Politics On The Pitch #7: Groups Of Death Part 4 – 1990-99

Finally, after nearly an exact year since Groups of Death Part 1 in Politics On The Pitch, we come to the final chapter of this epic mini-series looking at politically and militarily uncomfortable match-ups (and many resulting withdrawals) in world football throughout the 20th century. Although it took a while to get going, as you’ll see, we now finish with the fascinating 1990s, which despite the slow starts culminates in probably the most politically fascinating group of all time.

World Cup 94 Qualifiers

With the conclusion of the Gulf War in 1991, a period of relative world peace and prosperity began on many parts of earth (ahem) meaning there are vast swathes of the 90s with nothing much to report on… Reflecting this, Euro 92 qualifiers had featured a reunited Germany, a soon to dissolve Soviet Union, and an Ireland-England pairing that, although still juicy, had been done many times by now.

Sure, the break-up of Yugoslavia the following year led to significant violence, and there was still tension in Northern Ireland, but no other powers were yet involving themselves in the Balkans and the North’s Good Friday agreement would soon be signed in 1994. While Yugoslavia’s situation removed them from world football, Ireland and Northern Ireland were again drawn together in World Cup 94 qualifying leading to an infamously tense final game in Windsor Park, with only a few brave souls from the Republic venturing up to see their side qualify amid safety concerns for away fans in the British loyalist stronghold.


Northern Ireland fans sending provocative gestures in the general direction of the Republic of Ireland, World Cup 94 qualifier, 17/11/1993.

One situation that raised eyebrows elsewhere was in Asia’s AFC Zone, where the possibility of certain countries qualifying for USA 94 rather than specific match-ups was the issue. From 6 preliminary groups, the winners who made it through to the final group round consisted of three US allies in Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, and three countries with US economic sanctions against them – Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

As each team would play the other four once in Doha, Qatar, throughout October 1993, with the top two advancing to the finals, it also meant a meeting between North Korea and South Korea. This too, however, was a match that had already taken place as many as seven times since 1978, but after the Doha game – a 3-0 win for South Korea – the fixture would not return until a heartwarming 2005 friendly to celebrate 60 years since all of Korea’s independence from Japan.

In the end, the United States had nothing to worry about when it came to letting in their economic enemies. Iraq, Iran and North Korea finished 4th, 5th and 6th in the group, while 1st and 2nd placed Saudi Arabia and South Korea could look forward to a rousing welcome from Uncle Sam the following Summer.


South Korea's third goal in a 3-0 win over their Northern cousins in Doha, Qatar, World Cup 94 qualifier, 28/10/1993.

Meanwhile in Africa, withdrawals from the opening group stage were as rife as they had been in the past, signaling the poverty and conflict still experienced across the continent while the western economies prepared to boom. Out of the nine groups, ten teams withdrew without kicking a ball: Uganda, Sierre Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sudan, Malawi, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Gambia, and Mali.

Two other African nations would also end qualification early for off the field reasons, as sanctions relating to both serious international incidents and internal problems (to put it mildly) again effected those who just wanted/were lucky enough to play a game for a living. Group D’s Libya, originally scheduled as have all matches away from home, left in protest in March 1992 after UN air and arms embargoes were placed on the country’s regime for not handing over suspects of the 1989 Lockerbie Bombing, and in Group B Liberia withdrew after two games in November 1992 as it’s civil war (1989-96) degraded into one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world.

Euro 96 Qualifiers

The qualifiers for the Euro 96 were momentous as many newly independent nations – formerly within the socialist unions of Czechoslovakia, USSR, and Yugoslavia – were taking part in their first campaign of any kind (plus Lichtenstein). Israel, having competed for World Cup qualification through UEFA many times as we have previously discussed, also competed for the chance to make it to a Euros for the first time, with a precedent already set through Eurovision Song Contest entries since 1973.

This all pumped the number of teams from 33 in the 1992 qualifiers to a whopping 47 for 1996, and that was still without the excluded Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s rump state, later to become simply Serbia and Montenegro). It also created interesting religious dynamics such as in Group 1, where Azerbaijan (99% Muslim), France (50% Christian; 39% non-religious) Israel (74% Jewish) Poland (87% Catholic) and Romania (81% Orthodox Christian) all battled it out for supremacy.

In Group 4, Italy found themselves in the interesting situation of being “surrounded” entirely by the debutante quintet of Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Ukraine (although the Baltic states had achieved independence early enough to have made it into World Cup 94 qualifying, along with Russia taking the Soviet Union’s place). With one new competitor at England 96 therefore all but guaranteed (the worst group runners-up would still have to meet in a play-off) the Croats displayed that the Balkan tradition of football excellence would live on without the Yugoslavian banner, as they pipped the Italians for top-spot by goal-difference.


Croatians en route to a great 1-2 victory away to Italy in only their third ever competitive match, Euro 96 qualifier, 16/11/1994.

Group 4 also demonstrated the numerous possibilities of states, who had previously been united under old regimes, now facing off against each other. In World Cup 94 qualifying, Lithuania had already been drawn against neighbours Latvia and this time it was Estonia, as well fellow-former Soviet Republic Ukraine, while Croatia and Slovenia had both been part of the old Yugoslavia.

In all of these cases, the teams involved were representing states that had effectively been on the same side in their independence movements. But particularly with the break-up of Yugoslavia, which was still on-going as the Bosnian War lasted until December 1995, future nasty “dream matches” between sworn enemies once again became inevitable in world football.

World Cup 98 Qualifiers

In Europe all remained calm for the 98 qualifiers – up to 50 teams from 36 last time – with the only semi-notable situations arising in the likes of Group 1, where three former Yugoslav republics were placed together for the first time (debuting Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia); Group 6 for the return of the Yugoslavia name itself, along with the former-Czechoslovak derby for the first time in a competitive setting; and the pairing of Latvia and Estonia in Group 4, meaning the three Baltic sides had now met. In Central and North America’s CONCACAF zone, economic sanctions again effected matters as embargoed Cuba played their first round home game against Cayman Islands, second round 1ss and 2nd-legs against Haiti, and third round home fixtures against El Salvador, Honduras and Panama either on neutral soil or in the opponent’s ground.

Even in Africa things improved as the only sides to withdraw were Mali and Niger, while Liberia also returned, however Libya were still absent, In final round Group 5, Sierra Leone’s game away in Gabon was also postponed and later cancelled, as the team were unable to leave Freetown due to events arising from the country’s long civil war (1991-2002), but they returned to defeat Ghana 0-2 in an inconsequential match at the end of the group (ending ahead of the Ghanaians despite playing one less game).

World Cup 1998

Group F

Germany
Iran
United States
FR Yugoslavia

While the US did not have to confront the issue of allowing “rogue nations” in at World Cup 94, their participation at the following edition in France threw up a whole group for them filled with political undercurrents. Joining the Americans in Group F were their former World War enemies/current militarily base ally Germany; a country with whom relations had been fraught since the 1979 “Islamic Revolution”, Iran; and a state that would soon feel the wrath of US-backed military might, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Of course with WW2 a distant memory, the first game against the Germans held little significance to most, although their inclusion in this group of American “enemies” can’t have been lost on some. After a 2-0 win for the Europeans, a more current affair was up next for USA with what FIFA themselves call the most politically charged match in World Cup history.

The US had previously supported the old Iranian government following a CIA-backed coup in the 1950s, until the aforementioned Islamic Revolution in 1979 removed the Shah and installed the Ayatollah’s Islamic Republic, breaking relations. Later that year the Iranian hostage situation at the American embassy in Tehran, followed by retaliatory sanctions, an American backing of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War 1980-88, and American strikes on Iranian targets in 1988 including a commercial airliner, all contributed to the bad-will between the two countries.

Ahead of the game against Iran in Lyon on the Summer solstice, June 21st, 1998, there were concerns for both the safety of the American team from extremist attacks and for the possibility of dissident Iranians using the high profile occasion to protest against the own government. There was also a disagreement on the night before the match on who would walk towards who to shake hands before kick-off (approaching the other side with a sign of submission was out of the question for the Iranian authorities), with a compromise reached for a presentation of flowers instead and a joint team line-up to symbolise the uniting power of sport over nearly every other human division.


The US and Iranian teams join forces for peace ahead of their World Cup 98 first round match, 21/06/1998.

Not long into the game, rumours of protests became a reality as a whole section of Iranians unfurled political banners and flags against the regime, prompting clashes with some of their fellow supporters. Riot police moved in to surround the group and prevent them from invading the pitch, on which their team would go on to record a famous 2-1 victory over the Westerners.


Iranian political protestors make their presence felt during the World Cup 98 first round clash against USA, 21/06/1998.

A hat-trick of poor performances for the Americans was completed four days later against Yugoslavia, as another 0-1 defeat left them eliminated at the bottom of the group. This will have been particularly satisfying for the winners as, although US-led sanctions against the Yugoslavs during the Balkan conflicts had been lifted in October 1996 following the peace accords of 95, the sanctions had just been reinstated mere months before the match at the outbreak of the Kosovo War in March 1998.

Euro 2000 Qualifiers

Group 8

Croatia
Republic of Ireland
FYR Macedonia
Malta
FR Yugoslavia

Finally, and staying with the Balkan theme, Euro 2000 qualifying Group 8 produced what was definitely the ultimate grudge match of the of the decade: Croatia vs Yugoslavia, featuring the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (aka Forgotten Yugoslav Republic) thrown in for good measure. With the aforementioned Kosovo conflict in full flow also, the bewildered Irish and Maltese each had three separate trips to the war torn region to come over the next 13 months in what was one of the most politically tense groups of all time.

Since the initial break-up of the Socialist Federal Republic, the Serbian-dominated Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was determined to block any attempts at secession from the semi-autonomous region of Kosovo – inhabited by a majority of ethnic Albanians but with a sizable Serbian minority – prompting the Yugoslavian army to enter the territory in March 1998. With the situation degrading, the Irish went to a tense Belgrade in November for the first of their eastern journeys and were defeated 1-0 by the Yugoslavs.


Celebrations in Red Star Stadium as the home side take the lead, Yugoslavia vs Ireland, 18/11/1998.

As atrocities were committed in Kosovo under the guise of suppressing rebel forces – namely the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA – and international intervention loomed, on March 2nd, 1999, Red Star Belgrade agreed to move their remaining Champions League fixtures to Sofia, Bulgaria. It would only be the start of the turmoil that, in football terms, mostly happened to revolve around Group 8.

On March 23rd, NATO began it’s strategic bombing of targets in Belgrade. The next day, UEFA postponed three upcoming fixtures in the group that were set to take place in the Balkan area: Macedonia vs Ireland and Yugoslavia vs Croatia, both originally scheduled for March 27th, and Yugoslavia vs Macedonia on March 31st.

Proving that sport and politics definitely do mix, star defender Siniša Mihajlović pledged his support for president Slobodan Milošević while leaving the country on March 24th, before the Yugoslav football federation urged any players at clubs in NATO countries to boycott their employers. Real Madrid’s Predrag Mijatović, draped in the Yugoslav flag, and three others proceeded to protest outside Spain’s US embassy on March 27th/28th, while Crystal Palace’s Sasa Curcic picketed outside 10 Downing St in London – they were among 40 Yugoslav pros to strike around Europe.

On the 25th UEFA also postponed the imminent visit of Scotland to Bosnia-Herzegovina in Group 9, as flights to the area could not be guaranteed safety. On the same day, the Irish demonstrated their desire to take advantage of the tragic situation by outlining intentions to ask the governing body to have their defeat in Belgrade the previous November annulled and replayed on a neutral ground, should other countries fixtures away to the Yugoslavs also be moved out of the conflict zone.

As NATO’s operation intensified, UEFA were forced on March 28th to suspend more upcoming qualifiers in the area – Malta’s visit to Croatia, and Slovenia vs Albania from Group 2 – before on March 29th the saga continued to rock the world of football when Metz’ Serbian forward Vladan Lukić vowed to down tools for three months in protest against the strikes (which surely had NATO bosses shaking in their boots). And on April 1st, the Yugoslavs’ own league was suspended for the duration of the war.

Over the coming weeks, developments included Real Madrid issuing a £23,000 fine to Mijatović for his absence from the team, and Albania’s Group 2 qualifier with Latvia being moved from Tirana to the Latvian capital of Riga. The next area of contention would be far away from eastern Europe, however, as peaceful Dublin unexpectedly became the focus ahead of Ireland vs Yugoslavia on June 5th.

Adding an extra element to the fixture, in May the Irish government accepted more than 1000 Kosovar refugees from the 80,000 forced to flea the area (who were lucky compared to nearly 9000 Kosovo Albanians killed or declared missing during the 16 month disaster). Although Ireland wasn’t a member of NATO, the government held grave concerns about the situation in Kosovo and refused to grant visas to the Yugoslav squad for their upcoming visit (citing overwhelming public outcry in support of cancelling the match, which wasn’t exactly the case).

UEFA threatened Ireland with football sanctions of it’s own – including possible expulsion from the competition at worst – should the match not go ahead, while the Football Association of Ireland plead it’s helplessness in the face of the government’s decision (with one FAI official coyly commenting on how few international fixtures would be left if every state’s human rights records were held to account). Calls from Geneva (UEFA’s base) reiterated that sports and politics should not meet in their domain and hence there was no reason for the match to be cancelled, but some in the Irish media argued that accepting the Yugoslavs as guests would legitimise their regime’s war crimes.

Although on June 3rd Milošević accepted terms of a peace plan, it was too late and the match that weekend did not go ahead. But on June 8th, the Yugoslav players would be accepted into Greece for their game against Malta on the neutral soil of PAOK’s Toumba Stadium in Thessaloniki. With the War officially coming to an end a few days later on June 11th, Yugoslavia’s trip to Dublin was finally rescheduled for September 1st, as a light fine and reimbursement of the Yugoslavs’ original travel costs turned out to be UEFA’s only punishments for the Irish.


FR Yugoslavia vs Malta on neutral soil gets underway in PAOK's Toumba Stadium, Greece, Euro 2000 qualifier, 08/06/1999.

But before that, there was the small matter of the rescheduled first ever meeting between Yugoslavia and Croatia on August 18th, 1999, in Belgrade. The Croats’ victorious but brutal War of Independence against the Serbs had concluded less than four years previous, with the final months running concurrent to the national team’s own successful Euro 96 qualification campaign.

The country’s star debut at the Euros, followed by third place at World Cup 98, had put it on the footballing map ahead of their former federal partners, as Yugoslavia’s return to tournament was less inspired (one can’t help but wonder at far they might have gone had the original SFR Yugoslavia remained united, which was never going to happen of course). While on-the-pitch superiority mattered some, the approx. 15,000 dead or missing Croats between 91 and 95 (compared to less than 7000 Serbs) made the the two games to come in Group 8 as charged as any in football history.

If the crowd in Windsor Park in 1993 had been 99.9% home supporters, 100% of the nearly 50,000 in Red Star Stadium were there hoping to see Yugoslavia win. Of course, for their own safety, no away fans were permitted, as evident by the overwhelmingly booed Croatian national anthem. Despite the away side hitting the woodwork more than once, a 0-0 draw was played out in the hostile atmosphere.


The players line-up ahead of the history FR Yugoslavia v Croatia match in Red Star Stadium, with a flag hanging in the Serbian national colours visible on the left, Euro 2000 qualifier, 18/08/1999.

Croatian players sing their national anthem as boos reign down from the home Yugoslavian fans in Red Star Stadium, Belgrade, World Cup qualifier, 18/08/1999.

Over the coming weeks, an Irish win over Yugoslavia in Dublin, a Croatian win over Ireland in Zagreb, and back to back Yugoslavian defeats of the Macedonians (with all sides picking up maximum points against Malta along the way) meant that everything was to play for going into the last series of games. While a win for either side in the upcoming Croatia-Yugoslavia match on October 9th would guarantee at least a play-off place, with a draw favouring Yugoslavia, the Irish could top the group if they were victorious in Macedonia at the same time – a location where they had already infamously been defeated in April 1997.

Before the hot game in Zagreb, locals concluded that it was wise for no away supporters to be allowed at the stadium as their presence may have resulted in the use real weapons such as grenades and machine guns, rather that mere football hooliganism. Around the city anti-Serb graffiti was common sight, accompanied by the colours of Dinamo Zagreb, with the match set to take place in the very same Stadion Maksimir where the infamous riot in 1990 between home fans/players and Yugoslav police at a domestic game against Red Star had been credited by some as a pre-cursor to the war.


Anti-Serb and Dinamo Zagreb's Bad Blue Boys graffiti in Zagreb ahead of the Croatia vs Yugoslavia Euro 2000 qualifier, 09/10/1999.

On the evening of the match, the Maksimir filled up hours ahead of kick-off, with banners and songs celebrating the war plentiful. Particularly highlighted was Vukovar, the city that had been destroyed and taken by the Serbs in 1991 after a 87 day siege, before finally being handed back in 1998 as part of the Croatians’ 1995 Erdut Agreement with ethnic Serb leaders in the east of the country (working under instruction from Belgrade).


A huge Croatian flag commemorating the battle and siege of Vukovar in the war of independence against the Serbs, Croatia vs Yugoslavia, 09/10/1999.

The atmosphere builds inside the Maksimir Stadium ahead of the Croats vs Yugoslavia Euro 2000 qualifier, 09/10/1999.

When the teams emerged and lined-up for the anthems, the negative noise that greeted the Yugoslav’s ‘Hej, Slaveni’ (Hey, Slavs), which several of  the Croatian players had once stood for while representing Yugoslavia pre-1992, was even louder and more vitriolic than that heard at Red Star Stadium. Somewhat surprisingly, only Serbian patriot Mihajlović and captain Dragan Stojković sang their country’s song in the face of the torrent of abuse.


The Yugoslavian national anthem is played and sung in Zagreb ahead of Croatia vs Yugoslavia, Euro 2000 qualifier, 09/10/1999.

With the contest at last underway, the home side took the lead after 20 minutes thanks to a goal from Alen Bokšić, one of those who had been selected for Yugoslavia – at World Cup 90 no less – but never actually been capped for them. Besides a shared love of football, something that actually united Croats and Serbs was also a love for pyro, of which there was in abundance from the jubilant home fans.


Pyro on the pitch during Croatia vs Yugoslavia, Euro 2000 qualifier, 09/10/1999.

But only five minutes later, and again in six further minutes, the away team stunned Zagreb into silence twice with near identical goals: in-swinging Mihajlović free-kicks from the right met by glancing headers from Mijatović and Dejan Stanković, the latter of which agonisingly slipped through the hands of Croatia’s Dražen Ladić in goal. Mario Stanić equalised shortly after half-time to give his country hope, but 2-2 it remained until the end.


Disaster for Croatia as Stanković's header and Stanić's slip-up, as well as Macedonia's draw with Ireland, ultimately send Yugoslavia to Euro 2000, 09/10/1999.

Meanwhile down the road in Skopje, Ireland played out a living nightmare in the Gradski Stadium for the second time in successive campaigns by conceded a last minute equalisier against FYR Macedonia, dropping them into the play-off position. For Croatia this meant that not only had their mortal enemies knocked them out of the Euros, but a fellow-former Yugoslav republic – who also even had the word “Yugoslav” in it’s title – had contributed to Yugoslavia in fact topping the group by sheer luck on Croatian soil.

As Yugoslavia’s stars celebrated a ticket to the low-countries for the following summer on Maksimir’s cold pitch that night, Croatians could only wallow at being struck by an unexpected ghost of the break-up of the region years earlier. But it would turn out to be the last time that the fixture would take place in this form, as well as ‘Yugoslavia”s last ever qualification, as FR Yugoslavia morphed into Serbia and Montenegro in 2003 followed by an independent Serbia in 2006.


Yugoslavia's players celebrate Euro 2000 qualification, while Croatia's fans come to terms with the harsh reality that they won't be there, 09/10/1999.

With even Kosovo officially declaring independence from the Serbs in 2008, Croatia finally met this new streamlined Serbia in 2013 via World Cup 2014 qualifying, signaling the start of a new era. And with the renaming of FYR Macedonia to North Macedonia in 2019 (the reasons behind which we don’t have time to get in to even here), the last trace elements of Yugoslavia disappeared from the map, footballing or otherwise.

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YouTube Links:

Northern Ireland vs Ireland, 1993
North Korea vs South Korea, 1993
Italy vs Croatia, 1994
USA vs Iran, 1998
USA vs Iran, 1998
Yugoslavia vs Ireland, 1998
Yugoslavia vs Malta, 1999
Yugoslavia vs Croatia, 1999
Croatia vs Yugoslavia, 1999
Croatia vs Yugoslavia, 1999
Croatia vs Yugoslavia, 1999

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Politics On The Pitch #4: Groups of Death Part 1 (1950-1969)

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.

Background:

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

Group 1:

Norway
Saar Protectorate
West Germany

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.

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  • 1958 World Cup Qualifiers

CAF/AFC Second Round

Egypt
Indonesia
Israel
Sudan

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

Finland
Poland
USSR

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

Denmark
England
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

Preliminary Round

Greece
Albania

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

England
Portugal
USSR
West Germany

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

Australia
North Korea
South Africa
South Korea

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

Australia
Rhodesia 

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
New Zealand
North Korea 

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

El Salvador
Honduras

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.

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Youtube Sources:
West Germany vs Saar, 1953
Saar vs West Germany, 1954
Finland vs USSR, 1957
USSR vs West Germany, 1966
El Salvador vs Honduras, 1969
El Salvador vs Honduras, 1969

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