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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What Football Is Supposed To Look Like #10 (Gallery)

Welcome back to the series that celebrates all the aesthetics of old school football that we love. Aside from the fact that the sport at it’s top tier has moved so far away from what it was in the 20th century – bringing with it the non-sporting aspects that interest us more – the progression of technology and society in general that have propelled this change mean that the things we look back on fondly are simply gone forever. Except here.

Previously we have had special focus-installments, such as our look at Belgian league “grittiness” in the late 80s-early 90s, and the wacky world of the football TV presenter last time out. But now we return to a wonderful array of images from all over the colourful spectrum of vintage football.

Classic graphics, banners and pitch confetti, Mexico vs West Germany, World Cup 86 quarter-final, 21/06/1986:

Flag-tops display, Switzerland vs Estonia, World Cup qualifier, 17/11/1993:

Quintessential communist stadium (Ernst-Thälmann-Stadion in the former Karl-Marx-Stadt, named after the leader of the German Communist Party in the Wiemar Republic) fittingly hosting a “Fall of the Iron Curtain Derby”, East Germany vs USSR, World Cup qualifier, 08/10/1989:

Nightmarish masks worn by Dutch supporters, Netherlands, Euro 88, 1988:

Classic graphics and background pyro in Bari, Italy vs USSR, friendly, 20/02/1988:

Beautiful 70s scoreboard in Rheinstadion, Düsseldorf (Bökelbergstadion was being renovated), displaying an astounding scoreline (game would ultimately end 12-0) of one “Prussia” over another, Borussia Mönchengladbach vs Borussia Dortmund, Bundesliga, 29/04/1978:

From the same match as above – in which ‘Gladbach hoped to outscore first place 1.FC Köln to clinch the title on the last day of the season – fans listen to Köln vs St. Pauli on the radio (a game that would end 5-0 to give Köln championship), Borussia Mönchengladbach vs Borussia Dortmund, Bundesliga, 29/04/1978:

Memorable sponsor ‘Jesus Jeans’ at the San Siro, Italy vs Uruguay, friendly 15/03/1980:

The gargantuan, eastern majesty of Stadion Crvena Zvezda, with Belgrade looming in the background, for a rescheduled game that had been abandoned the previous day after 63 mins due to dense fog, Red Star Belgrade vs Milan, European Cup 10/11/1988:

Conversely to the classic communist Olympic bowl, the American other-sports arena; here the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, Washington DC (home to the Howard Bison college American football team at the time), USA vs Ireland, US Cup 92, 30/05/1992:

The setting sun silhouettes a treeline behind the Drumcondra End of Tolka Park (played there as Richmond Park was too small), with a large Irish-tricolour draped above the goal, St. Patrick’s Athletic vs Hearts, UEFA Cup first round-1st leg, 07/09/1988:

An ominous line of riot police guard the pitch in Heysel Stadium as a penalty is about to be scored, Club Brugge vs KV Mechelen, Belgian Cup final, 15/06/1991:

Classic graphics and crest (and a multitude of extra people on and around the pitch), FC Nantes vs Paris Saint-Germain, Coupe de France final, 11/06/1983:

Architecture with local character at Eastville Stadium, and beds of flowers behind the goal, Bristol Rovers vs Sheffield United, Watney Cup final, 05/08/1972:

Oppressive fencing and concrete wastelands, Ajax Amsterdam vs Den Haag, Eredivisie, 27/08/1986:

Great Yugoslav tracksuits of the early 90s, Yugoslavia vs Northern Ireland, Euro qualifier, 27/03/1991:

Children in Swiss club kits ahead of the international match, Switzerland vs Scotland, Euro qualifier, 11/09/1991:

Flares on the tribune and a unique end, Hajduk Split vs Partizan Belgrade, Yugoslav League, 19/11/1989:

A regiment of Spanish police attentively watch the corner kick, Brazil vs Italy, World Cup 82 second round-Group C, 05/07/1982:

Sad Honduran, Mexico vs Honduras, World Cup qualifier, 11/11/2001:

Dancing in the snow manager, Blau-Weiß 1890 Berlin vs Hertha Berlin, 2.Bundesliga, 16/03/1985:

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Mexico vs West Germany, 1986
Switzerland vs Estonia, 1993
East Germany vs USSR, 1989
Netherlands, 1988
Italy vs USSR, 1988
Borussia Mönchengladbach vs Borussia Dortmund, 1978
Italy vs Uruguay, 1980
Red Star Belgrade vs Milan, 1988
USA vs Ireland, 1992
St. Patrick’s Athletic vs Hearts, 1986
Club Brugge vs KV Mechelen, 1991
FC Nantes vs Paris Saint-Germain, 1983
Bristol Rovers vs Sheffield United, 1972
Ajax Amsterdam vs Den Haag, 1986
Yugoslavia vs Northern Ireland, 1991
Switzerland vs Scotland, 1991
Hajduk Split vs Partizan Belgrade, 1989
Brazil vs Italy, 1982
Mexico vs Honduras, 2001
Blau-Weiß 1890 Berlin vs Hertha Berlin, 1985

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Politics On The Pitch #3: World Cup 1950 Qualifying

To be honest, the following episode of Politics On The Pitch was originally intended as a Football Special Report. But as politics, war, and global history are so intertwined in the 1950 World Cup qualifiers, it seemed more than appropriate to transfer the post to Politics On The Pitch. One of the main tenants of this time was the inability of many teams to actually travel to the World Cup in Brazil, whether they had qualified of not. This was of course in large part due to the proximity of the World War 2, who’s shadow from 5 years before still loomed large and had left many nations in poverty.

Background:

One of the great things about mid-20th century tournaments was the random stuff like extra unscheduled play-off games as tie breakers; groups of four instead of a final game; and coin-tosses to decide things. But the first three FIFA World Cups were actually fairly straight forward affairs: four groups of 3 with the winners progressing to the semi-finals in 1930, and straight knock-out tournaments of 16 teams in ’34 and ’38 (eventually 15 in the latter after the the withdrawal of Austria due to the “Anschluss” with Germany).

Thankfully, the introduction of World Cup qualifiers for the ’34 edition onwards did provide some classic old-school chaos. As this was in the days before regional federations such as UEFA, all potential World Cup candidates were divided into 12 groups based on location. The pre-WW2 system was marked by:

  • The frequent withdrawal of participating nations.
  • Groups of mostly two or three teams, arranged by region rather than drawn.
  • Host nation Italy forced to qualify for their own tournament in 1934.
  • Automatic ’34 qualification for Czechoslovakia from a group of two as a result the Polish government’s denial of visas for their own team to travel.
  • ’38 qualifiers Group 1 containing four teams while the rest contained two or three.
  • The abandonment of games if teams had already mathematically qualified/could not qualify.
  • No British teams, who were currently on boycott of FIFA.
  • Egypt being the only African nation competing in either campaign, as most were not yet independent.
  • Participation of historical states such as pre-Soviet Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, the Irish Free State, the Second Spanish Republic (withdrawn by the ’38 qualifiers due to the Spanish Civil War), Palestine-British Mandate (made of Jewish and British players), Dutch Guiana and Dutch East Indies.

For no apparent reason, FIFA decided to take a break for the next two would-be tournaments. But with the World Cup set to return in 1950, new qualifiers were scheduled for ’49 and ’50. Some big countries would compete for the first time, while others disappeared. A world which had been ravaged and changed by World War 2 (economically and politically if not physically and emotionally) was entering a new era, and so with it came a new era for the tournament, and more importantly for us, it’s preliminary rounds.

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The 1950 World Cup Qualifiers

Info:

  • The 12-Group system of the pre-WW2 years was reduced to 10.

  • Groups 1-6 were to be of (mostly) European composition, with Groups 7-9 for the Americas and Group 10 for Asia.

  • Groups were arranged roughly by region, not drawn, with mostly different qualifying rules for each.

  • Two points were awarded for a victory rather than three.

  • 14 qualifying spots were available, with both Brazil (upcoming hosts) and Italy (champions in 1938) qualifying automatically to make 16.

  • West Germany, East Germay and Japan – still occupied after World War 2 – were not permitted to take part.

  • Eastern Block states such Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Hungary refused to take part.

  • No African teams were participating; the only currently independent African states were Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Liberia.

  • Other notable countries to not take part included Canada, Australia, New Zealand and China.

  • The first game of qualifying (Sweden vs Ireland) was played on 02/06/1949, and the last game (Scotland vs England) on 15/04/1950, just over two months before the World Cup kicked-off.

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Group 1

England
Scotland
Wales
Ireland-UK

***For the purposes of continuity, we shall refer to the team now known as Northern Ireland as “Ireland-UK”, but at the time of 1950 qualifiers it was just “Ireland”. We will come back to this later, but for some in-depth information regarding why, check back to the Northern Ireland section of Politics On The Pitch #2.***

This campaign was the first that saw the appearance of the the UK sides in FIFA competition. All had been members of FIFA since near the beginning of the century (England-1905, Scotland and Wales-1910, Ireland-UK-1911), but tension was already evident following a brief period of withdrawal (1920-1924) in protest at the continued inclusion of the Central Powers following World War 1.

A “permanent” split from FIFA was to come for the four federations in 1928, as a result of the new FIFA law requiring football associations to pay compensation to their athletes who played at the upcoming Olympics football tournament. But time heals all wounds, rules change and stubborn people die. Some combination of these meant that the UK nations rejoined FIFA in 1946, perhaps now craving more global competition in the absence of the recently completed World War 2.

Two qualification spots were up for grabs, and since the groups weren’t randomly selected, Group 1 could also double as the 1949/50 British Home Nations tournament; an ingenious practice that would return for the 1954 qualifiers. The combination was dropped following the introduction of non-local qualifying groups for 1958, but it was delightfully revived for Euro 1968 when that competition went to a group based qualification system, incorporating both the 66/67 and 67/68 Home Nations tournaments.

With each team to play each other once, Ireland-UK vs Scotland kicked off the group in Belfast on October 1st with a classic old school scoreline of 2-8 to the visitors. This would have been the highest scoring game in the entire global qualifiers, except for the fact that England then beat Ireland-UK 9-2 at home the following month on front of nearly 70,000 fans in Manchester. Crowd shots displayed the alarmingly dangerous density of the audience, doubtless desperate for any entertainment in this post-War rebuilding era.


Disturbingly packed terrace at Maine Road for England vs Ireland-UK, November 1949.

As Wales didn’t fare much better than Ireland-UK – only scoring one goal in their three games – England traveled to Scotland on April 15th, 1950 with both sides assured of qualification following two wins each,  but with top-spot and the Home Nations championship yet to decide. A nauseating 133,300 spectators compressed into Glasgow’s Hampden Park, with footage showing one of (presumably) many fans who had to be stretchered away from the crush. Men in traditional dress playing saxophones, along with dancing girls (reminiscent of a Nazi Youth rally) also entertained the masses.


One fan is stretched away from the Hampden crush at Scotland vs England, April 1950..

Pre-match entertainment.

A 1-0 away win secured the honours for England, now destined for their first ever World Cup appearance. Scotland in the second qualifying position could have joined them, but declined the opportunity, apparently as they had vowed only to travel if they had won the Home Nations. As we shall see, it would be a reoccurring theme.

ENGLAND QUALIFY

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Group 2

Turkey
Syria
Austria

Now you can see why we said Groups 1-6 were “mostly” European, as here we have what is basically the Middle Eastern qualifying section, plus Austria of course. The rules of this group, as well as Groups 3 and 4, were that the lesser two sides would play each other home and away in a First Round, before the winner would play the seeded team in the same way with a qualifying spot up for grabs.

Both Turkey and Syria were competing for the first time. Turkey had been set to take part in the 1934 qualifiers in Group 12, along with Egypt and Palestine-British Mandate, but had withdrawn before playing a game. Syria, meanwhile, had itself been a French Mandate until 1946 and were set to play their debut match as an independent state in the qualifiers.

In the first of many vintage Cold War black-ops moves, an American led military coup had overthrown the democratically elected Syrian government in  March, 1949. But eight months later, the country’s new authoritarian overlords will have been disappointed as their nation’s footballing representatives slumped to a 7-0 debut defeat at the hands of their Turkish neighbours to the north. Perhaps because the result was now a foregone conclusion – or due to the utter shame doubtlessly emanating from the generals – Syria withdrew before the return leg could be played, leaving Turkey to advance.


Players and officials at the end of Turkey's 7-0 defeat of Syria.

Turkey and Austria shared a history of their own, as the Ottoman Turks had been at the gates of Vienna more than once in the post-Middle Ages. This was probably not on the mind’s of their country’s footballers hundreds of years later, but even still the Austrians also withdrew before the games could be played.

Turkey thus qualified automatically for their first World Cup. Or that is they would have, if not for the fact that they TOO then withdraw. The Syrians were no doubt asking why the Turks couldn’t have just done this in the first place before humiliating them out of the competition.

NO QUALIFIER

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Group 3

Yugoslavia
Israel
France

Here we have a group that doesn’t even pretend to be geographically logical, but would actually perhaps look like the beginning of a modern UEFA qualifying group if not for the fact that Yugoslavia doesn’t exist any more. France were World Cup veterans having competed at all three previous tournaments, with Yugoslavia also making an appearance as one of the few other European representatives at Uruguay 1930, and now becoming the first Socialist state in the continent to take part.

Like Syria, Israel was a newly sovereign post-WW2 nation having been created in 1948. The Israeli  national team debuted against the USA later that year, but can trace it’s footballing lineage back to the aforementioned Palestine-British Mandate who competed in the ’34 and ’38 qualifiers. Like in later years, it maybe made more sense not to place the Irealis in a group with some of their more hostile neighbors, with this perhaps explaining why Austria were in Group 2 instead of this group, and vice-versa for Israel.

The first round took place over August and September, 1949, and the obvious gulf in quality seen in Group 1 and 2 continued as Yugoslavia beat Israel 6-0 in Belgrade and 5-2 in Tel-Aviv. The Yugoslav’s following games against France in October would prove more evenly balanced as both games ended 1-1, and since this was not a modern two-legged affair (sensible tie-breaking mini-games such as extra-time and penalties were distant future dreams at this point, and players in the ’40s would have undoubtedly been too unfit to play another half an hour anyway), the only solution was for the two sides to play each other yet again in a play-off on neutral ground.


Unique stadium, Israel vs Yugoslavia.

Italian news reel reviewing France vs Yugoslavia with crowd in the background.

The deciding game took place in Florence in December, with Yugoslavia finally running out 3-2 winners and qualifying for their second World Cup. Classically, after all that, France were also offered a place in the finals but declined, rendering the previous 270 minutes of football utterly pointless.

YUGOSLAVIA QUALIFY

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Group 4

Switzerland
Luxembourg
Belgium

Group 4 makes a little more sense geographically speaking, with the epic clash of central-west Europe’s richest, smallest, neutralist countries with long names in the first round. Compared to Groups 1-3 we finally get a bit of normality here, as all three countries had existed for some time before the qualifiers and would continue to exist to the present day.

On the pitch there was nothing too surprising either, as the Swiss picked up a 5-2 result at home in Zurich in June, 1949. Their advancement was sealed with a 3-2 win in Luxembourg, capital city of Luxembourg, in October. A nice, solid and dependable group so far, very relaxing compared to earlier. I have a good feeling that nothing can possibly go wrong.

But of course things would not be complete without a good-old withdrawal, and we get just that before another ball can be touched. Belgium had taken part in the first three World Cups, but the streak was broken through this self-imposed expulsion, graciously leaving Switzerland to qualify for their third successive tournament.

SWITZERLAND QUALIFY

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Group 5

Sweden
Ireland
Finland

Group 5 was set to be a refreshingly straight-forward affair, comprising of a straight round robin of home and away matches between the three teams and the resulting top side qualifying for the World Cup. While Norway had competed in the 1938 qualifiers, there was no sign of them here, leaving Ireland to take what presumably would have been their spot in the token Nordic group (Denmark and Iceland had yet to take part).

“But wait” you exclaim, “another Ireland!?” Yes, here we have our second Ireland of the qualifying system. Of course this team is now referred to as the Republic of Ireland, but at this stage they were just known as “Ireland”, same as Ireland-UK  from Group 1. Ireland-UK – as the successor team of the “original Ireland” that had competed while Ireland was still fully under British rule – were still calling themselves “Ireland”, and in-fact selected players from all over the island, despite only claiming league jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.

Amazingly, some players who represented Ireland in Group 5 ALSO played for Ireland-UK in Group 1 (Ireland had also previously capped Ireland-UK capped players). Both teams also wore green shirts with near identical shamrock themed crests, adding to the uniquely confusing situation.

Anyway, back to the group, and as mentioned earlier Sweden defeated Ireland in the first game of the entire qualifying system with a 3-1 win in Stockholm in June. They followed this up with an 8-1 trouncing of Finland in October, this time in Malmö to shake things up. Ireland had also beaten the Finns 3-0 in Dublin in September, and the return fixture, eight days after the 8-1 game, saw a 1-1 draw in Helsinki.

At this point, the poor old Finns (for whom we harbour a particular affinity) saw the writing on the wall and in typically logical fashion withdrew from the group instead of facing their final, meaningless group game (and in doing so conserved energy as well as avoiding another possible thrashing on home soil). This left Ireland’s home game against Sweden in November as a virtual play-off to get to the World Cup, even though Finland’s premature exit meant Ireland would have played an extra game than Sweden. The Swedes ran out 3-1 winners, qualifying for their third successive World Cup having finished fourth at France ’38.


More pack terraces at Ireland vs Sweden in Dalymount Park.

Ireland would have to wait another 40 years to make it to the finals but this need not have been the case as, in the wake of all the withdrawals, they were in fact invited to take part anyway by FIFA. But off course money doesn’t grow on trees, especially in economically struggling, post-“Emergency” Ireland (as WW2 was known there) and the offer was turned down due to the traveling costs. This really raises the question: what was point in attempting to qualify in the first place, or were they just not thinking that far ahead?

SWEDEN QUALIFY

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Group 6

Spain
Portugal

With their internal political issues well and truly resolved, a new Spain returned following their absence for 1938. Like the ’34 qualifiers they were placed in the “Iberian Group” with Portugal, with FIFA clearly deeming that one of the two simply needed to be at the World Cup.

In the previous version, Spain had breezed through with a 9-0 win at home propelling victory. This time Franco’s men didn’t score quite as many, but a 5-1 win in Madrid in April 1950 did basically the same job. Portugal at the time were in the midst of their own fascist dictatorship, or “corporatist authoritarian regime”, and they welcomed their peninsular pals to Lisbon eight days later. A 2-2 draw was played out allowing Spain to reach the finals as expected with little fuss.


Spain score the first of 5 goals against Portugal, on front of  a huge crowd.

Spain score the first in the 2-2 draw away to Portugal, in a ground devoid of side stand.

That is except for the fact that Portugal, of course, were then also invited to play at the World Cup, as a replacement for Turkey. And of course they declined, meaning all six European groups contained some sort of withdrawal or declination to play. This left FIFA throwing their hands up and shouting “Why do I even bother!” before bursting into tears, and then finally saying “fine then”, deciding to just leave the World Cup short of teams instead of inviting anyone else, dashing any last Luxembourgian hopes in the process.

SPAIN QUALIFY

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Group 7

Bolivia
  Chile
Argentina

After the mess that was Europe, we now come to the Americas where things are always calmer and more settled. The three teams were set to play home and away, with the top two progressing to the final. Would a nice competitive group, played to completion with the winners going through and the losers definitively not going through, be too much to ask?

The answer is yes, as 1930 finalists Argentina withdrew leaving Bolivia and Chile (also both present in 1930) free to qualify automatically without a single second of football being played. Obviously their scheduled games to be played against each other were cancelled, as they would have been utterly fucking pointless.

BOLIVIA AND CHILE QUALIFY

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Group 8

Uruguay
Paraguay
Ecuador
Peru

The intuitive among you (as well as those who look at nature and society in a deeper way and notice patterns) may well have already guessed the outcome of this group. And sure enough, Ecuador and Peru withdrew from the group faster than you can say “unstable puppet government propped up by the CIA”. They really could not wait to withdraw.

1930 champions Uruguay had boycotted the previous two tournaments, first in 1934 as an act of retribution against the European teams who had refused to travel to their home tournament in 1930, then along with Argentina in anger at FIFA’s decision to stage World Cup 1938 again in Europe rather then a return to South America. Paraguay had also made their only previous appearance in 1930. Both qualified again without a ball being kicked.

URUGUAY AND PARAGUAY QUALIFY

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Group 9

USA
Mexico
Cuba

As with the British Home Nations tournament of Group 1, Group 9 also doubled as the 1949 North American Football Confederation Championship; the last time that competition would be played until 1990. However, unlike the Home Nations, all the matches would be played in a host nation – in this case Mexico – and all take place over the month of September 1949, more in lieu with a traditional tournament. The teams would play each other twice with the top two advancing to the World Cup, as well of course as North American Football Confederation Championship glory to the country on top.

The group was like the ill-fated Group 7 in that all teams had previously played at World Cups. Mexico had been statistically the worst team in their only appearance to date in 1930. The US had also taken part, both then and in ’34 where they replaced Mexico as poorest performing participant.

A pre-Castro Cuba can boast not just a finals appearance, but an oft-forgotten World Cup quarter final to their name in 1938. This is slightly less impressive when you remember that they only had to win one game to make the quater-finals, but slightly more impressive again by the fact that they drew 3-3 with Romania after extra time and then beat them 2-0 in a replay. However, the 8-0 drubbing received at the hands of Sweden in the quarter final itself does slightly take the shine off things.

Things didn’t go so well for Cuba this time though, as their only point of the Group came from a 1-1 draw with the US. The return game saw the Americans run out 5-2 winners. But the top side had not been in doubt since day one when hosts Mexico had destroyed the USA 6-0, and proceeded to put the same number past them when the sides would meet again while conceding their only two goals of the campaign. Comfortable 2-0 and 3-0 wins against Cuba, including on the last day of the group, gave Mexico the NAFC crown and qualification, along with the USA in second.

And there it is, finally after nine groups we have found one that was actually played to completion, and with the agreed upon rules adhered to through to the end. The real miracle here is the the Cuban revolution thankfully held off for a few years, for if it had happened in 1949 it would have undoubtedly disrupted the group.

MEXICO AND USA QUALIFY

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Group 10

Burma
Indonesia
Philippines
India

Group 10 contained the only Asian side to have previously made a World Cup appearance in Indonesia, who played at the 1938 finals in their previous form of the Dutch East Indies. This feat is again made less impressive by the fact that they only reached said finals due the withdrawal (surprise, surprise) of their one opponent Japan. Tragically, after coming all the way to Europe for the World Cup, they were promptly beaten 6-0 by Hungary and sent straight home. Still, their name is in the history books. Well, their name when it was a different name.

India, meanwhile, had played their first game while still a British possession in 1938, and in 1948 had made their first appearance as an independent state. The Philippines had been around a surprisingly long time in comparison, with their first international dating back to 1913, but had not previously had the chance to qualify for a World Cup. Burma went into the qualifiers yet to take part in an international fixture of any sort.

And unfortunately this would remain the case, as wouldn’t you just know it, Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines all withdrew before the group drew could even take place. This left India to qualify by default in the one available spot, and you wouldn’t have it any other way, would you?

Except there is one last twist in the tale as India, true to these qualifiers to the very end, gave one final withdrawal. They powerfully withdrew from their default position of World Cup qualifier, amazingly with a view to prepare for the next Olympic games instead, proving that the World Cup was not exactly the global phenomenon it is today.

The infamous rumored reason had been that FIFA would not allow India to play barefoot at the World Cup, which seems too “sexy” of a story to be true and with more than a hint of racism. But while it apparently did not have a baring on their decision to pull out, they had in fact played barefoot to great effect at the 1948 Olympics, and would do so again at the 1952 edition.

NO QUALIFIER

***

Total Qualified Teams (13):

Bolivia

Brazil

Chile

England

Italy

Mexico

Paraguay

Spain

Sweden

Switzerland

United States

Uruguay

Yugoslavia

*

And there we have it, qualifying done and dusted. Out of the 32 teams that entered, 11 out of the originally intended 14 qualified to join the hosts and champions, 15 either withdrew during qualifying or declined an invitation to the finals, and 9 didn’t play a game at all. Fair to say a roaring success as far as this time period goes. As for the actual 1950 World Cup, well you’ll just have to Google that for now, as it’s a story for another day (we mean that rhetorically, there are currently no plans for us to cover the 1950 World Cup).

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