Thursday, June 08, 2006

FIFA Frenzy

One day to go. The world expectantly awaits the start of the 18th football World Cup. Hosts Germany kick it off on Friday June 9 with a game in Munich v Costa Rica. Well, most of the world is expectantly awaiting. The US and Canada will be notable exceptions. But for everyone else from Santiago to Sydney and from Dublin to Durban, the biggest sporting event of the year takes place for the next month in Germany.

Football is run under the auspices of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) and it has a larger membership than the UN – 205 in FIFA compared to 191 in the UN. Headquartered in Zürich, it a very powerful international organisation. The current president of FIFA is also Swiss, Sepp Blatter. Blatter is an extremely controversial figure in the game, not least due to his call for women's football to become sexier. Born in the small town of Visp in the south-west canton of Valais, Blatter graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration and Economics from the Faculty of Law at Lausanne University. Working for Longines SA, he was involved in the organisation of the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. He was then hired by FIFA as as Technical Director (1975-1981) and then as General Secretary (1981-1998). He rose to the pinnacle of football administration in 1998 after a bitter election victory over the European federation (UEFA) boss Lennart Johansson. In the internecine struggles of high sports politics, Blatter is seen to owe his power to the Asia and African bloc of countries. He was instrumental in getting South Africa to host the finals in 2010.

FIFA was founded in Paris in 1904. The laws of football had been codified in the 1860s in public school England. Melvyn Bragg chose the Football Book of Laws, written in 1863, as one of his “12 Books That Changed The World.” As a result of the laws, the game saw a explosion of popularity in England, especially in working class areas. It had two advantages over its competitor, rugby: it could be played anywhere and it could be played by anybody, of any build. Factory teams sprang up across Britain as did pub, police and church teams. These games started to attract spectators. And with it the paraphenalia of spectator sports; tickets, turnstiles and telegraphic terminals for recording results. In 1872 England and Scotland played the first international game which ended 0-0. A scoreless outcome was set as a valid result. The same year, the knock-out Football Association (FA) Cup was first contested. Also in that year, English sailors in Le Havre introduced the game to France. The game quickly spread through that country. English travellers, migrants, embassy officials and colonial authorities took the game around the world where it quickly took root. An English professor at Montevideo University formed the first club in Uruguay in 1882 and British railway workers soon formed a second. The number of inter-nation matches increased as football spread and the need emerged for a global governing body. It was thought that this body should be based in Britain to reflect the origins of the game. But the inward looking football associations of the FA and the other three home nations (Scotland, Ireland and Wales) unanimously rejected such a body. Continental Europe decided to go ahead without Britain and FIFA was born in Paris in May 1904. It had an initial membership of seven countries; France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Germany joined up the same year.

Early attempts to form a tournament failed with no interest from Britain in the idea. Despite this, England joined FIFA as early as 1905. The FA organised the Olympic football tournaments in 1908 and 1912. By this time FIFA had gone inter-continental with South Africa, Argentine, Chile and the US joining up. FIFA was moribund during World War I and reconvened in 1919. Britain was not interested in renewing football ties with old enemies and boycotted FIFA until after the World War II. Frenchman Jules Rimet was elected chairman in 1921. He gave the movement new vigour. He was president for 33 years and the organisation expanded to 85 member countries under his watch. FIFA took over the Olympic Games football and ran the events in 1924 and 1928. 60,000 people watched the Uruguay beat Switzerland in the 1924 Olympic final in Paris. Buoyed by this success, Rimet wanted to stage a World Championship event. In 1929, the FIFA congress in Barcelona awarded the inaugural event of 1930 to Uruguay which would be celebrating its 100th anniversary of independence that year.

Unfortunately the 1929 stock market crash had international repercussions and Europe was in the middle of an economic crisis. All but four European countries pulled out as a result. The hosts Uruguay beat neighbours Argentina 4-2 in the first final. Mussolini’s Italy won the rights to host the next tournament in 1934. This was the first tournament to be broadcast by radio. Holders Uruguay returned the snub of 1930 and refused to participate. Italy, with the likely interference of Mussolini with the choice of referees, won on home soil. South America was outraged when the 1938 tournament was again awarded to Europe, this time France. Uruguay and Argentina boycotted again. Italy retained the title they won in 1934.

The tournament resumed after the war with the British nations finally taking part in 1950. It was held in Brazil and the trophy renamed the Jules Rimet Cup in honour of the 25th anniversary of his presidency of FIFA. India had qualified for the first (and only) time ever but withdrew because they were not allowed to play barefoot. England’s long awaited debut was inauspicious, they crashed out in the first round after an ignominious defeat to the part-time USA team 1-0. Uruguay went on to win their second championship beating the hosts in the de facto final 2-1. The attendance for the game is still a world record: 199,854 people in one sporting venue.

1954 was FIFA’s 50th anniversary and they celebrated it by playing the World Cup in its host country, Switzerland. The Marvellous Magyars, Hungary, were unbeaten in four years leading to the final but were shocked 3-2 in the final by West Germany in what became the ‘Miracle of Bern’. The victory gave pride back to a defeated nation and kick-started the German economic recovery of the fifties and sixties. Brazil began its domination of the modern game with victories in the 1958, 1962 and 1970 spearheaded by a young genius called Edson Arantes do Nascimento better known as Pelé. England interrupted the sequence and won their only trophy on home soil in 1966. Germany and Argentina did likewise in 1974 and 1978 respectively. Both sides beat the brilliant Dutch in the final. The Netherlands’ best player in 1974, Johan Cruyff refused to play in Argentina due to the military coup that took place there two years before the tournament. It is likely his attitude cost them the tournament.

The tournament became increasingly globalised and wealthy from the eighties onwards. Television audiences went into the billions. Players and teams were more technically proficient and it became harder for individual brilliance to dominate. 1986 was the last tournament which belonged to one player when Diego Maradona almost single-handedly brought victory to his beloved Argentina. Even Brazil, the samba kings, have succumbed to the trend and won in 1994 and 2002 with much more workmanlike teams than previously. Stars such Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka and Adriano will hoping to lead a more buccaneering Brazil to the title this time round. But Woolly Days is confident that history will ensure that a European team triumphs in their own continent again, possibly hosts Germany in a repeat of their famous final against the Netherlands of 1974.

But whoever wins it, I'll be enjoying it alongside five billion others. For football fans everywhere, this is as good as it gets. And for humanity, this is as inclusive as it gets.

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