Money Changes Everything - part two

So as the 1970's came to a close, ending one of the most politically turbulent decades in the history of sports, the world behld with horror the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which....

...wait a minute. I'm forgetting something. There was a World Cup in 1978. And everybody came.

It was a wretched decision both at the time and in hindsight. Those of you wishing to be depressed at the details may read David Winner (author of "Brilliant Orange") in the Financial Times, Jonathan Stevenson from the BBC, or this excerpt from "Writers on the Global Game".

In 1976, African nations boycotted the Olympics in Montreal because New Zealand's rugby association toured South Africa. And nobody skipped the World Cup in 1978? How was that possible?

Well, only fifteen countries were given the opportunity to do so. (Sixteen, I suppose, but Argentina wasn't a realistic possibility.) (Also, FIFA had gotten pretty good at avoiding ugly confrontations among its touchier members. For example, Israel had been defeated in a group consisting of Japan and the two Koreas, and "Chinese Taipei" (I've always adored that euphemism - as opposed to what, Swedish Taipei?) was worked over by Australia and New Zealand.)

I think this image explains the failure of the boycott, and the tenor of political boycotts throughout the era:

Notice the Uncle Sam hat.

This being 1978, the only prominent American having anything to do with soccer was Henry Kissinger - who, hilariously, attended the World Cup that year. But, this being 1978, the Cold War was everywhere.

But in 1978, neither side was playing in the actual tournament. Of course the United States didn't qualify, being terrible. England didn't qualify, either, being better than the United States but still terrible. NATO would be represented by Italy, the Netherlands, West Germany, anti-Anglophone France, and, technically, Scotland. Several of those nations agonized over attending, but made a decision that all would live to regret, save financially.

The Warsaw Pact was even more poorly attended - only Poland and Hungary represented Comintern. Poland had a good team that year, Hungary did not - but neither pulled the kind of political muscle that would have led FIFA to do anything about a Communist boycott aside from sending two other European teams that would have been thrilled to take their places.

As for the remainder - well, if lefty, bleeding-heart West Germany, Holland and Italy sighed and put football above politics, there really wasn't a question of whether Spain, Peru or Brazil would willingly skip a tournament. (Each would also end up wishing they had.) Mexico did not have what you would call an independent foreign policy, and Iran was a staunch American ally. (Even Alanis Morissette thinks this is ironic.) (Mexico had probably their worst tournament ever. Had Iran did more than tie Scotland, maybe their regime would have survived.) Tunisia and Sweden would have been easily replaced.

As we have seen...and will see...sports was an instrument of the Cold War back then. So was show business, so was literature, so was science. How much did the Cold War skew how the world's affairs were perceived? Well, that's where the term "Third World" came from in the first place - it was what the Americans and Russians fought over. Kind of like Italy and Germany in the Thirty Years' War - and with as much benefit to the hosts.

As it turned out, only one player shunned the 1978 World Cup on moral grounds - Paul Breitner, the socialist West German who spent three years previously playing for that bastion of left-wing progressivism - Franco-era Real Madrid.

*heavily muted applause*

If the USSR had made a stink about Argentina - it would have been fabulously hypocritical, but as we have seen...and will see...that never stopped any boycott in this era - then a rather sickening chapter of world soccer would have looked very different.

But, with Moscow hosting the Olympics two years in the future, the Russians weren't in much of a mood to get people thinking about moral boycotts of international sports. Maybe something to do with the Brezhnev regime being as repellent as the Argentine junta.

Still...you'd think someone would have looked at the tournament, looked at who was running it, and concluded it was not only a moral black hole but a sporting abyss as well. Hitler may have let Jesse Owens win, but there were other events at the Olympics. The generals had bet their survival on the World Cup. Wasn't it obvious what would happen?

And yet, no one apart from Breitner stepped forward. Why did people play their assigned roles in this farce? Why did they bother? What was in it for them?

If you guessed "money," give yourself a gold star.

The other reason that a World Cup boycott didn't happen was because, by 1978, the World Cup had become serious business. The entire tournament was being broadcast live, internationally. That meant a corresponding increase in sponsorship revenue. And Joao Havelange was not a man to miss an opportunity to increase revenue.

We probably would have gotten to where we are today anyway - massive spectacles of monstrous commercialism drowning out what was supposed to be a mere sporting event - but enough about the Puppy Bowl.

Perhaps it was all inevitable, but the sporting-commercial complex we know today began in 1978, thanks to Horst Dassler and Patrick Nally inventing what they called the "global sponsorship package." I had not heard of Nally before researching this, but I should have - if his Wikipedia entry is correct:

Since there's no trace of Nally ever coaching anybody, one assumes this is a result of Coca-Cola money flowing like, well, Coca-Cola.

By 1982, the World Cup we'd come to recognize today was firmly in place, but it was certainly in its embryonic form in Argentina.

Horst Dassler, of course, was the son of Adi Dassler, who formed the famous shoe company "Buster Brown." His shoe company has had no discernible impact on the global game [citation needed]

Before 1978, boycotting a tournament probably saved money for the boycotter. That was no longer true in the new FIFA. Joao Havelange was not a man who brooked opposition or tossed aside grudges lightly, and an organized boycott of his meal ticket would have had fearsome consequences. Skipping 1978 might have meant skipping 1982, or beyond. Just when the gravy train was pulling out of the station.

Well...it was all very sad for the disappeared and their families, but the show must go on.

And that's how Argentina put on a tournament while a vastly more powerful nation two years later could not. The Yangs and Coms had their own agendas in 1978. And the corporate world had just begun to discover international sports. There was more money to be made playing (if you could call it that) than staying home.

Deprived of any means of tangible retribution, the pro-boycott forces had nothing on their side save morality. The 1978 World Cup went off without a hitch.

Whoops! I keep meaning to take care of Afghanistan, but I'm always getting distracted. I should be President. Tune in for our next chapter, "Bearly Legal," or, "In Soviet Russia, Olympics Watch You!"