Magazine: Ten moments that shaped football
From wars to wages, football writer Sam Pilger tells the story of the modern game.
1. Guardians and governors
The birth of the World Cup, 1930
Last summer, an estimated global audience of more than three billion watched 32 nations contest the 20th World Cup finals.
Eighty-four years ago the world’s most popular sporting event had a more modest start in Uruguay, with just 13 nations in attendance and no live audience for the games beyond the stadiums.
Football’s global governing body, FIFA, was formed in May 1904 with the intention of creating a world championships, but a series of political squabbles, notably the disinterest of the English and their Football Association, repeatedly delayed its launch.
The English, who believed they were the rightful guardians of the game, having founded their own governing body in 1863, initially refused to help establish FIFA and – along with the other British nations – withdrew from the body in 1919 and again in 1928.
The rest of Europe decided to leave the British behind, and along with South American nations, agreed to stage the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930.
Four teams from Europe – France, Belgium, Yugoslavia and Romania – made the two-week voyage by sea to Uruguay, requiring their players to take two months off from work in order to participate in the tournament.
In total, 13 teams contested the finals with – for the only time – all games being played in just one city, Montevideo.
In front of a crowd of 93,000 at the newly built Estadio Centenario the hosts Uruguay beat Argentina 4-2 in the final to become football’s first-ever world champions.
2. Wolverhampton Wanderers: Inspiring Europe
Sowing the seeds of the Champions League, 1955
When the English side Wolverhampton Wanderers beat the renowned Hungarians Honved in a friendly in December 1954, their manager Stan Cullis hailed his side as “the champions of the world”.
Three days later, the French sports newspaper L’Equipe challenged this assumption in an article by their football editor Gabriel Hanot.
“We must wait for Wolves to visit Budapest and Moscow before we proclaim their invincibility. There are other clubs of international prowess, like Milan and Real Madrid. There is a strong case for starting a European championship for clubs.”
After calling for the creation of a European Cup, Hanot and his colleagues at L’Equipe decided to put their words into action.
In April 1955, they convened a meeting of 18 clubs in Paris to decide the format for the new competition.
It would be a knockout tournament consisting of home and away games with aggregate scores climaxing in a final – and it would begin at the start of the 1955-1956 season.
L’Equipe agreed to hand over organisation of the tournament to the infant UEFA, which had been formed in June 1954 to give Europe its own voice and governing body.
On September 4, 1955, the European Cup began when Sporting Lisbon met Partizan Belgrade in the Portuguese capital, and climaxed nine months later with Real Madrid lifting the trophy for the first time.
Nearly 60 years later – and now known as the Champions League – it has evolved into the biggest club tournament in the world.
3. From tragedy to triumph
The Manchester United story, 1958-1968
In 2012, Manchester United declared that it was the most popular football club in the world, with an estimated six-hundred-and-fifty-nine million fans.
Many of those will have been attracted by the club’s more recent success, but the foundations of its popularity were laid more than 50 years ago amid a story of incredible tragedy and triumph.
A year after the European Cup was launched, United and its pioneering manager Sir Matt Busby became the first English side to enter the fledgling competition as league champions.
Fondly known as the Busby Babes, United’s team consisted of mostly home-grown young players, including Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Roger Byrne and Eddie Colman.
The following season United reached the European Cup again as league champions, and in February 1958, while flying home from winning a quarter-final tie in Yugoslavia, their plane stopped in Munich, Germany.
After refuelling and amid heavy snow and ice the plane carrying the United squad crashed on take-off at the end of the runway.
Twenty-three people died, including eight United players. The loss of so many of the adored Busby Babes created a well of sympathy that continues to sustain the club today.
As Bobby Charlton, who survived the crash, has said: “Before Munich it was just Manchester’s club, but afterwards everyone owned a little bit of it.” His fellow survivor Bill Foulkes believes “the crash started the legend … it built the aura that surrounds the club.”
Busby himself was given the last rites in a Munich hospital, but after several months returned to Manchester to rebuild his side.
He struggled in the early years, but 10 years later, in May 1968, United finally reached the European Cup final where they beat the Portuguese side Benfica 4-1 at Wembley Stadium to become the first English champions of Europe.
“The moment we won the cup it cleansed me,” Busby once recalled. “It eased my pain of guilt of going in to Europe …. It was the greatest night of my life.”
One of United’s greatest-ever strikers Denis Law missed the final through injury, but has reflected on the club’s journey: “Having picked up the shattered pieces of their immediate past, United were out in front of the parade again and following their destiny. That is history, a fairy story if you like.”
4.The football war
Honduras vs. El Salvador, 1969
On July 14, 1969, El Salvador declared war on Honduras just 16 days after the neighbouring nations had played out three bitter World Cup qualifying games.
After around 100 hours of fighting, 6,000 people had been killed or injured, and more than 300,000 people had been displaced.
Sharing a border meant there had long been tension between the two Central American nations over land rights, trade and migration.
By the late 1960s, at least a quarter of a million El Salvadorians were inside Honduras looking for work and a new life, but a set of land reforms meant many of them were ill-treated and expelled.
It was against this backdrop that the two countries faced each other in the semi-finals of the CONCACAF qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
The first leg was held in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, on June 8, 1969, and finished in a 1-0 win for the home team.
An El Salvadorian woman, Amelia Bolanos, was so distraught at witnessing her country lose that she shot herself, instantly becoming a national martyr. Her funeral was attended by the entire El Salvador team and the country’s president.
Tensions were, naturally, even greater ahead of the second leg. El Salvador’s fans intimidated the Honduras team at their hotel, and then, in place of the Honduras national flag, a dirty dishrag was raised in the stadium.
Unsurprisingly, El Salvador won the game 3-0. “We’re awfully lucky that we lost otherwise we wouldn’t be alive today,” exclaimed the Honduras coach Mario Griffin.
As each team had won a leg of the semi-final a third game was required. It was held in neutral Mexico City, and amid a heavy security operation El Salvador finally won the tie 3-2.
But the tensions and bitterness stirred up by the three games led to El Salvador’s air force bombing the Honduran capital on July 14, triggering a bloody and costly four-day war.
5. The day the fans never returned
The Hillsborough disaster, 1989
Twenty-five years ago, 96 Liverpool fans went to the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough and never returned.
They were crushed to death on the terraces in the biggest tragedy to ever occur inside an English football stadium.
I was nearly 15 years old and can remember the chill that took hold of me as the news began filtering through that afternoon.
In the 1980s we had all experienced crushes, and knew the events at Hillsborough could have happened to the supporters of any team.
Back then, English football was a very different place to today’s pristine and largely safe Premier League grounds. The game was blighted by hooliganism, and played in decrepit and dangerous stadiums where fans were treated like caged animals.
Hillsborough did not even have a valid safety certificate and yet the Football Association still allowed the game to be played there.
On that afternoon at the Leppings Lane end of the ground, thousands of Liverpool fans were outside trying to gain entrance before kick-off when the police opened up a set of gates which led directly to an already crowded central section of the terraces.
This caused a horrific crush, with no option of escape onto the pitch as the terraces were enclosed by a spiked fence.
The game was stopped after six minutes as the full scale of the tragedy became apparent, and fans began to use advertising hoardings as makeshift stretchers to carry the dead and wounded.
The following year, the Taylor report, commissioned by the British government, recommended that all top-flight stadiums should become all-seaters and that perimeter fencing should be removed.
English football would finally begin to emerge from the dark ages.
6. The goal that cost a life
The shooting of Andres Escobar, 1994
Colombia arrived at the 1994 World Cup finals in the US weighed down by an unusually large sense of expectation.
For the first time ever they believed they could win the tournament.
Even Pele famously declared that the Colombians could become world champions after brushing aside Argentina 5-0 in the qualifiers and losing only once in their previous 26 games.
It was hoped that success in the US might provide some respite from the violent drug wars and chaos dividing the country at the time. But all the pressure and expectation proved too much and Colombia meekly lost their opening game to Romania 3-1.
“That marked the beginning of a psychological crisis for which the team wasn’t prepared,” journalist Cesa Mauricio Velásquez told The Guardian newspaper. “Many gamblers lost big money and there appeared a sort of ‘dark hand’ that was upset with the team’s performance.”
In Colombia’s next game, their captain Andres Escobar scored an own goal in a 2-1 defeat to the USA. It would cost him his life.
Colombia won their final group game 2-0 against Switzerland, but it wasn’t enough and they were knocked out early.
Back at home in Medellin, the epicentre of Colombia’s drug wars, Andres Escobar knew he would be a target. He was advised to stay home on the evening of July 2, but decided to go out.
At a nightclub he got into an argument with a group who abused him about the goal. A fight broke out in the car park and Escobar was fatally shot six times in the back.
In the days following his death more than 100,000 people filed past Escobar’s casket.
7. Player power
The Bosman ruling, 1995
A little-known Belgian footballer changed the football landscape forever when he challenged his team’s refusal to sell him.
In 1990, Jean Marc Bosman’s contract had expired at Belgian second division side RFC Liege and he wished to move to the French club Dunkerque. But, unable to agree a transfer fee, the Belgian club prevented him from leaving.
Bosman took his case to the European Court of Justice and, after a long battle, it declared in December 1995 that players in the European Union were allowed to move freely when their contracts expired – meaning that, in such circumstances, clubs could no longer demand a transfer fee.
The Bosman ruling also prevented UEFA and domestic leagues from imposing a quota on the number of players from the European Union allowed in teams.
The ruling essentially shifted power from the clubs to the players, and its impact continues to shape the game today, fuelling the astronomical rise in footballers’ salaries. Those approaching the end of their contracts are empowered to make ever-greater demands of clubs looking to sign them, who no longer need to pay a transfer fee, while teams looking to retain players are forced to constantly improve their contracts rather than risk them leaving for nothing.
8. Defeating prejudice
France wins the World Cup, 1998
On the eve of France hosting the 1998 World Cup finals, the then leader of the country’s far-right National Front Party Jean-Marie Le Pen openly criticisised the ethnic make-up of the French side.
Le Pen complained that it was “Black, Blanc, Beur” (Black, White, Arab), and did not look “French” enough. He also criticised the players for not singing the national anthem, The Marseillaise.
As a subtle but pointed protest at Le Pen, the French players linked arms to sing the national anthem before their opening game against South Africa.
During the tournament, the French team, which boasted players from as many as eight different national backgrounds, including Algeria, Guadeloupe, Senegal and Ghana, became a symbol of a new progressive and multicultural country.
This sense of unity and purpose drove France to the final against Brazil at Stade de France in Paris, which they won 3-0 with two goals from Zinedine Zidane and one from Emmanuel Petit.
It was France’s first-ever World Cup win, but it was also a victory over prejudice and a demonstration of the power of sport.
More than two million people flooded onto the streets around Paris’ Champs Elysees to celebrate – the most since the country was liberated from the Nazis during the Second World War.
Thierry Henry, who was 20 years old at the time, recalled an elderly woman thanking him for giving France much more than just a World Cup win.
“That’s when I realised how powerful sport is,” he said, “even if I didn’t completely understand it.”
9. The final frontier
The US wins the women’s World Cup, 1999
The US has always been seen as football’s final frontier – the one country that hasn’t yet been conquered by the game. But if that is true for the men’s game, the same cannot be said for the women’s – for football is already the country’s most popular sport for women.
Much of this popularity can be traced back to the US winning the women’s World Cup as hosts in 1999.
The final against China was played in front of a crowd of 90,185 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and watched on television screens across the country by more than 40 million people. This remains the most watched football game in the US; no men’s match comes close.
The game finished goalless after normal time, but the US won 5-4 on penalties with Brandi Chastian scoring the decisive fifth penalty.
After she scored she famously whipped off her shirt to reveal her sports bra and sunk to her knees in celebration.
“It was just ecstasy. It was joy. It was satisfaction. It was relief. It was exhaustion,” Chastian recalled. “It was awesome. I thought ‘my God, this is the greatest moment of my life on the soccer field’.”
This iconic image of Chastian fuelled the rise of the women’s game, and today the members of that squad are still feted as heroes.
10. Building the ultimate brand
The David Beckham phenomenon
In the autumn of 1996, I interviewed a shy and quiet young footballer called David Beckham in a Manchester restaurant.
He was in the first flush of fame, having recently made his England debut and scoring from the halfway line for his club, Manchester United. It was clear he was enjoying the resulting attention.
Beckham would soon become a sporting and cultural icon with unprecedented global fame. And while he was never the best player in the world, he did become the most famous.
As his mentor and manager at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson, said, Beckham “made it his mission to be known outside the game”.
As a footballer Beckham could never be compared to Pele, Diego Maradona, George Best, or today’s greats Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but his achievements still deserve respect.
He won 115 England caps, a record for an outfield player, captained his country for six years and appeared at three World Cup finals.
With his clubs, he won six Premier League titles, two FA Cups and a Champions League at Manchester United, as well as a domestic title at Real Madrid, LA Galaxy and Paris Saint Germain.
However, Beckham’s greatest skill was turning himself into a highly lucrative brand by endorsing a long list of products and causes.
He tapped into society’s increasing fascination with celebrity and was revered for his glamour, style, wealth and marriage to Victoria.
At the end of his career he was earning an estimated $46.8m every year, but only a tiny fraction of that, around five percent, was from his wages as a footballer. He had become the ultimate brand.
This article first appeared in the Al Jazeera Magazine. Download the magazine for iPads and iPhones here and for Android devices here.