Back in Politics On The Pitch #3 we looked at how the football world adjusted to life after World War 2, with carefully selected qualification groups removing the chance of “politically awkward” clashes. Now we take a look back to when this was not necessarily the case, and at some historical competitive fixtures with a non-sporting significance that could not be ignored.
Despite being widely recognised as one of the most corrupt organisms on the face of the planet, and turning their flagship tournament into a money making facade where sport is basically an afterthought (it is on this site too to be fair), FIFA is responsible for some good.
The World Cup’s hideous over-commercialisation can always be countered by the fact that the festival of football does bring simple folk from random corners of the world together when their teams are drawn. The often good-natured affairs, as well as the conscious global gaze upon each match, displays through the medium of football that no matter where somebody’s from, their class, race or if they’re religious, humans do have common ground through our unifying love of the game.
Even teams representing states of competing ideologies and their fans can come together in friendly rivalry, as an average population can often be far less enthusiastic about hating their fellow members of the species than their national regimes, or stereotypes, might lead you to believe. With countries like Cuba and North Korea joining the USA and it’s allies in the organisation’s ranks, the case of FIFA’s corruption is at least equal opportunity corruption.
But of course FIFA’s global inclusiveness also creates the opposite situation, where two peoples with a genuinely tense political or ethnic history (or present) are occasionally brought together for a sporting manifestation of their international grudge. At times this will be deemed concerning enough an issue for a country to not play altogether, as was the case when the British nations withdrew from FIFA in 1919 in protest at the continued inclusion of the Central Powers teams after World War 1.
Many times these games have gone ahead though, which inevitably creates interesting situations in the stadium, and on some occasions the simple novelty or expectation of an interesting draw is enough to secure its place in history. In this vein we will now look back at some of the most noteworthy groups, tournaments and match-ups from the 20th century that had elements beyond mere football competition.
1954 World Cup Qualifiers
For the 1954 World Cup qualifiers, FIFA itself rather than it’s regional confederations was still arranging all qualification groups. They were organised by geographical consideration, although not necessarily by continent as Egypt and Italy proved in Group 9. Groups 7 (Hungary and Poland) and 8 (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania) comprised solely of eastern European communist representatives.
However it was Group 1 that stood out for it’s inclusion of a small side making it’s one and only appearance in a competitive campaign, and another much larger new state making it’s first in it’s current form. The group did not actually pit sworn rival nations against each other, quite the contrary. But the two referenced participants were born out of the greatest period of slaughter the world has known.
Located in southwest Germany, the Saarland (after the River Saar, which flows from northwest France into Germany) had become the French and British ruled Territory of the Saar Basin in the aftermath of World War 1. A plebiscite with 90.4% in favour returned the region to German hands in 1935, but ten years later the Allies would be back and again take control of the now renamed Westmark of the Third Reich. Following the end of World War 2, the region was partitioned from the rest of Germany and placed squarely under French control, becoming the Saar Protectorate in 1947.
The mostly ethnic German population still considered their land as part of Germany and never intended Saar to become it’s own country. Never the less, such national symbols as a flag (paying homage to both nations involved with the colours of the French flag divided by a white Nordic cross) and an international football federation were created. The clubs of Saar competed in the local Ehrenglia league, with the strongest club 1. FC Saarbrücken competing and winning in France’s Ligue 2 as guests in 1948/49.
Flag of The Saar Protectorate.
Three months after the Saar Fussball Bund was admitted to FIFA in 1950 (having rejected merging with it’s French equivalent the previous year), the Deutscher Fussball Bund also rejoined, now representing the Federal Republic of Germany, aka the partitioned state of West Germany, but claimed mandate over Germany as a whole. Both teams were placed in Group 1 of the upcoming World Cup qualifiers along with Norway, whose status as part of the Nazi occupied lands in WW2 under the puppet Quisling regime officially made this the “Reich group”.
By the time the qualifiers were to begin in 1953, Saar had already played a number of friendlies and had participated in several other sports at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. But as stated, they preferred not to be referred to as their own country, and in football the term “selection” was more commonly used than national team. Given the area’s German self-identification, it seems slightly frustrating that one of their few shots at international football competition was “wasted” on their follow countrymen, and not someone more exotic.
The Saarlanders would go on to display the prowess of German football even if confined to a very small area, by defeating Norway 3-2 away from home and earning a 0-0 draw in Saarbrücken. Logically then, their bigger, but no more proudly Germanic neighbours would prove impassable. A 3-0 home win in Stuttgart on 11 October 1953 was followed by the last game of the group in March 1954, as West Germany again scored three (with the home support politely applauding each goal) but Saar at least grabbed a consolation penalty on home soil.
Interesting section of Hamburg's Volksparkstadion, West Germany vs Saar Protectorate, World Cup '54 Qualifier, October 1953.
The West German’s 5-1 demolition of Norway also guaranteed that Saar would not finish bottom of the group, securing a German one-two final positioning. As West Germany went on to win the World Cup they had qualified for, the people of Saar doubtlessly would have been rooting for them and over joyed at their success. As the following year, 20 years after the original plebiscite to join Nazi Germany, another referendum was held with the same result. The Saar Protectorate was absorbed into West Germany and once again became the region of Saarland in 1957, ending it’s brief adventure in international football.
The crowd applaud the home side's goal in a 3-1 defeat, Saar Protectorate vs West Germany, World Cup '54 qualifier, March 1954.
1958 World Cup Qualifiers
CAF/AFC Second Round
For the next World Cup, FIFA handed over responsibility to the regional confederations for the organisation of their own qualification systems, and enforced defined geographical zones. This proved particularly problematic in Africa/Asia (with the CAF and AFC sections combined for this campaign), first as Turkey withdrew in protest at not being included in Europe. They had been scheduled to play Israel, who progressed automatically into a second round group (somewhat surprisingly Cyprus were also in Asia, giving it three different teams who would later “become” European)
This created another issue due to the Arab League boycott of Israel, the current iteration of which being in effect since the end of the Arab-Israeli War in 1949. The Arab League members of Egypt and Sudan hence refused to play Israel – who had actually previously competed as Palestine British Mandate before their independence in 1948 – and withdrew. It was to be the first of two successive World Cup qualification campaigns from which the pair would withdraw without playing a game, as for 1962 – with Egypt then competing as United Arab Republic – FIFA refused their ultimatum to reschedule matches to avoid the monsoon season.
Another mostly Islamic state in Indonesia was the remaining team left in the group, and although they were prepared to play the Israelis, they were not prepared to travel the entire length of Asia to do so. Like Israel, the Indonesians had once competed under their pre-independence colonial name: the Dutch East Indies. But this time FIFA refused the Indonesian request for the game to be played on neutral ground which forced them to also withdraw, meaning that Israel had made it through two rounds to an intercontinental play-off without touching a ball. Here they would be at last stopped, as Wales were happy to play and defeat them for a place at the tournament.
UEFA Group 6
Back in the UEFA section itself, countries were also still placed in groups rather than drawn by seed. Cross Iron-Curtain encounters were now becoming more common, although still somewhat regional with Finland going to the USSR and Poland, Greece to Yugoslavia and Romania, but again slightly further afield for Wales who were placed with Czechoslovakia and the newly created East Germany (who’s entry during the years of Saar existence meant there had been three different German federations in FIFA at one point).
Group 6 with Finland, Poland and the USSR was the most emotionally charged on paper with both the Finns and Poles being former colonial subjects of Russia, and much more recently the Soviets’ (unsuccessful) Winter War against former and partition of the later (as well as events such as the Katyn Massacre, although Poland was by this time a satalite-state of the USSR). But knowing the steadfast resolve characteristic of all three peoples, it was surely business as usual as the Soviet Union ultimately made it to their first finals (Poland had previously competed too at 1938).
Finland vs USSR, World Cup '58 Qualifier, August 1957.
UEFA Group 1
Republic of Ireland
On the other side of Europe, the Republic of Ireland met their own former colonial masters of England for the first time in a competitive setting, along with Denmark in Group 1 (with the English coming out tops). Although distrust of Englishness remained for many, with 36 years having elapsed since the Irish War of Independence the encounter was perhaps now not as significant as it would become later in the century when tensions on the island of Ireland dramatically increased once again.
At this time Ireland was also somewhat sportingly-divided between football and it’s own native Gaelic sports, with the rules of the latter forbidding those who played, or indeed watched, the “foreign” (English) sport of soccer from their ogranisation. Those who preferred football were sometimes scornfully looked down upon as “less-Irish” than those involved in Irish games, with more nationalist types therefore likely avoiding international football altogether.
1964 European Nations’ Cup Qualifiers
Greece are a country well-known to hold national rivalries with the likes of Turkey and Northern/FYR Macadonia, but a third, less remembered country with whom tensions have arisen throughout the years is nearby Albania. The two have shared a border since Albania’s declaration of independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, after which disputes arose due to ethnic Greeks now being stuck on Albanian soil and declaring their own short lived republic before Italy and Austria-Hungary intervened.
During World War 2, Italian-occupied Albania assisted in the Greco-Italian theater, resulting in Albanian and Greek forces coming into direct conflict. Furthermore, in the aftermath of WW2, the Greeks callously expelled thousands of Cham Albanians from the Epirus region of northern Greece under the accusation of collaborations with the Nazis.
The new Yugoslav-backed (until 1948) People’s Republic of Albania (later People’s Socialist Republic) meant that a Cold War-divide had also been created. During the Greek Civil War of 1946-49, southern Albania had acted as a base for communist gorillas with several invasions launched from across the border, followed by retreats flowing back the same way.
Flag of the People's Socialist Republic of Albania, 1946-1992.
This all meant that diplomatic links between the two states were non-existent going into the 1960s, when Albania would enter continental football competition for the first time in the form of the 1964 European Nations’ Cup. Greece were slightly more experienced, have unsuccessfully attempted to qualify for World Cups since 1934 (apart from 1950, due to the Civil War) as well as the first Euros in 1960, while the Albanians’ team had existed since the 30s but only played their first international against Yugoslavia in 1949.
Twenty-nine countries entered the 1964 Euro qualifying Preliminary Round with three drawn to progress automatically (Austria, Luxembourg, USSR) and the rest to play each other on a home and away basis (or a third game, in the case of two draws). This would be followed by a First and Second Round played out the same way, with the four winners at this point progressing to the finals proper in Spain.
Unlike World Cup qualifying groups at this time, which were carefully selected rather than drawn due to the many politically tense situations that existed between countries around the world, UEFA decided to create the ties randomly. The first two names out of the hat were Norway and Sweden – “so far, so good”, thought the bureaucrats – but of course next came the not-so-friendly neighbours of Greece and Albania.
Instead of using sport as a stepping-stone to reach out to their politically-estranged opponents, the wounds of the past were deemed too deep and Greece withdrew from the competition, leaving Albania free to progress to the next round. There they met a Denmark side who had no problem facing and defeating them – 4-0 in Copenhagen on June 16th, 1963, before a respectable 1-0 consolation win for the Albanians months later on October 30th in Tirana.
A few years later in 1971, Albanian-Greek relations were finally re-established when Albania’s communist regime of Enver Hoxha and Greece’s right-wing military junta surprisingly came together over economic and strategic co-operation. Football would again prove a contentious point, however, when in 2014 nationalist Albanians attacked ethnic Greeks following the abandonment of the Serbia vs Albania Euro 2016 qualifier – but that is a story for another day.
1966 World Cup and Qualifiers
World Cup Semi-Finals and Final
The ’66 World Cup in England was somewhat of a reunion for several of the major players from World War 2. While England, the USSR and West Germany had all qualified for the previous two editions, the West Germans had avoided their old regime’s two European enemies in ’58 (who played each other in the group stage) and all three had been knocked out in the quarter finals of ’62 before having a chance to meet.
But in 1966 the Germans would finally come up against their former double-fronted foes, first beating the Soviets in a Goodison Park semi-final before the famous final defeat to the hosts, which also crucially involved a Soviet linesman erroneously awarding England’s third goal.
Many men in suits and ties watch West Germany vs the Soviet Union in Goodison Park, World Cup 1966.
Asia/Oceania Qualifying Group
The other stand-out thing was the appearance of North Korea, although the authoritarian dictatorships present in their fellow qualifying countries of Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Hungry, Portugal, Soviet Union and Spain at the time makes it not so novel. Their surprise debut at the finals was helped by the withdrawal of their South Korean cousins, citing logistical reasons in the combined Asian/Oceanian qualifying group. Given that few states held political ties with the North Koreans, all games were to be hosted by their allies Cambodia, but South Korea had been expecting Japan and left the group after the decision.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the group was also to contain South Africa (a weak Australia was the fourth team). Kicked out of the Confederation of African Football in 1958 due the apartheid regime’s player policy – by law only an all-white or all-black team could be selected – South Africa were in fact admitted to FIFA in the same year and placed in the Asian zone for the time being. But FIFA did give them one year to comply with their own anti-discrimination laws, which of course wasn’t done.
While the rest of the African teams boycotted the qualifying system entirely due to the lack of an automatic qualifying spot – as well as the original acceptance of South Africa into FIFA – South Africa were banned before their group games started (formally expelled in 1976 following the Soweto uprising) and wouldn’t play another international until 1992. This left North Korea with just two easy games against the Australians to qualify.
1970 World Cup Qualifiers
AFC/OFC Second Round, Group 1
The following tournaments qualifiers saw a similar situation: this time the unrecognised state of Rhodesia switched continents to play in the Asian/Oceanian section. Like South Africa, the country was ruled by a white minority elite, who had broken away from the British Empire in 1965.
But as Rhodesia agreed to FIFA’s regulations regarding mixed-race squads, they were allowed to stay in. Their only group opponent was Australia, with both games (and a third play-off game after two draws, won by Australia) played in Mozambique after the Rhodesian players could not attain Australian visas.
AFC/OFC Second Round, Group 2
Israel were also back in Asian/Oceanian having played in the UFEA zone for geographical reasons at the previous qualifiers (and originally Syria too before withdrawal). Although no other Middle Eastern side was involved this time, their presence still caused an issue as now North Korea refused to play them on political grounds and withdrew.
Victories over New Zealand and Australia meant that Israel were now going to their first World Cup, but under the initiative of Kuwait they would be expelled from an AFC with more middle eastern influence in 1974, and return to playing European and, later, more Oceanic opponents in the following decades.
CONCACAF Semi-Final Round, Group 2
One of the most famous war related match-ups occurred during this campaign in the semi-final round of the North/Central American and Caribbean CONCACAF section, when El Salvador were drawn with neighbours Honduras. It is often said that their violent three games (again a play-off was needed and held in neutral Mexico City) sparked what is known as the Football War between the two countries, a 100 hour conflict (and so also known as the 100 Hour War) that remains officially in dispute at the time of writing.
While intense rioting had occurred at the two regular group games (as it was considered a group of two as opposed to a two-legged knock-out game), as well as violent play on the pitch, it was more a case of perfect timing rather than the actual cause of the war, as tensions had already been growing between the countries for bigger reasons. With the backing of large American fruit corporations, harsh new land and tax laws had come into effect in Honduras, that were particularly threatening to the large, undocumented El Salvadorian ethnic minority in the country.
Supporters of both teams and riot police, El Salvador vs Honduras, World Cup '70 qualifier, June 1969.
By the day of the play-off on 26 June, 1969 (3-2 to El Salvador after extra-time), the smaller but more populous El Salvador officially cut of ties with Honduras and would invade on July 15th starting the war. The situation was resolved through negotiation from the Organization of American States, lasting 100 hours, but the reluctance of El Salvador to withdraw meant their troops remained occupying part of the country until August. The bad blood between the two states, who share a common language, religion, general look and very similar flags, proves that not matter how close groups of humans seem, we can always find other reasons to hate each other.