Decoded At Last

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (November 5th 2014)

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Enigma

It is Wednesday night. I have just watched my favourite football club in the world, but strangely I am in a rather melancholic mood. I watched ‘my team’ trounce Amsterdamʼs finest Ajax FC in the ongoing European Champions League. It was a very exciting and very entertaining match. I should be feeling great, yet, I feel empty inside.

The best football player of all time, in my humble estimation, Lionel Messi, scored a brace as usual and equalled Raúl González Blancoʼs European Champions League record of highest number of goals scored by an individual – 71. He achieved that feat in just 90 matches. It took Raúl – 66 goals for Real Madrid and 5 for Schalke – 142 matches to reach that tally. But hot on their heels is Messiʼs contender for best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, trailing by just one goal – albeit from 17 matches more than the mercurial Argentinian.

I should be happy, but, the match against Ajax was revealing. All is not well with FC Barçelona.

The Greatest?

This season they have left most of their fans hungry for the Barçelona of old – the team that won everything in club football in the world. They also contributed the largest number of players to a Spanish national team that won the World Cup in 2010.

In the past 10 years Barçelona have been the team to beat in global club football with unforgettable memories of performances beyond description. In terms of actual performance, for a period of years, the rest of the world was playing catch-up. Without being disrespectful to any one of the other great clubs in Europe and South America, at their best, Barçelona stood alone far and away better than the best the rest of the world had to offer.

The System

The secret to their monumental achievements was a system and football philosophy implanted, nurtured and perfected in the club’s academy – La Masia. It was then brought to fruition as a generation of exceptional players came through that academy, augmented by shrewd purchases along the way. It also required a great coach schooled in Barçelona’s ways. All these ingredients combined at the same time to deliver a sumptuous feast of football.

Personally, it is in the work perfected by coach Pep Guardiola that I started to have a fuller appreciation of how a coach can truly impact a team, how the daily grind of training sessions could transform into a playing style and system that become entrenched as a culture in the performance of a team, and etched into the psyche of their followers. Now I understand and appreciate Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho, and Tihomir Jelisavčić1 – the shamefully neglected architect of Nigeria’s first African Cup of Nations triumph – even better.

Tiki Taka

That was the birth of the phenomenon called Tiki Taka, an intricate ‘dance’ movement like no other with the ball: quick short one-two passes, endless, seamless movements and interchange of positions, back and forth, leaving in their wake a perplexed, bemused and confused opposition struggling to keep pace.

Match after match of the Barcelona brand of football rattled and embarrassed coaches and dazzled the world. Playing some of the ‘weirdest’ and unconventional football imaginable, Barçelona’s midfield tore through opposing teams’ defences like a knife through butter. Never had the world seen such a display and such a team that performs with such elegance and ‘arrogance’, completely dominating every match with effortless running and ball possession. They were a delight to watch and a nightmare to confront.

Deciphering the Code

So, last season, when Barçelona failed to win any silverware many felt it was due more to ‘winning-fatigue’ rather than because Tiki Taka had been finally decoded. Now we know that there was more to it. The football ‘laboratories’ of some of the big clubs in Europe had not been asleep, They had been very busy and on full throttle to find an antidote to the Barça epidemic.

At the same time, in order to stay one step ahead and sustain their invincibility, Barçelona took some steps that may now have backfired. Most significant amongst several of them was the exit of coach Pep Guardiola and the departure to fight a sadly losing battle against cancer of his successor, Tito Vilanova. That resulted in the appointment of a new coach – one not brought up on Barçelona’s philosophy and culture. The Tata Martino experiment failed and Barça returned to a coach brought up the Barça way.

But there were other problems – the ‘reinforcement’ of the Barçelona striking force. Last season the hugely talented Brazilian Neymar Jnr joined Lionel Messi upfront. The combination had not fully clicked before, this season. Now former Ajax and Liverpool FC striker Luis Suárez Díaz has been added to the mix. On paper it may look like a dream striking partnership, but the reality after three matches is that in order to accommodate these new players that are not nurtured on the diet of the Camp Nou style and philosophy, Barçelona’s playing style has had to change.

Laid Bare

Last Wednesday night, against Ajax Amsterdam FC, the ‘new’ FC Barçelona was laid bare. It is nothing like the Barça of old. Gone is the intricate ball possession that defines Tiki Taka. Gone are the endless running, the pressing and the hot pursuits every time the team loses possession. Gone is the creative ingenuity of a team playing without an outright striker but conjuring a whole array of striking and free scoring options from mid-field.

Gone is the team that played with the patience of a vulture, probing, teasing and taunting opponents to pry open even the tightest and hardest defences. Gone is the team that dictates how every match is played, and, even in occasionally losing, usually is the better team.

Slowly but surely, the demystification of FC Barçelona is taking hold. The team has not won any silverware in two seasons and several big European clubs appear now to have their number – Real Madrid, Atlético de Madrid, Bayern Munich. Even Celta Vigo, a team at the bottom rung of La Liga, defeated them last week so tamely and so easily it was hard and painful to watch.

Do not get me wrong. FC Barçelona are not finished. Far from it. After all, they defeated Ajax and barring any disaster will qualify easily for the round of 16 of the Champions League.

Decoded

They have only lost their edge. They have dropped from their place as the best team on the planet and rejoined the league of the great teams in Europe. They no longer stand ‘alone and apart’ at the very top of world football.

It was inevitable that the ‘end’ would come one day, but for many of us it is coming too soon! I still love my Barça, but even I must admit that the end is in sight for the philosophy of football that made FC Barçelona the best team that ever played football – the team that the world stood still and watched every time they stepped out to dance to the beat of Tiki Taka.

For now I can only celebrate in muted anticipation of what would happen next to my beloved club. My Barça have been decoded!

1Jelisavčić coached the Super-Eagles from 1974 until 1978. We won the next edition in 1980, coached by Otto Gloria, but the foundations of that triumph were laid by Jelisavčić.

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Mouthwatering

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (October 24th 2014)

Segun at Wembley

El Classico – Another War

This weekend there is going to be another battle of epic proportions. It will be fought between two of the biggest and most powerful ‘armies’ in the world. The battleground is the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, home of Real Madrid Football Club. The invading ‘army’ is, in my humble estimation, the greatest team ever – Barçelona FC!

Leading Real Madrid and Barçelona are with respect to Zlatan Ibrahimović and others the two greatest footballers of their generation – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. At stake are the crowns of ‘best team in La Liga’ and the ‘best player in the world’. In the past 6 years these players have held the title of the world’s best player in a vice – Messi four times, and Ronaldo twice. 2014 promises to be no different; perhaps it will be the most interesting contest yet as it is far more open than previous contests where one or other seemed the clear winner.

The Battle Lines

This season there appears to be a new edge to the rivalry between the two players. Although they both deny that their rivalry fuels their performances, the truth is that both players have drawn inspiration from each other and have shared the global limelight in almost equal measure because of each other.

Ronaldo, who always seemed to play second fiddle to Messi before the last season, needs to prove a point. Many people believe that although he was brilliant last season for Real Madrid, but in my opinion he won the title of world’s best player more because the world wanted a change from Messi. The mercurial Argentine had monopolized it four consecutive times. Did Ronaldo win because he was clearly better than the little Argentinian, or for changes sake?.

I have watched Ronaldo play this season. He has not been this sharp and focused in a long time. He is playing with a deliberate single-mindedness that convinces me that he has more than just helping Real Madrid FC to win La Liga trophy on his mind. He has ‘Messi must be beaten’ written all over his game.

Messi, on the other hand, has less to prove, but he has shrugged off the rustiness and casual attitude of the World Cup and is playing now with a lot of physicality and uncommon determination. Surely the avalanche of falling records at club, Spanish, European and World levels is propelling him to even greater heights. The list of his established and near-accomplishment records is very long. What must be noted, however, is that between them they have made goal scoring an art form.

Several great players spend a lifetime chasing after recording one hat trick. Ronaldo is about to break an all time La Liga record in that regard. He needs one more hat trick to beat the late great Alfredo di Stéfano and Athletic Bilbao maestro Tello Zarra (Tello Zarraonandia Montoya) – Marcaʼs award for Spanish scorers in La Liga was named after the Athletic Club great. Ronaldo is already in legendary company, three ahead of Messi.

The Supporting Cast?

But tempting as it is to focus on these two great players, El Classico boasts plenty more great players. Gareth Bale is the most expensive footballer on the planet, Karim Benzema is rated by no less an authority than Ronaldo as the best striker in La Liga. Luka Modrić is the cog that makes Real Madrid tick and while finding his feet in a new league Colombian heir apparent James Rodríguez has immense talent and of course thereʼs Sergio Ramos marshalling the defence too. And thatʼs just Real Madrid. Barçelona had a poor season by the their standards last term. It cost current Argentina coach Tata Martino his job. But the Catalans are no one man team. Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta arenʼt just club legends, they are football ones. Neymar is a precocious talent and El Classico is set to witness the La Liga début of former Ajax and Liverpool icon Luis Suárez. Meanwhile another duel with El Classico dimensions to it takes place this weekend too.

Van Gaal versus Mourinho

No roads lead to Rome this weekend and not all roads that will lead to Madrid either. In England Old Trafford is the place Iʼd like to be at as an almost equally important rivalry between two of the BPL’s great teams will be ignited. Manchester United and Chelsea will face off in what promises to be a match up between the coaches – two of the most experienced and renowned football managers in the world – as well as the teams they select.

Louis van Gaal will test his fledging Man U squad against a high riding Chelsea. In this encounter current form would matter little. It is the team that gets its tactics right that will carry the day. Van Gaal is going through a difficult period with his team struggling to find the old rhythm that made Manchester United the most successful team in the history of the Premiership and him one of the most successful coaches around.

Mourinho has donned his armour of confidence and loquacity, and is daring any other team in the premiership to break down his defensive tactics and, at the same time, stop his rampaging forwards. He has been trophyless for two seasons – he doesnʼt like it and seems set to take it out on opponents this season, although he insists that it is far too early to talk about titles. So, this weekend the battle line is drawn between them.

Chaos Theory

It simply would not be Nigerian football if there were no crisis, or at least one around the corner. I truly believed that with the start of the era of Stephen Keshi as manager of the national team Nigeria has seen the last of a foreign coach handling its national team. While Clemens Westerhof was a great success, letʼs not forget the disastrous appointments of Berti Vogts and Lars Lagerbäck, which cast Nigerian football into the doldrums.

We turned to local coaches, eventually settling on Keshi. I thought that Keshi’s generation, with their experiences in Europe and a little training in the coaching techniques, would kick-start the period when only qualified Nigerians would handle Nigeria’s national teams. It should have happened and it still can.

Keshi may have failed in his human relations, and may also have been slightly deficient in some of his tactics, but he surely did better than most of the foreign coaches that Nigeria hired since Westerhof. Success as a coach is measured only with the results of a team. Keshi delivered the African Cup of Nations – the first Nigerian to do so. For that he has our respect and a lasting place of honour in Nigeriaʼs football history.

It would be interesting to see which foreign coach would be hired of all the names being dangled by the media. We are waiting to see, hoping that if it happens it is not Berti Vogts Mark II. Keshi, with all his failings won laurels and went beyond what any coach, local and foreign, had ever done for Nigeria. Of his generation there are a few that could have been challenged to come ‘try their luck’.

Sunday Oliseh is an interesting proposition. His limited experience in handling a big team notwithstanding, his intellect and analytical prowess, which are acknowledged worldwide, should more than be a compensation. Check out several of the best coaches in the world at the moment led by Pep Guardiola, and you would see a trend that swings away from old, retired and tired coaches, local or foreign.

So, a foreign coach? Without great players any coach would ‘fail’. Unfortunately, Nigeria does not have exceptional players in this era. Mark my words: Nigeria would soon be back to square one, looking for an indigenous coach from amongst our own.

Sevilla hope to poop Baleʼs Party

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (August 11th 2014)

Team Spirit

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Unai Emery Etxegoien is not surprised by Gareth Baleʼs success in Spain. The first time the former Valencia coach encountered the mercurial Welshman Sevilla were on the wrong end of a 7-3 drubbing, but Emeryʼs charges got their revenge. Emery concedes that Real Madrid are the favourites for tomorrowʼs UEFA Supercup. “Of course Real Madrid is the favourite, but we believe we can repeat the feat and beat them”, Emery told a pre-match press conference this evening.

He conceded that they had a strategy, but much would depend on whether Carlo Ancelottiʼs side allowed Sevilla to execute it. Newly appointed Sevilla skipper Federico Fazio praised his teamʼs spirit. “We were able to get that team spirit to overcome opponents that were stronger than us”, the Argentine international said. “The way we work we can bring our qualities to bear on the match”.

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The Homecoming

Gareth Baleʼs world record transfer fee hasnʼt fazed the Welshman. Baleʼs homecoming has dominated headlines, but both Bale and his coach Ancelotti expect to see more from him this season. “Itʼs great to be back home, but the most important thing is to win”, Bale said. “Itʼs nice not being new and start the season settled. Itʼs a lot easier having a pre-season than waiting for a transfer to go through”.

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Ancelotti expects an even better season from him than the last. “Gareth last year had made a fantastic season”, Ancelotti said. “This season is different. He knows the team-mates; he knows the club. Iʼm sure he will be better”.

Emery joined in the praise. “He has adapted quickly and itʼs down to his character and personality”, Emery said. “His style and team match and that has been key to his success”. Meanwhile, Ancelotti couldnʼt resist. “I donʼt know if heʼs going to play”, Ancelotti said. “Could be strange if he starts on the bench”.

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Improvements

Despite his wishes to follow compatriot James Rodríguez out of the French Riviera Radamel Falcao looks set to continue his purgatory in the Principality. Meanwhile the 22-year-old assists leader in Ligue Un capitalised on a magnificent World Cup to earn his move to the Bernabeu for £63m. World Cup winner Toni Kroos also made the move to the European Champions.

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I saw really good player with fantastic quality”, Ancelotti said of James Rodríguez. “Of course he can help the team to be better. Rodriguez will start. I think he can play in front on the wings, behind the forward, but he can also play deeper”. Ancelotti confirmed that the prodigiously talented Colombian play-maker and Kroos will start the Supercup at the Cardiff City Stadium tomorrow night.

While both Emery and Ancelotti want to win the UEFA Supercup tomorrow night both know the real business is La Liga.

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Ten Man Belgium Beat South Korea

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 26th 2014)

Comfortable

Despite Marc Wilmots resting key players such as Chelseaʼs and Hong Myung-boʼs team needing nothing less than a convincing win South Korea could not find a way past Wilmotsʼ team even though Belgium were reduced to ten men for more than a half. Australian referee Ben Williams punished Porto midfielder Steven Defourʼs studs up challenge on Kim Shin-wook with a deserved red card after 43 minutes.

Although South Korea had a man advantage for more than a half, they could not find a way past an impressive Thibaut Courtois. Tottenham Hotspurʼs Jan Vertonghen scored the only goal of the match after 76 minutes when he followed up substitute Divock Origi shot. Ulsan Hyundaiʼs goal-keeper Kim Seung-gyu parried Origiʼs shot and Vertonghen knocked in the rebound.

Penalty Claims

The referee came under pressure to award penalties. South Koreaʼs Koo Ja-cheol had a strong penalty claim against Tottenham Hotspurʼs Moussa Dembélé waved away by Williams. Seconds earlier Lee Chung-yong who plays for Bolton Wanderers claimed to have been impeded in the penalty area by Dembélé, but that wasnʼt given either. Replays suggested that the second claim at least had merit.

Before long Belgian appeals were turned away too. Manchester Unitedʼs Adnan Januzaj and Anderlechtʼs Zairean-born defender Anthony Vanden Borre exchanged passes before Vanden Borre cut into the area, but Kim Young-gwon who plays his football in China for Guangzhou Evergrande. Threw his body across Vanden Borreʼs path – not a penalty, but obstruction.

Nine minutes into the second half another contentious decision occurred as Belgium were denied a a free-kick on the edge of the area. Manchester United misfit Marouane Fellaini was found by Januzaj and surged forward. Hong Jeong-ho tripped Fellaini, but Williams waved play on.

Range

Midway through the first half Fellaini flicked it on to Evertonʼs Kevin Mirallas. The Everton forwardʼs shot rebounded to Dries Mertens, but Napoliʼs winger blazed over from 8 yards out. Chelseaʼs Thibaut Courtois, who has spent the last three years on loan to La Liga Champions Atlético de Madrid tipped Sunderlandʼs Ki Sung-yeungʼs long range shot around the post – an excellent save.

Meanwhile, Vertonghenʼs long range shooting left much to be desired. Mertens had a go from 25 yards out, but failed to beat Kim Seung-gyu. A quick South Korean break down the right wing resulted in a cross-shot by Son catching Courtois out, but it hit the bar. With 13 minutes remaining Kim Seung-gyu spilled Origiʼs shot, palming out into the path of Vertonghen, who scored.

Replays showed that the Spurs defender was fractionally off-side. It didnʼt really matter as South Korea needed to win by enough to oust Algeria, who had held Russia to a 1-1 draw on goal difference, and that never looked likely. Belgium and Algeria advance to the last sixteen where they will play the USA and Germany respectively.

 

Persistent Problems (Part Three) – Bad Boys

 

Editorʼs Note:

We first published this series of articles six years ago. Then as now the aim is to develop an understanding of how that nationʼs history and experience contributed to the development of what has become a major problem in its football – one that threatens to tarnish Croatiaʼs experiences on the pitch. On the eve of the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, we think it timely to publish them again. Croatia will be entertained by Luiz Felipe Scolariʼs resurgent Brasilian side in São Paulo on June 12th – the opening match of Brasilʼs second World Cup. We hope Croatiaʼs fans will support their team with gusto while showing respect to their hosts.

Derek Miller

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 8th 2008)

Dinamo

The formation of Dinamo Zagreb was more controversial. It was established at the end of World War II on June 9th 1945 following the punishing of pre-war Croatian clubs by the Yugoslav state by disbanding them and the traditions both footballing and culturally that they stood for. Three clubs in Zagreb – HAŠK,1 Građanski and Concordia – ceased existence at the end of the war.

Players from those clubs were split between Dinamo and Partizan Belgrade. Dinamo played in blue – the colour of Građanski. In 1969 Dinamo took a new emblem. Provocatively it was strikingly similar to that of Građanski. Nevertheless, the word Dinamo was associated with the previous government of President Tito and that led to name changes later, which were opposed tooth and nail by the traditionalists led by the club’s ultras, Bad Blue Boys.

Success

They have won the Yugoslav championship nine times, although five of them were won by the previously disbanded clubs before the Second World War. Dinamo has already had greater success in the Croatian league with eleven titles. The national cup tells a similar story too – seven in Yugoslavia compared to nine in Croatia.

They never achieved the double in Yugoslavia, but have already bagged five in Croatia, including both of the last two seasons. They have almost achieved a monopoly on the Croatian league title, but the last time they won the Yugoslav title was in 1982 – a full decade before Red Star’s final triumph in that league. Their only European triumph was in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup – now known as the UEFA Cup – in 1967, although they were runners-up in 1963.

Politics

Dinamo was again used for political purposes in the 1990s after the riot that contributed to the demise of Yugoslavia. Its name was changed to reflect the rise of Croatian nationalism. In 1992 it changed its name to HAŠK-Građanski, after two of the Zagreb clubs that were disbanded in 1945.

The following year the government of Croatian President Franjo Tuđman succeeded in getting the name changed again to Croatia Zagreb to reflect the image of Croatian nationalism that he favoured, but the team’s hardcore supporters, especially Bad Blue Boys never accepted Tuđman’s choice. They agitated until it was changed back to Dinamo Zagreb in February 2000.

Legends

The club’s academy is named after two former players with ties to the club – Ico Hitrec and Ratko Kacijan. Hitrec is a former HAŠK legend from the 1930s who embarrassed Spanish goalkeeping legend Ricardo Zamora – after whom La Liga’s goalkeeping award is named – with a brace against Real Madrid in 1931.

Hitrec is acknowledged as probably the best Croatian player in before World War II. He was also the first technical director of Dinamo. Meanwhile, Kacijan won the Yugoslav league with Dinamo in 1948. It was the new club’s first title. A decade earlier he won it with HAŠK. Dinamo is as important therefore tied to Croatia’s modern history and to its nationalism – warts and all.

1 HAŠK (Hrvatski Akademski Športski Klub) – Croatian Academic Sports Club – was founded in 1903.

 

Despicable People and the World Cup (Part 2)

Editor’s Note:

These articles were originally published by us as one article. We have split the original into four  articles for ease of reading. We think it timely to remind readers, especially now, that football’s greatest tournament has been subject to political exploitation by despicable people previously. It is fitting that despite his interference Francisco Franco never lived to see Spain become the dominant force in football – consecutive European Championships and a World Cup – let alone benefit from it. There must be no return to such exploitation of the world’s most popular sport.

Derek Miller

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 8th 2008)

Controversies

The South American challenge was weak. Argentina was enraged by the poaching of top players by Italy – the Oriundi – so they sent a weakened team to the 1934 World Cup in Italy. Uruguay, the defending champions were incensed by Italy’s boycott of their tournament four years earlier. They refused to defend their title. Brasil had yet to become Brasil.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini knew that despite the weakened field there were still European countries to deal with, so Mussolini left nothing to chance. There were scandals aplenty and that was before the controversy over Swedish official Ivan Elkind, who refereed the final.

Shameful Officiating

Spain drew Italy in the quarter final. The first match ended in a 1-1 draw, amid complaints that Belgian referee Louis Baert allowed the Italians too much latitude. Baert was a linesman in both the semi final and final, which were refereed by Elkind as well.

The rustic nature of their challenges in the first match, particularly on Spanish goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora1 caused him to have to miss the replay, which was even worse. It was so scandalous that the previously highly rated Swiss referee René Mercet was disgraced over it.

His refereeing was said to be so biased in favour of the Italians that the Swiss FA withdrew him from any further appointments for internationals. Just as Zamora had been persistently fouled by the Italians in the first game, Mercet allowed them to get away with it in the replay too.

Giuseppe Meazza benefited from yet another foul on the keeper to score the only goal of the match. Mercet was accused of shamefully favouring Italy and allowing the crowd to influence his decisions. Italy progressed to the semi final.

Bad to Worse

Elkind refereed it with Baert as one of the linesmen. Italy won 1-0 with a goal scored by Enrique Guaita.2 Elkind was appointed to referee the final. Mussolini still wasn’t satisfied. Leaving nothing to chance the dictator dined with the Swedish referee the night before the final. Italy beat Czechoslovakia 2-1.

Mussolini had his trophy. It was perhaps the most scandalous World Cup ever. Despite allegations of bribery and corruption against them over the 1934 World Cup, both Baert and Elkind enjoyed long careers as referees. Elkind refereed a total sixteen World Cup matches and Baert took a prestigious appointment with the Belgian FA after his retirement as a referee in 1952.

Basking in Undeserved Glory

Meanwhile, Mussolini basked in the glory of a World Cup triumph that allowed Italians to forget their problems while they celebrated. He also used the success to bolster the credibility of his government. Knowing what World Cup success could bring Mussolini wanted more of the same, but four years later as the world veered towards war he could not interfere as outrageously as had been achieved in 1934.

And Italy would have to win by fairer means in 1938. Nevertheless, they received some unexpected assistance. The threat of war resulted in some nations withdrawing early. The tournament was weaker than it should have been. And top European teams would miss it too. England apparently believed the World Cup was beneath them.

Absences

Spain was the first country to miss a World Cup due to war in 1938. The Spanish Civil War stopped international football, but not the Cup of Free Spain, which Valencian club Levante won. The World Cup continued without them. Austria – semi-finalists four years previously – qualified, but withdrew due to unification with Nazi Germany.

The Austrian Wunderteam was torn asunder by reunification and the ‘unified’ German team did not gel. It lacked Austria’s greatest player Matthias Sindelar. Rather than play for the Nazis Sindelar retired, claiming his age and injury and did so after thumbing his nose at the Nazis in a ʻunificationʼ match.

 

 

Sindelar was no Nazi and celebrated his goal against the Germans in that match in an exuberant manner. Sindelar had revolutionised forward play in the Wunderteam under legendary coach Hugo Meisl. Sindelar refused to play for Germany. He died in mysterious circumstances a year after the World Cup in France aged just 36. There was no shortage of conspiracy theories. Another pair of opponents had neutralised themselves.

Wringing Value

Mussolini was determined to wring whatever propaganda value he could from the defence of their title. The quarter final pitted the Italians against the host nation. Baert refereed the match with Elkind serving as one of his linesmen. The Italians wore the infamous black-shirts. It was highly provocative.

Nevertheless, Italy beat France 3-1. They faced a bizarrely chosen Brasil team in the semi-final, winning 2-1. Leading scorer and one of his country’s first super-stars Leônidas da Silva missed the match – possibly rested. His absence was attributed by some to interference by Mussolini, but that has never been verified.

Italian great Giuseppe Meazza scored the controversial winner from the penalty spot, but according to objective reports Italy deserved their win anyway. It was fitting that Brasil finally sent their strongest team to the World Cup, but somehow conspired to get tactics and selection wrong. Italy retained the trophy in 1938, beating Hungary 4-2 in the final. They were the best team, even though their physical approach, especially that of enforcer Luis Monti, had critics.

An Uncertain Future

World War II meant that there was no World Cup in 1942. It would probably have been held in Brasil. The world had other priorities in 1946. It was therefore unclear if would even be a World Cup ever again. Football and the World Cup survived. A World Cup in 1949 was mooted. The Superga Disaster ended that possibility. FIFA wanted Italy to defend their title, but after the tragedy Italy did not want to. They had to be persuaded to come, but the Azzurri were understandably deeply affected by Superga.

 

Brasil was chosen to host the next tournament, but insisted that it be held in 1950 rather than 1949 as FIFA originally intended. Germany was partitioned and originally banned. Football had not been organised in either East or most of West Germany at first anyway, so there was no German representation in Brasil in 1950.

Mussolini had been executed by Italian partisans in 1944, so Italy – the defending champions – were permitted to come, but originally decided not to play in spite of FIFA’s offer to meet their expenses. However, Italy defended their title, but deeply affected by the Superga tragedy the Italian FA refused to allow their team to fly. Instead they sailed, depriving the squad of training opportunities.

They were the first World champions to go out in the first round after a woeful defence of their title even though there were exceptional circumstances. Not only had they suffered poor transportation, they has lost the flesh of a truly great team – il Grande Torino. Two years before the Superga Disaster that team contributed ten out of eleven starters for Italy. Not even the world champions could afford to lose that amount of talent.

The 1950 World Cup finals ensured that the tournament would continue. But twenty years later the hosts of the first post-war tournament would abuse the World Cup again for political ends, as another vile dictatorship would seek to profit from the World Cup.

1  The goalkeeping award in Spain’s La Liga is named after him. He became a controversial figure as he represented both Cataluña and Spain and accepted awards from both the Spanish republic and fascists. He also won trophies for both Barcelona and Real Madrid.

2Enrique Guaita: Raimundo Orsi and Luis Monti had previously played for Argentina.