It’s not all beautiful football, glory goals and thrilling knockout action at the four-yearly showpiece
The Battle of Santiago
“Good evening. The game you are about to see is the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game.”
With those words, the BBC’s David Coleman introduced highlights of a group match between hosts Chile and Italy at the 1962 World Cup.
During his commentary, he dubbed it the “Battle of Santiago” and that label has stuck for what was likely the most lawless match in World Cup history.
There was already an edge in the build-up. Two Italy players – Jose Altafini and Humberto Maschio – hailed from South America, while Italian reporters had maligned Chile as a country. Italian football was also in the vice-like defensive grip of “catenaccio,” literally “door bolt”.
It was a toxic brew.
The 66,000 fans at Chile’s national stadium witnessed spitting, two-footed challenges, punches, scuffles and even police intervention.
Italy got much of the blame but Chile weren’t immune – Maschio’s nose was broken by a punch from Leonel Sanchez. Amazingly, Sanchez, the son of a professional boxer, stayed on the field as referee Ken Aston and his assistant missed the punch.
Italy defender Mario David went looking for revenge after he had been felled by a Sanchez left hook and high-kicked at Sanchez’s throat. He was sent off, joining team-mate Georgio Ferrini, who had earlier been ejected for lashing out at a Chile player.
Italy, down to nine men, held on until two late goals saw Chile win 2-0. Chile eventually finished third, while Italy went home in disgrace.
Confetti and corruption
Controversy and confetti. The 1978 World Cup in Argentina was awash with both. Twelve years after being awarded the right to host the tournament, Argentina was a very different country. It had been under the control of a military junta since 1976, when a coup overthrew the government of Isabel Peron. Its ruthless treatment of political opponents – tens of thousands would simply disappear – cast a shadow over the tournament.
The pressure on coach Cesar Luis Menotti and his team to exploit their home advantage and become the third South American country after Uruguay and Brazil to win the World Cup was huge. And, after nearly 50 years of trying, Argentina did just that, beating the Netherlands 3-1 after extra time in a confetti-strewn stadium.
Inspired by striker Mario Kempes, who scored twice in the final to take his tournament tally to six, Argentina inflicted the second straight final defeat on the Dutch, who almost won it at the end of normal time when Robbie Rensenbrink hit the post.
The Dutch were without Johan Cruyff following his last-minute withdrawal. Cruyff later revealed that he didn’t board the plane to Argentina because of a kidnapping attempt months earlier. At the time, there was widespread speculation that his absence was an act of protest against the junta.
Forty years later, Argentina’s triumph still raises eyebrows.
At that tournament, there was a second group stage to determine which teams made it to the final, but the scheduling did not allow for the final group matches to take place at the same time. In Argentina’s case, the team took the field knowing that a 4-0 victory over Peru was required after Brazil had won their last group match against Poland 3-1.
Argentina won 6-0.
Raanan Rein, an Israeli professor of Latin American history, told a Fifa-hosted conference on World Cup history in 2010 that he was “100 per cent persuaded” that the junta was somehow involved, collaborating with “at least one foreign government” to fix the match.
Others argue that the Peru team just fell away after a strong start and were unnerved by the intimidating atmosphere inside the stadium in Rosario. Regardless, it was time for the joyous people of Argentina to let the confetti fly.
Cynicism wins as West Germany beat Austria
Fifa had been warned in 1978 that final group games should be played at the same time to ensure fairness.
Four years later in Spain, one of the most controversial World Cup matches ever occurred when West Germany played Austria in the “Disgrace of Gijon”. Similar to earlier circumstances when Argentina routed Peru 6-0 to reach the final, both teams took to the field knowing exactly what was at stake. Austria and West Germany knew that a 1-0 win for the Germans would ensure they both progressed to the next round because they both had a superior goal difference to Algeria, who won their final group game against Chile the day before.
After West Germany took an early lead through a goal by Horst Hrubesch, neither team did much to try to score again. There were 40-yard back passes and endless passages of play involving sideward moves.
The crowd, which included Algerian fans, grew restless as the final minutes were particularly ridiculous.
There is no indication the match was fixed but it as gone down as one of the most cynical ever to be played. Algeria’s fans waved banknotes to illustrate their fury at what had taken place on the field.
The shambles prompted Fifa to change the rules. From 1986, the final group games would all have to be played at the same time.
Algeria met eventual champions Germany in the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup, and the memory of the “Disgrace of Gijon” remained a motivation tool for coach Vahid Halilhodzic. “Rigging kept us from going further,” Halilhodzic said ahead of the match, which Algeria lost 2-1.
Zinedine Zidane ends his career with a headbutt
There has never been a final act in football quite like Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt.
The France great had been coaxed out of international retirement by coach Raymond Domenech to help his country’s flagging campaign to make it to the 2006 tournament in Germany.
He did exactly that and, after dispatching Spain in the round of 16, France faced a Brazil side boasting Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka.
France dominated and Thierry Henry’s goal following a free kick from Zidane saw France make it to the semi-finals, where a penalty from “Zizou” was enough to beat Portugal.
In both matches, 34-year-old Zidane was back to his dazzling best and it looked like he would end his career by lifting the World Cup. But there was always an edge to Zidane, a chance he could self-combust.
The final against Italy started well enough for France, with Zidane putting his team ahead early with a chipped penalty kick that bounced down off the crossbar. But the sheer audacity of that spot-kick was perhaps a sign that not everything was right.
After defender Marco Materazzi headed the Azzurri level in the 19th minute, the match failed to ignite and was seemingly heading for penalties. As extra time ran down, the two scorers were at the centre of one of the most unforgettable episodes in World Cup history. TV cameras missed the incident at first but did show Materazzi lying on the ground. Replays then showed Zidane racing toward the defender following an exchange of words and felling him with his head – his last act as a professional player. France held on until the shootout, which Italy won, but the final will always be remembered for Zidane’s headbutt.
Suarez sinks his teeth into Chiellini
Luis Suarez, on the ground, clutching at his teeth, is one of the most bizarre images of the Brazil World Cup.
Fresh from scoring two goals to help his team beat England 2-1 in a group match Uruguay needed to win, Suarez was expected to play a prominent role against Italy to spearhead his team’s advancement to the round of 16.
He did play a leading role – only not in the way most had anticipated.
Late in the game, Suarez inexplicably bit Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder following a tussle in the penalty area. The referee didn’t see the incident, which proved costly for the Azzurri because Uruguay soon scored the only goal of the match.
Suarez faced severe retrospective action, though. He was banned from all football-related activity for four months, hit with a nine-match international ban and given a big fine.
Suarez wasn’t new to biting. It was his third offence following previous incidents for Ajax and Liverpool. Suarez’s bad habit didn’t put off Barcelona, who weeks later bought the striker from Liverpool for £65 million.
It was Suarez’s second controversial World Cup moment. In the last minute of extra time in a hard-fought 2010 quarter-final match against Ghana, Suarez was sent off after he used his hands to keep out Dominic Adiyiah’s goal-bound header. Asamoah Gyan hit the bar with the penalty, and Suarez was shown celebrating on the sideline.
Ghana went on to lose a penalty shootout, failing to become Africa’s first semi-finalists as the continent staged its first World Cup.
Suarez, who claims he is a reformed character, said: “I have a debt to repay to myself and Uruguay, to try to show a good image.” Time will tell.