World Cup Book Review, Part 1: Dictatorship, USA 94, and the greatest upsets

Over the coming weeks, Ian Plenderleith will be reviewing a selection of the more interesting books that have been published ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

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Blood on the Crossbar: the Dictatorship's World Cup  By Rhys Richards (Pitch)
USA 94: The World Cup that Changed the Game  By Matthew Evans (Pitch)
Against All Odds: The Greatest World Cup Upsets, edited by Adam Bushby and Rob MacDonald (Halcyon)

"You don't mix politics and sport. Otherwise, you can't play any match. There's shit everywhere in the world. If you boycott Argentina [1978], you have to boycott Soviet Russia and Bulgaria." Those are the words of Dutch midfielder Johan Neeskens, twice a World Cup runner-up in the 1970s, and very much reflecting the defensive attitude of any player or soccer federation who was asked about the ethics of playing at the 1978 World Cup finals. That was a tournament packed with magical but at times filthy soccer, and also hosted by an unmagical military dictatorship responsible for the torture and deaths of around 30,000 political dissidents.

Despite the brutality of its government, Argentina's triumph did briefly bring the country together. Even in the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA) torture center in Buenos Aires, less than a mile away from the Estadio Monumental where the host nation beat the Netherlands 3-1 in the final. "When Argentina scored, everyone — the oppressors, the oppressed, prisoners and torturers — greeted and looked at each other with happiness," attests former prisoner Adolfo Pérez Ezquivel in Rhys Richards' book Blood on the Crossbar, named after the campaign started by a Dutch cabaret act, Neerlands Hoop, that toured the Netherlands in a bid to get their country to boycott the tournament. Yet the Argentine left-wing guerrilla group Los Montoneros not only declared a ceasefire during the tournament, it opposed a boycott too, "knowing that they would be fighting against the current of patriotism in Argentina." Once the games started, the entire country backed the team, coached paradoxically by a socialist — the gruff, chain-smoking César Luis Menotti.

That's just a small sample of the quotes that form the background to arguably the most controversial World Cup ever staged (1934 in fascist Italy and 2022 in the authoritarian monarchy of Qatar run it close). Richards does an excellent job of tackling the politics of this tournament that Neeskens was so keen to abjure, and of describing the ambivalence of a soccer-possessed nation under the heel of an unconscionable, murderous government, but which at the same time wanted the escape and relief of sport to provide it with some solace and, in the end, glory. It would be a classic of soccer literature if — ironically — it had stuck to politics and stayed away from the action on the field.

It's not that the games, teams and players are not worth writing about. Of course, they are an integral part of this story, but they need to be handled as history, not like they took place this afternoon. So often, books about tournaments feel obliged to describe every goal in detail, like they had not already been transmitted live to millions, immediately transcribed for the record by multiple media, and were not now available to watch at the click of a link. The writing turns from lucid analysis to the style of a tabloid hack working toward a midnight deadline, describing goals "finished with aplomb" and "gleefully despatched," while stadiums are "cauldrons," "pressure cookers" and "bear pits" with a "powder keg atmosphere." The book also contains one of my favorite ever typos, when the Netherlands' Dirk Nanninga succumbs against Germany to "a moment of ill disciple," at the same time demonstrating the perils of using spell-check rather than a professional proof-reader.

However, if you speed-read the game sections (or watch the online highlights instead), there is half of a brilliant book here that not only tackles head-on the political fascination of sport, but which should force us to think once again while we're watching Qatar 2022: what kind of country is fit to host a major sporting event, and who is fit to govern world soccer (spoiler: it's not FIFA)? 7/10

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Another book focused on a single tournament is Matthew Evans' USA 94, which starts by outlining what had changed between the dire Italia 90 and its successor tournament that saw revenues rise across the board, as well as more attacking play on the field. "By offering three points for a win, it was hoped that teams would avoid playing it safe, whilst an adjustment to the offside law put the advantage with the attacker," he writes. "The negative play that marred the 1990 World Cup brought about the biggest change with the back-pass rule, commonplace now but then making its World Cup debut."

There were players' names on jerseys, flashy uniforms even for the referees, and of course everything was taking place in the USA, snobbishly looked down upon around the world as "not a proper football nation." Then the games started, and most of us realized that the modern, well-equipped stadiums were mostly full of fans who were more than invested in the outcome of the games, and that it doesn't necessarily matter where you play the tournament — the markings, the goals, and the rules are still the same. That the USA has its own soccer culture after all, and that the North American Soccer League had not just been a novelty blip, may also have registered with viewers and visitors alike.

I loved the early chapters, which set out the context of the U.S. application to host in 1994 following its failure to land the 1986 tournament (after Colombia pulled out, and a savvy, well-connected Mexico out-muscled the chaotic U.S. bid), and the enthusiasm and massive crowds for soccer at the 1984 Olympics. The packed stadiums in L.A. and the other soccer venues prompted a re-think at FIFA headquarters, where suddenly the thought of bulging coffers highlighted the suitability of the United States for soccer after all, despite it having no coast-to-coast professional league. So much potential. So much cash.

Even after winning the bid to host, the USA suffered setbacks thanks to financial difficulties and the fractious relationship between FIFA and U.S. Soccer Federation President Werner Fricker. Germany lurked in the wings to take over. Then Alan Rothenberg defeated Fricker in the USSF presidential election, and his open and innovative management put the tournament back on course.

Did USA 94 "change the game," as the book's sub-title suggests? Up to a point, no doubt, but the game evolves financially and tactically after every major tournament, and after every adjustment to the "Laws of the Game." The founding of the Premier League, the reform of the Champions League, the expansion of MLS, the introduction of VAR — all have changed and continue to "change the game." Although this book has a lot to recommend it, especially to U.S. readers, it would have been better holding off a couple of years to compare USA 94 with the forthcoming 2026 tournament, and to have dispensed with detailed descriptions of games that entered the public domain the moment they took place (see above). 6/10.

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"Expectations in the USA were so low they could have crawled under a duck," writes Harry Pearson in his essay about the USA-England game at the 1950 World Cup. You all know the score to that game, but that's not the point of the book Against All Odds, focusing on the biggest upsets in World Cup history (declaration of interest — the book's publisher, Halcyon, also put out my latest book). A pool of quality soccer writers — including Tim Vickery, David Winner, Rob Bagchi, James Montague and Raphael Honigstein — focus on games that seriously rattled expectations, and examines their wider context. Anyone fascinated by the background to Argentina 78 in Blood on the Crossbar, for example, will also enjoy Adam Bushby's extensive and entertaining breakdown of the only time West Germany played East Germany, at the 1974 tournament. There's little about the game itself, but a ton of insight into the Cold War and its effect on the lives of players who could no more ignore the political situation than they could ignore traffic while trying to cross a busy road.

It's gratifying to read about games you can remember seeing at the time, but which here are shown in an extensive new light — a bit like buying the deluxe boxed set version of an album you've always loved. A scrappy, stubborn Northern Ireland team beating host Spain in 1982, Scotland's late (too late) blooming against the mighty Netherlands in Argentina, nine-man Cameroon's narrow and very dirty win over Diego Maradona's reigning world champions to kick off Italia 90, and Senegal's more stylish conquering of fading, querulous champion France that opened the Japan/Korea World Cup a dozen years later. Senegal's striker El-Hadji Diouf was playing for French club Lens when the draw was made. "As soon as we saw that France would play Senegal," he says in Philippe Auclair's chapter, "they [his teammates at Lens] all got up and started to make fun of me. That was it, they'd already made up their minds — Senegal stood no chance." If you love a spot of hubris (and who doesn't?), this is the book for you.

Every game has its own story, but some are worth re-visiting for the fact it just doesn't seem credible that, say, the people of Middlesbrough in the industrial northeast of England took the upstart state of communist North Korea to their hearts in 1966, cheering the underdogs on to beat Italy. What on earth was that all about? This book provides the answer, and much more besides. 9/10.

World Cup Book Review, Part 2: Searching for the real Qatar

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