Throughout the history of the FIFA World Cup, there have been many great moments that football fans and analysts from every corner of the globe will remember. From an incredible goal to an incredible save, there have been many great moments at the World Cup. But sadly, while the tournament is a platform for intense moments of general human superlatives, individual beauty and team perfection, football has been a sport of both high and low culture at the World Cups.
The thrill of victory makes the heart skip a beat; the joy fades and can be forgotten. But, the stain of scandal or the sting of being robbed and cheated sticks in the throat like a fish-bone that cannot be dislodged for decades. Rogues are celebrated as much as legends, and as any longtime fan will tell you, the scorching pain of a country’s hopes being crushed to pieces in sinister circumstances lasts longer than the thrill of any sublime goal, memorable pass or plucky victory.
Controversy has played a hallowed role in World Cup’s history. For FIFA, an audience of millions watching the game is important, but making sure that a controversial incident or a bad decision by the match officials won’t be the highlight of the tournament is almost as critical. There are many moments in the World Cup that proved to be a major problem for the Beautiful Game, as they became the major talking point of the tournament. With that in mind, here we take a look at the 10 biggest controversies in World Cup history.
10. Sheikh ‘Fahad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah’ disallows a goal (France vs Kuwait, 1982)
One of the most memorable controversies surrounding the FIFA World Cup was the match between Kuwait and France in the 1982 World Cup hosted by Spain. In their only ever World Cup appearance, Kuwait were put into a group with England, France and Czechoslovakia, and were not expected to win anything. But, after managing a 1-1 draw in their match against Czechoslovakia, Kuwait faced France.
Sheikh Fahad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the then president of the Kuwait Football Association, left his seat from the stands and stormed onto the field, removing his players from the field 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 the match 4-1.
9. The Battle of Nuremberg (Netherlands vs Portugal, 2006)
Matches in World Cup are found to become even more chippy than usual when big teams face each other, but in a Round of 16 match in the 2006 World Cup (Germany), it got completely out of control. What probably made this even more surprising was the fact that it was Portugal and the Netherlands who were involved, not exactly the two sides known for being very aggressive. But from the start of the game, Russian referee Valentin Ivanov had no control, as he was forced to hand out a record four Red Cards and an unprecedented 16 yellow cards, both of which are records in any FIFA tournament.
It all started when Marco Van Basten got himself booked in the 2nd minute, and all hell broke loose afterwards, as Portugal’s legendary winger Luis Figo only got a yellow card for a headbutt, which is an automatic red card under the FIFA rules. Portugal wound up winning the match 1-0.
Luiz Felipe Scolari was later quoted approving Figo’s headbutt, saying, “Jesus Christ may be able to turn the other cheek but Luís Figo isn’t Jesus Christ!”
FIFA President Sepp Blatter also said “Russian referee Valentin Ivanov should have given himself a yellow card for his poor performance during the match!”
8. Peru helps Argentina knock out Brazil (Peru vs Argentina, 1978)
Back in the 1978 World Cup (Argentina), the second round of the tournament consisted of two group of four teams each, and the winner of each group advanced to the World Cup Final. Also, the last games for each team in the second round were not played simultaneously. Argentina knew they needed to win by at least 4 goals against Peru in order to leapfrog Brazil, and reach the final. A vast goal difference would be the only savior of Argentina. The score was 2-0 in Argentina’s favor at the half, but then Peru simply collapsed in the second half. After the match rumors spread that Peru had been bribed to help Argentina win big. Nothing was ever proven, but this controversy was an injustice to the Brazilians, knocking them out of the competition. The final score was 6-0, and it was all some people needed.
7. West Germany and Austria conspire against Algeria (West Germany vs Austria, 1982)
The group-stage game between West Germany and Austria in the 1982 World Cup (Spain) was the reason that all of the final group-stage matches were played at the same time from then on. When the two teams faced each other, there were quite a few possibilities that determined whether West Germany, Austria or Algeria would get eliminated. A German win by three or more goals would eliminate Austria. A draw or an Austrian win would eliminate West Germany. But a German victory by one or two goals would eliminate Algeria.
The whistle was blown, the match started and the West Germans scored 10 minutes into the match. After that, the two sides basically kicked the ball around the field, doing very very little, almost intentionally trying not to score. During the match, the outraged Algerian fans powerlessly waved banknotes from the terraces to suggest that the fix was in. When the final score line of 1-0 eliminated Algeria, the African side lodged a complaint with FIFA. However, the match result was allowed to stand, but it was clear to everyone what had happened.
6. Back in Black (Italy vs France, 1938)
In 1938, the last World Cup played before World War II, the Italian team was greeted by a hostile crowd in France. The French fans were against the Fascist movement in Italy, and anti-Fascist former Italians made the trip to France just to boo the Italian team. In a match against the home side, with the French wearing blue kits, the Italians were asked to wear their alternate kits, which were white. Instead, Mussolini had the Italians come out in black shirts and shorts as a symbol of the then-Fascist movement. 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. This further infuriated the crowd, their anger continuing to grow even more when the Italian side won. In fact, Italy won the entire World Cup, beating Hungary 4-2 in the final. The Italian team kept the title for the next 12 years as even the World Cup was trumped by the swirling conflict which consumed the Continent.
5. Zidane headbutts Materazzi (France vs Italy, 2006)
Zinedine Zidane was on the top of his game in the 2006 World Cup (Germany) after he almost single handedly put France in the World Cup Final. After scoring a superb opening goal with a stunningly taken penalty, Zidane almost scored a second goal during the first period of extra time, but his header was saved by Italy’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Zidane then went from hero to zero after he was sent off in the 110th minute of the game for headbutting Italian Marco Materazzi in the chest, leaving France with 10 men for the last 10 minutes. Zidane didn’t participate in the penalty shootout which Italy won 5-3.
It was later discovered through interviews that Marco Materazzi had insulted Zidane’s mother and sister, which led to Zidane’s heightened anger and reaction. In 2010, Zidane said that he would “rather die than apologize” to Materazzi for the headbutt in the final, but also admitted that he “could never have lived with himself” had he been allowed to remain on the pitch and help France win the match.
4. Referees help South Korea knock out Italy (Italy vs South Korea, 2002)
Going into the 2002 World Cup, South Korea (who were one of the two host nations) expected themselves to finally advance out of the group stage for the first time in their history, but their great World Cup will always be overshadowed by the decisions referees made, most notably in the match against Italy. In the Round of 16 in 2002, the South Koreans scored an astounding upset against Italy, thanks to the help of Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno, who seemed hell-bent on ensuring the Koreans progressed, disallowing a perfectly fine Italian goal in extra time with a bogus offside whistle and controversially sending off Francesco Totti, for diving.
As a result of this, South Korea won 2-1 on a golden goal from Ahn Jung-Hwan. Then in the quarterfinal, South Korea once again got the benefit of the doubt as Egyptian Referee Gamal Al-Ghandour disallowed two legal Spanish goals and his linesmen judged one Spanish attack after another to be offside, as South Korea went on to win 5-3 on penalties to reach the semifinals.
Shortly afterwards, FIFA forced both referee’s to retire. Moreno was accused of match-fixing and allegations while Ghandour had received a new car for helping South Korea to advance. Thankfully, such decisions weren’t the highlight of the game when South Korea lost 1-0 to Germany in the semi-final.
3. The Battle of Santiago (Italy vs Chile, 1962)
The match between Italy and Chile in the 1962 World Cup (Chile) is one of the most violent games in the tournament’s history. The first foul occurred in the 12th second; the first red card was handed out to Italian midfielder Giorgio Ferrini in the 12th minute. There were blatant punches and kicks to the face during the game, and policemen had to intervene no less than four times, while Italy and Chile literally fought it out for the whole 90 minutes.
The match was more of a martial arts demonstration that a typical football match. The 90-minute riot was so shocking that the BBC saw fit to preface a broadcast of the match with the 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.”
Also, referee Ken Aston who officiated the actions in the game, inspired to invent numerous yellow and red cards in the wake, later admitted, “I wasn’t reffing a football match, I was acting as an umpire in military maneuvers.”
2. Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ (Argentina vs England, 1986)
Diego Maradona remains to date, one of the most controversial figures in the sport’s history. The legend had a major impact in World Cup history, and he had one of the most memorable moments to back himself up in the tournament.
In the 1986 World Cup (Mexico), Argentina faced England in the quarterfinals. Six minutes into the second half, the ball came into the England box and goalkeeper Peter Shilton and Argentina striker Diego Maradona went up for the ball, challenging each other. Shilton had an 8-inch height advantage. Somehow, Maradona became “bigger” than Shilton for a moment, winning the ball in the air and scoring. Argentina would go on to win 2-1, and the tournament in the final, beating West Germany 3-2.
Asked afterwards about the goal, Maradona said it was scored “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios.” That translates to, “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” Photo evidence, of course, shows that Maradona’s head did not have anything to do with the goal.
1. Bakhramov rules Geoff Hurst’s goal (England vs West Germany, 1966)
Perhaps the most controversial incident in World Cup history was England’s World Cup-winning goal against West Germany in 1966. With the final tied at 2-2, England and West Germany went to extra time. Eleven minutes into the extra period, England’s Geoff Hurst put a shot on net. The ball hit the underside of the cross bar, bounced down, and then was cleared out. The referee did not know if the ball had completely crossed the line. He looked to his linesman, a Soviet named Tofik Bakhramov, who indicated it was a goal. That decision in England’s favor helped the country win its first and only World Cup, beating West Germany 4-2.
Bakhramov later said he thought the ball had bounced back off the net, not the crossbar, so he did not bother to observe whether the ball bounced over the goal line or not. To add more controversy to the tale, Bakhramov, according to lore, was asked on his death bed how he knew the ball crossed the line. He replied, “Stalingrad,” where over 75,000 Soviets had died fighting against the Nazis.
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