Wednesday, October 6, 2010

But the hype was building up – the 10th World Cup was projected as the best ever. There was good base for such expectations: Mexico 1970 was a great success, yet, Mexico itself was a ‘third world’ country and, additionally, the conditions were not favourable for display of great football – it was too hot. The distances between cities – too big. West Germany no doubt would be better – count on German efficiency, sophisticated transportation, milder weather, new super modern (well, for the early 1970s), impeccable organization, flawless technology, closer to each other venues. Mexico counted a lot on enthusiasm and if the tournament was not so good, very likely the country would have been severely criticized for various inconveniences – Germany had no handicaps. Add to it brand new cup and new tournament format. The format was specifically designed to boost interest: longer tournament now, with newly introduced second stage round robin groups instead of direct elimination. Only the games for the title and the third place were to be played as ever. The scheme automatically translated into revenues: more fans were to stay longer – and spend more – in West Germany. Television was to pay more as well, capturing unpredecented audience around the world. The world itself had not only more TV sets by 1974, but colour television was the rule now, thus making watching even more tempting. Advertisement naturally followed, lured by greater opportunity. Today 1974 World Cup is often lamented as ‘lost paradise’ – the last strictly football tournament, and not commercialized, but this is ill informed nostalgia. In fact, 1974 World Cup was the first truly commercialized World Cup, opening the avenues for further insane commercialization. Money was all the talk in 1974 – and this time players were directly involved. It was no longer just billboards, advertising this and that on the stadiums – it was personal contracts with star players; sponsorship of teams, and the ‘profanity’ of players paid lucratively for their respectfull countries. More or less, the new business attitudes were led by the Dutch – they started a bit earlier than other countires, with Dutch players agreeing to play for the national team if paid. The novelty of business stepping into national team football had its hilarious moments: one was Cruiff playing with different kit than the rest of the team, because the Dutch federation had contract with Adidas, but the best player had a contract with Puma. And he played with Puma, slightly adjusted – with two stripes on jersey, shorts, and socks, to kind of match the three-stripes Adidas kit of the rest of the team. No such conflict of uniform – and also of business interests – would be possible today, but back in 1974 the whole idea was so new, including the stripes of Adidas, which were a logo, yet, more than a logo – a part of the kit really.
The other commercial fun produced by the Dutch resulted from Krol scoring in his own net against Bulgaria – Holland had a contract with a sponsor, stating that they were to get a bonus for every goal they scored. Innocent days… the sponsors did not forsee the possibility of own goals. Cruiff, never forgetting that business comes first, studied thcontract after the match, saw the gap, claimed the money – and the team received it promptly. Thus, the Dutch are perhaps the only team in the world paid for scoring in their own net.
The problem of money became critical for the West Germans too – the purists and the federation grumbled about the advertising contracts the stars got: the players seemed busier shooting shaving cream commercials than training. But the real crisis came when the team demanded more money from the federation. The officials were offended – what happened to the pride of patriotic playing? The players were blasted as greedy and selfish. The federation actually considered dumping the whole squad, and selecting entirely different team for the finals. This was the only time West Germany had the luxury of vast pool of talented players – and such proposition would not have been disastrous. The irony of it… but it never happened, for at the end players and federation came into terms.
Other comersial propostions went straight into lunacy – such as those made to the players of Zaire by Mobutu Sésé Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga ("The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.") He was to provide money, cars, and women for life, if Zaire won the World Cup.
Money apart, there was another bit of trivia related to 1974 World Cup – it was perhaps the most undemocratic representation of states. The range was wide, and if the least undemocratic country was easy to pinpoint – Yugoslavia – the one to top the list was not so. Well, Communists arrived in good block: Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Poland, East Germany. Add to them the military dictatorships of Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile. And add the insane dictatorships of Zaire and Haiti. Democray lost 7 to 9. As for the stars of the anti-democratic team – tough choice: Chile was all the talk, but General Pinochet pails in comparisemnt to rulers of Zaire and Haiti. In this squad Yugoslavia, Brazil, and Uruguay looked like almost democratic states…
But money and politics were not to spoil the show and football got the upper hand at the end. And football obliterated everything else quickly – as soon as the draw for the round robin groups took place.
From this point nothing else mathered. Four groups. The excitement of expectations and the faulty mathematics of calculating luck and chances. By statistics, common sense, tradition, star players, current form, favourites and outsiders were lined up. When the competition started, expert opinions went down the drain. Well, most of the expert opinions anyway… during the tournament they were reshaped, but one thing was certain: the outsiders surprized everybody by their… weakness. Nobody expected the likes of Zaire, Haiti, and Australia to be more than ‘exotic’, yet, those were not only the strangest, but also the weakest ever outsiders playing at the World Cup finals.