In this addition to the Politics On The Pitch series we come to the third installment of “Groups Of Death”, where qualifier/tournament groups and matches of dark political significance are discussed. Part 1 covered both the post-War period and the turbulent 1960s (also check out Politics #3 regarding 1950 World Cup qualifying as a “proto-Groups of Death”), while Part 2 looked at the even more turbulent 70s. Now, with plenty more hot encounters yet to come, the fascinating 1980s gets it’s turn.
World Cup 1982 qualifiers
AFC and OFC Final Round
While most of the qualifiers for Spain 82 were devoid of political tension – apart from the now usual east vs west clashes in Europe – there was one strange situation in the Asian and Oceanian zone that caused matches to be moved to a neutral ground, due to a lack of diplomatic relations.
The zone was initially broken into four groups, with one side progressing from each:
1. The Southeast Asian and Oceanian group of Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Chinese Taipei (Republic of China), and Fiji, with the teams playing each other twice.
2. The Middle East group of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar, Bahrain, Syria, with with the teams playing each other once.
3. The “we don’t like our neighbours” group of South Korea (to avoid North Korea) and Kuwait (the Middle Eastern country with the greatest freedom of expression and “liberal values”) combined with the “other south east Asians” (Malaysia and Thailand), with the teams again only playing each other once.
4. The Far East group of China PR (People’s Republic of China), Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, North Korea and Macau (competing under the flag of Portugal as a Portuguese dependent territory).
Perhaps due to the presence of North Korea, the last group was designed as a tournament with all the games played in Government Stadium, Hong Kong, from December 21st, 1980, to January 4th, 1981. A round of classification matches to determine seeds came preceded two groups of 3 and after playing each other once, the top two in each went through to semi-finals and a final to determine the winner – China PR.
But this Hong Kong-based Group 4 is not the neutral ground-affair to which we were referring to, as of course it was home soil for one of the teams anyway. The issue would arise due to the seemingly innocuous pairing of China PR – taking part for the first time in 25 years – with Saudi Arabia, along side Australia and Kuwait in a final group round from which the top two countries would qualify for the World Cup (a first for Asia).
The origins of the problem dated back to the Chinese civil war and the victory of communist forces in 1949, when the creation of the People’s Republic of China drove the government of the Republic of China – which had officially ruled since 1912 – to flee to the island of Taiwan. After original annexation from the Dutch by Qing Dynasty China in 1683, Taiwan had been under control of Imperial Japan from 1895 until their World War 2 defeat in 1945 when Republican China took control of the territory on behalf of the Allies.
Following their exile in 49, the Republican regime continued it’s own rule with what would go on to be variously known as the “Republic of China (Taiwan)”, “Republic of China/Taiwan”, “Taiwan (ROC)”, or, in sport, “Chinese Taipai” (see below). But the People’s Republic, who did not recognise the legitimacy of the island-isolated state, never gave up their own claim for Taiwan as part of China as a whole.
Flag of the Republic of China/Taiwan.
In the Middle East most countries established diplomatic links to the new “red” China, but there was one notable exception in Saudi Arabia who instead maintained their ties to the ROC. Taiwan was desperate not to lose the relationship due it’s reliance on Saudi oil and cited their respect for the country’s Islamic devotion, fittingly appointing a Hui Muslim general as Ambassador in the 1950s.
In 1971, the friendship held fast even as Taiwan was replaced on the United Nations Security Council, and in the UN altogether, by the People’s Republic as the only Chinese representatives (thanks to a motion by Albania, with Taiwan still no longer member at the time of writing). A trade-agreement between the two states was signed in 73, with agricultural, technological and construction-based assistance provided by the Taiwanese, with oil flowing in the other direction.
Throughout this time, Saudi Arabia and China PR were of course politically estranged, having found themselves on either side of the Cold War divide. Thanks to sport though, the two did find themselves having to interact through their national football teams, who first met at the 1978 Asian Games in neutral Bangkok (finishing 1-0 to China).
When the pair had then ended-up drawn together again for the World Cup 82 qualifying group, the games were due to be held on a home and away basis, but lack of diplomatic relations meant that this was impossible. A neutral venue for both matches was decided upon instead, with the south east once more deemed a suitable location as Malaysia was chosen.
The two ties were scheduled for November 12th and 18th, 1981, in Merdeka Stadium, Kuala Lumpur. The Chinese again proved the stronger of the two with 4-2 and 2-0 wins, amazingly on front of huge crowds of 40,000 and 45,000.
The Chinese and Saudi Arabian teams take to the field for the first of their two World Cup qualifiers in Kuala Lumpur, November 12th, 1981.
The victories weren’t enough in the end for China, as they finished 3rd in the group. But because their goal difference was level with New Zealand above them, a play-off was ordered, with the New Zealander’s superior goal’s scored tally and head-to-head record not considered tie-breakers in the rules of the time.
On front of another amazing 60,000 fans in Singapore New Zealand won 2-1 to send them to their first World Cup, along with fellow debutantes Kuwait as group winners, while China PR would have to wait until 2002. As of writing, Chinese Taiwan/Taipei have yet to make a World Cup finals, but we can’t wait for the inevitable, juicy Chinese derby at Brunei 2038 or something.
As for Saudi Arabia and Taiwan, the relationship did not last. As of 1989, the Saudis were the only Middle Eastern country yet to hold diplomatic ties with China PR, but tellingly, following the Tienanmen Square massacre, they had a change of heart. In July 1990, Saudi Arabia and China PR finally established relations, and in doing so ended over 40 years of the Saudi-Taiwanese alliance.
World Cup 1986 qualifiers
AFC Zone Group 4A
Staying with the China-theme, another interesting scenario arose in the next qualification campaign when the People’s Republic was again placed in an East Asian group with two Chinese territories currently ruled by European powers, along with Brunei. Macau on the southwestern Chinese coast had been a Portuguese trading post in the 17th century when still under Chinese rule, before Portugal were officially given power in 1887 (until 1999), while the islands and peninsula of near-by Hong Kong were taken by the British following the first and second Opium Wars in 1860 and 1898, respectively, but ultimately only for a 99 year lease.
Going into the qualifiers, China were undefeated against their Hong-Kongese cousins since the two first met in 1978, with three wins and one draw. The Chinese were heavy favourites to progress from the group, from which the winners would enter semi-finals and finals to determine one of two Asian representatives at the World Cup (or maybe three, due to the now separate Oceanian (supposedly) zone, but we’ll get to that).
While 495 watched Macau take on Brunei on February 17th, 1985, Hong Kong and China kicked off their own campaigns in Government Stadium, Hong Kong Island, on front of more than 20,000 supporters with the home side able to hold their much larger opponents to a scoreless draw. The Chinese showed their real strength in the games that followed, however, winning 0-4 away to Macau (on front of a swelling crowd of 1048), 8-0 at “home” to Brunei six days later (held also in Macau for convenience since Brunei were already there, on front of 960), 4-0 away to Brunei (but held in Hong Kong), and 6-0 finally at home to Macau, on front a far healthier 30,000 in Worker’s Stadium, Beijing, on May 12th.
Since Hong Kong had also won the rest of their matches (including another 8-0 thrashing of the poor Bruneians, three days before they suffered the same tally to China), this left the final group game between the two five days later on May 19th, 1985, as a virtual play-off for progression. As well as home advantage, the Chinese’ scoring prowess gave them the edge as their superior goal difference meant that a draw would be enough, leaving Hong Kong with the daunting task of needing a win in their estranged birth-father’s backyard.
80,000 citizens of the People’s Republic attended the “unusually tense” (according to the commentators) game in Worker’s Stadium and were duly shocked when Cheung Chi Tak gave the British colony the lead with a brilliant top-corner free kick on 19 minutes. Li Hui equalisied shortly after for the hosts, but, even more shockingly, the fabulously named Ku Kam Fai scored what would turn out to be the winner for Hong Kong on the hour mark.
The wonder-strike that put Hong Kong 1-0 up in Beijing, en route to the 2-1 scoreline that would eliminate China, May 19th, 1985.
After the heartbreak of the New Zealand play-off in 1981, China were again knocked out by the same scoreline, but his time it was on home soil and the disaffected Chinese supporters began to riot in the stadium following the full-time whistle. The People’s Armed Police were forced to move in to restore order, making 127 arrests. It was the first episode hooligan trouble in Chinese nation team history.
Hong Kong players celebrate their victory over China before trouble kicks off around the stadium, May 19th, 1985.
The affair would come to be known as the May 19th Incident, even by FIFA in their official video about the match which conveniently forgets to mention any of the trouble afterwards that actual made it an “Incident.” But in a move that would probably not have occurred in the west, both the Chinese manager and chairman of the Chinese Football Association resigned after in the wake of the defeat.
Hong Kong, meanwhile, were drawn against Japan in the semi-finals, where they were beaten 5-1 over two legs but with a very respectable turn-out of 28,000 in the home game when already 3-0 down. The territory was returned to China in 1997 upon completion of the British lease, but, in recognition of the distinctly separate entity that it had become, as a Special Administrative Region rather than a totally integrated Chinese province. This meant that Hong Kong were able to keep their international football team, with the 1985 victory over their now reunited father-land still the team’s most memorable football achievement to date.
AFC Zone Groups 1B and 2B
Moving to the other side of the continent, the West Asian zone was comprised of Group 1A, 1B, 2A and 2B. An increase of participating nations had bloated the section, with teams like Oman, Lebanon, and North Yeman set to take part for the first time (the former pair actually withdrew before playing a match), and the return of Iran since their last appearance at the finals itself in 1978.
Iran had intended to take part in the 82 qualifiers, but, due to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, had withdrawn before the campaign began. By the time the of the next qualifiers the war was still ongoing. however under the condition that their home games be played on neutral ground both Iran and Iraq were entered into the qualification system.
Of course, like others in similar situations, the rival-nations were kept apart in the carefully arranged groups: Iraq joined Qatar, Jordan and Lebanon in 1B, while Iran were placed in 2B alongside Bahrain and South Yemen. The South Yemenese were another side competing in their first, and – as it would turn out – only qualifiers, having only been independent since 1967 and reunified with the North in 1990 following the collapse of communism.
Iraq started their campaign taking on the Lebanese in Kuwait City. Lebanon had been going through their own devastating civil war since 1975 (to 1990) and were also under orders to play on neutral soil, so the return game took place in the same venue three days later – both won by the Iraqi’s 6-0 (the Jordan vs Qatar match also oddly took place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia).
Following further thrashings at the hands of the Qataris (7-0 and 0-8, both held in Qatar) Lebanon decided enough was enough and withdrew, rendering all their matches so far void (not that it mattered much). Having won in Ammam, Jordan, but defeated in Doha, Qatar, Iraq finished the group with 2-0 and 2-1 victories over the same opposition in Kuwait, and, somewhat strangely, Calcutta, India, respectively, en-route to qualification for their first World Cup.
Iraq and Qatar play out their World Cup qualifier in Yuva Bharati Krirangan Stadium, Calcutta, India, May 5th, 1985,
Group 2B, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more of a different story, as Iran refused the condition of playing their home games on neutral ground. As a result, the Iranians had entered and left before kicking a ball for a second consecutive World Cup. But unlike 82, when they withdraw, this time elimination came via disqualification.
Perhaps with a view to keeping certain countries confined to a distant international wasteland/safe-haven for political reasons, but done under the guise of giving the OFC teams their own section, a new Oceanian qualifying zone was created. The winner of the single group of four would progress not to the World Cup, but a play-off against the runners-up of UEFA Group 7.
Australia and New Zealand of course entered, but this time no Fiji. Instead, the locations of other two teams in the group, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) and Israel, ranged from “not really near” to “nowhere near”, in relation Australia and New Zealand.
The reason was of course to keep Taiwan – competing as Chinese Taipai due to an agreement with China PR to recognise each other in terms of International Olympic Committee activities – away from China PR, for reasons we have discussed above. Meanwhile, Israel were still outcast from their Middle Eastern neighbours who had refused to play them since the team evolved from the previous Palestinian British Mandate in 1948.
Chinese Taipai Olympic flag.
As we have seen earlier in the series this was not without precedent, after apartheid-South Africa’s (intended) entry to the Asia/Oceanian zone in 1966, Rhodesia in 1970, and Israel’s positioning in the east-Asian side of the draw throughout the 70s. For the 82 edition Israel switched back to UEFA, where they had last been in 1962 in one of the strangest qualification groups of all time (played as a mini-tournament) due to it’s additional inclusion of Ethiopia, alongside Italy Cyprus, and Romania.
As a weaker, visiting team in the zone, Taipei did not play any of their home games in Taiwan but instead used their opponent’s grounds, with the return game in the same location a few days later. They conceded 36 goals and scored 1 over the six encounters in September and October, 1985. Israel were not so willing to give up home advantage, meaning the Asian and Oceanian sides were forced to travel to the other side of the globe to play their away matches there.
Despite a 3-0 victory over New Zealand on the last day of the group, there would be no repeat of 1970 when Israel had qualified for the their only finals to date by defeating Australia in a two legged AFC/OFC final round. This time the Australians progressed in top-spot from this “island of misfit toys” zone, but still ended up losing out to Scotland in the inter-confederation play-offs.
Despite being one of the most famous matches of all time, it would have been remiss of us not to cover the clash between Argentina and England in the summer of 1986, which took place just four years after the Falklands War between the two countries (or more correctly, between Argentina and the UK). The Falkland/Malvinas Islands were first claimed by English settlers in 1764 and would go on to be a subject of dispute among British, French and Spanish colonialists, as well as by the near-by United Provinces of the River Plate – later Argentina.
By 1833 the United Provinces had appointed a Governor to the “Islas Malvinas”, as they called them, and curtailed sealing rights assumed by the US and UK, resulting in the arrival of an American warship and British military “task-force”. The Argentinians peacefully abandoned the islands, which would remain thereafter in the hands of the UK – first as Crown Colony, later as a British Dependent Territory in 1981.
In 1976, an Argentinian military junta seized power after a right-wing coup d’état, murdering thousands of civilian opponents in the process. The finest moment for the new ruling generals would come two years later when the football-crazy country hosted the World Cup, and won – mainly, it is presumed, thanks to heavy government influence over officiating and at least one significant bribe.
But this “sporting” success and the patriotic euphoria that it brought weren’t enough to paper over the cracks in society, and by the early 80s – after two changes in dictator – civil unrest had grown amid dire economic stagnation. As is often the case, the solution was to appeal to nationalistic sentiment by retaking the Malvinas for Argentina, under the false assumption that the British had lost interest in the islands and would not respond to an invasion (the junta were also working with the CIA in Nicaragua and hoped, as a reward, that the USA would also turn a blind-eye).
Having already severed relations in the lead-up, the war began when Argentinian troops landed and occupied the islands on April 2nd, followed by the invasion of South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands (other near-by British possessions in the South Atlantic). The militarily-superior British responded rapidly, as the Falklands Task Force set sail on from England April 5th, and, after more than two months of fighting and hundreds of causalities one each side, Argentina surrendered on June 15th.
Contrary to what it had set out to do, the junta found it’s image shattered and in 1983 a general election restored democracy to Argentina. But one right-wing regime had in fact benefited from the conflict, as Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government surged ahead in the polls in the aftermath of her boy’s victory.
Thankfully for the footballing authorities, the two were not on course to meet at that summer’s 1982 World Cup in Spain – which had kicked-off two days before the end of the war – unless both reached the final. It was unlikely and proved not to be the case for either, but what a final that would have been.
Four years later in Mexico, the final again seemed like the only place that the two would meet, as the winners of Argentina’s Group A and England’s Group F would be placed on either side of the draw in the knock-out rounds. The Argentinians progressed in first place as expected, with wins over South Korea and Bulgaria while drawing with Italy, but in Group F a shock defeat at the hands of the Portuguese and a 0-0 draw with Morocco meant that England’s saving 3-0 win over Poland put them through in second.
A quarter-finals meeting was now a distinct possibility, which would be the first between the two in a World Cup finals match since a bitter affair on British soil in 1966 when England manager Alf Ramsey had infamously called the opposition “animals”. On June 16th, Argentina dismissed their Uruguayan neighbours to secure the first quarter-final spot, with England also warming up against South American opposition two days later when they defeated Paraguay to formally book the Falkland dream-match.
A stifling 114,580 filled Mexico City’s Aztec Stadium on June 22, 1982, for the much anticipated game, with Maradona the main-event on the pitch. But one problem off it was a lack of segregation in the stands, meaning that clashes between fans were inevitable.
With a combination of alcohol, heat, political-history, tension, football, and a ridiculous amount of people, various violent incidents broke out around the huge ground. Some were involving the more “normal fans” caught up in the occasion and arguing over flag space (with many thefts), while banners from such groups as Portsmouth’s 657 Crew and West Ham’s National Front division ominously displayed that English firms had made the long voyage across the Atlantic too.
Trouble in the terraces at Argentina vs England (above), while some Argentines prove they can take British flags if not their islands (below), June 22nd, 1986.
Flag of Portsmouth's "657 Crew" hooligan firm at Argentina vs England, June 22nd, 1986.
Along with the display of banners referencing the Falklands/Malvinas, national flags were burnt on both sides, as they had been before and after the match when more trouble erupted. In the worse sections of the stadium police eventually made lines where they could, while on the pitch Maradona established some sort of revenge for his people by stealing the show and sending England home.
Banners referncing the Falklands War, flag burning, and police line intervention at Argentina vs England, June 22nd, 1986.
It was to be the end of this period in the Anglo-Argentinian rivalry, as diplomatic links between the two countries were once again established in 1990. Of course in the 1998 World Cup a new chapter would begin, at least in football terms, before a fresh claim to the Falkands itself was briefly made by the Argentine government of 2007-2015.
World Cup 1990 qualifying
To briefly update two regions already covered in GoD parts 1 and 2: the World Cup 90 qualification system placed the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland together once again, nearly ten years to the day after their tense debut meeting in a Euro qualifier, while in Central America El Salvador had moved on from the Football War with Honduras in 1969 to continue it’s military dictatorship, before a brutal civil war began in 1979 which was still on going.
In Northern Ireland the “Troubles” were also still flaring, as heading into the first match at Windsor Park in November 1988 there had already been assassinations of IRA men in Gibraltar, murders at funerals and the bombings of military vehicles that year. Few if any fans from the 26 Counties (the Republic) made the journey up due to the obvious security concerns, where a tetchy 0-0 was played out, but the Irish finally enjoyed their first victory against the North in a more relaxed 3-0 encounter the following October in Dublin, en route to qualification.
In the Central and North American CONCACAF zone, meanwhile, El Salvador went into the qualifiers in June 1989 on the heels of right-wing paramilitary bomb attacks against trade-union workers. More violence would come later in the year with a renewed offensive by the left-wing FMLN guerillas in November, followed by the return of the opposing side’s ominously named “death squads” (infamously backed by the CIA originally) in 1990.
Prior to all this, the Salvadorians played their first match against Trinidad and Tobago in San Salvador, but then mysteriously shifted all their remaining home games out of the country to Honduras and Guatemala (although the latter was cancelled as both sides were already eliminated). We are honestly not sure what the exact reason was for this, but given the atmosphere in the country it seems likely to have been related to politics, violence, or some combination of the two.
China vs Saudi Arabia, 1981
China vs Hong Kong, 1985
China vs Hong Kong, 1985
Iraq vs Qatar, 1985
Argentina vs England, 1985
Argentina vs England, 1985