The Absurdity of MLS Nomenclature

By European standards, Major League Soccer, the highest level on the footballing pyramid in both the United States and Canada, is still in its infancy.  After countless failed leagues plagued by infighting, mismanagement, and disorganization, the idea for Major League Soccer emerged as part of the USA’s successful bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup.  The league was launched in 1996 with ten teams, expanding to twelve two years later.

At first the league struggled with both attendance figures and television ratings.  Attempts to ‘Americanize’ the game by instituting rules such as shootouts in which a a player started 35 yards away from goal and had five seconds to beat the keeper and score to resolve ties and a clock that counted backwards from 45:00 down to zero failed to attract interest from new fans and alienated traditional ones.  In the first five years of its existence MLS lost $250 million and in 2001 two teams were forced to fold, reducing the number of teams back the original ten. Most teams played in stadiums rented from American Football teams, the capacities of which dwarfed the average attendance.  The pitiful performance of the United States at the 1998 World Cup, when the squad made up mostly of MLS players lost all of their first round matches, was a testament to the league’s poor quality.

Fifteen years on, things are looking up for Major League Soccer.  The league now has nineteen teams and all but five have “soccer-specific” stadiums.  As of 2012 the MLS is the 8th best attended football league in the world.  The best-supported team, the Seattle Sounders, have an average attendance of nearly 43,000 and their derby with the Portland Timbers has drawn around 67,000 fans in both of the past two seasons, figures that would be considered impressive in the top European leagues.  A recent article from Forbes mentions that attendance figures have steadily risen over 35% since 2000 and more and more Americans are identifying themselves as fans of the sport.  The growth of MLS has not been ignored on the other side of the pond; even the BBC recently published an article entitled ‘Can the MLS Revolution Survive and Thrive’, pointing out that the MLS is now the third most popular league in the United States in terms of average attendance, trailing only the NFL (American football) and the MLB (baseball).

The league has had undeniable success, but it is impossible to overlook the numerous idiosyncrasies that set it apart from its European counterparts.  First of all, the champion is determined not by points total at the end of the season, but by a playoff system (though this is not unique to the MLS as several Latin American leagues also utilize a playoff system).  There is no promotion or relegation.  The league has a salary cap of $2.95 million dollars to ensure relative parity, but teams are also allowed three ‘Designated Players’ whose salaries do not count toward the salary cap.  Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane of the Los Angeles Galaxy are two such designated players, and their salaries take up two thirds of the entire wage bill. Meanwhile, teammate Kafi Opare toils for the league minimum yearly salary of $35,125, less than 1/100th of what Donovan earns.  Because the teams are all ‘franchised’ and effectively owned by the league, the transfer system is an incredibly muddled affair.  For example, in Clint Dempsey’s highly publicized move from Spurs to Seattle Sounders, the $9 million transfer fee was covered by MLS, not Seattle.

While these issues are well documented and oft-discussed, there is another rather distinctive aspect of MLS that is rarely brought up: the naming practices of certain clubs.  In recent years there has been a noticeable trend of ‘Europeanization’ when it comes to the way the teams are named: Dallas Burn changed its name to FC Dallas, the Kansas City Wizards became Sporting Kansas City, and a new team in Salt Lake City adopted the name ‘Real.’  This pattern is not universal, of course.  Traditional American naming practices which are so looked down upon in England (just look at the recation to the decision to rename Hull City to Hull Tigers) are still prevalent.  You still have your Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, Los Angeles Galaxy, etc.  But the Europeanization is impossible to ignore because of its sheer absurdity. Not that there is anything wrong with European influence on the league.  The rise of organized fan groups and the culture of the tifo, especially in the Pacific Northwest clubs of Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland (see this Portland Timbers tifo for an example), are a testament to the passion and dedication of American and Canadian supporters who take inspiration from their continental counterparts.

But there is a distinction between inspiration and wholesale appropriation of cultural institutions with which a club shares no connections.  The former is an inevitable process of cross-cultural exchange; Italian Ultra culture, for example, has influenced supporter groups from the Iberian peninsula to the Balkans and beyond.  But the latter is a hollow attempt at mimicry.  Here, then, are the three teams which best exemplify this unfortunate phenomenon.

Sporting Kansas City

We begin with the least egregious offender.  Sporting Kansas City were founded as the Kansas City Wiz in 1996 before changing their name to the Wizards the following year.  They were a moderately successful side who won their first MLS Cup in 2000 and the US Open Cup in 2004. But they were among the least popular clubs in the league, with very poor attendance, low television ratings, and merchandise sales that were dead last in the league.  Then, in 2010, the club’s ownership decided to entirely overhaul and rejuvenate the organization.  This project included a new stadium, a forceful marketing offensive to get locals interested in the team, and of course, a name change. In a New York Times article on the Kansas City renaissance, Sam Borden discusses the name change:

“Among the top suggestions was the Kansas City Bees because, the consultants said, the bee is the official insect of both Missouri and Kansas.  Instead, the club opted for Sporting Kansas City, a European-sounding name that was emblematic of its hope of becoming more than just a soccer team. The Sporting name also dovetailed with the club’s European-style soccer stadium and concerted effort to appeal to the serious soccer fan.”

The word choice is important here: it is a “European-sounding” name, not a European name. The justification of the name by alluding to becoming “more than just a soccer team” is a noble but misguided effort.  As of now, Sporting Kansas City are just that: a soccer team.  The name Sporting actually means something more.  Sporting Clube de Portugal, commonly known outside of Portugal as Sporting Lisbon, are the most widely recognized club who are known by that name.  And unlike Sporting Kansas City, they are actually a multi-sports club, fielding teams and supporting athletes in sports as diverse as archery, handball, and weightlifting.  It is, true to its name, a sporting club.  Admittedly, not all clubs that bear the Sporting name are still multi-sport clubs.  Sporting de Gijón of Spain currently only fields a football team, but in the past also fielded hockey, rugby, and handball teams.  The Sporting name is therefore not a misnomer but a continuation of the club’s historical legacy.  A legacy which Sporting Kansas City is trying to fabricate.

To be fair to the Kansas City club, their president announced plans to add rugby and lacrosse teams to the club to make it reflect its name.  As of now, however, these plans have not yet come to pass.  The Kansas City Blues rugby team does play the football team’s training facility as its home ground but is not formally a part of the Sporting club.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Sporting’s effort to adopt a more European sounding name or to market itself as “more than just a soccer team.”  But when this marketing strategy involves co-opting a piece of cultural heritage which has no connection to your own club, the entire project begins to feel forced and artificial.

Houston Dynamo

The merits on which Houston Dynamo made this list probably have more to do with ignorance as opposed to deliberate cultural appropriation.  The club was founded in 2005, when the San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Houston, and began play in 2006.  The team was originally to be named Houston 1836 in reference to the year of the city’s founding.  The name was plagued by controversy, however, as 1836 is also the year of the Texas Revolution and the proposed crest featured a silhouette of General Sam Houston, a prominent figure in the revolution and Texas’s subsequent independence from Mexico.  The issue quickly became politicized and the 1836 name was dropped as a result of protests from the city’s substantial Hispanic majority.

In the midst of the fallout from the 1836 controversy, the Houston ownership opted for a new name for the nascent club: the Houston Dynamo.  President Oliver Luck explained the choice and apologized for the 1836 debacle:

“Dynamo is a word to describe someone who never fatigues, never gives up.  The new name is symbolic of Houston as an energetic, hard-working, risk-taking kind of town.  We never intended for the team’s name to offend any member of the Houston community.  We listened hard to the fan reaction and believe that the Houston Dynamo name is an exciting, appropriate and locally relevant new team brand.”

The name was also an homage to the Houston Dynamos, a team that played between 1983 and 1991 in various failed leagues before folding itself.  But dropping that last letter was significant. Dynamo, according to the Houston Chronicle, is “popular in European soccer, with teams such as Dynamo Moscow (Russia) and Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) among the most popular in the continent.”  The blatant hyperbole notwithstanding, the Chronicle makes a fair assessment. Dynamo, or Dinamo depending on the country, is a very common name for European teams. In addition to the two teams listed above, there is a Dinamo Tbilisi, Dinamo Minsk, Dinamo Bucharest, Dinamo Zagreb, Dynamo Dresden, and countless others.

What the chronicle fails to mention is that all of these clubs happen to be from the Soviet Union or the Soviet Bloc.  This is no coincidence.  Dinamo Moscow, a multi-sports club which was the first to bear the name, was founded by Felix Dzerzhinsky in 1923.  Dzerzhinsky is best known for establishing the Cheka, the notorious Soviet secret police agency that was a forerunner to the KGB.  In subsequent years, new Dynamo club were established with affiliations with either the Ministry of the Interior or the secret police in their respective countries.  In East Germany, for example, Stasi chief Erich Mielke was also the chairman of Sportvereinigung Dynamo, which ran many sporting clubs including the football club Dynamo Dresden.

It is highly doubtful that Oliver Luck had repressive Communist regimes or mass executions in mind when he unveiled the name ‘Dynamo’ for his Houston club.  Nor is it likely that the now defunct Soviet Ministry of Interior Affair has managed to clandestinely establish a football club on the Gulf of Mexico coast.  But the name Dynamo is inextricably linked to clubs with certain political connections which are hardly the sort that Houston – or any Western side for that matter – want to associate with their club.  Accidental appropriation is perhaps the best way to describe the situation, but it does not lessen the absurdity of the fact that a Texan team has adopted a name reserved for clubs in Communist countries affiliated with brutal, repressive organizations.

Real Salt Lake

The most flagrant example of this regrettable trend can be found in the quaint Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy, Utah, which Real Salt Lake call home.  Real Salt Lake was founded in 2004 and there is no mystery about the origin of the name.  Then owner Dave Checketts explained that:

“In Madrid, I was looking at an organization that was amazing. I wanted to draw on Real Madrid’s brand credibility. And we wanted a name where no one would question what sport the team is playing, and that’s what Real Salt Lake is.”

He does have a point.  Real Madrid are, in terms of revenue, the biggest team in the world and sit comfortably in first place in Deloitte’s Football Money League.  Their brand is unmistakable, and there’s no question about what sport is the team is playing.  Even the most casual sports fan knows that Real Madrid = football.

But is brand recognition and marketability enough of a reason to name your club?  Let’s start with the obvious.  Real is a Spanish word meaning Royal.  Think about that for a second.  First off, the name is Spanish.  One might think that this could be a strategy to  increase the club’s appeal among the Hispanic community, but only 22.3% of the population of Salt Lake City is of Hispanic origin.  In comparison, in Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles, the three other cities in the Southwest with MLS teams, the percentage of Hispanics is 44%, 42.4%, and 48.5%, respectively.  Of course, these figures do not disprove the idea that the Spanish language name was chosen with the Hispanic community in mind.  But there is no evidence to support the idea that this thought crosses the minds of the executives making the decision.  No, it’s highly unlikely that the Spanish word Real was picked for any reason other than its association with Real Madrid.

Second, the translation of the word is Royal.  Royal.  In a country whose revered Declaration of Independence is essentially a big ‘fuck you’ to the King of England.  In a country founded on the explicit rejection of the institution of monarchy.  A country whose Constitution prohibits the government from granting titles of nobility.  What possible relevance does the name Royal hold to Salt Lake City, Utah, or anywhere in the United States for that matter?

Finally, the name Real does not just apply to Madrid.  Real Madrid wasn’t even the original name of the Madrid club; they were founded as Madrid FC and only became known by their modern name after being granted the title ‘Real’ by the Spanish King Alfonso XIII in 1920. Real Madrid were far from the only team to receive the patronage of the Spanish King, nor were they the first.  That honor was bestowed upon Real Club Deportivo La Coruña in 1907.  The clubs that received patronage tended to be from geographically diverse areas of Spain, e.g. Real Betis in Andalucia, Real Sociedead in the Basque Country, Real Club Deportivo Español in Catalonia, etc.  No word on whether Alfonso XIII ever made it out to the shores of the Great Salt Lake, however.

Admittedly Real Salt Lake have established an agreement with Real Madrid which involves biennial friendlies, annual training for RSL players at Real Madrid’s facilities, and the creation of a youth academy in Utah.  Though considering the nature of Real Madrid’s ‘special relationship’ with Spurs, it may not be long until we see Angel di Maria or Karim Benzema shipped off to the Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake’s major regional rival.

The christening of the Salt Lake club as ‘Real’ for explicitly business and branding purposes represents the most glaring example of cultural appropriation by MLS clubs.  The name has literally nothing to do with the community, with the city, or with the people.  It is simply a marketing ploy to increase the club’s brand recognition.  And while it is true that Real Madrid is an instantly recognizable brand, it is far, far more than that.  It is a club with deep roots in its community, an institution with a name that carries a legacy that far outweighs any marketing gimmick.

Final Thoughts

This article should not be taken as a condemnation of the MLS as a whole, but rather of the specific practices of cultural and historical appropriation mentioned above.  The sad irony of the situation is that this attempt at importing tradition and prestige is entirely unnecessary.

Teams such as the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers are drawing on the culture and history of their own locales while taking inspiration from European fan groups, and by doing so establishing a burgeoning tradition of supporter culture.  Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, and Houston Dynamo are all popular, successful clubs with impressive attendance figures.  Is this success really dependent on their names?  Would they not be better off adopting names that better reflect the cultural traditions of their cities?

As it stands, this is hardly an issue.  But, if, as senior spokesman Dan Courtemanche mentioned in the aforementioned BBC article, the goal of the MLS is to be among the best leagues of the world, surely nourishing a homegrown tradition and history is a better option than attempting to import pre-manufactured legacy and prestige from overseas.


Barrilete Cósmico: Malvinas, Maradona, Argentina & England

The scoreline is familiar, as is the fateful date, but surely the title for this article should be ‘The Hand of God’? Everyone knows that this was the game when England’s brave Three Lions and the hapless officials were slyly deceived by the diminutive Argentine, and thus any retrospective of the game must take this key moment as its starting point? Or perhaps not…the moment we always hark back to, with a characteristic tone of moral indignation, is remembered quite differently outside England.

The Quarter Final game may occupy a similar space in the Argentine collective memory in terms of its significance, but the epithet that is more commonly used in the Southern Cone, invoking the Uruguayan commentator’s interest in cosmology, refers predictably to the ‘other’ moment of otherworldly intervention that day.

The nature of knockout football dictates that any country’s success or defeat can and often is traced back to just a few seconds which decide a tense and even game and that these seconds ultimately go a long way to deciding the media narrative for the whole game or indeed the team’s entire campaign. All the hard work undertaken in qualifying and the group stage can very quickly be undone by just one moment of idiocy, genius or simply ill-fortune.Diego_Maradona_1_1017079c

For Argentines 1986 represents a moment of catharsis against a nemesis which far transcends the concerns of the football pitch, striking an especially raw nerve in the post-colonial Argentine psyche.

British colonial interest in Argentina dates back to the 19th Century when the British, with more than a smidgeon of self-interest, were among the first to acknowledge the independence of Argentina. From the early days of independence British interest in Argentina was significant (providing more than a third of all investment) playing a key role in the development of railway and tramway lines, agriculture, processing, refrigeration and export. One of the most indelible marks left, of course, was football, a legacy clearly visible in the nomenclature a number of Argentina’s biggest sides, ranging from River Plate and Boca Juniors to Newell’s Old Boys and All Boys (who currently play their football at the Estadio Islas Malvinas – The Falklands Isles Stadium).

Over time, Argentina have accrued a number of rivals in international football, ranging from five-time world champions Brazil to their smaller cousin Uruguay.

In the previous round, played at Estadio Cuautemoc in Puebla, Argentina deservedly overcome their River Plate neighbours and historic rivals by a goal to nil. However they are far from satisfied, for there are higher matters on their minds. One might think, in light of the historical bête noire role that the upstart buffer state has played in the history of both Argentinian and Brazilian football, that victory over their nearest neighbours would taste sweet.

Such is the superiority complex and sense of pride that Uruguayans feel with regard to their theoretically more powerful neighbour that the following phrase remains common on the streets of Montevideo ‘ataca Argentina, gol de Uruguay’ (Argentina attack, goal to Uruguay). As with any rivalry between two forces of unequal size, the rivalry means much more to the smaller adversary (think Wales and England at Rugby Union, or of any other surprisingly even David vs Goliath you see fit). Argentines feel more relief than joy at ousting Uruguay, a dangerous team and a firm rival.

However, I digress: The next round puts them on collision course with the real enemy: England. In football terms, 20 years on from Argentina’s controversial quarter final exit in 1966 at the hands of hosts and eventual winners England, there is a strange symmetry to be found – especially as the South Americans too would go on the lift the great trophy.

In 1966, of course, for those unfamiliar with the minutiae of England’s successful campaign, the Boca Juniors midfielder Antonio Rattin was famously dismissed for ‘looking at the referee the wrong way’ and/or ‘violence of the tongue’ by German referee Rudolf Kreitlein. Rattin was so incensed that it took at least eight minutes to convince him to leave the field and upon doing so he proceeded to sit on the Queen’s red carpet. Alf Ramsey, enraged at the Argentines’ performance, infamously labelled the South Americans ‘animals’ – a crassly chosen (or well-chosen if you are of the Alex Ferguson school of niggling) barb that further riled the already fuming Argentines. This comment came hot on the heels of Ramsey having instructing his players to break with protocol and refuse to swap shirts with their opponents.

Indeed the collective South American memory of the 1966 World Cup is one of particular bitterness, viewing the competition as a conspiracy of European bully-boy tactics and intimidation, most blatantly exemplified by holders Brazil and Pelé being (literally) kicked out of the tournament by their ex-colonial masters Portugal.

Of course, much of the popular feeling surrounding the game was linked to occurrences beyond the football field. With the Falklands War (Guerra de las Malvinas) fresh in the mind, the Argentine players felt an enormous responsibility to win a game that meant far more to their people than football. England still had to overcome Paraguay a day later, but the feeling was that it is meant to be. England were slowly improving after their traditional false start, qualifying second to an unfancied but talented Morocco side.

Whilst the Malvinas issue remains a potent force for populist unity and nationalism it is fair to note that the issue wasn’t of universal importance to all Argentines. Avant-garde Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges famously labelled the conflict as ‘una guerra de dos calvos por un peine’ (a war of two bald men fighting for a comb). The giant of Latin American literature, who like many of his contemporaries spent large chunks of his life in the spiritual homeland of Europe, incidentally, would pass away in Switzerland just a week before the game.

For those closer to the coal-face, wounds from the tragic war were still raw, and a burning sense of injustice colours the mere mention of the colonial antagonist. This could only be sated by a victory against the smug, superior colonial power personified by the crass, overzealous leadership of Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady famously offered a thumbs-up gesture to the British Press upon learning that 323 Argentines had perished following an attack on the ARA General Belgrano, which was moving away from the islands and was outside of the Malvinas Exclusion Zone.

It was quickly proved that Britain’s military might could not be matched by the Argentines deeming the invasion a pointless exercise for all concerned, but on the football field Argentina had long matched or outclassed their European neighbours with a nexus of guile, flair and the individualism of the criollo style.

The mid-eighties found Argentina lurching from crisis to crisis battling against hyper-inflation, a cause of the countries commitment to Washington Consensus driven neo-liberalism, whilst recovering from a macabre period of state-sponsored terror and disappearances under the military dictatorship and its participation in the trans-national repression of Operation Condor. Football, as always, provided a release valve for the beleaguered Argentine masses.

Outside of more local ‘derbies’ and ‘clásicos’ the Argentina – England rivalry is surely the most deep-rooted antagonism between teams from different continents.

Within the Americas Argentines are not noted for their popularity. A popular Latin American joke asks how an Argentine commits suicide, explaining that he climbs to the top of his ego and then jump  (¿Cómo se suicida un argentino? ¡Se sube a su ego y luego salta!). Any notion of Latin American solidarity is often utopian and misplaced. The subtle nuances of each nation state prevent it and often actively encourage the opposite. The existence of terms like ‘boliguayo’, a derogatory catch-all portmanteau used to refer to immigrants from Bolivia and Paraguay, goes some way to explaining the unpopularity of Argentina in those two countries. On a more general level, large swathes of the continent tend to see themselves as ‘mestizo’ (mixed-race), owing to miscegenation in the early colonial period. Argentina’s historical development was closer to that of the United States, importing a European middle class from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.

Despite all this however, one point of continent-wide unity is the Falklands issue. Lula da Silva of Brazil questioned the ‘geographical, political and economic explanation for the islands sovereignty’, whilst Ecuador’s Rafael Correa suggested that Latin American countries should actively pursue economic sanctions against the British.

With this in mind Latin Americans outside Argentina found themselves faced with a strange dilemma, of the sort every football fan is often faced with: that of which side represents the lesser evil? It’s probably fair to say that the quarter-final game, between Argentina and England, carried a significant political edge to it. It’s a game where Bill Shankly’s tongue-in-cheek old adage about the game being more important than life and death, for a short while, in certain places, seemed to have a ring of truth to it. Nationalist sentiment was augmented by the fact that only three of Argentina’s side were playing their club football in Europe. A largely Argentine-based squad were united by their shared experiences of life in their home country.

After much fanfare the game began with Argentina controlling the early stages without managing to make the vital breakthrough. Significantly Terry Fenwick deservedly received an early booking for hacking Maradona, a common theme throughout the tournament. Persistent intentional fouling ostensibly is as much an infringement of the game’s rules (and spirit) as using a hand, but somehow within the strange hypocrisy of English footballing values isn’t. The first chance saw Beardsley hit the side-netting after Nery Pumpido clumsily spilled the ball, way off limits. Argentina came out liberated from the cautiousness of previous games, with Olarticochea particularly causing problems for the English defence. Argentina had clearly done their homework on England with Hector Enrique deployed to shackle the classy Glenn Hoddle and Jose Cuciuffo and Oscar Ruggeri tight on Lineker and Beardsley.

Half time came with the sides deadlocked, little does the watching world know that two of the most remembered moments of World Cup history will come in a whirlwind six minutes. Both incidents, inevitably, involve the player of the tournament and arguably the greatest player of all time: Diego Maradona.

The first goal is described with bumbling inaccuracy by Barry Davies. The familiar received pronunciation of the Englishman faithfully representing the Corinthian values of the game that took root over a century ago and remain dominant to this day, much to the chagrin and bemusement of the rest of the world.

‘Maradona just walked away from Hoddle then,  Valdano….Hodge….. and Maradona….they’re appealing for offside, the ball came back off the foot of Steve Hodge, and Maradona gives Argentina the lead, the England players are protesting, but the little man who started it by walking past Glenn Hoddle, there’s where the ball by Hodge, Maradona had continued the run forward and the goal is given. At what point was he offside? Or was it a use of a hand that England were complaining about?’

Quicker off the mark, however, was the most famous narration of the ‘Argentinian’ side of the game, which actually came from a Uruguayan, Victor Hugo Morales. Morales quickly realises what has happened and instinctively takes the side of the Argentines, or perhaps more accurately is against the colonial nation. Morales at least acknowledges that his stance is no dodgy moral ground, pleading for the forgiveness of God for what he has said:

‘Ahí tiene la pelota Argentina y el partido, ¿para cuando Argentina y el gol?, Vamos muchachos..La pelota viene para Batista, Batista para Henrique, Henrique cambia para el vasco, allá vino para Olarticoechea, que lo tiene a Diego como número diez, a Giusti como número nueve, a Burruchaga de ocho y Valdano de siete. La pelota va para Maradona, Maradona. Puede tocar para Henrique, siempre Maradona y su dribbling ,se va, se va entre tres siempre Diego, Genial Genial! Toco Para Valdano! Entró Maradona, Saltó frente a Shilton… Cabeceoooó… mano… Goooooool, goooooool, goooooool, goooooool, arrrrrrgentino. Diego, Diego Armando Maradona, entro a buscar después de una jugada maravillosa. Un rechazo para atrás. Saltó con la mano, para mí. Para convertir el gol, mandando la pelota por arriba de Peter Shilton. El línea no lo advirtió, el árbitro lo miró desesperadamente, mientras los ingleses entregaban todo tipo de justificadas protestas, para mí. El gol fue con la mano, lo grito con el alma, pero tengo que decirles lo que pienso. Solo espero que me digan de Buenos Aires, si están mirando el partido en televisión ahora mismo, por favor, si fue válido el gol de Maradona, aunque el árbitro lo dio. Argentina está ganando por uno a cero. Que Dios me perdone lo que voy a decir: contra Inglaterra, hoy, aún así, con un gol con la mano, que quiere que le diga.’

‘Argentina have the ball, and in this match, when will the goal come? Come on boys! The ball comes to Batista, Batista to Enrique, Enrique to the Basque, then on to Olarticoechea, who has Maradona the number 10, Giusti wearing 9, Burrachaga 8 and Valdano 7. The ball goes to Maradona. He could give it to Enrique, still Maradona and his running, he goes on, he goes on past three, incredible, incredible, touches it for Valdano, Maradona goes on, he jumps with Shilton, he heads…..handball! Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal for Argentina! Diego, Diego Armando Maradona, went in after a fantastic piece of play. A backpass and he led with a hand for me, to score the goal, sending the ball above Peter Shilton. The linesman didn’t spot it, the referee looks desperately at him, while the English make their justified (for me) protests known. The goal was scored using a hand, I celebrate it with all my soul, but I must say what I think. I hope you tell me, from Buenos Aires, if you’re watching the game, if the goal was fair, though the referee has given it. Argentina are leading 1-0. God forgive me for what I’m going to say: against England today, even like this, with a goal scored with the hand, what do you want me to say?’

The inquest, and analysis of the incident, are still going on of course, with sporadic bursts of bile and bitterness from the English side and occasional exaggerated and absurd invocations of otherworldly intervention from the Argentine side.

Indeed the bloody personification of the English Corinthian spirit, Singapore-born Terry Butcher suggested that he would love to see Maradona again in order to ‘stick one on him’. Presented with two opportunities to do so (at friendly and testimonial games) Butcher did nothing, presumably too busy foaming at the mouth with self-righteous indignation.

The narrative of the ‘darker arts of Southern Cone’ football only tell half the story of course. Coach Carlos Bilardo set the tone for the way the 1986 team played. Whether the Cesar Luis Menotti team of 1978 would have approached the game in the same way. Regardless of this, the ‘good-bad’ dichotomy which the previous comment suggests and the whole Menotti-Bilardo debate is often presented as, is surely a gross oversimplification of many complex issues, and therein lies the problem.

The infamous incident was best captured by Mexican photographer Alejandro Ojeda Carvajal, who perfectly caught the moment Maradona ‘beats’ Shilton to the ball. Worse was to come for England of course. Just a few minutes later, still reeling from the first goal, they were beaten by a goal more fitting of comparison with higher powers.article-1087774-0050F98700000258-255_468x306

Accounts of Victor Hugo Morales Spanish language commentary for this goal, uncannily, are much easier to find, as the goal provides a perfect example of the emotion that the game can bring at its best. The once in a lifetime moment was described like this:

“Ahí la tiene Maradona, lo marcan dos, pisa la pelota, Maradona, arranca por la derecha el genio del fútbol mundial. Y deja el tercero, puede tocar para Burruchaga… siempre Maradona. ¡Genio, genio, genio! Ta, ta, ta, ta, ta … ¡Gooooooool gooooooool! ¡Quiero llorar! ¡Dios santo, viva el fútbol, golaaaazo! ¡Diegoooool!!! Maradona! Es para llorar, perdónenme. Maradona, en una corrida memorable, en la jugada de todos los tiempos, barrilete cósmico, ¿de qué planeta viniste para dejar en el camino a tanto inglés?, para que el país sea un puño apretado gritando por Argentina. Argentina 2 – Inglaterra 0. ¡Diegol, Diegol!, Diego Armando Maradona. Gracias, Dios, por el fútbol, por Maradona, por estas lágrimas, por este Argentina 2 – Inglaterra 0.”

Maradona on the ball now. Two closing him down. Maradona rolls his foot over the ball and breaks away down the right, the genius of world football. He goes past a third, looks for Burruchaga. Maradona forever! Genius! Genius! Genius! He’s still going… Gooooal! Sorry, I want to cry! Good God! Long live football! What a goal! A memorable run from Maradona. The greatest solo goal of all time. Cosmic Kite, which planet did you come from leaving so many English players behind, and in this process turning the country into a clenched fist shouting for Argentina! Argentina 2 England 0. Diego Diego! Diego Armando Maradona! Thank you God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears and for this scoreline: Argentina 2 England 0.’

The goal is immortalised and always referred to on the other side of the ocean as ‘barrilete cósmico’, the spontaneous reaction of Victor Hugo Morales that day, who explains his comment by saying that at that time he had taken an interest in cosmology and often used its imagery to describe otherworldly moments. The words alone do the commentary little justice, it’s worth a listen just to hear the primal scream of joy at bearing witness one of football’s seminal moments.

A goal of similar quality is not beyond the realms of possibility, but to produce it at a crucial moment in a World Cup Quarter Final against high-quality opposition seems less likely. It is also noteworthy that a couple of opportunities to bring Maradona down were passed up. In the name of the Corinthian spirit and being committed to trying to win the ball cleanly, the English players mentality was not given to simply chopping the player as a recourse within the games rules and regrouping. Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it does seem inconceivable that a more pragmatic nation would concede the same goal.

Amongst a plethora of analysis for the goal comes a bit of humour (that could almost be English) from Hector Enrique, one of the many anonymous mere mortals who shared a pitch with Maradona in 1986. Enrique deadpanned the following:

‘Con el pase que le di a Maradona, si no hacía gol era para matarlo’  (‘With the pass that I gave Maradona, we’d have killed him if he didn’t score’)

Stunned by the stellar events of the few minutes after half time, belatedly Bobby Robson tweaked his line up bringing on Chris Waddle for Peter Reid on 65 minutes and  unleashing John Barnes in place of Trevor Steven. The width of Barnes, who produced a fleeting glimpse in an England shirt of what he produced so often in the red of Liverpool, made for a great finale to the game as he carved out a stereotypically English goal for Lineker. Indeed with a carbon copy cross from Barnes minutes later Lineker came desperately close to making it 2-2. Rumours abound that Barnes was unable to produce his club form as Bobby Robson insisted he remain closer to his full-back fulfilling a defensive role. The truth of this, and whether it was necessary to be more cautious at international level, could long be debated.

Returning to the significance of the game, and the strong link between football and national identity in the popular mind-set, years later the Argentine sociologist Eduardo Archetti recalls a chant steeped in the pervasive machismo of Latin American society that became popular in Argentina in the aftermath of the game ‘Thatcher, Thatcher donde estas? Maradona, Maradona te anda buscando, para metertela por detras!’ (Thatcher, Thatcher where are you? Maradona is looking for you to screw you from behind!’) Aside from its rather unsubtle but entertaining imagery, the chant neatly ties together the importance of football to national pride and the link Argentine fans saw between the game and real life.

On a slightly more serious level, perhaps the most meaningful analysis of the game, and its larger symbolic meaning, came from a player Maradona was not especially fond of, Jorge Valdano.

En un partido de un grandísimo valor simbólico, Maradona mostró las dos formas de ser del argentino. En el primer gol muestra la trampa, la picardía criolla o la viveza. Argentina es un país donde el engaño tiene más prestigio que la honradez. Pero también tiene otra cara. Es la del virtuosismo y la habilidad. En el segundo gol Maradona corona el partido con una obra de arte. Es la habilidad, la gambeta, la nuestra

‘It’s a game which has huge symbolic value, Maradona showed the two sides of being an Argentine. The first goal shows the deceit, the creole cunning and the sharpness. Argentina is a place where deceit has more prestige than honesty. But it also has another face and that is one of virtue and ability. With the second goal Maradona crowns the match as a work of art. It is flair, the gambeta (Latin American style dribbling), our style)

Valdano touches upon the great dichotomy in Argentine football which differentiates between the style exemplified by Argentina’s two World Cup winning coaches Cesar Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo. Menotti, the chain-smoking left-wing bon vivant favours an artful, high-tempo interpretation of the Argentine passing game, with a strong emphasis on entertaining and playing the game the ‘right’ way whereas Bilardo shamelessly draws heavily on the darker arts of the game privileging victory above all else. For further information on these two please see Futebol Forca vs Futebol Arte.

The conclusion that Argentina is a country where deceit holds more prestige than honesty is backed up by the man himself – Diego. Maradona speaks of his pride on having put one over on the English in this way. The idea of resorting to cunning to put one over on the oppressor is deep rooted in the mentality of the downtrodden Latin American underclass.

A veces siento que me gustó más el de la mano, el primero. Ahora sí puedo contar lo que en aquel momento no podía, lo que en aquel momento definí como La mano de Dios…qué mano de Dios, ¡fue la mano del Diego! Y fue como robarle la billetera a los ingleses, también’ (At times, I feel like I liked the goal with the hand more. Now I can tell you what I couldn’t at that time, what I defined as the hand of God: what hand of God? It was the hand of Diego, and it was like pickpocketing the English too)

Maradona’s visceral description of the moment sat well with Uruguayan romantic poet Mario Benedetti, who felt fit to chip in with the following observation:

Aquel gol que le hizo Maradona a los ingleses con la ayuda de la mano divina, es por ahora la única prueba fiable de la existencia de Dios’ Mario Benedetti (‘that goal that Maradona scored against the English with the Hand of God is, for now, the only conclusive proof of the existence of God’)

Even in Europe, one of Italy’s greatest ever strikers Silvio Piola felt that all was fair in love and war, saying that he too had scored with his hand against England, whilst representing Italy, and celebrated the goal. Piola suggested that Italian fans should remember this when Maradona returned to Italy after the World Cup.

The essentialisation of such national characteristics, of course, is foolish and misleading. The likes of Marcelo Bielsa and Jorge Sampaoli for example, are unlikely to have taken such pride at having ‘pickpocketed’ the opponent. The common belief that a sense of fairness is an innate characteristic unique to the Corinthian spirit of the English, which other nations are unable to comprehend, is one that surely holds us back.

Argentina, of course, would go on to defeat Belgium in the Semi-Final and finally West Germany in a memorable final. The last truly great World Cup ended with Burrachaga slipping the ball past Harald Schumacher to trigger a wave of celebration across Argentina, and who knows, maybe even elsewhere in South America.

Of course, not all were pleased to see Argentina lift the trophy in 1986. In fact a couple of decades later, still boiling with rage and jealousy, Pelé acerbically observed that ‘O único gol de cabeça importante que marcou foi com a mão’ (the only important header he scored was with his hand). The petty feud between two of the world’s greatest ever players (notice the word order – not THE two greatest) does neither player any credit, but is symptomatic of the violent emotions which football unleashes.

George Orwell was quick to dismiss the game offering the following analysis ‘Football has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disegard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’

Whilst part of his statement is hyperbolic and rather contentious, one could argue that the idea of football being war minus the shooting could equally be used to defend the game. Even the most partisan football fan tends to accept things for what they are after a time. (Almost) no English fan disputes the genius of Maradona’s second goal, even the man himself owned up to his misdemeanour and generally speaks positively of English football. Many subjective debates rage on in football, but surely in a generally harmless and innocuous way.

History is nearly always written by the victors, giving rise to dominant epistemologies of meaning, which define our understanding of our surroundings in terms dictated by those who emerge victorious. Argentine anthropologist Walter Mignolo underlines this in his ‘Idea of Latin America’ text, which brings into question our geo-political understanding of the world.

In footballing terms, a game which exemplifies the way different narratives are conveniently produced to represent historic events, it would be Argentina’s 1986 victory over England, which to this day feeds into our historic understanding of what is to be expected from a football team from both nations. The English understanding of the game cultivates and feeds into our holier-than-thou moralism along with the accompanying assumptions that good honesty industry will win out. Alf Ramsey’s ‘animals’ remark and the much-talked about first goal also nourish the xenophobic notion of ‘dirty Argies’ and/or countries of less moral fibre than the British. Of course the Argentine perspective, as represented by a Uruguayan commentator, is also highly subjective and is steeped in its own historical prejudice and/or a persecution complex. Football, at least, provides an arena to debate and understand these partialities and prejudices however, and surely isn’t as bad for international relations as George Orwell suggests.

Glorious Failures: Hungary’s Golden Team

This is part one of a three-part series.

The Glorious Failure Phenomenon

As a rule, success in football is measured by trophies.  Setting aside all ideological arguments over the merits of beauty over efficiency aside, the teams that have gone down in history are those that have won when it counts: World Cups, European Championships, European Cups, League Titles, etc.  Greatness requires victory.

And yet, there are exceptions.  A select few international sides have been able to transcend their failures on the pitch to take their place among the pantheon of greatness.  The 1954 Hungary, 1974 Holland, and 1982 Brazil sides are emblematic of this ‘glorious failure’ phenomenon.  Over the next several weeks Café Futebol will examine these three legendary sides and attempt to understand the reasons for why their reputations arguably outweigh their accomplishments.  This will not be a general history of these sides; more than enough has been written on that front.  Instead, this series will focus on why history has been so kind to these glorious losers, when so many others have been cast aside and forgotten.  We start with the Magical Magyars.

The Legend of the Aranycsapat

To anyone well-versed in footballing history, the Hungarian side of the 1950s needs no introduction. Boasting such star names as Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, and, Nándor Hidegkuti, and with the innovative Gusztáv Sebes at the helm, the Aranycsapat (Hungarian for Golden Team, as they are known) were the best team in the world in the early 1950s.  They eased to an Olympic Gold Medal in 1952 and the following year gave England a footballing lesson and shocked the English football establishment to its core.  The 6-3 victory at Wembley is considered one of the greatest performances of all time, and they followed it up with a 7-1 victory over the Three Lions in Budapest the following year.  From 1950 through 1956 they accumulated a record of 42 victories, 7 draws, and just one defeat.  That defeat, however, happened in the 1954 World Cup Final.

The Aranycsapat

Despite their failure to win when it mattered most, the Aranycsapat is widely recognized as one of the greatest teams of all time.  In his fantastic blog Football Pantheon, journalist Miguel Delaney places them 7th in his list of the greatest international teams of all time, a full 17 slots ahead of the West German side which defeated them in that fateful final.  From a purely results-oriented perspective, it is obvious that the Magical Magyars were awfully impressive; their record contains just one blemish, albeit a very prominent one.  Nevertheless, to truly understand their significance in football history and lofty reputation as one of the greatest sides of all time, we must look beyond just results.

Tactical Innovation

In stark contrast to the rigid traditionalism which hampered tactical evolution in England, footballing attitudes on the continent were much more conducive to change and experimentation.  Vienna was a hotspot for such innovation and it gave rise to what has since become known as the ‘Danubian School’ of football.  Jimmy Hogan, an expatriate Englishman who stressed the merits of passing and movement, found the Central Europeans much more receptive to his ideas than his compatriots. Hugo Meisl’s success with the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s and their exhilarating style of play reinforced the Danubians’ belief in the tenets preached by Hogan, and a tactical tradition was established. Though Meisl was essentially a conservative and a did not stray from the 2-3-5 formation, his use of Mathias Sindelar as a withdrawn centre forward proved prophetic.

Hungarian football was firmly within the Viennese sphere of influence and its coaches tended to be adherents of the Danubian School.  By the time the second World War had ended the 2-3-5 has been replaced as the dominant formation by the W-M, effectively a 3-2-2-3.  The focal point of this system was a centre forward who was usually big, powerful, and neither particularly skillful nor technical. The legendary journalist Brian Glanville characterized the classic English conception of the #9 as “the brainless bull at the gate.”

Márton Bukovi, manager of Hungarian club side MTK, lacked such a player, and thus decided to improvise.  He took one of his wing-halves, Péter Palotás, and put him in the centre forward role.  He was a centre forward in name only.  In reality, he was withdrawn into the midfield and played effectively as an attacking midfielder.  The experiment was succesful, and Palotás went on to start for the national team and was a regular for the side that won gold at the 1952 Olympic Games.  But in September of that year, Hungary manager Gusztáv Sebes made a fateful substitution.  During a friendly which Hungary was losing 2-0 to Switzerland, he brought on the 30 year old Nándor Hidegkuti to replace Palotás.  Hungary came back to win 4-2, and Hidegkuti’s performance was so impressive that he became the undisputed starter. Though often referred to as a withdrawn centre-forward, Jonathan Wilson argues in his exhaustive history of football tactics Inverting the Pyramid that “he was, in modern terminology, simply an attacking midfielder.”

The ‘invention’ of the attacking midfielder as a re-imagining of the role of the centre forward was just one of the tactical innovations pioneered by the Hungarians.  The two full backs, Mihály Lantos and Jenő Buzánszky, were given license to roam down the flanks.  In the midfield, József Bozsik advanced forward to support Hidegkuti while his midfield partner József Zakariás sat back and was played almost as an auxiliary centre back.  According to Wilson, this set up was “a hair’s breadth from 4-2-4.”  Considering that the 4-2-4 was the formation so successfully adopted by the Brazilians.  It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the early advocates of 4-2-4 in Brazil was Béla Guttman, a Hungarian manager who introduced the formation during his spell at São Paulo in 1957-58.   

It is important not to view the tactical innovations of the Magical Magyars in isolation from tactical development as a whole.  Bukovi, Sebes, and Guttman, were all heavily influenced by the Danubian School and their tactical philosophies represent a historical continuity with their predecessors, not a break with the past.  The withdrawn centre forward, after all, was not even a Hungarian invention. Hungarian managers took already existing ideas and tweaked them according to their own needs and to better suit the circumstances.  Nevertheless, few tactical developments have resonated so heavily in the world and especially in the home of football.  The impact of the Aranycsapat would have been impossible without one sterling performance at Wembley.

Glory at Wembley…

On their way to the Gold Medal at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Hungary met Sweden in the semifinals.  Sweden were supposed to be one of the favorites, but were cast aside 6-0. Stanley Rous, secretary of the FA and future FIFA President, was in attendance and extended an invitation to his Hungarian counterpart to come play a friendly at Wembley.  The game was set for November 1953.  Sebes prepared his side meticulously.  They used heavier British balls and practiced on a pitch the size of Wembley.  The world had by now taken notice of the Hungarians, but few could have expected what was to come.

England was not unbeatable, as their embarrassing defeat to the USA in the 1950 World Cup demonstrated, but still the English media were unyielding in their belief that they were the best side in the world, theirs was the right way of playing the game.  Up until 1953 England has only ever lost one match against foreign opposition, and that was to Ireland four years prior.  England’s perceived domination in that match and Ireland’s status as a former colony probably mitigated the reaction to that result.  The world had been catching up to England for a long time, but they were oblivious.  Journalist Frank Coles wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “Hungary’s superb ball-jugglers can be checked by a little firm tackling.”  Here it was, the pervasive attitude that a bit of English grit and determination was all that was needed.

Billy Wright exchanges pennants with Puskás before the famous match (source: BBC)

“How long does it take for am empire to die? How long does it take to lose a match?” asks David Goldblatt in The Ball is Round. Forty-five seconds.  That is how long it takes for the Hungarians to take the lead in a fluid passing move.  Hungary dominates the match. England’s defense has no idea how to to deal with Hidegkuti’s withdrawn position.  They are unable to keep up with their quick passing, their impeccable technique.  One moment in particular starts out. In the 24th minute, with Hungary up 2-1, Puskás collects a low ball from Zoltán Czibor at the edge of the 6-yard box.  With England captain Billy Wright bearing down, Puskás calmly drags the ball back and beats the England keeper on the near post.  Wright ends up slide tackling empty air.  The final score was 6-3, but the consensus was that the result was very flattering to the English.

No other match has so thoroughly shocked England and so upset their conception of the balance of power in world football.  The myth of English superiority was dispelled in such a convincing manner that Brian Glanville dubbed it a defeat “that gave eyes to the blind.” According to Sir Bobby Robson, “That one game alone changed our thinking. We thought we would demolish this team – England at Wembley, we are the masters, they are the pupils. It was absolutely the other way.”

It is hard to exaggerate the impact of the defeat in England.  A 7-1 result in Budapest the following year, to this day England’s worst ever result, confirmed Hungary’s superiority. Coaching methods were overhauled, archaic tactics called into question, and continental training regimens adopted. The 6-3 is perhaps the single most significant moment that explains the enduring legacy of the Aranycsapat.  Obviously they were a fantastic side, but the 6-3 demonstrated just how good they were.  Whether England were even worthy opponents is irrelevant; the shock they gave to the establishment and was enough to forever cement their place among the greatest sides of all time.

…And Tragedy in Bern

Nevertheless, as significant as the 6-3 was, it was still just a friendly result.  The World Cup the following summer would allow the Aranycsapot the opportunity to confirm what many already thought: that they were the best team in the world.  Hungary were the favorites in the tournament and started off brilliantly.  In the first round they hammered South Korea 9-0 and West Germany 8-3.   After getting past Brazil in the quarterfinals in an ugly, violent encounter that has come to be known as “The Battle of Berne,” the Hungarians defeated defending champions Uruguay 4-2 in the semifinals to set up a rematch with West Germany.

The final was supposed to be crowning moment of all of their achievements over the past two years. Everything was going according to plan, as Hungary took a 2-0 lead just eight minutes into the match.  But just ten minutes later the scores were level, and six minutes from time West Germany took the lead.  Puskás had a goal controversially disallowed for an offside and that was that.  In Germany this match is known as the “Miracle of Bern,” the match that has come to symbolize the country’s emergence from the post-war depression and its development into an economic power in the years to come. But in Hungary, it was a tragedy.

The match and the reasons for the defeat have been subject to endless analysis.  Having already beaten the Germans so easily in the opening round, they were clearly the favorites in the final.  So what went wrong?

Only five of the players who started in the 8-3 defeat for West Germany featured in the final.  As the story goes, Sepp Herberger decided to rest his players and study Hungary while not showing his hand, as he was confident of a win against Turkey in the ensuing playoff.  The veracity of this version of events is still disputed, but Herberger’s assistant Helmut Schön insists that it is true.

In the 8-3 against West Germany Puskás was tackled from behind by Werner Liebrich and was taken off injured.  He missed the next two matches with what was later revealed to be a hairline fracture.  In a book published the following year Puskás claimed that Liebrich set out deliberately to injure him, though in later years he retracted this accusation.  Whether Liebrich was trying to injure Puskás or not, when he returned for the final he was clearly not at his best.

To accomodate Puskás, Sebes was forced to switch Csibor to the right, Mihály Tóth played on the left, and Lászlo Budai was dropped.  In the subsequent inquest into Sebes’s tactical decision, some claimed that Tóth was only selected due to being the Sebes’s son-in-law, despite the fact that Sebes’s only daughter at the time was 10 and definitely not married.

West Germany celebrate their improbable victory (Source:

Though questionable tactics may have contributed to the result, ultimately Hungary were simply unlucky.  Their best player was injured.  It rained heavily in Bern the day before the final and all throughout the match; the waterlogged pitch severely impeded Hungary’s passing game.  Most importantly, Puskás’s 88th minute equalizer was disallowed by the Welsh linesman Mervyn Griffiths in what is generally believed to be the wrong decision.  “I could have murdered him,” said Puskás, “to lose the World Cup on such a decision just isn’t right.”

The Aranycsapat were denied their moment of catharsis.  The perception of their defeat as tragic and unjust has contributed to their legend.  The innovative, brilliant side that thrashed England at Wembley ended up agonizingly short of their final goal.  Perhaps the romantic idealization of the side is only possible as a result of their ultimate failure.  The narrative is made all the more alluring by the unjust and unlucky nature of the defeat to the West Germans.

The Political Aspect

Unlike the hero’s welcome they received after the 6-3 in Wembley, the reaction of the Hungarian public to the defeat in Bern was that of disappointment, anger, and violence.  The apartments of some players were ransacked, and wild allegations of the players throwing the match for a fleet of Mercedes were widely circulated.   Puskás bore the brunt of the public’s discontent and was dropped from the national team for his own safety.

The protests and demonstrations against the side that soon escalated into open discontent with the Communist regime.  According to Gyula Grosics, the goalkeeper of the Aranycsapat, “in those demonstrations… lay the seeds of the 1956 uprising.

Sebes, a trade union organizer in interwar France and thus a man with impressive socialist credentials, claimed that “if Hungary had won the football World Cup there would have been no counter revolution but a powerful thrust in the building of socialism in the country.”

It is all too tempting to conflate Hungary’s failure on the pitch with the subsequent political events of the 1950s, and such a view is a vast oversimplification of the obviously complex geopolitical situation.  Nevertheless, for better or worse the fate of the Aranycsapat and the Hungarian regime are inextricably tied together.  Grosics, a man with questionable political leanings who had a reputation as a loner and intellectual, was arrested several months after the Bern debacle and was imprisoned for 15 months.

Sebes was retained as national team manager and Hungary then went on an unbeaten streak for 18 months.  But after a string of poor results in early 1956 – a 3-1 defeat in Turkey, a 4-2 home loss to Czechoslovakia, and then throwing away a 3-1 half-time lead against Belgium – Sebes was publicly condemned by the Ministry of Sport for his bourgeois leanings and dismissed from his post.

As the national team disintegrated, so did the regime.  After Stalin’s death the reformist Imre Nagy became the Prime Minister in 1953 but just two years later he was deposed and expelled from the Communist Party, replaced by the Stalinist Mátyás Rákosi.  The hardline Stalinism of Rákosi, however, ran counter to the overall trend of de-Stalinization east of the Iron Curtain.  Rákosi was eventually removed in June of 1956 and there were popular calls for the reinstatement of Nagy.  In September the growing sense of self-determination and independence felt by the Hungarians was supplied with a footballing parallel as Hungary beat the Soviet Union for the first time ever in a friendly in Moscow.

But the Hungarian awakening would soon come to a violent end.  On October 23, 10,000 protesters met in the center of Budapest to march in solidarity with the Polish workers’ movement.  The protest soon escalated into a street battle between protesters and sympathizers against the secret police and Soviet loyalists.  A statue of Stalin was destroyed and by the 25th Nagy was reinstated as Prime Minister.

Less than two weeks later the Soviets invaded and crushed the Hungarian resistance.  Nagy was captured and eventually executed and a new puppet regime established.

During the revolution two of Hungary’s leading clubs, MTK and Honvéd, left the country and eventually embarked on tours of Western Europe and Latin America.  Most players returned home but three of the Honvéd squad: Puskás, Kocsis, Czibor, chose to remain in Western Europe and found new clubs.  Without these three players, the Aranycsapat was no more.  Though the Golden Team way have already been in decline since Bern, the Revolution ensured that there would be no renaissance.

Hungarian football has never reached the heights of the Golden Team.  As former Hungarian striker Tibor Nyilasi remarked, ‘it is as though Hungarian football is frozen at that moment, as though we have never moved on from then.”

Enduring Legacy

To return to our original question, why is Hungary’s Golden Team considered one of the best teams of all time, despite their failure to win a World Cup?  Why are they often ranked ahead of such victorious teams as the Uruguayans in 1950, the Brazilians of 1994, and even the West Germans of 1954, the team that defeated them in the final in Bern?

First and foremost, the Aranycsapat were simply a brilliant footballing side.  Their performances at the Olympics and especially at Wembley resonated throughout the footballing world.  Their tactical innovations paved the way for the legendary Brazilian sides of 1958 and beyond.  Their quality is beyond question.

But they never won the World Cup.  The juxtaposition between the glory of the 6-3 and the tragedy of Bern is what makes the Magical Magyars such a fascinating example of the glorious failure phenomenon.

Finally, the dismantling of the squad and of Hungarian football in general as a result of the Hungarian Uprising has cemented their status as the ultimate example greatness unfulfilled.  They may not have won the World Cup, but their place among the greatest sides of all time is completely understandable and justified.  Their story has everything but the catharsis of a World Cup victory.


Jonathan Wilson’s books, Inverting the Pyramid and Behind the Curtain, provided invaluable source material for this article, as did Davild Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round.

Cabeza Mágica – The King of Ecuador

When one talks about the rich history of Latin American football, it can quite safely be assumed than one is normally speaking of the disproportionate amount of influence a country as small as Uruguay has had, the speed with which the beautiful game took off in the early part of the 20th century in Argentina or of course the way Brazilian football has mesmerised us in the later part.

In the northern part of the continent, particularly in Venezuela and Ecuador, the game has never really taken off to the same extent. Indeed as Ecuador’s debut World Cup appearance came as recently as the first competition of the 21st century in Japan and South Korea, and their record at the Copa America is largely dismal, one could be forgiven for taking 2002 as a kind of year X for the quintessential banana republic.

It also follows logically to assume that Ecuador’s finest footballer would be a product of the country’s recent emergence, most likely Antonio Valencia, whose meteoric rise from playing barefoot in the humble surroundings of his dusty hometown Nueva Loja on the border with Colombia to the glitz of gracing a Champions League final against Barcelona in a Manchester United shirt has captured the imagination of his countrymen. Valencia seemingly personifies the rapid rise of Ecuadorian Football, with his tough no-nonsense style, his indefatigable work-rate and his pinpoint crosses.

Ecuadorian Football as a serious entity is indeed largely a recent phenomenon and alongside Venezuela their evolution from perennial minnows to realistic World Cup contenders in a short space of time is as admirable as it is difficult to account for.

Amazingly though, a hugely influential Ecuadorian player, not only in his own country, but throughout Latin America, began his rise to fame some half a century ago. The curious hybrid name inscribed on the Municipal Guayaquil stadium on Avenida de las Américas leaves a lasting reminder of a phenomenal athlete: Alberto Spencer.

Spencer’s mother was Ecuadorian, but his father was a Jamaican of British origin who worked in Ecuador on behalf of the Anglo-Ecuadorian Oil Company, a subsidiary of what is now known as BP, a company whose presence in Ecuador continues to cause consternation, particularly among environmentalists to this day.

The fact that many fans in the English speaking world have never heard of Spencer can be explained by two important factors: Firstly, unlike Pelé, Spencer never graced a World Cup, which of course is the greatest stage for any footballer to be seen. Secondly, like many of the great South American players of his day, he never made the trip across the Atlantic Ocean to play for Europe’s top sides. Players like Di Stefano, who starred for Real Madrid, were the exception and not the rule.

The production line of South American players has always been prolific, the fundamental difference in Spencer’s era was that holding onto the players was possible, thus creating something akin to a level playing field between the two continents. Indeed, in the 60s, the South American teams could quite easily go toe-to-toe with their European counterparts and on many occasions came out on top in the annual Intercontinental Cup games.

Spencer was born in Ancón on the Santa Elena peninsula. He began playing football as a small kid with his older brother Marcos, who years later would bring him along to Guayaquil club Everest. Everest saw Spencer’s potential and immediately gave him his debut. Spencer quickly racked up a century of goals for Everest, and was spotted by Peñarol staff while the Uruguayan club were playing on tour in Ecuador. They immediately signed him, and he became a hugely important player in Peñarol’s all-conquering sides of the 60s.

He won an amazing seven league titles with Los Carboneros (the coalmen), along with three Copa Libertadores and two memorable Intercontinental Cup victories.

He scored both at home and away as the Uruguayans dismantled Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup final of 1966. This feat didn’t go unnoticed with Europe’s top clubs, and Peñarol soon found themselves resisting the entreaties of Inter Milan. Whilst playing for Los Carboneros, Spencer went on to score an amazing 326 goals, justifying Peñarol’s stubborn refusal to sell him. Spencer holds the incredible record of being the all-time leading goalscorer in the Copa Libertadores. Spencer’s haul of 54 goals is not insurmountable, but surely to be beaten it would require an outstanding South American player to ignore the lure of Europe, with all it entails financially and in terms of prestige, to concentrate on achieving in his own continent. At this juncture that seems unlikely, though maybe in the future this may change, particularly with the emerging Brazilian economy.

A great number of fellow professionals from his era regarded him highly, with Pelé in particular alluding Spencer’s heading ability being the finest that he had ever seen. Curious then, that in the latter days of Spencer’s life (in 2004), when Pelé came to draw up (or put his name to) a list of the greatest living 100 players, Spencer was shunned in favour of a bizarre mishmash of manifestly PC selections aimed at including each of the World’s continents like El Hadji Diouf of Senegal, Hidetoshi Nakata of Japan, Hong Myong Bo of South Korea and Mia Hamm of the United States ladies team.

In time honoured gentlemanly Spencer style, when questioned about the matter, he declined to criticise the selections. This dignified response lies in stark contrast to Brazilian Gerson, who ripped up the list on Brazilian television and launched into an extraordinary rant about his exclusion.

Spencer was the first Ecuadorian player to score against England at Wembley in 1964. No mean feat considering that Ecuador’s national side have never played at Wembley. He scored the goal whilst representing Uruguay as a guest, something he did on a number of occasions in friendlies, whilst stating clearly that he would never abandon the country of his birth. He made 11 appearances for his homeland Ecuador, and continues to be revered there.

Indeed as a labour of love to his homeland, Spencer returned in 1970 to finish his career at Ecuador’s most emblematic club Barcelona of Guayaquil, where he added an Ecuadorian title to his illustrious list of honours before finally hanging up his boots. Such was the esteem in which he was held back in Montevideo, he was sent by the Ecuadorian government to remain there as honorary vice-consul at the embassy. He brought up his children in the Uruguayan capital and held the place in great affection.

A pervasive Eurocentric view (of the football world at least) is ever more difficult to resist as the economic gulf between the clubs of the two dominant football continents is more apparent than ever. Neymar’s oft-reiterated commitment to remain at Santos until the Brazil World Cup, turned out to be a hollow promise as economic reality for the Brazilian club and the lure of Barcelona for the player won out.

Equally it is sad in many ways that a player like Messi, who so clearly continues a distinguished tradition of Latin American No.10s, was uprooted and taken away from his own continent at such a young age, never representing his hometown club at senior level.

Spencer too, of course, was uprooted from his beloved homeland the moment his talent was discovered by the giants of Peñarol, but Spencer belongs in an era of more idealistic era of Latin American Football, when (Southern Cone) clubs aspired to keep their best players in order to prove their supremacy against their ex-colonial masters, rather than aspiring to supply Europe with players to ensure their own survival.

Peñarol indeed twice proved their supremacy against Real Madrid and Benfica in the 1960s, with Spencer’s goals playing a pivotal role. Little wonder then, that some four decades on, supporters of Las Manyas still hold banners and chant the name of Alberto Spencer, beyond any reasonable doubt Ecuador’s greatest ever player.

Why ‘Three Points for a Win’ is a Loss for Football — A Closer Look Into One of the Most Important Rule Changes in Football History

An Introduction to Incentives

Ask an economist how to solve a problem, and he’ll tell you incentives are the answer.1 He wouldn’t be wrong. Punishment and reward are fantastic tools for  exploiting self-interest in the service of the common good. In football, they’re made up of red cards and penalties, trophies and relegation, and always in the interest of preserving the ‘beautiful game’.

But incentives do not always respond the way we expect them to. Take, for example, the infamous 1994 Caribbean Cup match between Barbados and Grenada. In an effort to encourage attacking play during extra-time, tournament officials decided that extra-time golden goals would be worth double for goal difference purposes. A nice idea in theory, but by the end of the match, Grenada found themselves frantically trying to score in either net while Barbados defended both goals. An incredible series of events actually made it in Barbados’ best interest to force an equalizer so that they could score an extra-time goal. You can view a video of the incident below and read about it here.

I feel cheated […] I have never seen this happen before. In football, you are supposed to score against the opponents to win, not for them” – Grenada Manager James Clarkson.2

Even the slightest change to incentives can twist, shape, and decide games in ways we may never anticipate. This is not to say it is an easy task to predict the impact of new incentives – in fact is is often near impossible. However, it is the duty of football officials to review historical data to decide which rules have failed and need updating. In particular, the ‘three points for a win’ rule stands out as a serious offender (from here on the rule will be referred to as 3PW). Despite a growing stack of literature that shows the rule has had the opposite effect from what was intended, it has managed to almost completely fly under FIFA’s radar. It is high time to review the evidence for one of the most important laws of the game. But first let’s rewind.

Football is not a circus”

In October 1980, Stoke City manager Alan Durban, angry at journalists’ criticisms of his tactics in a 0-0 draw against Arsenal, instructed them to “go and watch a bunch of clowns” if they were looking for entertainment. Durban, after all, was simply doing his job, and maybe not such a bad one at that. The “win at home, draw away” philosophy was popular amongst managers and defensive tactics were very much in vogue. Could Durban really take the fall for inverting the pyramid? Perhaps if rapper-cum-actor Ice-T had been present, he could have explained to the crowd of unruly reporters, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

But this wasn’t the only problem. The early 1980s depression had taken its toll on England, and rising ticket prices and television exposure saw match attendance drop to nearly half of its 1950s record-setting numbers. Football fans cried foul: this was not the first time they had felt the beautiful game was under attack.  A generation earlier Herbert Chapman, the legendary former Arsenal manager, remarked:

“It is no longer only necessary for a team to play well. They must get goals, no matter how, and the points. The measure of their skill is, in fact, judged by their position in the League table.”

In comes Jimmy Hill, former chairman of the Professional Footballer’s Association and legendary Coventry manager.3 Hill was not your conventional chairman – in fact, he was a bit of a maverick, famous for leading the charge to scrap the Football League’s £20 maximum wage. He was later known for engineering the Sky Blue Revolution during his tenure as Coventry manager, a club overhaul which would make Assem Allam’s efforts to rebrand Hull City Tigers look amateurish and lazy.

Hill, who “had long thought that soccer had become too defensive and dull” and was concerned that “goals had become rarer with every passing season,”4 proposed a simple revision to the rules: change the reward for winning a match from two points to three points. This would make wins more valuable and incentivize teams to not settle for draws. In 1981, less than a year after Durban’s speech, Hill convinced the FA to introduce his idea of ‘three points for a win’ or 3PW. Thirteen years later, FIFA adopted the system for the upcoming 1994 World Cup in the US, concerned that American fans would be turned off by draws. Sepp Blater hailed the move as “the most important sporting decision taken here, but it rewards attacking soccer”. In 1995, every remaining major football league switched to a three point system.

The Drawing Game

Advocates of 3PW tend to fall back on the result easiest to observe: it reduces the number of draws by increasing the incentives for breaking a draw. Indeed, according to former Football League chairman Brian Mawhinney, draws are still seen as a threat to football’s entertainment factor:

I suggested that for drawn matches each team gets a point and then maybe the team that wins a penalty shoot-out gets an extra point […] We cannot afford to be complacent – people are always talking to be about how we can get more goals and more excitement in football.”5

Some statistics indicate that the rule switch did indeed reduce the number of draws. In the five English First Division seasons leading up to the change, there was an average of 133.0 draws per season. This was twenty more than the average of 113.4 in the first five seasons after.

Data from other countries yield similar results. Evidence from Turkish and German leagues shows a decrease in the number of draws after controlling for number of teams, games played, and cup matches.6,7

But is this a valid metric for measuring entertainment value? Does a reduction in the number of league draws indicate an increase in attacking play?

Scrutinizing England’s data may be the key to answering these questions. The graph below illustrates the number of draws per game over time in England first division football league (no cup games are counted). The value on the left indicates the percentage of matches played that resulted in a draw.


At a first glance, the number of draws per game (DPG) was already in the process of decreasing right before 3PW took effect in 1980 (and has actually been declining since 1970). In fact, it only takes five years for any perceived effects of 3PW to wear off. The reason? Between 1986 and 1988, the number of teams in the league was reduced from 22 to 20. The data indicates that any benefit of 3PW in terms of reducing DPG was negated by the formation of a more competitive league.

This reveals a fundamental problem with looking at draws: the DPG is inversely correlated to league competitiveness. Think about it: if a league is perfectly competitive, then all matches will result in a draw. Take the spike in DPG in 1968, for example, which coincides with the introduction of the substitution. The substitution rule change meant, among other things, that a team would no longer have to play with ten men if one of their players was injured on the pitch. This would naturally lead to fewer unbalanced matches, more draws, and a higher DPG. Indeed, I find a statistically significant inverse correlation between DPG and league competitiveness.

Not only did the rule switch have no noticeable long-term impact on DPG, but the reader must make a subjective judgment on whether they prefer fewer draws, or a more competitive league. If you prefer fewer draws in return for the same old winners and losers, then this rule change may be right for you. I do not however believe this to be the intention of 3PW.

There are other, better metrics, for evaluating the rule’s success. Let us consider them instead.


Regardless of the number of draws, if 3PW encourages attacking play, then it may have served its purpose after all. After all, fans do not watch games to find out the winner – there are plenty of live score feeds online – they watch to see the beautiful game unfold. If the FA is looking to increase stadium attendance, they need to make the experience worth it, most noticeably through an increase in attacking play.

As it turns out, 3PW actually incentivizes defensive play and sabotage (a punishable offence, e.g. purposefully negligent tackling). Researchers looking at card data from England, Spain, and Germany show that teams in a winning position were more likely to commit punishable offences under the 3PW system.8,9

At the core of this issue is the natural tradeoff of offensive play: by increasing your chances of scoring, you are also increasing your chances of conceding a goal. This means that, following the implementation of 3PW, if a team scores and takes the lead, then the expected payoff of playing defensively will increase relative to the expected payoff of playing offensively. In other words, the stakes are so high that a team will not risk giving up a goal. By making wins more valuable, the FA may have succeeded actually made ‘unattractive’ football more common. To quote football statisticians Chris Anderson and David Sally, “three points for a win had not rewarded attacking soccer. It had rewarded cynical soccer”.

Most damning is evidence from a 2005 study by then-University of Chicago economists Luis Garicano and Ignacio Palacios-Huerta. In a discussion paper of theirs, the two analyzed Spanish league data from the 1994-1995 season (when 2PW was last used) and compared it to the 1998-1999 season – the four year gap is so that they do not have to assume an immediate response and change in tactical development. They control league data against cup results, which should remain largely unaffected by the change, to eliminate potential external variables such as referee strictness, injuries, etc.10

Their study also provides evidence that 3PW is ineffective. They show a ~28% increase in the use of starting forwards, but also an increase in the number of defenders and a ~10% increase in both fouls and yellow cards as a result of 3PW. However, despite the increase in forwards, number of goals scored did not go up. This suggests that any attack-minded benefits of 3PW were negated by its less appealing sabotage-effect. The study found that “when ahead, teams became more conservative, increasing their defenders, scoring less goals, and allowing fewer attempts to score by their opponents”.

But more importantly, this study shows that 3PW is actually detrimental to match attendance. They find the incentive change actually decreased attendance for teams who played more defensively and committed more sabotage. By controlling for team popularity and visiting/home factors, Garicano and Palacios-Huerta show a negative correlation between ‘team dirtiness’ and attendance, at a significance level of 1%. This means that, statistically speaking, there’s a 99% chance that a correlation between dirty play and attendance figures exists.


One point that seems to be brought up consistently is that 3PW inspires more league competition, and in particular gives lower-ranked teams a fighting chance to avoid relegation.

The idea is that by increasing points for a win, teams facing relegation at mid-season a given a fighting chance to turn everything around. If true, this would make the league more exciting for supporters of lower-ranked teams.

However, a look at the ten largest comebacks in the top flight of English football tells a different story:


It is striking that only two of the top ten comebacks happened post-1980. In particular, comparing the case of Fulham in 2010 to Ipswich in 1978 reveals the counter-productive effects of 3PW. The Whites lost only one more game during the second half the season than during the first. Their fantastic comeback was due almost entirely to their ability to convert draws into wins. Ipswich, on the other hand lost, only twice in the second half versus eleven times in the first half of the 1978 season, yet managed to advance only a similar number of spots on the league table. The Blues succeeded by converting their losses into wins. It is telling that teams pre-1981 could engineer a comeback by winning against those who beat them, while modern teams can only hope to edge out a win over teams they have already drawn.

We then look at whether or not changing the points system affects which teams are being relegated. If does, because 3PW rewards teams who win more games, teams that win/lose would benefit more than teams that survive by drawing. When the 1976-1980 season tables for the top three tiers of English football are recalculated under 3PW, we get the following:


The evidence suggests that the impact of 3PW is in fact minimal. For teams coming in last or second to last, how you count your points doesn’t change the fact that you don’t have any. Teams in third to last place may sometimes benefit from a new point system, but 80% of the time it would not have made a difference. A fourth to last place team had a 60% chance of staying relegated, but frankly, it’s the third tier of English football. Whether or not the Tranmere Rovers stay up another season is of little concern in this case. Teams that are relegated are not relegated for playing less exciting football, they just aren’t good enough.

So far, it doesn’t look like 3PW has a strong effect on teams’ comeback potential or their chances of being relegated. We still have one more metric to consider, though: league competitiveness. To calculate this metric, we consult a study penned by Kjetil K. Haugen, professor of Logistics and Sport Management at Molde University college. Haugen’s analysis demonstrates that decrease in league-competitiveness following the rule change in the United Kingdom, Norway, and Romania.

By using a tweaked version of his formula, we can calculate the competitiveness level of the bottom-6 teams under 3PW and 2PW systems. These levels are represented on a scale of 0% to 100%, where 0% represents a minimally competitive league, and 100% represents a maximally competitive league.

You can find an explanation for my methodology and full access to my data here.


This graph represents the competitiveness of the bottom six teams during the second half of the season. All pre-1981 season data has been recalculated under 3PW to avoid endogenous distortions (not doing this significantly overestimates the competitiveness of pre-1981 teams). Note that the variance index was able to exceed 100% – it’s because lower-tiered teams consistently over-performed compared to their mid-season rankings. For example, in 1977, the six second-flight teams ranked last in December proceeded to win 186 combined points by June – they were only expected to get 45. This rubric is meant to give us a visualization of competitiveness, not a predictive figure.

At a first glance, it doesn’t look like there is any correlation between 3PW and bottom six. Top-flight competitiveness was already increasing before the change, and data from the other flights doesn’t reveal anything either. A subsequent statistical test shows two things: First, 3PW is a poor indicator of a team’s performance during the second half of a season. Second, on average, a bottom-six team’s performance during the first half of a season is not a great indicator of its performance during the second half.

These results show that, in fact, 3PW doesn’t give losing teams a second wind.


Jimmy Hill’s role in launching 3PW ultimately won him the Contribution to League Football Award at the 2009 Football League Awards. Perhaps if the FLA administrators had done their research, they would have given it to someone else. In most regards, 3PW has been ineffective in accomplishing its goals and, as several studies report, has actually encouraged sabotage and decreased stadium attendance. Further analysis shows that leagues actually become less competitive due to the rule change. This is not to say 3PW affects a league’s inherent quality, but rather that it makes teams’ differences more noticeable in table rankings. If the FA really wants to avoid the same winners and losers each year, then they’ll need to reconsider 3PW.

Points of Interest

  • It is worth nothing that if 3PW encourages team to shed the “win at home, draw away” mentality, then it may have value. Indeed, analysis of Portuguese league data reveals a reduction in home field advantage, albeit at the cost of league competitiveness12. Similar results were obtained by looking at German league data.1113  It’s not a bad metric, but if home field advantage is how we gauge entertainment, then Barcelona is the most boring team in the world.14
  • My analysis, despite its strong results, sometimes comes from a relatively small sample size, ranging from 30 to over 1000 observations depending on the calculations. It would be worth reviewing my conclusions from a larger database, preferably of leagues from outside the UK.
  • All my data is organized and available for download here. Part of the reason I decided to start a blog was to make football data access easier for the general public. It took me months to download everything and organize it, so please don’t waste your time doing the same thing. I highly encourage anyone who found this post interesting to check out my data and see what they can do with it.
  • You can find a more in-depth explanation for my methodology here, along with some cool graphs to consider.
  • Please let me know if you find any mistakes in my approach or if you feel additional data would be of particular value in analyzing the impact of 3PW. You can reach me at
  • Special thanks to Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian for inspiring this post.


1 Ask a FIFA executive how to solve a problem, and he’ll give you previously discredited answer.

2 Gardiner, Simon (2005). Sports Law. London: Routledge Cavendish. pp. 73–74. ISBN 1-85941-894-5.

4 Chris Anderson, David Sally, The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, 2013

6Bas¸ levent, C., & Tunal (2001). Incentives and outcomes in football: The effect of the three-points system and home advantage on outcomes. Retrieved Febuary 21, 2008, from

7 Dilger, A.,&Geyer, H. (2009). Are three points for a win really better than two? A comparison of german soccer league and cup games. Journal of Sports Economics, 10, 305-318.

8 Julio del Corral & Juan Prieto-Rodriguez & Rob Simmons, 2010. “The Effect of Incentives on Sabotage: The Case of Spanish Football,” Journal of Sports Economics, , vol. 11(3), pages 243-260, June.

9 Dilger, A.,&Geyer, H. (2009). Are three points for a win really better than two? A comparison of german soccer league and cup games. Journal of Sports Economics, 10, 305-318.

10 Garicano, Luis and Palacios-Huerta, Ignacio, Sabotage in Tournaments: Making the Beautiful Game a Bit Less Beautiful (September 2005). CEPR Discussion Paper No. 5231. Available at SSRN:

11 Dewenter, R. (2003). Raising the scores? Empirical evidence on the introduction of the three-point rule in Portuguese football. Discussion Paper, Institute of Economic Policy, University of the Federal Armed Forces, Hamburg.

12 Guedes, J. C., & Machado, F. S. (2002). Changing rewards in contests: Has the three-point-rule brought more offense to soccer? Empirical Economics, 27, 607-630.

13 Amann, E., Dewenter, R., & Namini, J. E. (2004). The Home-Bias Paradox in Football. Discussion Paper, University of Duisburg-Essen, Essen. Dilger, Geyer / A Comparison of German Soccer League and Cup Games

Marta and the Revolution

During the course of the twentieth century many Latin American countries experienced enormous migrations to the rapidly urbanising cities, allowing football’s popularity to grow exponentially and become a significant factor in the formation of local, regional and national identity.

In Uruguay the game is so deeply entrenched in the national psyche that the following saying is frequently heard: ‘Otros paises tienen sus historias, Uruguay tiene su futbol’ (Other countries have their history – Uruguay has its football.’)

However, the country where the juxtaposition of football and national identity is most obvious is Brazil. In 1938 eminent sociologist of the time Gilberto Freyre spoke of a mulatto Brazilian spontaneity and creativity that lay in stark contrast to the European style. Freyre sought to express ideas of national identity based upon otherness In this case the nascent individualistic football being played in Brazil provided a perfect example of this.

An important aspect of football’s influence on the formation of  identity that is often not considered is that of gender. Football, of course, in the traditional Latin American mindset, is intrinsically linked to manhood as explained succinctly by Pelé:

Toda criança do mundo que joga futebol quer ser Pelé, o que significa que tenho a responsabilidade de mostrar a eles como ser um jogador de futebol, mas também como ser um homem (Every kid around the world who plays soccer wants to be Pele. I have a great responsibility to show them not just how to be like a soccer player, but how to be a man.)’

Football has long been a foundation stone of patriarchal society in Brazil. Indeed, in 1941, football’s position as a bastion of masculinity was institutionally consolidated by a 1941 government decree ensuring that women playing football were not only frowned upon, but actually breaking Brazilian law.

Sadly, prohibition was to remain in force until 1975 meaning that when second wave feminism ushered in the professionalisation of women’s football in the early 1970s in countries like the United States, Sweden and Germany, the mere idea of a woman kicking a football remained anathema in Brazil.

Generally, success in Women’s football has largely been achieved by countries which take a progressive approach to social issues like gender equality, and thus make the corresponding effort to accommodate the development of women’s football. Such is the clamour for gender equality in countries like Norway, for example, that a law has been passed that requires a 40% quota of women in all company boardrooms. Whether or not one agrees with this type of state enforced quota system, there can be little doubt that this type of society is more conducive to the growth of professional women’s football than a society with deeply entrenched gender inequality and prejudices.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the bastion of machismo that is Latin America, Brazilian women, in fact, took to the field as early as 1921 in São Paulo. The novelty factor of the game amused locals so much that exhibition games were arranged as part of circus acts.

Crucially however, the prejudices of the Brazilian establishment ensured that the game never professionalised, a situation that remains today, despite waves of progressive social reform in other sectors of society from the populist Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) of Lula da Silva and current incumbent Dilma Rousseff.

It’s fair to say that the marginalisation of women in Sport is widespread across Latin America, and that for much of the 20th Century women playing football was certainly not a mainstream activity in any other Latin American nation.

Even in other mainstream sports which are less readily associated with masculinity, like Tennis for example, only Maria Esther Bueno, who triumphed three times at Wimbledon, comes to mind as an example of a successful Brazilian woman.

Of course, breaking into the male-dominated sporting world is not a problem exclusive to Latin America. Gabby Logan’s recent documentary exploring sexism in the UK sporting world gave an insight into the difficulties faced by women trying to establish themselves both in media positions and at boardroom level in the case of Karren Brady.

Milene Domingues in her Rayo Vallecano days

Milene Domingues in her Rayo Vallecano days

The extent of the problem was memorably highlighted by the monumental ignorance of the president of the world game, Sepp Blatter. Even by his rather high standards of buffoonery the suggestion that beautiful female players ought to ‘wear tighter shorts in order to pique people’s interest‘ was excruciatingly cringeworthy.

The presupposition in Blatter’s statement that, in his view, women’s sport will only sell by providing eye-candy for the male audience appeared, at best, rather dated and at worst, extremely offensive to many sports fans.

The Brazilian media hardly batted an eyelid at Blatter’s 2004 comment of course, instead choosing to focus on the media darling of the time: model turned keepy-uppy expert Milene Domingues. Domingues was loved by the Brazilian media for her traditional beauty pageant candidate looks and her femininity (which her website still alludes to).

Domingues, in her defence, showed more than a modicum of footballing talent, when she entered the Guinness Book of Records for the ‘keepy-uppy’ record (55,197 touches) and has played successfully in the Spanish Women’s League for a number of years. She often appeared on the front-pages of Brazilian newspapers as a model and married Brazil’s best forward of that era, Ronaldo (they are now separated). She was part of the 2003 Women’s World Cup as an unused sub, which rather belied her status of the most expensive women’s player ever at £200,000. In summary, her ‘marketing potential’ was far greater than her football talent: think Anna Kournikova, or even David Beckham. On the other hand, the media nickname ‘Mrs Ronaldo’ was symptomatic of the problems womens’ football faces.

Against this historical backdrop came the emergence of As Canarinhas (the Brazilian Women’s football team) as a serious force. Considering the societal attitudes they came up against, the lack of a professional league in their homeland and the lack of support from their own federation, their rise is simply miraculous. The Swedish, Japanese and American women’s teams, to name a few examples, have achieved success because of, or at least with the support of their respective women’s football federations’ pro-active approach, the Brazilians have achieved success in spite of the inertia of theirs.


Marta Vieira Da Silva, Latin America’s first female superstar

Brazil’s women have won five of the last six Sudamericano Femeninos, twice won Olympic Silver, finished runners-up at the 2007 World Cup in China, and their standout player Marta Vieira Da Silva has been crowned the World Player of the Year on five consecutive occasions from 2006 to 2010 inclusive, only being dethroned in 2011 by Homare Sawa of the Japanese World Cup winning side of 2011.

In many interviews Marta has spoken of her childhood in North-Eastern Brazil, in the backwater of Dois Riachos, where she used to play football with boys. The state of Alagoas is among the poorest in Brazil with one of the highest levels of illiteracy. In her infancy Marta’s older brothers warned her not to play football, fearing an adverse machista reaction from members of the local community.

According to Tereza Vieira, Marta’s mother, her brothers would go as far as hitting her to prevent her from tarring the family name by participating in what they perceived to be such an innately male activity. Only with an admirable strength of character and perseverance did Marta manage to stay in the game she loved, and eventually be spotted by Helena Pacheco. From there she went on to shine at the inaugural Women’s Football Olympic event in Atlanta 1996 and got her break in the game.

Sadly however, in order to forward her career and compete with professionals, Marta had to leave Brazil, playing for Umeå IK of Sweden (where she won four consecutive Swedish Championships and a European Cup), Los Angeles Sol, Western New York Flash and most recently back in Sweden for Tyresö FF (whom she joined this February). Marta did briefly return to her homeland to join Santos in the inaugural Copa Femenina de Futebol Brasileira and the Copa Libertadores de Futebol Feminino, however the tournament featured girls as young as 14, and lacked the kind of professionalism that a high-level player needed to be able to compete at the highest level.

The out of touch gerontocracy at the helm of the CBF are showing few signs of rewarding the rise of the national side with the professional league a country Brazil’s size deserves, as attitudes within the football federation haven’t changed an awful lot since prohibition in 1941. For the first time in history, at least, Brazil has a female leader (or more importantly a democratic political agenda that seeks to redress inequalities across Brazilian society.

In Dilma Rousseff Brazil has a leader who clearly finds herself at odds with the male-dominated oligarchy of Brazilian football. Rousseff made no secret of her disdain for discredited long-time leader Ricardo Teixeira and has made no overtures about getting involved with the new leadership of the CBF (Brazilian Football Federation). Gender inequality remains a high priority for the Rousseff administration.


The Brazil Women’s football team

Even with a progressive Brazilian government which openly acknowledges many of the errors of the country’s past it is difficult to overcome the ingrained prejudices of huge swathes of the Brazilian public overnight. It is unlikely that Gray-and-Keys-gate would ever have happened in Brazil. In fact the Brazilian sports media habitually exhibit outrageous prejudices without ever being challenged.

Despite an overall panorama that is far from ideal, a number of Brazilian women, like Cristiane, Daniela and Marta have shown millions of young Brazilian girls that the game doesn’t belong exclusively to men, and that success is possible.

At the beginning of the 20th Century Uruguay’s men triumphed in the Olympics (and World Cup) inspiring its South American neighbours to try and match them. Could we be seeing the same thing happen for Women’s football in Latin America at the beginning of the 21st Century?

This post also appears on IBWM here.

Pinochet, the Cold War, and the Most Pathetic Match Ever Played

November 21, 1973. Estadio Nacional. Santiago. The match to determine the final participant of the 1974 FIFA World Cup is about to take place between Chile and the Soviet Union. The Chileans take the field and line up for the national anthem. They wave to the fans and kick off. But this is no ordinary World Cup qualifier. It is, rather, one of the most absurd sights ever seen on a football pitch. The reason? The Soviets are not there. Chile dribble the length of the field unopposed and roll the ball into an unguarded net, a strictly symbolic goal to ensure victory. The story behind this mockery of a match is yet another example of the inevitable intersection between sport and politics, a narrative of Cold War intrigues spilling over onto the pitch and producing what the legendary Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano deemed “the most pathetic match in the history of football.”

To qualify for the 1974 World Cup the winner of Group 3 in the CONMEBOL zone had to play the winner of Group 9 in UEFA zone for the final spot in the competition. Chile was placed in a group with Peru and Venezuela, but Venezuela withdrew before qualifying began. Peru and Chile finished level on both points and goal difference, and a play-off was scheduled to determine the winner of the group. In Europe, meanwhile, the Soviet Union recovered from an initial loss to France in Paris to win the remainder of their matches and clinch their spot in the play-off. Back in South America, the Chileans beat Peru 2-1 in the play-off held in Montevideo. The stage was set for Chile and the Soviet Union to battle it out for a ticket to West Germany. The first leg was to take place in Moscow on September 26; the return leg, in Santiago on November 21. After defeating a side from Porto Alegre 5-0 in a friendly, the Chileans were set to depart for Moscow on September 11. But history took an unexpected turn.

The bombs fall on the Presidential Palace

The bombs fall on the Presidential Palace

In 1970 Salvador Allende became the first democratically-elected Marxist President in Latin America. His government immediately began to enforce socialist policies. Many of Chile’s industries including the copper mines and banks were nationalized, and a land reform program was implemented. Despite support from the workers and trade unions, Allende faced huge opposition from the Army, industrialists, and Congress. To make things worse for the President, the existence of another Soviet ally in its own hemisphere did not sit well with the United States. The details of the events of September 11, 1973 remain murky. But what is known is that the Chilean military, with the tacit support of the CIA, overthrew Allende in a coup d’état led by the commander-in-chief of the army, Augusto Pinochet. As the bombs fell around him, Allende made a famous last speech inside of the under-siege presidential palace in which he defiantly refused to accept an offer of safe passage and vowed to stay in the country. Shortly afterward, he allegedly committed suicide with an AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro.


The military Junta immediately dissolved congress and outlawed all political parties in the Popular Unity coalition that had been allied with Allende’s government. The economic reforms of Allende were reversed. Chile adopted neo-liberal policies that opened up the country to world markets. Pinochet, who emerged as the leader of the junta, initiated a campaign of brutal repression against all political opponents including communists and trade unionists. Thousands of people were either killed or simply disappeared. The National Stadium of Santiago was converted into a detention center. Locker rooms were made into prison cells, and the velodrome was used for interrogations. Torture was rampant. Gregorio Meno Barrales, a former socialist governor of the Puente Alto locality and a victim of the regime, said of his experiences in the stadium:

Every day they let twenty, fifty people go… they called them by loudspeaker. They made them sign a document declaring that they ‘had not been poorly treated in the stadium’ (although some still had visible sings of torture and beatings). Everyone signed, it was the price you had to pay… we all hoped to hear our name in the ‘lists of freedom,’ [our sentiments] were logical and legitimate. We were guilty only of being defenders of the legitimate constitution.”

Guitarists allegedly had their fingers broken and were then forced to play their instruments. Army vehicles blasted the music of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones at full volume to drown out the cries of the detainees. It is estimated over 40,000 people spent time in the stadium; between September 11 and November 7 alone, 12,000 people were interned there.

An event of such magnitude inevitably affected the country’s football scene. The day of the coup the Chilean national team was supposed to have a meeting at the Juan Pinto Duràn training complex to finalize the details of the trip to Moscow. But the meeting never took place. Eduardo Herrera, the left back, played club football at Wanderers of Valparaíso and was staying at Hotel Carrera, some 100 meters from the facilities. He recalls:

“When we arrived at the field the coach, Luis Álamos, ordered us to return home. But I had to return to the hotel and on the way the soldiers stopped me about 10 times. I was not arrested only because I had a bag with the inscription “Chilean National Football Team.”

Victor Jara, the iconic singer and activist, was arrested, tortured, and executed shortly after the coup. The death of Pablo Neruda, though brought on by cancer rather than the regime, was made all the more traumatic due to the fact that Pinochet refused to allow a public burial. The funeral was a muted affair, but thousands of Chileans defied the authorities and crowded the streets in mourning.

Clearly Chileans had more to worry about than the fortunes of their national team in such a tense environment, but the first leg against the Soviets was fast approaching. Several players, including Carlos Caszely and Leonardo Velíz, were well-known socialist sympathizers and feared for the safety of their families while abroad. There were doubts as to whether the match could even be played, as the junta ordered that no one be allowed to leave the country. But it just so happened that Dr. Jacobo Helo, the physician of the national side, was also the personal doctor of General Gustavo Leigh, head of the Air Force and one of the leaders of the coup. Helo convinced the general that the national team could bolster the international standing and image of the regime. The junta relented and allowed the side to travel, but with a clearly-worded warning: “If you talk, your families will suffer the consequences.”

The Chilean National Team, 1973

The Chilean National Team, 1973

Though the nature of the relationship of Chile and the USSR during the Allende presidency is a matter of historical debate, it is clear that Chile was closer to the Soviets than to the Americans. The coup changed that. As the Chileans arrived in Moscow, Washington officially recognized the junta as the legitimate government of Chile. Several days afterward the Soviet Union broke diplomatic relations with Chile and recalled their ambassador. The climate could not have been more hostile. Two Chilean players were detained at the Sheremetyevo airport for hours for “discrepancies in their passport photos” in what was clearly a political statement.

On the 26th of September, the Lenin Stadium hosted the first leg of the World Cup qualifier. It was an unusually cold autumn in Russia; the temperature was recorded at 5 degrees below zero Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit). The Soviet Union dominated the match, but the Chileans held out for a 0-0 draw in large part due to the heroic performances of Alberto Quintano and Elìas Figueroa, the two center backs. However, the Chileans allegedly also benefited from some dubious refereeing. Hugo Gasc, the only Chilean journalist to make the trek to Moscow, later stated:

“Luckily the referee was a rabid anti-communist. Together with Francisco Fluxá, president of the delegation, we had convinced him that he could not let us lose in Moscow, and the truth is that his officiating helped us significantly.”

Everything was still up for grabs in the return leg. Despite the best efforts of the junta to keep the use of the stadium as a prison a secret, it was obvious that something was amiss and the rumors were widely reported by the international media. The Chilean football authorities proposed moving the match to Viña del Mar, but the junta insisted the match be played in Santiago to show the world that the capital was peaceful. Fluxá, the president of the federation, later revealed to a newspaper:

the soldiers told us that we could say only that the National Stadium was ‘a transit center where people without documents were identified.’ To avoid problems, we proposed the Sausalito (the stadium in Viña del Mar) as an alternative. I spoke to General Leigh and he explained to me that ‘by orders from up high we cannot have it at the Sausalito, the match takes place in the National Stadium, or it does not take place at all.’”

The Soviets and their allies in Europe and Africa launched a complaint. In a communique to FIFA, the Soviet Union announced:

The football federation of the USSR has asked the international football federation to hold the match in a third country seeing as how in the stadium, stained with the blood of the patriots of the people of Chile, Soviet sportsmen cannot at this time perform on moral grounds.”

In response to these complaints FIFA sent a delegation to Santiago to examine the stadium. The delegation, headed by FIFA Vice President Abilio d’Almeida and General Secretary Helmuth Kaeser, arrived in Santiago on October 24. The military did everything possible to remove all evidence that the stadium was being used as a prison and torture center. Despite the fact that there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands of detainees still in the stadium, they succeeded. In a press conference given alongside the Chilean Minister of Defense, Admiral Patricio Cardajal, the FIFA officials announced “the report that we will submit to our authorities will be a reflection of what we have seen: total calm.” Whether FIFA had been successfully duped by the Chileans, or whether they were aware of the situation and simply chose to ignore it, is a question whose answer is lost to history. But what was important is that the world governing body had given the green light for the match to go ahead in Santiago; humanitarian considerations were clearly secondary.

The Soviet Union refused to travel to Santiago. The press reacted with outrage. In the weekly newspaper ‘Football-Hockey’ the journalist Lev Filatov wrote:

The day that the FIFA committee arrived in Santiago, the stadium was still being used as a concentration camp. But the delegation received guarantees from the junta that the stadium would still be free, and that the junta guarantees that the match will be held in ‘normal circumstances.’ But until this day the stadium remains a concentration camp, and bloody terror still reigns in Chile.”

Sir Stanley Rous

Sir Stanley Rous

The Soviets also speculated about the possibility of a conspiracy engineered by then FIFA President, Englishman Stanley Rous. The newspaper ‘Soviet Sport’ pointed out that Rous himself succeeded in changing the venue of a World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and Bulgaria from Belfast to Sheffield at the height of The Troubles. So if Rous has no qualms about holding matches at neutral stadiums in times of political upheaval, the newspaper asked, what kept him from putting pressure on the Chileans in this case? Their response was that by insisting that the match be held at the National Stadium in Chile, Rous hoped that the socialist countries would boycott the tournament. This would allow Rous’s England, who had failed to qualify, a backdoor entry into the World Cup.  Such rhetoric was widespread in the media of the Soviet Union and that of their satellite states. Perhaps the most piercing condemnation of the decision came from the East Germans, who asked FIFA if they would consider holding a match at Dachau.

The standard account of the Soviet decision seems to be that they refused to play in Santiago on humanitarian grounds; the junta was using the stadium as a prison for dissidents of the regime, and thus the Soviet Union could not in good conscience allow its sportsmen to play there. While there may certainly be an element of authenticity to this narrative, like most events of the Cold War the truth is far more ambiguous and murky than the words of a government official or the article of a censored publication suggest. An interview with Evgeny Lovchev, a defender for Spartak Moscow and the Soviet national team at the time of the events in question, sheds some light on the political realities of the situation. According to Lovchev:

our lack of desire to go up against the football players of the country that had been taken over by the dictator Pinochet was less a show of support for the opponents of the new regime and more simply the fact that the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Sports Committee feared the possibility of our defeat.”

Later in the interview, Lovchev reveals that the head coach of the side, Evgeny Goryanskiy refused to promise a victory in Santiago to the authorities, who thus refused to let the team travel to Chile. Lovchev believes that had the Soviets won the first leg in Moscow, they would have been allowed to play in Santiago. Instead, Lovchev holds the view that the party bureaucracy denied the players an opportunity to battle for a place in the competition. Fearful of a propaganda defeat to their latest Cold War adversary, the Soviet authorities opted to settle for the moral high ground and boycotted the match.

Whatever the true motives of the Soviets were,they had voluntarily given up their chance to perform at the 1974 World Cup finals. With the refusal of the Soviet Union to travel to Santiago, Chile all but qualified for the tournament. But the story does not end here. Inexplicably, on the date the 2nd leg was to take place, the Chilean players lined up in the stadium, as if there were an opponent to play.

“This game is beyond metaphor, its evil is real,” writes David Goldblatt in his Global History of Football. In the video above you can see for yourself the farce put on by General Pinochet and the junta.  The stands are half-full, the fans unenthusiastic, the players almost embarrassed to be taking part in this travesty.  Why the Chilean authorities chose to go through with the match, and why the 3-0 result usually used as the default when one team fails to show up was unused, is not known.  Perhaps the match was meant as a propaganda victory, although how rolling the ball into an empty net with no opponent in sight constitutes a propaganda victory by any stretch of the imagination is anyone’s guess.

After the match, to placate the 18,000 fans that had bought their ticket for the match but had instead witnessed a farce, a friendly was organized against the legendary Brazilian club Santos.  In what was supposed to be a celebration of their qualification to the World Cup, Chile was promptly humiliated 5-0 by the visitors.   At the World Cup in West Germany, Chile’s performance was uninspiring.  They lost to the hosts and could only manage draws against Australia and East Germany, crashing out after the first round.

Pinochet remained in power until 1990.  The Soviet regime outlasted him by one year, collapsing in 1991.  It is unlikely that we will ever discover the truth behind all of the decisions taken by the various actors in this little snippet of Cold War drama.  But one thing we can learn from this episode: sport and politics, despite claims to the contrary, are forever and inextricably tied together.  The same was true during the Cold War, and the same is true today.

I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Pablo Aro Geraldes, whose wonderful article on the subject was both the inspiration for this post and provided much of the material.