As the U.S. prepares to play what is widely seen as the team’s biggest soccer game ever at the World Cup in Brazil this Thursday against Germany, I re-submit this column I wrote back in 1982. As I previously described it, “In 1982, World Cup soccer took center stage with an almost magical convergence of history, politics, symbolism and Rock ‘n’ Roll. I offer up this 32-year-old column of mine as a reminder of a different time—a Cold War World Cup—when sports imitated life, and life imitated sport.”
Reprinted from July 22, 1982
Sports often imitate life. They reflect life’s values and the human condition. And it would be hard to imagine a scriptwriter creating a more imaginative scenario than what unfolded for a month of soccer mania known as the World Cup. Consider the following: Argentina, clear losers in the recent Falkland Islands war, was the defending champion. Brazil, birthplace of the legendary and most familiar name soccer has ever produced, Pele, was the favorite.But the final four teams were all European, symbolic of a European power’s victory over Argentina in the last clear-cut win by an industrial, Western country — England. Italy reached the finals beating Argentina, Brazil, and Poland. Poland had reached the semifinals by defeating Russia, its oppressor, its master. The people of Poland went wild. And the beauty of it was that even the Russian military machine, whose gun is pointed at Poland’s head, was humbled. A people fighting to be free has greater heart than a tyrant fighting to hold its ruthless grip.
Then Poland went on to meet Italy, the current home of one of its native sons, Pope John Paul II. They lost, but were content. They cheered again, for they felt the symbolism.
In the meantime, the West Germans reached the finals by coming from behind 3-1 against France in a 30 minute overtime period. The score was 1-1 after regulation play. France went ahead 3-1 and after a 30 minute overtime period, the score was knotted at 4-4. The game was then decided by a penalty kick shootout, on a second chance free-kick provided by the French goalie’s early movement before the first attempt.
So the finals became West Germany versus Italy. Both were seeking to become the first 4-time winner of the World Cup in history. The two countries that 40 years earlier had formed the hub of the Axis Powers, as Nazis and Fascists, were now squaring off. For the first time ever, people were simultaneously watching the same event, being broadcast in 24 different time zones.
The first half was scoreless. America was one of the only countries interrupting the game with commercials at random, as soccer is played in two forty-five minute halves with no timeouts. Everyone knows commercial television can’t go 45 minutes without a commercial. (As a footnote, the U.S. did have a team in the World Cup competition, but it lost in the preliminaries to Honduras and Canada, two “also-rans”.) America is just discovering soccer, but it requires the physical subtlety of baseball, the stamina of basketball and the tolerance of physical abuse of football. And some of the players on the West European teams earn as much money as their American counterparts in baseball and football. The Poles and members of other totalitarian states receive sustenance, some more nearly equal than others.
Back to the game. Italy starred a 40 year old goalie, Dino Zoff, and a 25 year old superstar, Paulo Rossi, back after a 2 year suspension (supposed to have been 3 years) for allegedly accepting bribes from gamblers. Even Italy’s coach, Enzo Bearzot, had said that Brazil, not his squad, was the best. After Rossi scored 3 goals on the way to victory over Brazil, (he also scored 2 against Poland and the winning goal against Germany, the most of anyone), an Italian footwear magnate awarded him free shoes for life and Italian President Sandro Pertini announced that Zoff would climb to the rank of Commendatore.
Germany was led by forward Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who had been sidelined with a thigh injury from the first round. He was substituted well into the game and took Germany to its dramatic come-from-behind victory over the French.
There was more drama played off the field as well. At least 47 Poles who accompanied their team to Madrid for the finals will remain in Spain. They paid a great price for their freedom. “Barbara” (“It’s not my real name”) started planning her defection from Poland when martial law was declared last December. It cost her 100,000 zlotys (about $12,000 at the official exchange rate) for the roundtrip flight, 2 weeks at a hotel, and tickets for Poland’s three first-phase matches. She went to the airport in Warsaw alone. “If my husband and (three) children had gone to see me off, I’d have broken down and been spotted.” She hopes to be able to win official permission for her family to join her in a few years.
According to Tom Burns of the LA Times-Washington Post News Service, only three people were selected from each Polish town to go to the matches. “All needed recommendations from the local Communist Party official, an endorsement from a sports organization, and the green light from the police. After a thorough check they were allowed to go, providing spouses and children remained at home.”
But this was also pure sport. No pretense about amateur status (the East Germans didn’t have to be examined and exposed for using steroids). The athletes were the best each country had to offer. And Italy beat West Germany 3-1, exactly as Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones had predicted earlier that day from a stage in Turin, Italy, to some 60,000 fans. An estimated 300,000 Italians jammed the streets of Rome in celebration. Viva Italia!