By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (December 15, 2006) — Last week, Porto and Arsenal took the field for the concluding group stage match in the Champions League, knowing that they would both advance if the match ended in a draw. Not surprisingly, it ended 0-0. It might be unfair to suggest that the two teams contrived the result, but they both clearly realized that there was not much point in bombing forward, or, in the case of Arsenal, attacking at all. It was not the first time that two teams had tossed the spirit of the game out the window.
In 1970, Italy and Uruguay played what might very well have been the dullest match in the history of the World Cup. Both teams had won their first matches and clearly concluded that they were virtually assured of making the quarterfinals if their encounter ended in a draw. Neither team took a serious shot or attempted to mount a meaningful attack, lest they risk provoking a response from the other side. Italy adopted what one critic described as a 7-2-1 formation and the Uruguayans leisurely passed the ball around their own half, knowing that the risk of conceding possession was nonexistent because the Italians were all camped on the other side of the field. The 30,000 paying fans, who were foolish enough to expect to see a soccer match, booed them off the field. Both teams, by the way, did advance. Italy topped the group with one win and two ties, with one goal scored and zero conceded.
In fairness, the Italians were under an extraordinary amount of pressure because they had been knocked out of the 1966 tournament in the first round, after losing 1-0 to North Korea. When they flew back to Genoa, they were pelted with rotten eggs and unwashed fruit, and fans frequently sang “Korea, Korea” when members of the team took the field. Before they arrived in Mexico for the ’70 World Cup, players knew that they had to advance “or else it will be time for tomatoes.”
The most notorious truce was reached in 1982, when Austria played West Germany in the last first-round game. The other final group game, between Algeria and Chile, was played a day earlier. Algeria won 3-2. They had already shocked the Germans, 2-1, and thus were on the verge of becoming the first African team to progress past the group stage. If Austria won, they advanced. If the match ended in a draw, they advanced. If the Germans won by more than two goals, they advanced. But they would be eliminated if the Germans won by one or two goals.
The Germans, not surprisingly, came out with guns a blazing and Horst Hrubesch scored in the 10th minute. Then the match effectively ended. The French manager Michel Hidalgo, who came to scout future opponents, didn’t bother to jot down a single note. He did, however, nominate both teams for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Algerians, needless to say, were a bit aggrieved. They asked FIFA to send both teams packing for violating the spirit of the tournament. Sadly, FIFA declined but did mandate that all final first-round games would kick off at the same time in the future. Many members of the German public were not exactly thrilled, either. The headline in West Germany’s largest tabloid was, “Shame on You!”
One ex-national team player called all 22 players gangsters, and the commentators broadcasting the match did not hide their disdain: “What’s happening here is disgraceful and has nothing to do with football. You can say what you want, but not every end justifies every means.” West Germany’s manager, Jupp Derwall, did not exactly apologize. “We wanted to progress,” he admitted, “not play football.” One of his players, Wolfgang Dremmler claimed it was the “professional” thing to do and Lothar Matthaeus claimed that going through was “all that counts.”
The format change helped, but it did not entirely eliminate the possibility that two teams could find it in their best interests to contrive a result. In 1990, England took the field against Egypt at the same time as Holland did against Ireland. As the matches began, it clearly appeared to be in all four teams interests to seek wins because if both matches ended in draws, as the previous four matches in the group had, one team would be eliminated. Holland attacked and Ruud Gullit scored after just 10 minutes, while Mark Wright put England ahead after 59. The Dutch defense, however, gifted a goal to Ireland, and both teams stopped playing the moment they found out the final score of the other match.
The Irish defenders simply passed the ball back and forth in front of their own goal, secure in the knowledge that no Dutch player would come within 20 yards. The most amusing part was that the referee made them play three minutes of injury time, even though there was no chance that either team was going to do anything. Maybe FIFA should empower referees to continue such matches indefinitely, or at least until he is satisfied that both teams have been sufficiently ridiculed and embarrassed.
Thankfully, especially for American fans, not every team has seized the chance to abandon all initiative. In 2002, the United States were down 2-0 to Poland within 23 minutes, and 3-0 by the 65th, which meant that Portugal and South Korea could be reasonably assured of progressing if they played out a draw.
There were times late in the first half when the match looked like it was going to peter out, but the South Koreans came out to attack in the second half, in part because they were up a man, and eventually two, and in part because of manager Guus Hiddink’s tactics. Park Ji-sung got the go-ahead goal in the 70th minute. The Portuguese created four good chances to score, but after the match Joao Pinto, who received the first red card, bitterly protested that he would not have committed the foul that led to his ouster if he would have known the score of the US-Poland match.
Finally, Arsenal was eliminated from the Champions League play five seasons ago because Deportivo la Coruna, who already were assured passage to the quarterfinals, lost 3-1 to Bayer Leverkusen at home. Afterwards, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger complained that the Spaniards had given less than their best. In this case, what went around, came around Arsenal got even by refusing to try against Porto last week.
Live by the dull sword. Die by the dull sword.