From Buenos Aires bust-ups to a Cold War meltdown, via German inefficiency and a Republic of Ireland shambles
A brittle line separates a great grudge match from a ludicrous donnybrook. And Argentina's superclásico has often smashed that line to smithereens. Boca Juniors and River Plate's first meeting of the professional era set the tone for much of what was to follow. Of course, it also reflected what went before, as the rivalry between the two clubs already dated back nearly three decades, when they were established in the same working-class district of Buenos Aires. In 1925, River moved to a swisher part of town and their nickname of Los Millonarios seemed well-earned as they splashed the cash before the 1931 season, notably paying a colossal 10,000 pesos for the Argentina international winger Carlos Peucelle. By the halfway point of the season, the sworn enemies were vying for the title and 34,000 people began queueing at La Bombonera five hours before the kick-off of their first clash of the campaign. Those fans' reward? A match that was nasty, brutish and short.
Everything started swimmingly for River. Peucelle shot them into a 16th-minute lead. But in the 29th minute the referee, Enrique Escola, outraged the visitors by awarding Boca a controversial penalty. After the mandatory gesticulating and jostling, Boca's major new signing, Argentina international Francisco Varallo, took the spot-kick. River players rejoiced when it was saved by goalkeeper Jorge Iribarren – but were infuriated again when Varallo then bundled Iribarren and the ball into the net and the referee awarded a goal. Legend has it that as players and officials from both sides bickered and barged in the box, police entered the pitch … at the other end, where they took advantage of the stoppage in play to take penalties at each other before they were joined by a group of sailors who came down from the stands to challenge them to a kick-about. Meanwhile, at the other end, the referee, Escola, was still trying to restore order. At least that was the official's purported intention when he sent off three particularly obstreperous River players. Unsurprisingly, the rebellion escalated. Eventually Escola decided to abandon the match. A league hearing later awarded victory to Boca. (Boca went on to clinch the title on the second-last day of the season, handily avoiding having to play for the title in their last match – at River. Although, as it happened, and despite River's vows that they would prove Boca were undeserving champions, Boca cantered to a 3-0 victory in that match).
Gérard Houllier may, or may not, tell you that the wrong deflection was decisive. When Alavés defender Delfi Geli inadvertently diverted the ball into his own goal to give Liverpool victory in the 2001 Uefa Cup final, many people were sad. By contrast, if an even more freakish goal for another Houllier team, Lens, had proved similarly significant in the same competition 18 years previously, the football world would be happy, as it could now look back with satisfaction not on a fairytale thwarted, but on a crime foiled.
Lens' 1983 European adventure carried a hint of Spinal Tap's World Tour of Wembley. The club from northern France played three rounds and in each one they met a team from just across the border in Belgium. After beating Gent and Antwerp, they were drawn against Anderlecht. Of course, that at least guaranteed bumper crowds – although no one could have foreseen what a crucial role the crowd would play.
Anderlecht silenced the home fans in the first leg at the Stade Félix Bollaert when Erwin Vandenbergh scored on the counterattack to put the Belgians 1-0 in front. Coming in the 89th minute, that seemed enough to ensure Anderlecht would have a lead going into the second leg and the visiting players duly tried to run the clock down by keeping possession in what little time remained. The visiting fans, meanwhile, taunted their hosts triumphantly and violence broke out in the stands. With seconds left, Anderlecht defender Kenneth Brylle tapped a gentle back pass towards his goalkeeper, Jacky Munaron. As Munaron went to control with his foot before picking it up, the ball suddenly changed direction and rolled into the net. Uefa has recorded it as an own goal by Munaron but replays showed that the ball was diverted past the flummoxed goalkeeper by a stone thrown from behind the goal, where Anderlecht fans had been jubilating (see suitably shabby footage here). Alas, Anderlecht won the return leg 1-0 and thus continued their progress in the tournament and later, of course, would eliminate Nottingham Forest in the semi-final after bribing the referee. It fell to Tottenham Hotspur to enforce justice by beating the Belgians in the final.
Fifa has made some scandalous decisions in its time but few more so than in 1973, when it ordered the USSR to contest a World Cup play-off in what the Soviets denounced as a "concentration camp". Football and politics have often been shamed by toxic union, but they have seldom served up a spectacle as ridiculous as this.
The qualifying draw for the 1974 World Cup determined that the winners of Uefa Group 9 would compete for a place in the finals against the winners of Group 3 in the South American zone. That, it transpired, pitted the USSR against Chile, where, in September 1973, the democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup led by Augusto Pinochet. During the ensuing reign of terror, perceived opponents of the new regime were killed, tortured or "disappeared". Thousands of dissidents were held hostage and abused in Santiago's Estadio Nacional de Chile. That is where the second leg of the play-off was supposed to take place.
The USSR, citing both a moral objection and fears for their safety, demanded that Fifa move the match to a neutral venue. Fifa sent an inspection team to Santiago, where they were shown around by officials eager to present a pleasant image of the new regime. Whether hoodwinked or wilfully blind, the inspection team reported back that everything was hunky-dory, accepting the official claim that the stadium was merely being used as an "orientation centre" where dissidents were accommodated while their identity was checked.
The Cold War was at full blow. There were conspiracies on top of conspiracy. The Soviet media alleged that the Western-run world governing body refused to find anything amiss in Santiago because it supported the capitalist murderers in power – and also because they wanted to provoke the USSR and its satellites into withdrawing so that the World Cup would be an exclusively Western affair. It was suggested that if East Germany and Bulgaria pulled out in solidarity, then England might be invited to take their place. Fifa supporters said the USSR's complaints were unfounded and they were only whining because they knew they were going to be eliminated anyway after drawing the first leg 0-0 in Moscow.
Neither side backed down and the USSR announced they would not show up in Santiago. Chile would be awarded a walkover. The Chilean authorities pressed ahead with the match and some 30,000 people turned up to watch. At kick-off there was no opposition to prevent the home side toddling up the other end to open the scoring. Some of the players celebrated by heading to a part of the ground where there were no fans, a pointed homage to the disappeared.
One of the reasons that the Football Association of Ireland appointed Jack Charlton in 1985 was because it thought that an England hero might be able to persuade English clubs to release Irish players for international duty, which, back then, they were not obliged to do. It was a problem that had long plagued Irish managers at the best of times. Picture, then, the mortification of Charlton's predecessor, Eoin Hand, when he was assigned the task of trying to persuade English club bosses to let players go on a tour of South America, including Argentina, in the summer of 1982, a month after Britain went to war over the Falklands. "I made the token gesture of approaches simply because I wanted to impress on the FAI officials that the tour should not go ahead under any circumstances," wrote Hand in his autobiography. Predictably, the clubs would not play ball. "Feelings were running high in England at the time," wrote Hand. "I explained this to the FAI officials but some of them seemingly could not understand … one or two of the top officials held the attitude that 'the war has nothing to do with us, we are neutral'."
Although the FAI eventually dropped the Argentina date from its tour, it was too late to summon the players who had initially been withheld, meaning Ireland were forced to pad out an improvised squad with lower-league shufflers and League of Ireland stalwarts. It was on this tour that Sean O'Driscoll, then of Fulham, won his only international caps, ditto Johnny "Jabber" Walsh of Limerick and Dundalk's Mick Fairclough. The first match brought a 1-0 defeat by Chile. Next up was the Brazil of Zico, Socrates, Eder et al. "Before the game I had problems," wrote Hand. "The FAI officials had not finalised the last leg of the tour and some of the players were reluctant to continue, threatening to return home after the Brazilian game unless they could get definite information as to where we were going: not too much to ask, I think you will agree … in addition to this, there was a financial problem. The players had been promised a fee of $1,080 each for the trip, but after a week in South America they had only received $180 … and they were running short of cash." And so to Uberlândia and the meeting with one of the best teams in the history of football. Gulp!
Ireland's dishevelled state of mind was reflected in midfielder Gerry Daly trotting out on to the pitch with his shorts on back to front. Yet somehow the tourists only trailed 1-0 at half-time to a goal from Falcão. But they couldn't hold out and Brazil ran amok in the second half, with Serginho (2), Socrates (2), Zico and Luisinho scoring to complete a 7-0 demolition. Brazil had found the formula that they would use to wow crowds at that summer's World Cup. Ireland had their worst ever defeat. "This tour was a shambles from beginning to end and was to have an effect on the players for some time after," lamented Hand. Fortunately, the FAI learned its lesson and farcical planning never again caused problems for the Republic of Ireland …
There would have been no need for this match if the Germans had been efficient. But instead, as a precursor to the sort of unforgivable goofing that would later afflict the likes of West Ham United and a disturbingly high number of African national teams in the recent World Cup qualifiers, Stuttgart botched the most basic of formalities. They lost their place in the European Cup because they fielded an ineligible player.
After winning 3-0 in the home leg of their first-round tie against Leeds, Stuttgart lost 4-1 at Elland Road but progressed by dint of Andreas Buck's away goal … at least they would have if they had not fallen foul of another technicality when they introduced Yugoslav midfielder Jovo Simanic in the 82nd minute. That meant they had fielded four foreign players in their line-up, one more than permitted. "If we'd done what Stuttgart have, I would expect to concede the tie," claimed Howard Wilkinson, who did not get what he wished for as Uefa declined to give the Germans the boot and instead awarded Leeds a 3-0 victory and arranged a play-off between the sides in Barcelona. So, in a Camp Nou full to at least 4% of its capacity, Leeds took on Stuttgart again. Goals from Gordon Strachan and Carl Shutt (a substitute for Eric Cantona, who not for the last time was ineffective in European competition) gave Leeds a 2-1 win. Stuttgart's president, Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder, stormed that "if a mistake like that had happened in a commercial organisation, the board would have to be fired straight away" but did not fire anyone in the immediate aftermath. Leeds, meanwhile, failed to make the most of their reprieve and were dumped out in the next round by Rangers.
Would you look at the state of the defending for Brian McClair's goal here (at 3m54s).