The 20th World Cup is upon us. The football World Cup is not only a great festival of sport – it also provides us with a snapshot of the world at the time the tournament takes place, and tells us much about the global political situation.
We can't – even if we’d like to – take politics out of sport, as sport does not exist in a vacuum.
Forty years ago for instance, in 1974, 16 countries participated in the World Cup held in a country (West Germany) which today doesn't officially exist. Two other competing countries – Yugoslavia and East Germany – don't exist either. And the only African country taking part, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was Zaire not too long ago.
Czechoslovakia, beaten finalists in 1934 and 1962, is another country which has disappeared from our maps and from the World Cup. And 1990 was the last time we saw the Soviet Union in World Cup action.
World Cups of a particular era tell us much about the ideologies which were powerful at that time. In the 1930s, World Cups showed fascism and Nazism to be on the march.
The second World Cup, in 1934, was held in Mussolini's Italy – and Il Duce was keen to use it to showcase the achievements of his totalitarian regime. In the semi-finals, Czechoslovakia beat Germany, already under the rule of the Nazis, 3-1; less than five years later, Nazi troops marched into Prague. In the final of the 1934 tournament, Italy faced the Czechs. The home side was confident of victory but trailed 1-0 with just nine minutes to go. Italy equalized and then broke Czech hearts in extra time – and a fascist country celebrated World Cup success. Just two years later, Nazi Germany hosted the Olympic Games. If you liked sport in the 30s but didn’t much like Nazis, there wasn’t much escape for you – even the England team raised their right arms when they played in Berlin in 1938.
By the time the 1938 World Cup took place in France, fascism and Nazism hadn't just confined their advances to football. Pro-democracy forces in Spain were pitted against General Franco, backed by Italy and Germany. Italy had invaded Abyssinia. Austria, which had reached the semi-finals in 1934, had been annexed by Germany and could no longer take part.
In the quarter-finals of the 1938 tournament, the Italians gave fascist salutes before they played the hosts, who they beat 3-1. In the final, Italy beat Hungary 4-2 to win their second successive World Cup.
One year later, aggressive Nazi foreign policy had plunged the world into war. The 1942 and 1946 World Cups never happened. In 1950, when the World Cup returned, ‘Germany’ no longer existed.The country had been divided into east and west, but neither participated in Brazil.
The United States created a massive shock by beating England 1-0 when playing in the World Cup for the first time. It could be regarded as a symbolic victory, given British war debt and the new subservient role to the US which lay in store. Some British newspapers, believing the scoreline to have been a typing mistake, put the score down as 10-1 England.
In 1954, Hungary played in their second final, this time against West Germany, playing in their first World Cup. It was the first time a communist nation had reached the World Cup final – and the 'Magical Magyars,' regarded by many shrewd judges as the greatest football team of all time – were red hot favorites. They only lost one match in over five years – yet sadly for Ferenc Puskas and his talented teammates, it was the 1954 World Cup final. The Hungarians lost 3-2 and many felt they had been robbed. They had an equalizing goal controversially ruled out for offside, while many years later it was confirmed that the German players had used performing enhancing drugs and that syringes had been found in their dressing room.
Eight years later another communist nation, Czechoslovakia, reached a World Cup final but they too were defeated.
In 1966, England won for the first time – and so far the only time. The feel-good factor in England in ‘66 was genuine. There was an ‘old’ Labour government which governed in the interests of the majority; living standards were rising, social mobility was high, and four young men from Liverpool –the Beatles – were enjoying international success. In 1966, England peaked in many ways – and not just on the football pitch.
Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a keen football man and was happy to associate himself with England’s historic victory. But while politics impacted on sport, did sport impact on politics in the run-up to the 1970 British general election? Wilson and Labour were widely fancied to be returned to power, but in the end suffered a shock defeat to the Conservatives. Some blamed England’s dramatic 3-2 defeat to West Germany (they had been 2-0 up with just over 20 minutes to go) in the World Cup just four days before polling day.
England goalkeeper Peter Bonetti had made the mistakes, but we could say that Harold Wilson paid the political penalty.
That same 1970 World Cup saw the one and only appearance of Israel in the finals – 22 years after the Jewish state came into existence. They didn’t win a match and exited at the first group stage.
One thing that strikes you when looking back at World Cups of the post-war period was the strong showing of a number of teams from communist eastern Europe.
In 1974, four of the 16 participants were European communist countries. Poland beat Brazil to finish third – a position they filled again in 1982.
In 1974, East Germany actually beat West Germany, but the West did go on to win the competition; their defeat to their neighbors had the advantage of them avoiding the brilliant Dutch team in the next group stage.
Nowadays some famous names from Eastern European are noticeable by their absence and many have slipped spectacularly down the world rankings. Poland, who came so close to glory in 1974, is now ranked 69th in the world. Hungary, a country with such a proud World Cup pedigree, hasn't appeared in the World Cup finals since 1986.
Undoubtedly the political changes of the late 1980s – and the withdrawal of the high level of state support for football and other sports which existed under communism – has affected the fortunes of Eastern European teams.
In 1978, the World Cup was held in Argentina, then ruled by a fascistic military junta which introduced neo-liberal economic reforms and waged war on the working class. Up to 30,000 opponents of the regime were ‘disappeared’ in the ’Dirty War’ but there was no boycott of the event. Was it because Argentina was then a strong US ally? In 1978, Iran also took part. It was still the Iran of the Shah – a Western ally which was receiving help from the US and Western Europe with its nuclear program. In 2014, Iran is in the World Cup again, but this time the US is trying to stop its nuclear program.
The 1978 World Cup still had only 16 countries – with only one participant from Africa and one from Asia. Today’s World Cup is much more of a genuinely global event, with 32 countries – including five teams from Africa, three from Asia, plus Australia.
The advancement of teams from Asia and Africa is also a sign of how power is shifting in the world. Teams that weren’t even competing in World Cups forty years ago are now capable of reaching the latter stages of the tournament. In 2002, the World Cup was held in Asia for the first time and co-host South Korea reached the semi-finals.
The World Cups of the 90s and noughties also demonstrated a fast changing world. The Soviet Union, semi-finalists in 1966, made its last appearance in 1990, as did Czechoslovakia. Russia made its first appearance in 1994. In 1998, Yugoslavia appeared for the last time, Croatia for the first.
Demonstrating the political changes in the Balkans, during a period of twelve years, Serbs had three differently named teams to support in the World Cup: Yugoslavia in 1998, Serbia and Montenegro in 2006, and Serbia in 2010. In 2010, only the hand of Uruguay’s Luis Suarez prevented Ghana – the first sub-Saharan nation to declare independence from colonization in the post-war period – from becoming the first African nation to reach the last four of the World Cup.
What, I wonder, will the World Cup of 2014 tell the people living thirty or forty years from now, about the world of today? Will people look back and be shocked about how money-orientated sport was in 2014? How commercialized football – the people's game – has become, and how much the very top footballers and coaches were paid?
If an era of greater social justice and egalitarianism is on its way, I’m sure they will be.
Which countries, I wonder, who are now competing, will have disappeared from the map – to join the likes of Czechoslovakia, East and West Germany, Yugoslavia? Or could we, in the years ahead, see a return of multinational federations – like the late, lamented Yugoslavia?
Will the shift of wealth from West to East mean that we will see an Asian winner of the World Cup, or will the traditional South American/European footballing powers retain their supremacy? And which new countries will we see making their World Cup finals debut?
If we could see it now, the line-up of countries competing in the 2054 World Cup finals would be very revealing.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.