Little wonders

While the other World Cup winners celebrated the competition’s first 50 years, England stayed at home, writes Neil Andrews

The Mundialito tournament – or Little World Cup – that kicked off in December 1980 was one of those rare occasions when FIFA managed to get everything right. Designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first ever World Cup, all six previous winners of the trophy were invited to Uruguay, the first hosts in 1930, to contest the title of Champion of Champions. All seven games were to be played at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo and the organisers were determined to set a celebratory tone. However, the English FA seemed to misunderstand this wave of nostalgia and declined to take part, just like they did first time around.

To be fair to the FA, the timing of the tournament could not have been worse. With all bar the opening game set to be played over two weeks in January, it was felt that the clubs couldn’t be asked to release their top players over Christmas – although Tottenham did allow Ossie Ardiles to go. Holland replaced Ron Greenwood’s England but the lack of “home” interest meant that just four journalists from the UK travelled to South America to cover the competition.

Surprisingly, at a time when international tournaments and qualifying rounds were incessantly tinkered with, FIFA kept the format simple. The six teams were divided into two groups of three, with the respective winners of each pool progressing to the final. Group A saw the hosts Uruguay take on Italy and Holland while Group B was probably the first time anyone ever used the phrase “Group of Death” with West Germany set to face both Brazil and World Cup holders Argentina, who included the 20-year-old Diego Maradona in their 18-man squad.

West Germany were nonetheless the early favourites to win the title. Having reclaimed their European crown the previous summer, they arrived in Uruguay on the back of a 23-game unbeaten run stretching back to 1978, including a 4-1 thrashing of France only a month before. And they seemed to justify their odds when Horst Hrubesch put them 1-0 up just before the break in their opening game against Argentina on New Year’s Day. Yet with just six minutes remaining they contrived to lose and blow their chances of reaching the final.

The rot set in when defender Manny Kaltz scored a bizarre own goal from an Argentine corner, kicking the ball out of Harald Schumacher’s hands, before Ramón Díaz won the game with a screamer from an acute angle in the final minute. Worse was to follow in their final group game against Brazil, who scored four in the second half after going a goal behind in the 54th minute, a thrashing that led to the entire German squad being scolded by manager Jupp Derwall and the travelling press corps.

Pool A was more one-sided as Uruguay strolled to the final with successive 2-0 victories over Holland and Italy, both whom seemed to be suffering from the after-effects of jetlag. The Dutch appeared to be a side in transition. The Van de Kerkhof twins (René and Willy) were still there but key players such as Arie Haan, Ruud Krol and Johnny Rep were all missing, and their replacements – including a young Martin Jol – were not in the same class. Their cause wasn’t helped by Ipswich Town’s reluctance to release Frans Thijssen and Arnold Mühren.

Italy, meanwhile, were also without a number of senior players but for different reasons. The Totonero match-fixing scandal earlier that year deprived them of Paolo Rossi and Lionello Manfredonia, while goalkeeper Dino Zoff decided not to travel. The Uruguayan public were equally unimpressed by either team and just 15,000 were in attendance – the lowest of the competition by some margin – for the dead rubber between the two sides that saw Jan Peters cancel out Carlo Ancelotti’s seventh-
minute opener.

By contrast over 70,000 filled the stadium for the final four days later to see the hosts beat Brazil 2-1 in an entertaining repeat of the deciding match of the 1950 World Cup. Uruguay coach Roque Máspoli was playing in goal for his country that day and must have had a feeling of déjà vu when Waldemar Victorino scored the winner – his third in as many games – ten minutes from time. Uruguay’s success was short-lived, however, and within a year Máspoli was out of a job after failing to qualify for the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain.

Despite being seen by many in the English game as a “pointless PR exercise”, the Mundialito did leave a favourable impression on one observer – John Motson, who covered the tournament for the BBC. Asked to evaluate the long-term significance of the competition for Match of the Day, Motson accurately predicted that if anyone was to win the next World Cup they would have to beat both West Germany and Brazil. His assessment of the young Maradona was equally perceptive – suggesting that the player’s temperament would be sorely tested if again subjected to the man-to-man marking he experienced in Montevideo. (Maradona was duly sent off against Italy at the 1982 finals.)

However, Motson’s most damning observation was reserved for the FA. “As long as we in England continue to put club before country,” he said, “we will never compete with the elite of world football on level terms.” Over 30 years on and his words are true now as they were then. They also go some way to explaining why the majority of people in this country are totally unaware that such a competition took place. By living in isolation the only people you hurt are yourselves – those calling for England to withdraw from FIFA and boycott future World Cups over the 2018 voting scandal would do well to remember that.

From WSC 296 October 2011