World Cup: The Seven Sins of Soccer

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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.

Drugs

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.

Crime

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.

Cheating

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

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.

Fixing

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.

Sex

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.

Violence

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.

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June 1, 2010 - 6:58am
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