2 victory of West Germany over Hungary was christened the “Miracle of Berne” but was marred with rumours of bad refereeing and doping.

German historian Guido Knopp claimed in a 2004 documentary for a private German television channel that players were injected with shots of Vitamin-C at half-time, using a needle earlier taken from a Soviet sports doctor, which could also explain the wave of jaundice among team members following the grand win.

1958

Brazil's World Cup pedigree when it travelled to Sweden in 1958 was relatively mediocre; but when it returned, the world had been introduced to samba football. The tournament had its moments, there was Just Fontaine's remarkable 13 goals in the competition, minnows like Northern Ireland and Wales making the last eight, but the star of the show was the unknown 17-year-old who saw off Wales in the quarterfinals, scored a hat-trick in the semis and then announced himself to the world with a magical goal against the host in the final.

Brazil had made the final, decimating a semi-decent French side in the semis 5-2 and faced host Sweden there. With players like the flying winger Kurt Hamrin, playmaker Nils Liedholm, veteran striker Gunnar Gren and tough defender Orvar Bergmark, Sweden was no pushover and a close game was expected, especially with the weather turning to be decidedly un-Brazilian.

The host went in with its tail up, playing in front of 50,000 home supporters in Rasunda Stadium and four minutes into the game, a magnificently worked goal by Sweden's “Italian connection” resulted in Liedholm scoring. This was the first time Brazil had gone a goal behind in the competition and there were many who thought that, should this happen, the ball-playing magicians would crumble.

But it only spurred on the Brazilians and the Swedish joy was short-lived when five minutes later, Garrincha beat his marker to cross the ball around the back of the Swedish defence for Vava to draw parity. After half an hour an almost identical goal gave Brazil the lead.

Pele took over in the second half. Ten minutes after the restart he scored a gem when he trapped the ball with his chest, rounded off his man, and volleyed the ball into the net. He added one more in the last minute, when he started the move with a cheeky back-heel to Zagallo and then collected the winger's cross to head home Brazil's fifth.

At the end Pele was in tears but he had already established himself as the brightest star on the scene and asserted Brazil's mastery over the beautiful game.