As we get to the final stages of the World Cup it’s worth looking at the track records of the major football nations. To hear the hullabulloo from the losing English camp one would think England was one of them but actually it has only made the last four twice (one win and one 4th place). This compares with the other six winners as follows:
This is the 19th World Cup and Germany (or West Germany) has made the last four 11 times, although Brazil is the only country to have played in all 19 tournaments. History suggests that Germany’s progress at England’s expense is neither a fluke nor the national tragedy it has been seen as in England. It’s par for the course. But England is only one country where reactions to football failure have been disproportionate. Nigeria has banned its players from all international competition for two years and President Sarkozy is conducting an inquisition into the French team. The only surprise is that Silvio Berlusconi has not named himself captain of Italy. Fifa will clearly be hard pressed to maintain its rule against government intervention in the sport.
This rule has, though, often been transgressed with the most striking case occurring in 1938 when Austria qualified for the World Cup’s final 16. The Anschluss then took place, Austria was absorbed into Germany and simply vanished as a country, so the World Cup had to make do with 15 finalists. Similarly, it’s worth noting that Czechoslovakia, the USSR and Yugoslavia all made the last four but will never do so again.
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to imagine that sport and politics can be kept apart. We all know about Hitler’s triumphant Berlin Olympics of 1936 but it is not often realised that the Axis Powers hoped to stage a complete Olympic takeover. The 1940 Olympics were to be held in Tokyo and Mussolini tried hard to get the 1944 games for Rome (though London won). Hitler told Albert Speer it would be all right to build an outsize stadium for the 1936 games because ‘every Olympics after 1944 will be held in Berlin’ – possibly the earliest hint of Hitler’s plans for world domination, and of his timescale for it. Doubtless, his plans for the soccer World Cup would have been similar.
Hitler asked Speer what the world record capacity was for a stadium. Speer said that the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome had held 270,000 but that no modern stadium exceeded 200,000. Well, in that case, Hitler said, you must build a stadium for 500,000. Speer did his drawings and began to build the stadium (the unfinished ruins are still there) though he felt he had to explain to the Führer that no matter how he designed it, it was impossible to build a stadium that big in which everyone could watch the games: the spectators at the back would be too far away to see. Hitler was stupefied: who on earth cared about the spectators?