Come back in time with SB Nation Soccer to 1950. Then, as now, Brazil were about to host the World Cup; then, as now, the world waited in anticipation for the ceremonial removal of some numbered balls from some shiny pots.
Things were markedly different back then. For one, it had only been five years since much of the world had been embroiled in a fairly sizeable war. And FIFA's flagship was far from being the globe-spanning government-shaking tax-disregarding colossus that it is today. It hadn't been held since 1938, for one thing, and European and South American teams had historically been reluctant to cross the oceans to one another's stadiums. Intercontinental travel was difficult, dangerous and expensive.
Still, it was happening, and Brazil were hosting. The plan was for 16 teams to take part. They would be drawn into four groups of four, play one other once, and then -- knock-out football being viewed as something of a lottery -- the top four teams would go into another round robin. And the winner of that, if all went to plan, would be
Brazil the World Cup champions.
The organisers allocated the places as follows: Brazil and Italy would both qualify automatically, the former as hosts and the latter as holders. It should be noted that the Italians took some persuasion: The core of their national team had perished in the Superga plane disaster, which decimated the great Torino side of the 1940s, and they eventually agreed to attend but travel by boat. Seven of the fourteen remaining places would go to Europe, six to the Americas (all three of them), and the remaining spot would go to Asia. Simple enough in theory; in practice, an organisational nightmare of unprecedented proportions.
Back in those pre-UEFA, pre-AFC days, an ad hoc qualifying tournament included Syria and Israel. It did not, however, include the majority of the countries behind the Iron Curtain, who declined to enter due to an unwillingness to engage with the capitalist pigs. Probably. Well, that and the after-effects of the war. Those that did enter included the four Home Nations for the first time, on which more later, along with 15 others. Naturally, everything did not go smoothly.
Yugoslavia beat Israel but could only draw with France over two legs, eventually overcoming them in a playoff. Sweden beat the Republic of Ireland and were due to playoff against Finland, only for the Finns to withdraw. Similarly, Switzerland beat Luxembourg only to have their next opponents, Belgium, also demurred, sending the Swiss through by default. Spain, in the winner-take-all Iberian Slugmatch, beat Portugal at home before drawing away.
The real mess came in the three team group involving Austria, Turkey and Syria group. Only one game got played -- Turkey 7-0 Syria -- following which Syria wisely refused to play the return leg. Turkey then progressed to play Austria, who themselves pulled out, leaving Turkey with perhaps the shortest qualification record of all time. Until, that is, they pulled out as well. Portugal and France were both offered the chance to take up the vacant spots, and France accepted.
Doing their own thing, as ever, were the Home Nations. Having walked out on FIFA in 1920, the Brits had decided at last to grace the World Cup with their presence, and were rewarded with two qualifying spots. These would go to the top two teams in the 1950 Home Championships, widely expected to be England and Scotland. Simple enough, you'd think, but then you (probably) weren't a member of the Scottish FA.
With all the cocksure bravado of a man who is perfectly capable of fixing the car, thank you, no you don't need to call anybody, look it can't be that difficult, the Scots announced that they would only go to Brazil if they won the Home Championship. And with an inevitability that was as amusing as it was just, it blew up in their faces. Needing only a draw, they finished second behind England after losing the final match 1-0 at Hampden Park. And hitting the bar in the second half. And shooting just over in the last minute.
Despite pleas from Scotland captain George Young and his English counterpart Billy Wright, the SFA's minds were made up. Their word had been given. Off from the islands went England and England alone. It's perhaps some small consolation that even in a competition as hotly contested as Thick And Hubristic Things Done By Football Administrators, this really stands out.
South America entered eight sides, which were drawn into two groups. However, as Argentina's administrators were at the time engaged in a very important bout of iknowyouareisaidyouarebutwhatami with their Brazilian counterparts, they immediately withdrew. Ecuador and Peru followed suit, because of reasons. Ultimately, the four South American qualifiers -- Chile, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay -- didn't have to play a single match.
Up above the Equator, meanwhile, the 1949 edition of the North American Nations Cup was pressed into service as a qualifying tournament, with the top two going on to Brazil. Held in Mexico City over the course of September, the host nation won all four of their games, while runners up USA beat Cuba into third place with a win and a draw. Canada had failed to send a team.
Precisely four teams were invited to compete for the single Asian space available, and three of those -- the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma -- withdrew before qualification. The fourth side, India, had caused something of a stir at the 1948 London Olympics: Not only was it their first footballing tournament as an independent nation, and not only did they nearly get a result against France, but they did so largely bare-footed. By all accounts, Queen Elizabeth II was most impressed. Through they went by default.
Despite being one team short, the draw went ahead on May 22, 1950, in Rio de Janeiro's Itamaraty Palace. FIFA have immortalised the actual events of the draw in a short piece on their website, though the unnamed author quickly runs up against the fact that in an age before celebrity -- before rehearsal draws and dancing interludes -- the sight of a man taking small things out of a larger thing tends toward the dry side of prosaic. Still, nobody could accuse the anonymous historian of not giving it a shot. First, some scene-setting.
As well as diplomatic representatives of 14 teams -- the Bolivians did not attend the draw -- journalists, photographers and radio reporters were also present in the Itamaraty hall. They were all anxious to report on the fate of their teams and spoke loudly in several languages, making for a wonderfully bizarre confusion.
How rude. Diplomats have come from India, from France, from the USA (or at least, from the embassies of those countries) and yet the Bolivians couldn't even be bothered popping across the continent? Well, their loss. There was wonderfully bizarre confusion a-happening and they were missing out.
Silence fell when the Brazilian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Raul Fernandes, pulled the lever of the draw globe, and the first ball rolled out. "Number seven" was shouted out loud, and the first opponents of Brazil, the seeded team in Group 1, were known. It was Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia! One can just imagine the excitable mutterings (in several languages) of the diplomatic representatives (except the Bolivians). Is that good for the hosts? Could there be an upset in the offing? And what next?
Shortly afterwards, the next announcement from the minister: "Number three for Group 2." It was Spain, who had been drawn in England's group.
Ooof! A clash of European giants and political ideologies! Billy Wright vs. Estanislau Basora! Stanley Matthews vs. Zarra! What next, anonymous FIFA historian? Who next?
The balls continued to be taken out of the main globe until the draw was complete.
|Switzerland||Chile||India||"a team to be defined"|
Football administration is a wonderful business. Brazil, by scandalous virtue of it being their tournament, were scheduled to play five of their six games in Rio de Janeiro. Other sides were less fortunate. France took one look at their itinerary -- which involved a schlep of 3,500 miles between group games -- and said non, merci.
The other post-draw casualty was India, whose withdrawal has always been something of mystery. FIFA's website repeats the urban legend that they pulled out after being informed that they would not be permitted to compete barefoot. Financial reasons have also been suggested -- it was a long way from India to Brazil in 1950 -- and yet FIFA offered to fly the team to Rio. India's initial press release also referred to disagreements about selection and insufficient practice time.
Ultimately, as with their Scottish colleagues, it appears that administrative myopia was the root cause. Kaushik Bandyopadhyay, writing in Sports Illustrated (and quoted here and here), interviewed India's then-captain, Sailen Manna, who explained that "We had no idea about the World Cup then ... Had we been better informed, we would have taken the initiative ourselves. For us, the Olympics was everything. There was nothing bigger." Bandyopadhay concludes:
Beneath the apparent financial difficulties given as cause of withdrawal lay the AIFF's unusual failure to appreciate the importance of participating in the Cup, despite assurances from the organizing committee to bear a major part of the tour expenses. The opportunity to play at the sport's most glittering level was presented to the nation on a golden platter 60 years ago, but then swiftly squandered due to a decision made by officials.
Added Manna: "Indian football would have been on a different level had we made that journey."
So that was that. No extra team was found for Group D -- Bolivia and Uruguay ended up playing a knock-out game after all -- and so World Cup went ahead with only thirteen teams.
Now, there's no way of knowing if this most inauspicious number contributed in anyway to the outcome of the tournament: to the Maracanazo; to the destruction of the dreams of the Brazilian nation by the gleeful Uruguayans; to the cultural wound that still festers to this day but which might, just might, be healed if they can win the thing at home on the second attempt. But you'll note that there are 32 teams in the competition this time. They're taking no chances.