Americans love to talk about how much they love rivalries. We gussy up the bad feelings between schools like UNC and Duke or cities like San Francisco and Seattle as though there’s real difference there, or actual conflict, instead of just two similar demographics clashing over one material difference. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s the theater of the games, what gives them their Grecian pomp and spectacle, until those tragic times when it does becomes too real. It’s not that these aren’t rivalries; it’s not that college kids can’t playact hatred for TV cameras. They are, and they can, and it’s fun.
But there are other times when sport becomes impressionistic, taking on the qualities of the world around it. This most often happens in international play, where the whole tenor of the competition can adopt jingoistic and sovereign implications, emotional as they might be. And though Americans might argue that the Miracle in Ice is a pretty strong counter-example, the fiercest venue for this sort of geopolitical gamesmanship is the World Cup, when two teams of countrymen are pitted against each other for nationalistic glory in Earth’s most popular game.
"The Italians decided for the one and only time in their history to wear black. They gave a very self-conscious fascist salute to the crowd, and then they beat the French."
I spoke to prominent soccer historian and author of the recently published Futebol Nation, David Goldblatt, about five of history’s most antagonistic match-ups at the World Cup—the times when international relationships threatened to overwhelm, or ended up raising into history, what would otherwise be just (just?) a game of soccer.
FRANCE, 1938: ITALY VS. FRANCE
The first reaction to hearing about any year between 1935 and 1950 is pretty much always, “That’s really close to World War II!” This goes double for ’38, a year in which the final World Cup took place before normalcy was restored enough to play again in 1950. Mussolini’s Italians traveled to France as the reigning World Cup champions, and Mussolini had recently made remarks critical of the French and supportive of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
In the quarterfinals, the French ran up against the Azzurri; both teams normally wore blue, so they drew lots to determine which would wear white. Italy lost. Instead, “The Italians decided for the one and only time in their history to wear black,” Goldblatt says. “They gave a very self-conscious fascist salute to the crowd, and then they beat the French.” It’s said that the decision to wear black came directly from Mussolini, as did a rumored message sent to his players at the beginning of the tournament: “Win or die.”
CHILE, 1962: ITALY VS. CHILE
Known as the “Battle of Santiago,” the meeting between Italy and hosts Chile in 1962 was one of many violent games in the tournament, but it was the most egregious. Italian newspapers had criticized the decision to play the World Cup in Chile, and the Chileans had a fanatic zeal for their national team. Tensions were so high that FIFA flew in English referee Ken Aston to avoid accusations of bias. It didn’t help. Players literally boxed with each other on the field and remained in the game, while an Italian who was ejected stopped play for 10 minutes until armed police removed him from the field. Chile won the game, but nobody came out looking well. Many Chilean bars and other businesses banned Italians afterward, while the Italian papers raged back in Europe.
The BBC’s pre-broadcast note on the game’s replay is legendary:
Good evening. The game you are about to see is the most stupid, appalling, disgusting, and disgraceful exhibition of football in the history of the game. This is the first time these countries have met; we hope it will be the last. The national motto of Chile reads, ‘By Reason or By Force.’ Today, the Chileans weren't prepared to be reasonable, the Italians only used force, and the result was a disaster for the World Cup. If the World Cup is going to survive in its present form, something has got to be done about teams that play like this. Indeed, after seeing the film tonight, you at home may well think that teams that play in this manner ought to be expelled immediately from the competition.
SPAIN, 1982: WEST GERMANY VS. AUSTRIA
Algeria made its first trip to the World Cup in 1982, and in its first game there, the North Africans upset a heavily favored West German side 2-1. After the rest of the games in the group stage played out, Austria faced West Germany with a very specific scenario in play. If the West Germans won 1-0, both they and the Austrians would advance. If either team won by any other score, the Algerians would move on. Guess what the score was?
“The Germans duly scored their goal after about 15 minutes, and the rest of the game was played at a painful pace—not even a practice game,” Goldblatt says. “The crowd, both Spanish and Algerian, went completely bonkers, and by the end of it you’ve got Algerians screaming from behind the fence, waving money, waving bills and notes in their hands at the Germans and the Austrians.” As a result of that contest, the last games in the group stage are now played simultaneously.
MEXICO, 1986: ARGENTINA VS. ENGLAND
If you’re trying to determine the amount of bad feeling in a match-up between two countries, there’s one question you should ask first: Did they just fight a war? In the case of Argentina’s quarterfinal against England, the answer was a resounding yes—four years prior, two nations had fought in the Falklands War, when British troops reclaimed the Falkland Islands following an Argentinian invasion. “The game had the Malvinas written all over it, certainly as far as the Argentinians were concerned, as well as the small group of English fans in the crowd in Mexico,” Goldblatt says. A win would have been small revenge for the Argentians, but small revenge is better than nothing.
The still-fresh bullet-holes of a recently fought war would normally be enough to vault a game into history, but Argentina’s 2-1 victory turned out to be a hell of a soccer match. Diego Maradona scored both Argentinian goals, each in opposite fashion: On the first, now known as the Hand of God, he punched the ball into the net, the use of his hand obvious to everyone in the world but the referee; only four minutes later, the second, now known as the Goal of the Century, saw him dribble through five Englishmen and the goalkeeper with only 11 touches. Maradona scored or assisted on 10 of Argentina’s 14 goals en route to defeating West Germany in the finals in Mexico’s Estadio Azteca, where a statue of him still stands.
FRANCE, 1998: USA VS. IRAN
In 1979, the Iranians ousted the U.S.-backed Shah and installed the Ayatollah-led Islamist Republic. This did not do wonders for the relationship between the United States and Iran, and when the two were paired in the group stage in the 1998 tournament in France, meeting for the first time on a soccer field, it was, Goldblatt says, “all set up to be the tensest game in World Cup history.”
Because of how the draw played out, the Iranians were supposed to walk toward the Americans for the pre-game handshake; after protests by the Ayatollah, it was decided that the Americans would make the walk, but that didn’t do anything to help the fact that an Iraqi terrorist organization purchased 7,000 tickets in order to protest at the game. French riot police entered the stadium to help keep the peace. It all ended in ... flowers. The Iranians presented the Americans with white roses as a gift, the two sides posed for pictures, and then Iran triumphed 2-1, eliminating the U.S. from competition. It was Iran’s first-ever World Cup victory, and despite the loss, American defender Jeff Agoos has said, “We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years.”