I’ve always been slightly irritated by that famous Bill Shankly quote. You know the one that says football is much more important than life or death.
But perhaps that quote had more of a grounding in reality than I appreciated judging by some of the stories I’ve read in The World Cup: A Very Peculiar History – a concise compendium of facts and anecdotes about one of sport’s most famous tournaments.
We learnt that way back during the 1969 World Cup play-offs football was indeed responsible for sparking a war.
Cramped El Salvador was desperate for a slice of the spacious Honduras so the former’s people were sneaking across the border in search of better prospects. Naturally this created a bit of tension between the two countries. So when the El Salvador football team arrived in the Honduras capital for their World-Cup play-off tie, the locals greeted them by throwing stones at their window and thus keeping them up all night.
It’s no surprise that the sleep-deprived Salvadorans lost but when an 18-year old El Salvador supporter was said to have shot herself while watching the match, a media frenzy incurred and the finger of blame swerved towards Honduras.
Predictably when the Honduras team arrived in El Salvador for the second tie, they were not exactly made to feel welcome, and had to be taken to the match in armoured vehicles.
Honduras fans were killed, cars were burnt, and a brief but very real war between the two nations broke out in which 6,000 people lost their lives and some 50,000 lost their homes.
This is just one of the many examples of intriguing World-Cup related stories that this well-researched book unearths, illustrating that for many people football is not just a game, and the World Cup itself has been a stage for many a political agenda. This look through the decades shows that the World Cup’s history has been inextricably linked to our world’s political and social history.
Although the heavy historical material is handled with a skilful light touch much of it is way over 6-year-old Toby’s head.
It did prompt discussions about Hitler and the Nazis and Apartheid (not typical bedtime chatting material). It’s a real challenge to find the words to explain such difficult episodes of history to a young child, whose view of the world is still relatively idealised but I also believe in openly discussing some of life’s harsh realities in an age-appropriate way. Toby was as distressed by Hitler as he was baffled by Apartheid.
The book also sparked discussion about whether countries that are responsible for such human rights atrocities should be excluded from sporting tournaments; a discussion that never seems to go away.
I think this book is an excellent introduction to political and sociological arguments for an older child who is interested in football but not much else. It’s a fascinating launching pad for exploring a whole range of global issues and many that resonate today.
It’s also a fairly topical read since we learn that the sort of corruption that has been recently reported to have taken place at FIFA has been running through the football organisation’s history since the beginning.
Most of the FIFA analysis was of little interest to Toby. A little boy does not want to hear about the activities of some men in suits; he wants to read about the football.
What Toby derived most satisfaction from was the facts and figures. What football fan doesn’t like collating statistics and this book is packed full of them, so if you’re not interested in the historical narrative then you can easily dip in and out, swatting up on the sort of nuggets of information that a football commentator could dine out on for months.
We learned that Hungary used to be a sporting football power, that the fastest sending off in a World Cup match occurred in a Scotland v Uruguay game (it was a Uruguayan player) and that the first ever penalty was taken by Carlos Vidal of Chile and missed.
Unfortunately for Toby we are reminded that Scotland haven’t appeared in the World Cup Finals since 1998. Toby, however, like countless other young lads no doubt, is convinced that he can turn the nation’s sporting fortunes around. Even if I am harbouring the next Christiano Ronaldo, somehow I seriously doubt that.
This compact history book has not exactly been ideal bedtime reading material but it has kept a young football fan entertained and will have helped him build his knowledge on the sport that for now is his chosen hobby.
Fun factor: 3/5
Fidget factor: 3/5
Fear factor: 2/5 – not scary but it did tackle (pardon the pun) some hard-hitting issues.
Page turnability: 2/5
Mum’s final score: 8/10 – a fantastic reference tool for a young football fan and an ideal resource for a school project but not exactly a bedtime read
Toby’s final score: 10/10