World Cup: The Seven Sins of Soccer

The 2010 FIFA World Cup begins June 11th in South Africa. The whole world is watching! To get into the mood, here are some stories you may not know of the seamier side of the wholesome sport of football.


Relative to the number of players worldwide, soccer is surprisingly low in drug scandals. This only makes for bigger headlines when it happens. Diego Maradona is considered one of the greatest players of all time. The Argentine footballer started in international leagues when he was only 16 years old. He played in four World Cup tournaments. Maradona was suspended for 15 months in 1991 for cocaine use. In the 1994 World Cup played in the US, he failed a drug test after the match with Nigeria, his second game of the tournament, and was sent home. The culprit in the World Cup dismissal was ephedrine, which Maradona blamed on an energy drink. In recent years, health problems including a heart attack spurred the player to give up cocaine. Maradona is coaching Argentina's team going into the 2010 World Cup.


The team from England went to Colombia for a match just ahead of the 1970 World Cup tournament in Mexico. After a visit to a jewelry store attached to their hotel, players Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton were questioned by police about a missing bracelet. A witness said she had seen Moore take the bracelet, but the players were allowed to go to Ecuador for a game. Moore was arrested for shoplifting and  jailed when the team returned to Colombia. England was in danger of World Cup disaster if Moore couldn't make it to Mexico on time, so diplomatic pressure was applied to attain Moore's release. The team made the World Cup, but lost to West Germany in the quarterfinals. Many years later, evidence surfaced that police knew the bracelet thief was female, and the player had been set up.


Although there have been many accusations of cheating in the World Cup, one particularly egregious case stands out because so many people saw it -except for the one person who mattered. The 1986 match between Argentina and England went down in history for a goal Diego Maradona made with the "Hand of God", meaning he used his hand, but the inexperienced referee didn't see it and allowed the goal. Argentina won that quarterfinal game. The second goal Maradona scored in that same game was later called the "goal of the century".


Alcohol is not considered a sin in soccer; but who gets to sell beer to the fans can lead to a huge fight. The 2006 World Cup was held in Germany, the land of beer. Anheuser-Busch, then a US company, paid $40 million dollars for the rights to sell beer exclusively at the World Cup venues. German brewers and beer drinkers had a problem with that.

Simply put, Germans hate Budweiser. Weeks before the inaugural games kicked off the Cup, Germans were furious at the prospect of having to drink what they refer to as "dishwater" at stadiums. Germans even set up a Web site with an image of an American Eagle vomiting beer to lampoon the American brewer and express their disgust.

Budweiser gave in just a little to allow one German company, Bitburger, to sell beer in the stadiums, but they were restricted to unmarked cups. However, they refused to allow spectators to wear logos from other beer companies, which caused a first-round game to see half the crowd in their underwear, as a Dutch beer company had sold shorts in the team's colors to their fans. Thousands were asked to remove the logo, which meant removing their shorts.


Why would anyone throw a World Cup game? Fans couldn't believe what they saw in the second group game between Argentina and Peru at the 1978 tournament in Argentina. Argentina needed at least a four-goal lead to advance; otherwise Brazil would go to the quarterfinals. Peru, which had been doing well in the tournament up to that point, fell apart in a spectacular fashion. The military junta that ruled Argentina at the time called itself the the National Reorganization Process. This dictatorship was responsible for the disappearance of thousands of opponents. There were rumors of threats or payoffs or both, possibly involving Peruvian sports and government officials more than the players. In any case, spectators noticed that the Peruvian team seemed terrified throughout the game. The fact that Peru's goalkeeper, Ramon Quiroga, had family in Argentina only added to the speculation. Argentina eventually beat the Netherlands in overtime to win the cup.


Restricting young adult athletes from sex seems like a recipe for trouble, but it was standard operating procedure for a long time in soccer. In the early days of the World Cup, teams would be sequestered for two months before and during the tournament. The very first World Cup tournament was held in Uruguay in 1930. Olympic gold medalist Andrés Mazali was the goaltender goalkeeper for the home team, but was suspended for breaking curfew to make a date with his wife. Uruguay went on to win the cup nevertheless that year. In 2006, coach Oleg Blokhin offered players on the Ukrainian team the chance to have conjugal visits with their wives as an incentive, but only if the team made it to the semifinals. Ukraine lost to Italy, and just barely missed the semifinals. Of course, once they were out of the tournament, there was no need to abstain.

Even today, some teams must get specific clearance to have sex in the days leading up to the World Cup. Argentina has the OK this year, but England's manager Fabio Capello has limited player's access to wives and girlfriend to only the day after games. The team from Brazil will be allowed sex on any day they don't play.


Soccer violence on the field ranks well below hockey or rugby, but more people see it when it happens. I watched the final World Cup game in 2006 between Italy and France. An estimated 715 million other people also witnessed the altercation between France's Zinédine Zidane and Italy's Marco Materazzi. The two had exchanged words on the field when Zidane suddenly rammed his head into Materazzi's chest, in full view of the global television audience. The ensuing penalties allowed Italy to take the game and the cup. Zidane was ejected from the game, but went on to further fame as an internet meme.

Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

Quinn Rooney, Getty Images
Big Questions
How Do You Steer a Bobsled?
 Quinn Rooney, Getty Images
Quinn Rooney, Getty Images

Now that the Olympics are well underway, you might have developed a few questions about the games' equipment. For example: How does one steer a bobsled? Let's take a crack at answering this pressing query.

How do you steer a bobsled?

Bobsled teams careen down an icy, curving track at up to 90 miles per hour, so steering is no small concern. Drivers steer their sleds just like you steered your childhood sleds—by manipulating a pair of ropes connected to the sled's steel runners. The driver also gets help from the rest of the crew members, who shift their weight to aid with the steering.

Why do speed skaters wear glasses?


Speed skaters can fly around the ice at upwards of 40 mph, so those sunglasses-type specs they wear aren't merely ornamental. At such high speeds, it's not very pleasant to have wind blowing in your eyes; it's particularly nightmarish if the breeze is drying out your contact lenses. On top of that, there's all sorts of ice and debris flying around on a speed skating track that could send you on a fast trip to the ophthalmologist.

Some skaters also say the glasses help them see the track. American skater Ryan Bedford recently told the Saginaw News that his tinted shades help him focus on the track and filter out distracting lights and camera flashes from the crowd.

What kind of heat are the biathletes packing?

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As you might guess, there are fairly strict rules governing what sort of rifles biathletes carry on the course. They are equipped with guns chambered for .22 LR ammunition. The gun must weigh at least 3.5 kilograms without its magazines and ammunition, and the rifle has to have a bolt action or a straight-pull bolt rather than firing automatically or semi-automatically.

Is a curling stone really made of stone?

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You bet it is, and it's not just any old stone, either. Curling enthusiasts swear by a very specific type of granite called ailsite that is only found on the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig. Ailsite supposedly absorbs less water than other types of stone, so they last longer than their competitors.

Ailsa Craig is now a wildlife sanctuary, so no new ailsite has been quarried since 2002. As a result, curling stones are incredibly expensive. Kays of Scotland, which has made the stones for every Olympics in which curling has been an official event, gets prices upwards of $1,500 per stone.

What about the brooms?

The earliest curling brooms were actual brooms made of wood with straw heads. Modern brooms, though, are a bit more technologically advanced. The handles are usually made of carbon fiber, and the heads can be made of synthetic materials or natural hair from horses or hogs. Synthetic materials tend to be more common now because they pull all of the debris off of the ice and don't drop the occasional stray bristle like a natural hair broom might.

What are the ski jumpers wearing?

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It may look like a ski jumper can pull on any old form-fitting bodysuit and hit the mountain, but things are a bit more complicated than that. Their suits have to be made of a spongy material and can't be thicker than five millimeters. Additionally, the suits must allow a certain amount of air to pass through them; jumpers wearing suits without sufficient air permeability are disqualified. (This rule keeps jumpers from wearing suits that could unfairly act as airfoils.) These rules are seriously enforced, too; Norwegian skier Sigurd Petterson found himself DQed at the 2006 Torino Games due to improper air permeability.

Those aren't the only concerns, though. In 2010, judges disqualified Italian jumper Roberto Dellasega because his suit was too baggy.

What's up with the short track speed skaters' gloves?

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If you watch a bit of short track speed skating, the need for gloves quickly becomes apparent. When the skaters go to make passes or careen around a turn, they need the gloves to keep from cutting their hands due to incidental contact with other skaters' blades.

There's more to the gloves than just safety, though. Since the skaters' hands often touch the ice during turns, they need hard fingertip coverings that won't add friction and slow them down. The tips can be made of any material as long as it's hard and smooth, but you've got to give American skater Apolo Ohno some style points for the gold-tipped left glove he broke out in 2010.


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