In Valencia, Spain late last Friday night, there was a double fiesta celebrating the feast of San Juan and the last game in Round 1 of the finals of el Mundial, soccer's World Cup. The locals, waving high the red and yellow flag of their nation, crammed the streets and plazas until the small hours despite mucho calor, heat so intense that even the Spaniards called it crazy for this time of year.
There was mucho calor in Cup play, too. The first round had been both the best and biggest in history, with 24 national teams battling to remain in the chase for perhaps the most prestigious and ugliest trophy in sport. With little countries like Algeria stunning the soccer world and only Brazil and England of the six seeds unbeaten and untied after Round 1, it was beginning to look as if expansion from 16 to 24 sides had been a smart idea. Certainly the game that preceded the celebration in Valencia had been a dandy. Only a few hours earlier, in a true shocker, Spain had been humbled by lightly regarded Northern Ireland.
The Spaniards had been predicting disaster for their team for close on two weeks, ever since, in front of King Juan Carlos and 45,000 of his mortified subjects, Spain had salvaged a tie against Honduras. The host country had kept its hopes alive by beating Yugoslavia 2-1—with the help of a dubious penalty. But now the laid-back Northern Irish—"Sure, the holiday could last a little bit longer," said Defender John McClelland—had beaten Spain 1-0 and become the surprise winner of Group Five.
Nevertheless, Spain qualified, if barely, for the second round, which was just as well, because there had been mucho calor on FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), the sport's governing body. Spain had been expected to get as far as the semifinals, or Round 3. A lot of gate receipts would have been lost had the hosts been knocked out in the opening round.
Spain's defeat by Northern Ireland was only the last of the astonishing results that occurred in what observers were calling the Third World Cup. Among other miracles, there was the first victory for Islam in Spain since Ferdinand and Isabella drove the Moors out in 1492. The outcome was, unbelievably, Algeria 2, West Germany 1. The great Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, successor in the German imperial line to Franz Beckenbauer, was relegated to a supporting role on the sports pages by a slight, mustachioed fellow named Lakhdar Belloumi, Africa's player of the year, who was instrumental in the first Algerian goal and scored the second.
After that national disaster, a mob of German fans besieged their team's hotel in Gijon. "Burn them!" roared Herr Hermann Ems, who had come all the way from Lower Saxony. By the middle of the round, though, it seemed that the Teutons' panic had been premature. Austria had put down Algeria 2-0, while the West Germans had overrun Chile 4-1. RUMMENIGGE, WIR LIEBEN DICH, rhapsodized a banner as West Germany-Chile began, and the blond idol requited that love with a scintillating hat trick. That night Rummenigge's fans drank Gijon dry of beer, as well they might have: Their team and Austria's now seemed ready to qualify from Group Two.
Though the Algerians were still underestimated, they refused to lie down. They beat Chile 3-2, and so on last Friday a most intriguing situation had evolved. In Group Two's final game, the Germans had to beat Austria to advance to Round 2—and the Austrians themselves weren't entirely sure of getting there, either. Had they lost to West Germany by as many as three goals, Algeria would have had the same record but would advance on the basis of total goals.
All flights to Gijon were booked solid, and the city's El Molinón stadium was sold out. This could be the match of the round.
But what's the sound of one hand washing the other? For half the game the 43,000 fans, most of them Spaniards, kept up a mighty, howling protest over the outrage that was being committed against Algeria.
The game started promisingly. The Germans swept down on a panicky Austrian defense. In the second minute, Paul Breitner headed a shot against the crossbar, and in the 10th, Pierre Littbarski went dancing down the left wing to cross and leave Horst Hrubesch an easy header into the net. At that point the few Algerians in the stands began visualizing a massive West German victory. And that would mean that an African team would make Round 2 for the first time ever.
But the Algerians, it turned out, had a lot to learn about the ways of World Cup soccer. The tempo of the game slowed. Rummenigge, notably, hung back. At half time the score was still 1-0—perfect for both the Germans and the Austrians. In the stands the first suspicions were arising.
In the second half, the evidence became abundantly clear. Rummenigge put on a show as he dribbled back toward his own goals. The Austrians square-passed, and the Germans rolled long balls back to their keeper, Harald Schumacher. The fix was clearly in. As a long cry of outrage began, Spaniards displayed thousands of fluttering white handkerchiefs. Money—read that "sellout"—was waved. Little groups of Algerians raised their star and crescent national flag as the police moved in with batons.
But the dirty deed had been done, and most cynical of all, when this parody of a game ended—still at 1-0—the players exchanged shirts as if a memorable battle had occurred. It was a day of ignominy for Germany, for Austria and for FIFA, which rejected Algeria's official protest, in which the game was termed "a scandalous and immoral act."
With Algeria out, the last of the upstarts had been eliminated. But, thanks to the early shocks some of them had provided, the first round of the Mundial had flashed with brilliance.
There were the Kuwaitis, for instance, whose mascot, a camel hired in Morocco, paraded the streets of Valladolid tricked out in Kuwaiti blue and white. The side began the competition in style by holding the lethargic Czechs to a 1-1 tie.
The Kuwaitis blotted their copybooks, though, in their next game against France. Behind 3-0, they became incensed at an apparent fourth French goal. Their team president, Sheikh Fahad Al-Amed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah—brother of Kuwait's ruling emir—who had promised his players $200,000 a man should they reach Round 2, stormed down from the VIP stand in full regalia, ready to order his team from the field. A police-attended melee followed, and, pusillanimously, Russian Referee Miroslav Stupar decided it had been no goal after all.
When the game finally started again, France got an undisputed fourth goal and the Kuwaiti Soccer Association a fine of 25,000 Swiss francs. "These people of FIFA are crazy," raged the sheikh the next day. "They are a mafia! They shout at me as if I was small student!" And now FIFA is on his tail again. It wants him to explain his remarks.
Round 1 was no fun at all, though, for El Salvador, which set a World Cup record in its first game by conceding 10 goals to Hungary. But the El Salvadorans hung in and lost quite respectably to Belgium (1-0) and Argentina (2-0), earning them a consolatory olé or two.
Cameroon deserved a cheer or two, too. It went undefeated through the round, holding Peru, Poland and Italy to ties. It also had the dandiest uniforms of the Mundial—silky red, yellow and green—some ebullient fans and, in Thomas Nkono, a superb goalie whom European clubs are lining up to sign. However, not losing seemed to be all the Cameroonians had on their minds. Even in their last Group One match against Italy, which they had to win in order to advance, they packed their own goalmouth. When that game ended 1-1, they applauded one another as excitedly as if they had just won the World Cup itself.
This result also meant that Italy had skulked through to Round 2 by virtue of having scored just one more goal than Cameroon. The once proud forza azzurri, had looked merely blue from the start, holding on to tie Poland and Peru.
Only Poland emerged with honor in Group One, winding up the leader after cracking open Peru's defense with a five-goals-in-22-minutes blitz. That outburst also put in jeopardy the careers of Cesar Augusto Canales and his brother, Ramon, who had been retained by the Peruvians to put the hex on opponents by means of special herbs, clay dolls and magic rattles.
In Group Three, Argentina's task was to get itself together after being upset by Belgium in the inaugural, and much would depend on the form of its 21-year-old star, Diego Maradona. "Prima Dona" they were calling him in Spain, and sometimes "Maradollar," in sneering reference to his reported $7.5 million contract for the next three years. He hadn't had the best of games against Belgium. Against Hungary, though, in a match Argentina had to win, Maradona again showed the combination of aggression and balletic skills that have made him the world's most expensive athlete. He had 12 shots, six near misses, and two goals.
The Hungarians, crushers of El Salvador, were thus brushed aside 4-1. The unfortunately named Galtieri Line of defenders—Passarella, Olguin, Galvan and Tarantini—held firmer than its namesake, and Osvaldo Ardiles, controlling midfield, regained the confidence he so obviously lacked against Belgium.
Argentina went on to dispose of El Salvador 2-0 and advance to Round 2 as runner-up to Belgium.
The English, to the surprise of many, were doing splendidly. On the 167th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo they took on the French again and trounced them 3-1. The game, played in debilitating 100° heat, included the fastest-ever World Cup goal—by Midfielder Bryan Robson after 27 seconds.
England went on to take out both Czechoslovakia and Kuwait, and it and Brazil were first to qualify for Round 2 and were the only teams with perfect records in the first phase.
In the south of Spain too, where Brazil played, there was mucho calor, and not only of the kind registered on the thermometer. A titanic early game between Brazil and the U.S.S.R.—Group Six was easily the strongest—was also a struggle between styles, the Soviets slotting passes into place as if they were doing a fast job on Rubik's Cube and the Brazilians being inventive but uncoordinated in the early play. The U.S.S.R. got the first goal, and the score remained 1-0, until, with 16 minutes to go, the Soviets fell back into a defensive shell, an unwise tactic against the Brazilians. Socrates struck first and then, in the last moments, Eder. Brazil 2-1. The game would have made a fitting final.
As the round went on, the power of the Brazilians became more and more apparent—4-1 against Scotland, 4-0 against New Zealand. Said Andy Roxburgh, chairman of the Scottish Soccer Association, "Give our lads a paintbrush and they'll go to work on the back fence. Hand one to a Brazilian and he'll make like Leonardo."
It was always clear that Brazil would make it to Round 2, but last Tuesday night the Soviets had to fight off Scotland to gain the group's other qualifying spot. In fact, for a long hour it looked as if the Scots would win. Big Joe Jordan had headed them into the lead in the 15th minute, and then they ran themselves into the steaming ground. At 11 p.m. it was more than 80°. The U.S.S.R. pulled even after an hour and, only five minutes from the finish, went ahead 2-1. It had to be the end for Scotland, but no, the indomitable Graeme Souness came cutting in and tied the game 2-2 with four minutes left. In the last seconds the ball bobbed agonizingly in the Russian goalmouth. The miracle very nearly happened.
And so, as Ron Greenwood, England's coach, said last week, "Now for the start of the real World Cup." The field contracts to 12 teams playing in four groups, A, B, C and D, centered in Madrid and Barcelona. From this, the four semifinalists will emerge. But the perfect orchestration of the semis implicit in the way the draw was manipulated in Madrid last January—it would have seen Spain play West Germany to produce a European finalist and a Brazil-Argentina clash to yield the Latin American contender—cannot take place.
Now the big South American crunch will come in the second round when, in Group C in Barcelona, Argentina and Brazil will meet. The European giants will slog it out when West Germany and England play in Group B. Group A will have at least one tough confrontation, the U.S.S.R. vs. Poland. Group D, with France, Northern Ireland and Austria, is on paper the least interesting, but who can tell?
One thing is for sure, whatever happens there will be mucho calor.