World Cup. Preliminary

Preliminary troubles. The chosen mascot of the 1990 World Cup proved to be… perfect.
Modern football came to the point of looking as badly constructed robot with easily replaceable, but equally unimpressive parts, a cheap toy of mass production, which is outrageously priced. The name ‘Ciao’ was also symbolic – it means both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’: hello to the crowning event of football to say bitter goodbye to the game.
Scandals and problems erupted well before the finals, most of them of political nature. On one hand was the fact – and not a new one – that Italy by the end of 1989 did not even start building and preparing stadiums and infrastructure and FIFA’s inspection was very unhappy about it. The Italian response was indignant: ‘What do you want, this is Italy! We do everything in the last minute.’ And political reasons were sited as an excuse, namely constant elections and changes of government on every level. Of course, corruption was easy to see, but was never mentioned. Meantime Communism was rapidly collapsing and the European map was already changing – Germany was practically unified, although by the start of the World Cup not yet in football terms, so there were no East Germans included in the German national team. USSR started its disintegration, which was not yet affecting the national team, for there were no players from the Baltic republics and Georgia, but the end was approaching and this will be the last time a team named ‘USSR’ to appear. Yugoslavia was also increasingly going to collapse and in the nastier possible way – in a long and messy civil war. Signs of that were present in football already – Zvonimr Boban was involved in fight between Croatian fans and Serbian Police, ‘in the name of Croatia’, as he put it bluntly, and for that he was banned from football, thus, from the national team, thus, weakening the team of Yugoslavia, which was also to appear for the last time in its ‘classic’ kind. Czechoslovakia will appear for the last time too, although its disintegration was civilized – football was affected already, though: Lubos Kubik and Ivo Knoflicek defected to the West before 1990. Politics perhaps played minor role in that – both were unhappy with rules for transfers abroad imposed by the Czechoslovakian Federation and run to the West to join Fiorentina (Kubik) and St. Pauli (Knoflicek). They were promptly banned, creating immediate problem for the national team coach, but the sudden and rapid political changes in 1989 changed things in their favour: 1990 started without official Communism, banishment was voided and both players were returned to the national team. No so lucky Romanian star defender Miodrag Belodedici, who also defected – to Yugoslavia. Running away from Ceausescu’s paradise was unforgetable crime – Belodedice was tried and sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison. And the Romanian Federation immediately cried to UEFA and FIFA that the player breached his contract with Steaua, so he was banished for 1 year and was able to really join Crvena zvezda (Belgrade) only after serving his ban. By the summer of 1990 he was still the wanted criminal and was not included in the Romanian national team.
The Colombian case – or rather, why was not there a Colombian case? The country was in the deadly grip of, practically, a civil war between whatever government was ruling, the leftist guerillas controlling large parts of the country, largely jungle, and the drug cartels spread from the cities to the jungle. That drug money went to fuel Colombian football was general knowledge. The brutal murder of a referee in 1989 canceled the national championship as a protest and was believed to be related to the cartels. Naturally, nobody in Colombia was thinking of withdrawal from the World Cup – football was national pride and Colombia reached the world finals for only second time. But why FIFA did not take some measures apart from usual threat with sanctions if Colombia decided to forfeit the World Cup? Well, FIFA always maintained the position that it is not political organization… which was not true for quite a long time too: South Africa was expelled from FIFA because of apartheid. Israel was out of participating in Asia because of the Arabic countries insisting on that and was a pariah, attached to Oceania – but a member of Oceania – in World Cup qualifications. From another side, during the 1980s doping became a problem and tests became a routine practice, especially at World Cup finals. Cocaine was one of the forbidden substances and Colombia was the producer of it. Like it or not, FIFA was taking political decisions for a long time already, yet, pretended to be apolitical even when it came to sport’s matters like doping. And FIFA chose to ignore the Colombian case, to stay silent and do nothing… domestic matters. Of course, taking Colombia out of the finals was not going to be simple – if done in the last minute, then Israel was the team to replace the Colombians and that meant… new scandals with the Asian and African Federations, leading to boycottes. It was cynical to avoid the Colombian situation, but that was the taken stance. It was even more cynical that Colombia would have been heavily sanctioned if forfeiting on its own the World Cup, but luckily government, drug cartels and leftist guerillas were united when it came down to football – nobody wanted to miss the finals.
Bellow all that were problems of football politics, quite familiar, long lasting and typical. First, Austria – all concentrated on the coach and early: during the qualifications. Otto Baric was replaced with Josef Hickersberger in 1988 and at first nobody saw evil. But slowly… the team captain Tony Polster, playing in Spain for Sevilla, was increasingly disliked by the fans and criticized in the media. The reason was egoistic play, which eventually transformed into question of patriotism: why some foreign-based player, thinking only of money and himself? Indirectly, the problem escalated when the national team played in other cities than Vienna and local fans insisted local players to be included in the squad. And who was promoting Polster? The coach… Polster was met with boos whenever Austria played a home game, never mind he was the only real star of the national team and his goals practically qualified Austria to the finals. Hickersberger increasingly was seen as dictatorial and disliked by the players, until a scandal burst between him and the 34-years old veteran defender and team captain Heribert Weber. The scandal was triggered by coach’s decision to leave Weber out of the starters because of sickness for the important match against DDR. Weber wanted to play and left out, said that he will never play for Hickersberger. And sent ultimatum to the Federation – ‘either he, or I’. The Federation ruled ‘wisely’ after the game was finished and Austria won: Hickersberger stays, Weber out. Practically, that left the national team, short on talent at that time, without a key player. Also, without the only player with World Cup experience – goalkeeper Lindenberger was also part of the 1982 World Cup team, but only as unused substitute. Such ‘tremors’ affected the whole team – now the players were quite against the coach, saying that behind every Austrian coach lurks Ernst Happel, a great coach universally disliked for his dictatorial methods. Looking ahead, during the finals everybody lamented ‘if only Otto Baric was coaching’. Poisoned atmosphere, especially aggravated by the fact that Austria did not have enough talent at the time and leaving somebody out of the team for whatever reason only meant weakening – oh, the days of Prohaska, Krankl, Pezzey, Concilia… there were no such players now, simple as that.
Belgium. Walter Meeuws successfully qualified the national team to yet another World Cup, but beginning with the last and unimportant qualifying match and following with preparatory friendlies the team seriously underperformed. Meeuws was no longer safe – many felt that he was reached his limit already. He also managed to alienate the players accusing them openly that they were not serious and do not put much work, thinking more of their clubs than of playing for their country. Eventually, the poisoned atmosphere made Meeuws quit 3 months before the finals and the suddenly the national team was without coach. Retired Guy Thys was asked to coach the team in a rush and he accepted. Thys had huge authority and all stars played under him in the past – he quickly restored order.
Costa Rica. The team qualified for the first time to World Cup finals and whatever lurked in the back was invisible – as soon as the national team lost 3 games at the Marlboro Cup in USA, the problem came up in front: the new President of the Federation, just elected, immediately sacked the national team coach Rodriguez. The results were just a pretext – it was known than both men disliked each other greatly and Rodriguez acted against the new President. Who retaliated with vengeance. Great Menotti was asked to take the team – he flatly refused – and the next man to be asked was Bora Milutinovic, who accepted. But the players were angry and wrote an open letter, signed by 7 of the best players, insisting the old coach to be restored. Some thought of quitting the national team if Rodriguez was not back at the helm. However, the significant point was ‘We are not against Milutinovic, we only want Rodriguez’ – thus, there was no hostility towards the new coach. The Federation President stayed firm on his decision, rightly thinking that the chance to play at the World Cup will be stronger motivation than supporting Rodriguez. Milutinovic made the best diplomatic move under the circumstances – he brought the team early to Europe to acclimatize it, which practically meant the team was far away from domestic turbulence.
The crisis in the United Arab Emirates was rather trivial: great Mario Zagallo qualified the team to the finals for the first time and seemed untouchable national hero. On the strength of the successful campaign, he asked for more money and was fired instead. Hard to tell why, since money were not a problem for the Sheikhs. In his place another Brazilian was quickly hired – Carlos Alberto Parreira, who coached Kuwait at the 1982 World Cup. Already well known and respected coach, so it was not exactly hiring somebody in a panic, but still it was a change and disruption.
Italy, as a host, had the ambition to win the World Cup and noting less would suffice. Azeglio Vicini was to coach the team with this objective and for awhile everything was fine. But when the finals came close and the team stop winning criticism piled up and both coach and team were under terrible pressure, constantly scrutinized and criticized. The atmosphere was poisoned and the only way for Viccini to silence his critics was to win the championship.
If in Italy style was not an issue and the way only important thing was winning, Brazil was more complicated – from the 1960s on the battle was between those wanting traditional artistic football and the pragmatics wanted ‘European’ disciplined kind, which translated always as defensive football. Sebastiao Lazaroni represented the ‘Europeans’, not the first and not the last of this breed, but now the focus was on him. Brazilians, in general, wanted to win, but playing beautiful football. With Tele Santana they pleased the eye and lost two World Cup. Naturally, the new coach had to introduce the opposite approach… and it was fine until seen and Lazaroni emphasized strong defense – and nobody liked it. Then the team won Copa America for the first time in quarter of a century at least and everything was fine, Lazaroni was the man. Then the euphoria ended and it was recalled that the boys won Copa America, but did not please the eye. Lazaroni fought back in a way more alienating than soothing: ‘You (the Federation) hired me, now you have to suffer me.’ Like Viccini in Italy, Lazaroni was not fired, but quickly the situation developed reached the point of ‘win or die’.
Cameroon brought the fantastic into usual scuffles between displeased public and national team. By 1990 the coach was Soviet citizen – Valery Nepomniachi. He qualified Cameroon to second World Cup and the unknown name naturally created interest – the Cameroonians introduced him as a pupil of Valery Lobanovsky. If someone asked the Soviets about him, he would learn only that nobody knew this guy, this making his name rings particularly true – it is roughly translated as ‘not remembered’. And there was nothing to remember – he was obscure coach in what soon was going to be independent Turkmenistan, mostly coaching juniors. Pupil of Lobanovsky? Nepomniachi recalled seeing Lobanovsky about three times in the corridors of the Federation, may be saying ‘hi’. At one point Cameroon asked for some Soviet coach and the Soviet Federation gave them Nepomniachi to work again with juniors. But when the national team coach suddenly left, Nepomniachi was remembered. Not immediately… at first the Minister of Sport in Cameroon declared that he was taking charge of the national team and bellow him a coaching trio was to do the bothersome practical work – Nepomniachi was offered to become part of the trio and accepted. Eventually, he was climbed to head coach, leading a successful qualification campaign – the whole process of his transformation was ‘smooth’: with every new win he ‘naturally’ climbed higher mostly by praise. One win and he was wonderful coach, second win – leading coach, third win – a great coach. And that way the initial trio disappeared and Nepomniachi was the great head coach of Cameroon – but not the only one… for it was Africa and there more than anywhere else politicians interfered with the running of the national team. Often Nepomniachi was told who to select, who to play, how many players of this club to take and how many of the other club to take or not to take. Yet, it was not just happy sailing – in early 1990 Cameroon lost the African championship and the mood was to sack Nepomniachi at once. He managed to survive somehow, perhaps by making compromises suitable to the politicians – at least, the case of Roger Milla strongly suggest that: Milla not only was out of the national team, but out of football. He had retired and occasionally played for fun, but his name was so big in Cameroon that the media constantly called for his return. Nepomniachi heard the call most likely from the politicians and decided to try Milla in the last training camp before the World Cup in Yugoslavia. True, including Milla was not advised by all – the player had his enemies as well, who pointed out to Nepomniachi the difficult character of the veteran, which was only to add to various other frictions in and outside the team, the biggest of which was the long lasting poisonous rivalry between the star goalkeeper N’Kono and Bell. Nepomniachi tried Milla in a game, without really expecting anything good, but the veteran surprised him not only with excellent form, but with fitting perfectly and taking the leading role in the team. This more or less settled the tensions and the future of the coach. At least for the moment.
Argentina was also rocked – the team did not a game since July 1989. They finished 3rd in Copa America. Carlos Billardo was under pressure, but the focus of attention was somewhat taken away from him because of various problems of star players: Maradona, his lack of form, and drug use: the shaky form and pretenses of Brown, Clausen, Batista: various demands of Valdano and constant complains of Diaz. Of course, everybody in Argentina knew what is best and gave advise – or rather demands – to Billardo, including the country’s President Menem. Nothing new… and hardly helped by Billardo’s attitude and combative answers. To a point, settling camp in Europe well before the start of the finals was wise decision to take away the team from poisonous scrutiny at home, but… it was a squad of 9 players, for the rest were playing in Europe and still involved with unfinished championships – part of the preparation, for instance, was going to Naples to watch Maradona’s Napoli play. Billardo said that he was satisfied with the form of the star and therefore everything will be fine.
Still, the jewel of the scandals before the World Cup belonged to the Dutch. It was a tradition… and went the same way as in 1974, 1978… it was like Holland could not go to finals without major scandal and ‘temporary’ measures. After winning the European championship in 1988 Rinus Michels stepped down and was replaced by Tijs Libreghts, who qualified the team easily. Yet, he was fired in April 1990 because of weak performance of the team and bad relations with the players. The same as in 1974 and 1978… a new coach was hired in the last minute and only for the final round. The problems were also the same – the players wanted bigger bonuses, the Federation was unwilling to pay more. This battle was crucial for Libreghts: he tried to take middle position and to mediate between players and Federation with the result of alienating both sides, neither wanting him anymore. The players – at least the big number coming from Ajax – wanted Cruijff, but the Federation did not want to deal with him. Cruijff did not want to deal with the Federation either, making his usual biting critical and ironic comments. Leo Beenhakker was temporary hired – just like Michels in 1974 and Happel in 1978, only for the finals. Somewhere in the shadows Rinus Michels lurk in advisory position. Libreghts meantime went to the courts to sue the Federation for breach of contract. In another country… but it was Holland, so the scandals was actually seen as optimistic sign: the Dutch seemingly performed best when in the midst of scandal – such was the tradition: 1974, 1978… this time they also had all the stars at hand, unlike 1974 and 1978.
And the finals were coming in all that, so scandals were scandals, but much more important was becoming the ranking, the predictions, the expectations.
Perhaps it will be best to recall a betting agency rather than more ‘professional’ views: this is how Germans ranked the teams in betting terms. Hardly more different that ‘official’ ranking and ‘professional’ predictions/expectations. It will be good to see how close the betting ranking came to actual results. This quotation did not differ much from what was expected by specialists and pundits… Perhaps the most important thing was how England and Spain was seen: no matter what was hoped at home, objectively nobody thought these two teams capable of winning the World Cup. Strong – yes, winners – no. Also run. That was the reality in 1990.
The all-time World Cup table was going to change. What else?