A Controversial History of the World Cup

Queen Elizabeth II presenting Englands captian Bobby Moore with the Jules Rimet in 1966.
Queen Elizabeth II presenting England's captian Bobby Moore with the Jules Rimet in 1966. | © National Media Museum from UK/Wikimedia Commons

As the World Cup final approaches, we take a look at some of the controversies that have plagued the World Cup throughout its 88-year history.


Poster for the first World Cup in Montevideo, Uruguay (1930)

The first FIFA World Cup took place in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1930. During the semifinal match between Uruguay and Yugoslavia, Uruguay’s second goal was allegedly made with an assist from a policeman who kicked the ball back on the pitch. It would have been more of a controversy if Uruguay’s win against Yugoslavia wasn’t with a five-point lead. The final score was Uruguay 6-1 and the team went on to win in the final match against Argentina.


Argentina football team in 1946

There were no official World Cup games in the 1940s because of the ongoing conflicts surrounding WWII. However, there was an unofficial game held between Germany and Sweden in 1942, in which Sweden came out victorious, and in 1946 Argentina beat Brazil 2-0 at the South American Championships.


Brazilian football team at the 1950 World Cup

When the World Cup officially resumed in 1950, Brazil was chosen to host the event. Favoured to win by the world audience, Brazil’s fans were so shocked when they lost to Uruguay that the stadium went silent, and three fans in attendance died of heart attacks.

The Jules Rimet Trophy was handed to the Uruguayan team without a ceremony, and the despair exhibited across the host country was a clear illustration the major role football played in Brazil’s national identity.


Ken Aston invented the red and yellow cards after witnessing the Battle of Santiago at the 1962 World Cup

As was typical of the era, the World Cup games during the 1960s had their fair share of controversy. The 1962 match played between host Chile and Italy has gone down in history as the ‘Battle of Santiago’ because of the violence that took place on the pitch. Police had to intervene four times, and the referee, Ken Atson, went on to introduce red and yellow cards into the game rules.

In 1966, when the games took place in England, all African countries refused to participate in the World Cup – the only time that an entire continent boycotted the event. This was also the first and only World Cup victory for England.


Uruguay and El Salvador officials meet after the end of the Football War in 1969

Conflict spilled off the pitch during the World Cup qualifiers in 1969 and resulted in what is now known as the ‘Football War’ between Honduras and El Salvador. The two nations had been dealing with ongoing border disputes in the lead up to these infamous matches.

The first game took place in Honduras, with the Honduran team beating El Salvador in overtime. Energised by the win, Honduran fans rioted and their behaviour was used by the El Salvadoran government to spread negative propaganda about Honduran people.

When the Honduran team landed in El Salvador for the second match, they were greeted with angry mobs. During the rendition of their rival’s national anthem at the begginning of the game, the Salvadorians held up a dirty rag rather than the Hunduran national flag.

El Salvador won the second game, but tensions between the two countries were still so high that the third match had to be held on neutral ground, in Mexico.

Victory in the third qualifying match went to El Salvador, gaining them entry to the 1970 World Cup. By this time, the strain between the two countries was so great that they cut diplomatic relations with one another. On July 14, 1969, the ‘Football War’ officially started when three Salvadoran aircrafts are reported to have crossed into Honduran airspace.

The conflict ended after four days, and is also known as ‘The Hundred Hour War’.


Algerian football team in 1982

In 1982, the Algerian team entered the World Cup for the first time. During the course of the event, the Algerian team repeatedly proved their skill and almost made it to the second round. Algeria’s advancement hinged on the outcome of West Germany v Austria, which would close out the first round of matches for Group 2.

If West Germany won by a margin of three points or more, Algeria would advance to the next round, but if they won by two points or less, Austria would advance. The West German team scored their first goal of the match within 10 minutes, and then proceeded to keep possession of the ball in their own half of the pitch, making it clear that they had no intention of winning by a higher point margin.

This was largely regarded with contempt and has been called the Disgrace of Gijón, named after the city in which the match took place.


Brazil receiving the Jules Rimet at the 1994 World Cup in Pasadena, Ca, after recovering from almost getting disqualified from the 1990 games

In 1994, the Chilean national team was banned from going to the World Cup due to events that had taken place in 1990.

During a 1990 World Cup qualifier match between Chile and Brazil, it appeared that Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas was hit by lit flare thrown from the Brazilian fan section. Rojas had blood pouring out of his head and the Chilean team rushed him off the field.

Luckily, one photographer at the event, Ricardo Alfieri, was able to capture the moment when the flare allegedly hit Rojas, and it was soon revealed that the wound on Rojas head was actually self-inflicted.

Apparently Rojas had a razor hidden in his gloves, and staged the injury in an attempt to disqualify the Brazilian team.

Had Alfieri not taken photographic evidence of the fraud, Brazil would have had no hope of making it to the 1990 World Cup in Italy.


Sculpture of the infamous Zidane head butt at the Centre Pompidou in Paris

Perhaps one of the most memorable moments in recent World Cup history, French footballer Zinedine Zidane, headbutted Italian player Marco Materazzi during the final match at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Zidane claimed that Materazzi had insulted his mother, who was ill at the time, thereby provoking the attack that was caught on camera for audiences across the world the see.

In 2016, Materazzi claimed that while he was guilty of talking trash to Zidane, the subject of his remarks was actually Zidane’s sister, not his mother.


Graffiti depicting the 2014 protest against the World Cup in Brazil

Ahead of the 2014 games in Brazil, Brazilians took to the streets to protest the World Cup. Hours before the opening ceremony, protests became violent, as Brazilian people cried out their discontent. The protesters were angry that money was being taken away from social services like health care and education and put towards preparations for the World Cup instead.

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