by Farid Barquet
Back when I first watched a World Cup (Mexico, 1986) the tournament was still inaugurated by the defending champions. During that Mexican summer, Italy began their defence in the opener against Bulgaria, presenting a deflated version of the azzuri that had won the Spain 1982 edition fours years earlier. The match ended in a dull draw, as dull as Mexico’s President Miguel de la Madrid, who was offered a deafening reprimand from the Mexican public before the match. This, in return for his government’s lacklustre reaction to the deadly earthquake that shook Mexico City just months before the Italy-Bulgaria fixture. De la Madrid rejected international aide in the face of tragedy.
In Italy ‘90, Argentina followed suit against Cameroon, a team that would become a welcome revelation. Vengeance was in the air that day at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza: the Milanese crowd was keen to see the fall of Argentina’s genius. Diego Maradona had split open Italy’s north-south rivalry, standing up to northern powerhouses in Napoli colours by taking league and cup trophies back to the Vesuvius. The ref failed to sanction Cameroon’s rough play while the Argentine forwards were off target, thus producing an unexpected outcome. A team led by the world’s best player was defeated 1-0 thanks to a header from Omam Biyik, a trailblazer for African Football’s refreshing irruption on the international stage.
USA ’94 and France ’98 continued this tradition with Germany and Brazil easily winning their opening matches, 1-0 and 3-0 against Bolivia and Scotland, respectively. But in Korea-Japan 2002, like a turn in history, as Mexican Nobel Octavio Paz would say, the events of Italy ’90 were re-edited: Senegal, an unheralded African side defeated a Zidane-less France 1-0.
The tradition came to its end in 2006. Germany, the host country, was handed the responsibility of opening the tournament. Germany defeated Costa Rica 4-2 in Munich and four years later South Africa drew 1-1 in Johannesburg against Mexico. The reasons behind this change appear to be evident: the euphoria of the crowd could not outlast the inaugural ceremony into ninety minutes of football between two sides that were entirely foreign to most of the people in the stands: locals.