Death Or Glory

The Dark History Of The World Cup
by Jon Spurling
Vision Sports, £14.99
Reviewed by Terry Staunton
From WSC 281 July 2010

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Zaire full-back Mwepu Ilunga's odd behaviour at the 1974 finals, breaking off from the defensive wall to boot the ball away just as Brazil's Rivelino is about to take a free-kick, has gone down as one of the most comical scenes in World Cup history. It is replayed time and again on the obligatory TV clips shows in the run-up to each subsequent tournament.

What John Motson described as "a bizarre moment of African innocence" was actually more a moment of desperation, one man trying to run down the clock and prevent a third Brazilian goal, thereby salvaging a sliver of national pride. Zaire's players were mindful of the hostile greeting waiting at home, after a tournament that had seen them denied promised bonuses and under virtual house arrest in their hotel, and Ilunga's last-ditch attempt to thwart their opponents was hardly going to temper the wrath of the dictatorial President Mobutu.

Jon Spurling's attempts to locate members of the squad are met by rumours of murders, of once great sportsmen living on the streets in poverty, of patriots all but deported from their homeland. It's perhaps the most unsettling and heartbreaking of the stories here, but they all illustrate how a truism  like "more than a game" translates into something beyond a happy-go-lucky cliche.
Like the Zaireans, the 1950 Brazil squad were hounded by their home fans after losing to Uruguay in the final, interviewees casually drawing parallels between the shock of defeat and the sinking of the Titanic or the bombing of Hiroshima. Thousands of labourers had worked round the clock to build the Maracanã stadium in time for the tournament, but what was meant to be the people's palace became, after 90 minutes of football, a mausoleum to a nation's hurt.

Tales of players as scapegoats for the unfulfilled dreams of governments litter these pages, and there are other extraordinary incidents of specific interference by the authorities. The night before Italy beat Czechoslovakia in the 1934 final Benito Mussolini was rumoured to have wined and dined the Swedish referee. Idi Amin allegedly ordered members of his Ugandan security forces to break the teeth of Tanzanian opponents before a qualifier for the 1978 tournament – Tanzania withdrew before the fixture was played.

The author re-examines the oft-repeated claims that the fascist junta in Argentina bribed Peru to ensure the home nation progressed without shame, but also uncovers evidence of thousands of political activists being "disappeared" before the tournament, and of giant walls being constructed to block visitors' views of the country's slums.

Many of the activities chronicled in Death Or Glory have a vaguely familiar ring to them, like outlandish Chinese whispers that become more confused and muddy as they're revived every four years. But Spurling's attention to detail, his gumshoe research and informed travel writer's eloquence help paint a clearer picture of the intensity – and occasional idiocy – that surrounds the world's most watched sporting event.

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