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March 24, 2010

At the World Cup, controversy reigns

Bennett By Roger Bennett
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

To fill the void during the countdown to kickoff, lists of the World Cup's greatest goals, teams and players are endlessly paraded out and debated. But while the tournament is a platform for exquisite moments of individual beauty, team perfection and general human superlatives, soccer is a sport of both high and low culture. Rogues are celebrated as much as legends, and as any longtime fan will tell you, the searing pain of a nation's hopes being dashed in sinister circumstances lasts longer than the thrill of any crucial goal, sublime pass or plucky victory.

Disgrace and controversy have been fixtures of every World Cup from the very first tournament onward. In 1930 a Uruguayan goalkeeper went on a scandalous, Caligula-style bender to release eight weeks of isolation suffered in training camp. And in 2006, French legend Zinedine Zidane's remaking of soccer in Vince McMahon's image courtesy of his infamous coupe de boule was detected not by the referee but by the fourth official, despite the fact FIFA had steadfastly eschewed the use of instant replay.

Controversy plays a hallowed role in the tournament's history. For FIFA, an audience of millions watching the game is important, but making sure that audience talks about the tournament is almost as critical. The thrill of victory makes the heart skip a beat but the joy fades and can be forgotten. The stain of scandal or the sting of being robbed and cheated sticks in the throat like a fishbone that cannot be dislodged for decades. (To test this theory under scientific conditions, wait 20 years, go into any Irish bar and raise your glass in public toast to Thierry Henry.)

Here are 10 of the most fabled controversies in World Cup history, the embers of which still burn today.

1. Back in black: Italy versus France, 1938

Italian soccer teamAP Photo

With Europe on the brink of war, Mussolini's Italian team, defending champions, reveled in their role as tournament heel. Their fixtures in France drew boisterous mobs of exiled Italian anti-fascists, up to 10,000 strong, who came to jeer their country's every move. These protests only appeared to raise the Italians' game. Led by the cunning play of Giuseppe Meazza, the team strolled to a second consecutive world championship.

Controversy came in the quarterfinals against the hosts. As both teams sported blue jerseys, Italy was asked to bring its alternate shirts which were traditionally white. Instead, on Mussolini's orders, the team took to the field in black shirts, the Maglia Nera, a symbol of the feared and despised Italian fascist paramilitary. It was a gesture purposefully designed to goad the thousands of French and Italian protestors in the crowd. As an additional flourish, Il Duce ordered his players to hold the fascist salutes they effected before kickoff until the howling protestors had run out of energy. The team kept the title for the next 12 years as even the World Cup was trumped by the swirling conflict which consumed the Continent.

2. Fists of fury: Italy versus Chile, 1962

Giorgio FerriniAP Photo

The Italians' reputation for Machiavellian tactics became legendary in the wake of the "Battle of Santiago," against Chile. One of the most violent games in World Cup history, this was more martial arts demonstration than soccer match. The action was so shocking that the BBC saw fit to preface a broadcast of the game film with the following warning: "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."

It took just 12 seconds for the first foul to be inflicted and 12 minutes for the first player to be sent off, Italian midfielder Giorgio Ferrini, who refused to leave the field and had to be forcibly removed by police. After attempting to officiate the 90-minute riot, referee Ken Aston was inspired to invent yellow and red cards in the wake, admitting "I wasn't reffing a football match, I was acting as an umpire in military maneuvers."

3. War reparations: England versus West Germany, 1966

Soccer truly came home when the World Cup was played for the first time in England, the nation which invented the game. The hosts won their only championship, but the legality of their winning goal has always been hotly contested, and their beaten foe, West Germany, proceeded to become one of their greatest rivals.

The final was played at Wembley Stadium in London, a city the Luftwaffe had nearly blitzed into submission 26 years before. The 93,000 who packed the stands were bolstered by 400 million others tuning into televised broadcasts of the game -- the first played between these two rivals since the war. The game was tied 2-2 at the end of regulation. Eleven minutes into overtime, English striker Geoff Hurst smashed the ball goalward from close range inside the German box. The ball cannoned off the underside of the German bar and appeared to bounce either over the line or exactly on it depending whether you are English or German. The only opinion that mattered, though, was that of Soviet linesman Tofik Bakhramov, who awarded the goal. There is an apocryphal story that when Bakhramov was on his deathbed he was asked how he was so sure it was a goal and he gave the one-word reply "Stalingrad," referring to the bloody World War II battle in which 750,000 Soviets died.

4. Wristicuffs: England's Bogota bracelet scandal, 1970

England may have been defending champion at Mexico 1970, but the English were vehemently despised across Latin America. The entire continent was still simmering over the last World Cup, which was widely believed to have been fixed. The English further offended their hosts by flying in an arsenal of frozen meals so their squad could avoid local cuisine and the Montezuma's revenge they associated with it.

On the way to the tournament, the English stopped off in Bogota, Colombia, and their captain and national talisman, Bobby Moore, was apprehended for allegedly stealing an emerald bracelet. The rest of the team travelled on, but the iconic defender was placed under house arrest for four days before being released.

The modern-day equivalent of the incident would be if Wayne Rooney was jailed on the way to South Africa. The temporary loss of Moore unsettled the English squad, who became further sleep-deprived thanks to the flotilla of Mexican automobiles that spent the wee hours honking its horns as it circled the Guadalajara Hilton, the poorly chosen English base camp. West Germany had its revenge for 1966 as it picked off a tired England in the quarterfinals.

5. Don't cry for me, Netherlands: Netherlands versus Argentina, 1978

Argentina, the hosts, reached the final against the creative Dutch side in murky circumstances. The Argentineans needed a four-goal victory to qualify for the championship game, and were able to blast six past a strangely paralyzed Peruvian side that was later rumored to have been paid handsomely to fix the score.

Few games have been played in a more intimidating atmosphere than the final, held in the raucous atmosphere of Buenos Aires Estadio Monumental. The trophy was claimed with moments of technically brilliant soccer, but the hosts' gamesmanship also had an influential role in the outcome. First, the Dutch team bus was taken on a prolonged and circuitous route to the stadium. Then the Dutch were kept on the field for nearly 10 minutes before the game began, as their hosts chose to remain in the locker room, leaving the Dutch to face a war of nerves, alone with only a hostile crowd of more than 70,000 for company.

The Argentineans finally emerged, only to question the legality of a plaster cast on Dutch midfielder Rene van der Kerkhof's hand, which had been sanctioned by FIFA and worn in previous games. Having won the mind games, Argentina set about winning the actual game, delivering the trophy the ruling Argentinean military junta craved.

6. Teutonic stitch-up: West Germany versus Austria, 1982

Algerian fansAP Photo

Plucky Algeria kicked off its first World Cup tournament by shocking West Germany 2-1. Back then, group games were not played at the same time, and subsequent results meant the Germans lined up for their final group game against Austria aware that a 1-0 victory would allow both teams to progress at Algeria's expense.

The Austrians proceeded to leak a goal within the first 10 minutes before the competition drew to a screeching halt. Collusion has never been proven, but suffice it to say the ball barely made it out of midfield for the remainder of the game. Outraged Algerian fans powerlessly waved banknotes from the terraces to suggest that the fix was in. One German fan expressed his displeasure by setting fire to his own flag. The team's hotel was besieged by its own fans, who mounted a protest back at the hotel, but the team's coach, Jupp Derwall, dismissed his critics, arguing "we wanted to progress, not play football." The incident's legacy was the changing of the rule for subsequent tournaments. The final two games in each group are now played simultaneously.

7. Sheiken, not stirred: France versus Kuwait, 1982

Fahd Al-AhmadAP Photo

The fluid French delighted with their elegant and potent attacking soccer throughout the tournament. Led by the offensive creativity of the "Three Musketeers" -- Michel Platini, Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana -- they were almost unstoppable in the opening round. And then they met the Kuwaitis, who unleashed a novel strategy to prevent them from scoring. Sheikh Fahad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, president of the Kuwait Football Association, left his seat and stormed the field, removing his players in protest of a French goal that he believed had been scored only after his players had heard a whistle blown from the stands and stopped playing. The match official, Ukrainian Miroslav Stupar, wilted in the spotlight and reversed his original decision, disallowing the goal, the only time a World Cup decision was vetoed by a member of the crowd. The French still won 4-1.

8. Fallen god: Maradona, 1986, 1994

England faced Argentina in the 1986 quarterfinal grudge match, the first time the two rivals had met after fighting a real war over the Falkland Islands. Logic would dictate that an experienced referee would be handed the duty. Instead, the Tunisian representative Ali Bennaceur was awarded his first World Cup game. In the 51st minute, Maradona used the "Hand of God" to punch the ball past a stunned English goalkeeper into the back of the net. Everyone in the world saw the illegal use of a fist, apart from the one guy who mattered. Bennaceur awarded the goal, and later blamed his error on a hemorrhoid treatment he was taking that affected his sight. When challenged about the legality of his goal, Maradona innocently yet poetically suggested it was scored with a "little bit of the hand of God, a little bit of Maradona's head."

Just eight years later, the Argentinean was the villain of the tournament, sent home for ephedrine doping. After scoring an opening-round goal, he celebrated in such a hopped-up style that a urine sample was almost unnecessary. Grabbing a sideline television camera and pressing his mug against it, Maradona was, in the words of the Guardian, "broadcast around the world, his contorted features made him look like a lunatic, flying on a cocktail of adrenalin and every recreational drug known to man."

9. Diving is believing: South Korea versus Italy, Spain, 2002

Francesco TottiShaun Botterill/Getty Images

Just because you are paranoid does not mean they aren't out to get you. When host South Korea bounced Italy from the 2002 tournament, Italian manager Giovanni Trapattoni cried conspiracy. The referee, Byron Moreno of Ecuador, seemed hell-bent on ensuring the Koreans progressed, disallowing a perfectly fine Italian goal and controversially sending off their star, Francesco Totti, for diving to draw a foul.

The Spanish newspapers belittled the Italian claims, but when Spain lost to Korea in the next round, the Spanish newspapers changed their tune, with Marca's headline screaming "Italy was right!" Referee Gamal Ghandour disallowed two legal Spanish goals and his linesmen -- one Ugandan, the other Trinidadian -- judged one Spanish attack after another to be offside. Moreno returned to a hero's welcome in Ecuador but was out of the game within a year after receiving two domestic bans for crooked refereeing. Ghandour retired shortly after Spanish newspapers accused him of accepting a Hyundai car as a "gift" on behalf of the Korean Football Association.

10. Battle of the brewskis, 2006

The most protracted argument at the last World Cup was neither the "Battle of Nuremberg" between Portugal and the Netherlands -- in which a jittery Russian referee, Valentin Ivanov, awarded a startling 16 yellow cards and four reds -- nor was it the performance of English referee Graham Poll, an infamously smug official who awarded Croatian Josip Simunic three yellow cards when two should have been sufficient to grant him an early bath. The most heated controversy occurred before a ball had been kicked when the German media discovered that America's own Budweiser, King of Beers, had been granted a monopoly on sales inside World Cup stadia.

Bitburger, plucky manufacturers of a local beer known as Bit, were goaded into suing as the hometown press whipped up the conflict to a foamy head. Der Speigel demanded, "What is this U.S. beer? An amber-colored cold drink that gives you a headache without making you drunk," furious that an American brew was the only one on sale in a country famed for its beer. Under local pressure, Bud was forced to relent, permitting its local rival to be available on tap as long as it was sold in unmarked cups.

Roger Bennett is the co-author of the forthcoming "ESPN World Cup Companion," your guide to everything you need to know to enjoy the 2010 World Cup. E-mail him at sirfabiocapello@yahoo.com.