Saturday, October 9, 2010

All smiles.
Tip and Tap, showing belly buttons, as if coming from the distant future (or the fashions of the late 1990s and the early years of 21st century repeat the 1970s) and welcoming everybody. The draw of the round robin groups brought the hype up a notch or two. There is an old tradition of manipulating Lady Luck in football – a draw is not a pure draw, but organized in a way avoiding any chances of, God forbids!, comcentrating big favourites in one preliminary group and outsiders in another. Common sense tells us that some teams are much better than others and deserve better chance to reach at least the second stage of the tournament. Thus, teams are divided in four groups before hand. Host country, the reigning world champions, and European heavyweights are in one. South Americans are the second. The rest of the European coutries, since they are the most participants anyway, are in third. The small fry from the rest of the world are in the outsiders group. Theoretically, it makes sense. It is also lamented practice, for the rules are not entirely fair: at the bottom is supposed to be the current FIFA ranking of teams. It is based on recent results and back in the 1970s it used to be more or less constant – there was no way a country like, say, Zaire penetrating the higher ranks. On the other hand Italy was always among the top, which also coresponds to traditional conception of this country as an world power in football. But Holland was a complete newcomer to the favourites and even is hard to tell how much its ranking was based on the national team and how much on the power of Ajax and Fejenoord. The bottom was a bit problematic too – since the ‘rest of the world’ consisted of only three countries, the forth outsider was to be European team – and Bulgaria got the honor. Why Bulgaria? It was not based on tradition, since this country entered World Cup finals for the forth time. East Germany was a debutant at the same time. The Bulgarian World Cup record was pityful (at best), yet, better than the non-existant one of the East Germans. Neither team was making waves during the qualification stage. Yet, DDR produced Cup Winners Cup winner in 1974 and perhaps was seen as a more promissing team than the dreadful Bulgarians. Anyway, that was the initial division and then the draw took place and the results… well, they never can be fair to some. Lady Luck played the following joke:
Group 1: West Germany 2. Chile 3. East Germany 4. Australia.
The weakest group, where the winner was absolutely sure – West Germany was not to face much opposition. Lady Luck or Mister Crook? There is interesting tradition… host countries always ‘draw’ the easiest opponents at the finals. The logic is undertsandable… since the local crowd is to be the biggest, let’s give the host a chance to go ahead… and generate revenue. Nobody complains about that and in 1974 the thrill of ideology replaced the thrill of football: the two German states made for political battle – Communism against Democracy; East vs West; Trabant vs Mercedes Benz… it was torny. And ripe for media hype.
Group 2: 1. Brazil 2.Yugoslavia 3.Scotland 4.Zaire
Brazil was considered the favourite; Yugoslavia and Scotland were to fight for the second place, with slightly better Yugoslavian chances. Clear group.
Group 3: 1.Holland 2.Uruguay 3.Sweden 4.Bulgaria.
The ‘iron’ group… Holland was expected to be head and shoulders above the rest, but the other three were seen as relatively equal and the second place was for grabs. Unpredictable group and therefore the toughest.
Group 4: 1.Italy 2.Argentina 3.Poland 4.Haiti.
Italy was huge favourite with their impressive record in the last two years. Argentina, always considered a potential contender, was expected to be second. Poland nobody counted – the Poles were seen as lucky freaks, who were to be happy just playing at the finals. The only problem was who was to finish first and who second – the Italians were considered with better chances.
And once the draw took place, everybody went to their preparations and expectations, misconcepted and fantastic as they were… until the tournament started.