32 teams from all of the Earth’s continents (except Antarctica, if we’re being picky) will converge in South Africa this summer to contest the 19th Football World Cup, the most widely-watched sporting event in the world.
While this year’s tournament will be an extravaganza of mass media, sponsorship and general pomp and circumstance, the tournament’s beginnings in 1930 were humble to say the least.
An attempt to set up an international football tournament was made by the fledgling FIFA in 1906, but it met with failure.
After the successes of the amateur Olympic competition, the enterprising Frenchman and FIFA President Jules Rimet organised the first World Cup to be held in Uruguay, the home of the double Olympic champions.
In truth it was a ramshackle affair, with most European teams unwilling to make an arduous journey across the Atlantic.
Of the four teams from Europe who did travel to Uruguay, the Romanian team was picked by the newly crowned Carol II, and only Yugoslavia progressed from the Group stages to the semi finals. Uruguay eventually won a keenly contested final against Argentina, and the institution of the World Cup was established.
The World Cups that followed were marred by amateurism and controversy. Mussolini used the World Cup of 1934 to advertise the success of his fascist regime, similar to Hitler’s Olympics of 1936.
Like the Olympics, the World Cup was suspended until 1950, where the biggest crowd in history at the Maracana watched in silence, as their beloved Brazil were beaten by Uruguay.
This World Cup was also the first to feature England, who were shocked by the USA in the Group stages. History, unfortunately, has a habit of repeating itself.
The next World Cups began to resemble what we might watch in South Africa this summer: more teams, more professionalism, more stars.
The Mighty Magyars of ’54, led by the superb Ferenc Puskas. were stunned by the Germans in Berne, while Pele rose to prominence at the age of 17 to win Brazil’s first World Cup(five and counting).
1962 was a brutal, bad-tempered affair, marred by the Battle of Santiago between Italy and Chile, which required police intervention, and the greater emphasis on defence. Brazil won this too and the 1966 Cup.
The famous exhibition of 1966 brought the first ever World Cup mascot, a lion called “Willie”, and a sporting heritage which has hung ponderously on the shoulders of every English team which has since left our shores.
After this fantastic spectacle, Brazil dominated the tournament of 1970, with a team which for many was the greatest of all time, if somewhat lacklustre defensively.
Brazil won the right to keep the Jules Rimet trophy as a result, which was then replaced with the more glitzy and impressive trophy which you will see presented in Johannesburg on July 11th.
Johan Cruyff and Dutch “total football” thrilled Germany in 1974, only for the dogged Germans to snatch away the trophy, while the tournament of 1978 was also tragic for Der Oranje, as the hosts Argentina broke their hearts.
Brazil brought a great team to Spain in 1982, but it was Italy who won a thrilling tournament spearheaded by the lethal Paolo Rossi.
The “Hand of God” overshadowed the left foot of the footballing god that was Diego Maradona in 1986, and this was perhaps the first tournament won almost single-handedly, played in the baking heat of Mexico.
1990 may be the stuff of fond “Nessun Dorma” memories for Englishmen and for Africans, captivated by Cameroon’s heroics, but it was a stodgy and dire affair, won by a dull German side.
The USA brought glitz to 1994’s World Cup, but from the moment that Diana Ross missed an open goal during the opening ceremony, you could tell they were going to get it wrong. Football became the global, corporate phenomenon that we know today during this tournament, for both good and ill.
France ‘98 continued a long-standing trend of heartbreak for Holland as a Dennis Bergkamp-inspired Oranje went out in the semi-finals to a poor Brazil side, who limped around the field for 90 minutes as a dominant France side ran out comfortable winners.
A rather better Brazil side would triumph in Japan and South Korea in 2002, with Ronaldinho’s tricks and flair providing much of the creativity.
The 2006 finals were Teutonic in every aspect aside from the victors, lacking the goals and excitement of some previous World Cups. That the most exciting part of Germany 2006 was a headbutt reveals a great deal about the tournament.
South Africa 2010 will bring new developments; the first at high altitude as well as the first on African soil.
Expect hope, despair and hopefully a tournament that will be remembered for great football and not the irritating noise made by those vuvuzelas.