No fairplay

Published : Jun 10, 2010 00:00 IST

As much as sport would like to regard itself as an insulated bubble, the insidious influence that events outside the cloister exert on the happenings on the field, lend to the spectacle an especial case of vanity, of transposed glory and delayed reparations. Over to Raakesh Natraj.

When Geoff Hurst's shot crashed down off the cross bar, the setting could not have been grander, the stakes higher nor the timing more critical. It was the final of the 1966 edition at Wembley, with a crowd of 93,000 turning up to watch the first encounter between England and West Germany post World War II. With the sides locked at 2-2 at the end of regulation time, Hurst, in the tenth minute of extra-time controlled Alan Ball's cross from the right and thumped the ball goalwards, only for it to bounce down off the underside of the bar. The apocryphal story goes that the Soviet linesman Tofik Bakhramov, who ruled that the ball indeed crossed the line, explained the decision on his deathbed thus: “Stalingrad”.

England scored another goal — Hurst's third — to lift its first and only World Cup, but the garb of villainy rests uneasily on the English shoulders for the striker can hardly be held to blame for appealing. That goal-line decision is contested as fiercely almost half a century hence, and replays of the incident have proved inevitably inconclusive, absolving the goal of conspiracy, but not debate.

As much as sport would like to regard itself as an insulated bubble, the insidious influence that events outside the cloister exert on the happenings on the field, lend to the spectacle an especial case of vanity, of transposed glory and delayed reparations. What transpired at Wembley in '66 was not the first occasion of clouds of nationalism glowering over a match, transfusing it with belligerence. The acrimony and incredulity that greeted Maradona's “Hand of God” in the quarterfinal of the '86 edition against England, had its seeds in the bitter encounter between the two teams in '66, and perhaps the Falkland Wars (Maradona in his autobiography measured his first goal to ‘stealing the wallet of the English' and that ‘it was as if we had beaten a country, not just a football team.').

A Geoff Hurst strike (which Argentines claimed was from an off-side position) and the sending off of the Argentine skipper Antoni Rattin in '66 had the South Americans seething. It was the turn of the its European rival to feel done in two decades later as a combination of the “Hand of God” and the “Goal of the Century” sent them packing. Maradona's cheek (“I was waiting for my teammates to embrace me, and no one came... I told them, ‘Come hug me, or the referee isn't going to allow it'.”) did little to ease the slight, but the mastery he displayed for his second probably did. Then again, it didn't. England manager Bobby Robson referred to the travesty as “the Hand of a Rascal.”

A few instances, such as the “Battle of Santiago” between Italy and Chile in '62 or West Germany's farcical 1-0 win against Austria in '82, were instrumental in changes in the rule book. The former was the site of one of the most crimson battles on the football field where punches, round-house hooks and kicks to the face were so numerous in their occurrence that referee Ken Aston, who went on to devise the yellow card, could not book all the offenders simply because there would be no one left to play the game. In '82, Germany and Austria would play out a convenient 1-0 verdict that ensured progress for both teams at the expense of Algeria. Watching Spaniards and Algerians (who waved banknotes at the players) hollered for the ejection of both teams from the World Cup. All group matches on the last day were subsequently played at the same time.

Own goals are often cause for much bemusement, but when Columbia took on hosts USA in the '94 edition, the offence ended in a terrible tragedy. Andrés Escobar's desperate lunge to keep a cross from finding the target inside the box ended up in his own net, and the ensuing loss eliminated Columbia from the tournament in the group stages. Ten days after the incident Escobar was gunned down outside a bar in a Medellín suburb, with the assailant screaming “Goal” in a tone imitative of South American commentators, before pumping in each of the twelve bullets. The murder is believed to have been commissioned by drug lords who lost a lot of money when Columbia failed to progress to the knock-out stage. The shocking incident was in many ways a precursor, an alarmingly portentous pointer to the bed of corruption, money, drugs and gambling that the game was increasingly rooting into.

Co-host South Korea was 150-1 underdog at the beginning of the tournament in 2002. Managed by Guus Hiddink, the millions that followed the event did not expect unheralded South Korea to roll over and die, but what transpired over the course of the tournament could hardly be attributed to shrewd tactics or inspired play. Over the course of three matches against Portugal, Italy and Spain, the hosts benefited from as many as five strikes (two of which were golden goals) being disallowed, three opposition players being sent-off and one chancy penalty awarded in its favour. Germany finally put an end to South Korea's run, but nobody really felt the rush of pride and sympathy one associates with the unexpected rise and heart-breaking fall of an underdog. Sepp Blatter's suggestion that the selection of less than able referees just to ensure a reasonable geographic spread did not really cut it with most.

The list certainly does not stop here. Maradonna's shameful exit in '94 after tests revealed the intake of the steroid ephedrine, Zidane's infamous head-butt or Graham Poll booking Croatian Josip Simunic thrice in '06 , Brazilian Ronaldo's seizure on the eve of the final in '98 and Mario Zagallo's decision to start with him in the 3-0 drubbing at the hands of France ensured that these editions too weren't without discontents.

Is it the temporary abeyance of sporting rules that causes barely concealed tribal loyalties to boil over, or is it the tantalising hint of conspiracy veiling the events that at once attracts and repels people, playing as it does to its sense of the epic, the grotesque and the extraordinary? The deepened feeling of righteous anguish, the dashing of million dreams by something as whimsical as luck or ineptitude, the notoriety and the great falls all go into the making of the World Cup legend, as much as anything else.

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