These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About

Tim Flight - July 5, 2018

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
Pelé (right) and Diego Maradona publicly bury the hatchet at Euro 2016, held in France. 90 Minutes

Greatest Players

Everyone has heard of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo spoke of the greatest players of all time, but as this is a history list, we will be ignoring them altogether. It is also hard to determine who is the best soccer player of all time in and of itself, given the great advances in sports science since the 1990s, which gives Messi and Ronaldo a rather unfair advantage over players who lived at a time when smoking was recommended by doctors and a heap of steak and fries was thought to be suitable pre-match meal. Nonetheless, let’s have a go…

Pelé is a name that is deservedly familiar even amongst people who hate soccer. Born in 1940, he grew up in impoverished conditions in the city of Bauru, São Paulo, and was so poor that he learned to play soccer with a grapefruit and a sock stuffed with newspaper. Aged 15, Pelé was taken by his father, a former soccer player, to try out for the famous Brazilian team, Santos, and the rest is history. A year later, he was the top scorer in the Brazilian league, and went on to score 1,000 career goals, winning 3 World Cups.

The most serious contender for Pelé’s title as greatest of all time comes from Brazil’s greatest rivals, Argentina. Diego Maradona was short, fat, and only effective with one foot, but was also undeniably brilliant. His position as a creative midfielder meant that he did not score anywhere near as many goals as Pelé, but his incredible skill, range of passing, and habit of scoring incredible solo goals have secured his legendary status. Like Pelé, Maradona grew up in poverty and made his professional debut in his mid-teens, but went on to play in Europe for Barcelona, Napoli, and Sevilla.

Comparing the two is hard, given their differing positions, and often the debate comes down to the pair’s contrasting personalities. Where Pelé was known to be a gentleman on the pitch and has been praised for his humanitarian work since retiring, Maradona was known for employing dirty tricks to win games. At the 1986 World Cup, for instance, he scored a blatant handball to knock England out of the tournament, which he cheekily nicknamed ‘the Hand of God‘. At Napoli, Maradona also fraternized with the Mafia and picked up a cocaine habit that earned him a 15-month ban.

Another true gentleman, Bobby Moore captained England at the 1966 World Cup. Despite an incredible drinking habit, Moore was the model professional and is seen by many, including Pelé, as the greatest defender of all time. He made his name at West Ham (along with Geoff Hurst, scorer of the hat-trick in the final, and England’s other goal-scorer, Martin Peters). He is remembered as an elegant central defender who used his innate understanding of the game to compensate for his lack of pace. Tragically, Bobby Moore died of testicular cancer in 1993, all but forgotten by the football world.

Also worth mentioning is the great Hungarian playmaker, Ferenc Puskás, captain of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ (Hungarian national team) of the 1950s. Before a game against England in 1953, Puskás overheard the opposition referring to him as a ‘little fat chap’. He responded by scoring twice in a 6-3 victory. The game is known as ‘The Match of the Century’, because Hungary’s forward-thinking tactics, to which Puskás was fundamental, changed how teams played football. He later played for Real Madrid, becoming one of their greatest players, and Spain, having taken Spanish Citizenship due to the perilous conditions in Soviet-ruled Hungary.

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
Andrés Escobar, whose murder is widely believed to have been in response to the own goal he scored at USA 94, pictured at the tournament. The Bogota Post

Football and Crime

With so much money changing hands and national pride at stake, it is little wonder that football has a long association with crime. The most visible element of this is football hooliganism, which still blights the so-called ‘Beautiful Game’ to this day. Fan violence and sport date back thousands of years, with Pliny the Younger complaining about spectators fighting each other at chariot races, allegiances to riders in which, ludicrously, were decided by the fan’s favorite color. Unfortunately, sporting violence is yet-worse when it isn’t just favorite colors at stake, and some ridiculous fans literally view international fixtures as war.

But hooliganism is not confined merely to international games. Club sides in every country have hated rivals, sometimes local but often simply because of a perceived injustice many years before, and some fans take it upon themselves to beat up, and even kill, fans of the opposition team. England has the worst reputation for hooliganism, which peaked with the tragic Heysel Disaster in 1985 when fighting between Liverpool and Juventus fans led to a concrete wall collapsing and crushing 39 people to death. Fortunately, football authorities are much better at preventing such heartbreaking events today, though fights still occur.

In 1981, the Liverpool manager Bill Shankly quipped that ‘someone said to me “To you, football is a matter of life or death!” and I said “Listen, it’s more important than that”‘. This became disturbingly literal in the aftermath of Colombia’s exit from the 1994 World Cup. The captain, Andrés Escobar, scored his own goal against the United States that knocked Columbia out of the tournament. Barely a week later, Escobar was killed in his car by gunmen, one of whom shouted ‘¡Gol!’ (‘Goal!’) after every bullet. The murder is widely believed to have been because of the own goal.

Another criminal element in soccer is match-fixing. Typically, people bet great sums on the outcome of games, and players or match officials are bribed to ensure that the punter wins. A series of mysterious floodlight failures in England in the late 1990s were even traced to Chinese betting syndicates. In 2006, several of the biggest Italian teams were found guilty of rigging matches by selecting ‘favorable’ referees. As a consequence, Juventus were stripped of the 2004-05 Italian league title, relegated to the third division, and deducted 30 points, with their general manager, Luciano Moggi, banned for life from football.

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
George Weah, the President of Liberia, is also a three-time African Footballer of the Year winner, and was named FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995. AS English

Football and Politics

Soccer and politics have a long history, dating back to the Inclosure Acts in England (17th century onwards). Landowners, responding to changes in agriculture requiring large swathes of land to be fenced off for sheep farming, removed families from the land they had farmed for centuries as tenants. Protests were swiftly and brutally put down. In response, many communities resorted to using football matches as a cover for riots, as for instance at Kettering in 1740. In this match, 500-a-side in line with the rules of the early football games described above, fences and mills were torn down by ‘players’.

Where most teams have rivalries because of their geographical proximity, a player controversially changing teams, or because of a bad refereeing decision, the enmity between Barcelona and Real Madrid runs deeper. The notorious fascist dictator, General Francisco Franco, used to attend Real Madrid matches, and brutally put down Catalan protests in Barcelona on his rise to power in the Spanish Civil War, executing 10,000 people. He is also rumored to have intervened in the transfer of the great Alfredo Di Stefano, who was due to join Barcelona but eventually opted for Real Madrid. Relations have never recovered, understandably.

More recently, when Catalonia voted for independence from Spain in Autumn 2017, Spanish police arrested separatist leaders and violently subdued protestors. In response, Barcelona closed their stadium to fans for their league match against Las Palmas, leaving the 99,354-capacity Nou Camp stadium empty. Shortly afterward, Barcelona fans unveiled a banner reading ‘Welcome to the Catalan Republic’ in the Champions League match against Juventus, an event watched by millions across the world. Soccer matches around the world are frequently the stage for political messages to be displayed, including less-wholesome anti-immigration banners during the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Europe of 2015.

But let us end on a positive note, with George Weah. Weah is one of the most successful and celebrated footballers of recent decades, being crowned World Footballer of the Year in 1995 and African Footballer of the Year three times, winning numerous cups and titles with his various teams along the way. After retiring, Weah entered politics, running for President of Liberia in 2005, but his lack of experience and education saw him lose to a Harvard-educated rival. Undeterred, Weah went back to school, got a degree from a US college, and was finally elected President in January 2018.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Londonist – What Happened To The Teams That Competed In The First Ever FA Cup?

Wired – Everything You Need to Know About FIFA’s Corruption Scandal

VOX – Let’s Count All The Ways FIFA Is Corrupt

CNN – World Cup Beer Battle Brewing Between Brazil And FIFA

The Guardian – World Cup Theft: ‘Gangster And Brother Stole Trophy In 1966’

Bleacher Report – Hooliganism in English Football

Republic World – Why Were Juventus Relegated? All You Need To Know About The Calciopoli Scandal

BBC Sports – Calciopoli: The Scandal That Rocked Italy And Left Juventus In Serie B

Hungry Today – On This Day – In 1953 Hungary Trashed England In “Match Of The Century”

BBC News – England V Hungary – A Football Match That Started A Revolution

Be Soccer – George Weah- The Only African Winner Of The Ballon d’Or

More:

Child, David. “More than a game: How politics and football interplay in Spain.” Al Jazeera, April 18th 2018.

Dasgupta, Shirsho. “Want to understand politics in the last 25 years? Look at football.” The Guardian, December 14th 2017.

“George Weah: From footballer to Liberia’s president.” BBC News, January 22nd 2018.

Heatley, Michael. A History of Football. Stroud: Green Umbrella, 2004.

Kuper, Simon. Football Against the Enemy. London: Orion, 2003.

F. P. Magoun, Jr. “Football in Medieval England and Middle-English Literature.” The American Historical Review, 35, no. 1 (1929): 33-45.

Marples, Morris. A History of Football. London: Secker and Warburg, 1954.

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