One of the great things about sports is that it allows countries to compete against each other without resorting to annoying things like killing and maiming. (Well, usually.) Olympics aside, the quadrennial World Cup is the most high profile example of the soccer pitch becoming a proxy battlefield, psychologically if not practically, to help exercise old demons.
On Saturday, the 2018 World Cup starts its nerve-racking, nail-biting, penalty-kicking, single-elimination phase, so I thought I’d unearth some historical animosity, no matter how obscure, between the teams pitted against each other in the first round of the tournament’s knockout phase. I’ll go in chronological order of the games, starting with Saturday’s and ending with Tuesday’s.
As you watch these Round of 16 games, keep in mind that while making the quarterfinals would be nice for the teams and their countries, remember what the players are actually motivated by…
(All times Eastern Daylight Time)
Game 1–Saturday, 10:00 AM
France vs. Argentina
Who can forget the famous Battle of Vuelta de Obligado? Certainly no one from France or Argentina, where the tales of this 1845 naval engagement are taught to every man, woman, and child.
Before Argentina was Argentina, it was the Argentine Confederation (1831-1861). More an alliance of provinces than a unified state, its de facto leader was the governor of Buenos Aires, who, for about half of the Confederation’s existence, was Juan Manuel de Rosas. He was a sort of proto-Latin-American-who-stood-up-to-Western-leadership-causing-Western-leadership-to-get-angry-and-send-people-to-do-something-about-it dictator. In this case, it was the French and British who resented de Rosas protecting the Confederation’s economic interests by funneling all foreign trade through a customs house, so they sent their new steam-powered warships, ultimately killing about 150 Argentines. In the end, however, the Franco-British alliance couldn’t overcome the geography and failed to control the local rivers enough to earn the free passage they hoped for. Though victorious in militarily engagements, they did not succeed in their overall goal. In other words, France and Argentina fought to a stalemate.
Tomorrow, they break the tie. Even if it comes down to penalty kicks.
Game 2–Saturday, 2:00 PM
Uruguay vs. Portugal
In 1512, the first European country to explore and colonize Uruguay was — you guessed it — Portugal! The Uruguayans earned their independence in the early nineteenth century, but that shouldn’t stop them from exacting revenge against their former oppressors. (Of course, their revolution didn’t have to overcome the golden feet of Cristiano Ronaldo.)
Game 3–Sunday, 10:00 AM
Spain vs. Russia
These two old European empires have somehow never been at war with each other, which, considering the topic of today’s post, is frustratingly selfish pacifism. Their history is not totally without controversy, however. In 1799, when (Orthodox) Russian Emperor Paul I became Grand Master of the (Catholic) Knights Hospitaller, Spain protested. Vociferously. So yeah, the animosity has been brewing for a long time here.
Let’s be real, though… Putin vs. the co-favorites to win the Cup (with Brazil) is all the drama we need.
Game 4–Sunday, 2:00 PM
Croatia vs. Denmark
Last year, archaeologists unearthed some evidence that Vikings, who traveled extensively, were in contact with early Croats. While we can’t assume blood was shed between the two peoples, it is the Vikings we’re talking about here. And do you know another name for Vikings? Well, yes, the Norsemen. But another name? The Danes, or people from Denmark.
Time to renew contact.
Game 5–Monday, 10:00 AM
Brazil vs. Mexico
Brazil and Mexico, Latin America’s two largest nations, have no historical examples of animosity, and the reason is simple: no one can hate Brazil. It’s impossible. It has the most welcoming, care-free, and beautiful people in the world. Mexico’s team is also in the midst of a feel-good World Cup campaign that included beating Germany, Brazil’s “7-1” nemesis from four years ago, which every Brazilian appreciated. On Monday, these two teams are just likely to hug it out as earn a yellow card.
Game 6–Monday, 2:00 PM
Belgium vs. Japan
On opposite sides of the world, these two countries did not have any diplomatic relations until 1866. The earliest notable Belgian diplomat in Japan was Charles de Groote, who did good work in Yokahama starting in 1873. He eventually arranged the rise of his successor as Belgian consul in Japan, Maurice Verhaeghe de Naeyer, who took over in 1879 but, within a month of his start, was found dead in his Yokohama home. Japanese authorities said it was a suicide, but those back home in Ghent had a different theory. de Groote soon resumed his role as the primary envoy between the two countries, but in 1884, he was also found dead in his Yokohama home.
Now, I’m not saying the Japanese had anything to do with these deaths, but don’t be surprised if microphones hear in the Belgian pregame huddle, “This is for de Naeyer and de Groote!”
Game 7–Tuesday, 10:00 AM
Sweden vs. Switzerland
The Swedes and Swiss will settle something a lot more important than an old conflict. These two countries are sick of American schoolchildren confusing them. (They do. All the time. Trust me.) A victory here will raise the winner’s profile.
Game 8–Tuesday, 2:00 PM
Colombia vs. England
The last Round of 16 game allows me to talk about the great Bogotá Bracelet caper of 1970.
In May of that year, a month before Mexico hosted the World Cup, England prepared to defend its 1966 trophy (still it’s only World Cup championship). To be ready for the thin air of central Mexico, they arranged to play a couple warm-up friendlies against the high-altitude South American nations of Colombia and Ecuador.
The day before their May 20 match against Colombia, English player Bobby Moore — captain and a hero of the 1966 run — went to their Bogotá hotel’s gift-shop with teammate Bobby Charlton. Finding nothing of interest, they left. Moments later, an employee at the shop charged out and accused Moore of stealing a bracelet. Moore denied it, but the employee insisted he was guilty, and soon hotel staff and police were on the scene. With no evidence, Moore gave an official statement and was permitted to leave. One day later, England won their friendly over Colombia 4-0, traveled to Ecuador, and won again four days later.
It was time to go defend their title. Their flight from Ecuador to Mexico City returned through a four-hour layover in Bogotá, during which two police officers arrested Moore after hearing from a witness who claims he saw the theft. Realizing the incident would take some time to sort out, England’s coach, the legendary (and knighted) Alf Ramsey, put his Captain-less team on the flight and didn’t break the news to the squad until they were in the air. Internally, he began making plans to play with a new center-back and find a new captain.
Rather than prison, it was agreed that, to avoid an international incident, Moore could stay at the home of Colombia’s soccer director, where he kept up his fitness under the supervision of armed guards. He soon faced a judge, who, as the 1970 World Cup approached and the defending champs were without their star Captain, ordered a re-enactment of the incident, with Moore and his accusers playing their own parts. (I’m not making this up.) It was there that the accusation fell apart, with the witnesses not getting their stories straight and the value of the bracelet in debate. A former Brazilian coach later weighed in that a similar incident occurred with the Brazilian team in what essentially amounted to a shakedown — pay to keep this quiet.
Though Moore arrived in Mexico in time for the tournament, England disappointingly bowed out against West Germany in the quarterfinals. Perhaps if they hadn’t missed crucial training time with their Captain, they’d have successfully defended their title. As of now, however, they’ve never won a second World Cup.
Perhaps it’s Colombia’s fault. And perhaps England can now have its revenge.