The World Cup - A hotbed of Conspiracy Theories
From allegedly crooked referees to absolutely crocked players, the FIFA World Cup has had more than its fair share of controversy both on and off the pitch.
Over the years we have watched as the Hand of God robbed England of glory, the diving antics of the Germans went unpunished and penalty heartbreak hit the Three Lions over and over again.
In honour of the start of this year's tournament in South Africa, The Grassy Knoll is taking a look at 5 of the World Cup conspiracy theories that have consumed fans over the years.
The most important part of any World Cup build up is the draw. Cue a giant stage filled with football luminaries, glamorous international movie stars , models, and "independent" adjudicators. Never have 32 small balls been so closely scrutinised by so many. But could it all be a fake out, are the hosts able to weasel their way to an easy group, and just how impartial are FIFA. The first allegations came in 1990 when Maradona accused Sophia Loren of all people. The ultimate World Cup legend/villain felt hosts Italy had been handed a cushy draw with his Argentina side getting the rough end of the bargain. As it turned out, his boys reached the finals, at the expense of, you guessed it, Italy. But surely the most bizarre accusation came in 2006, when the over-excited Italian press came up with a unique explanation for their nation's tough group. German hero Lothar Mathaus was forced to come out and deny the outrageous accusation that the balls he drew out to decide the groups had been heated and cooled to warn which countries he should avoid, and which ones he should place in his fatherland's group. Another hilariously misguided conspiracy, but one which footy fans are always keen to jump on should their team land in the ubiquitous Group of Death.
With upwards of $3 billion generated by the tournament, money is the number one motivation for those looking to cause mischief behind the scenes. Evidence is thin on the ground for this theory, but some ultra-suspicious fans claim that Adidas, Nike and their ilk have conspired to share the World Cup between their teams over the past two decades. In France 1998, the hosts triumphed with the German sports label emblazoned on their shirts, while the famous swoosh adorned the shirts of the 2002 Brazil team that took home the trophy in Japan. In 2006 Italy held the Jules Rimet trophy aloft with the Puma brand proudly displayed beneath their national colours. See a pattern emerging? If this crackpot theory is to be believed our 2010 champs could well be England, as Umbro take their turn at claiming glory.
It's difficult to imagine now, as he wheezes around the pitch flashing his toothy grin and clutching his pot belly, but Brazilian striker Ronaldo was once the jet-heeled superstar of World football. Having scored more goals than any other player in World Cup finals history, his legacy is assured, but just what did happen to the then fresh-faced rising star in the hours before his nation's 1998 Final against hosts France. Having notched their first win in 24 years at USA 1994, Brazil were favourites to defend their title in 1998, and the samba stars were heavily reliant on their superstar striker to lead them to glory. But with just minutes to go before kick-off, the Parisian tunnel became filled with the unmistakable whiff of scandal, as it emerged Ronaldo was not on Brazil's teamsheet. There was outcry in the press box, what could have befallen the star. Word reached the media that he had suffered a seizure and been rushed to hospital, but less than two hours later, as the suspended French skipper Laurent Blanc ritualistically kissed goalkeeper Fabien Barthez's bald head, there in the centre circle ready to kick-off was Ronaldo. As it turned out, he may as well have stayed in the dressing room. The anonymous frontman was a shadow of his semi-final self, and barely touched the ball as France trounced Brazil 3-0 to claim their first World Cup win. What exactly caused the Brazilians to bottle it remains a mystery. Was it the team's collective trauma at watching their star player fit and convulse and foam at the mouth? Was Ronaldo being forced to play by sponsors Nike and the Brazilian football federation? Did the whole Brazil squad take a bribe to throw the final and guarantee themselves the hosting role in 2014? Or, most dastardly of all, did a French spy spike the striker's drink and cause the fit that cost Ronaldo and his side the 1998 title?
With the Jules Rimet trophy tucked in their suitcase, the England squad headed to Mexico 1970 with high hopes of retaining their crown. Four years on they were older, wiser, battle-hardened and ready for what was billed as the ultimate World Cup Final, against the finest team ever to play the game, Pele's Brazil. But right from the off, things started to unravel. England's talisman Bobby Moore was arrested while in Colombia for a warm-up game, when local cops fitted him up as part of a jewellery theft case. He was later acquitted of all charges, but the disruption destabilised the whole squad and led to questions in the media about an anti-England bias in South America. When the tournament began England looked good, controlled and in command against their rivals, including quarter-final opponents West Germany, who had been vanquished four years earlier at Wembley. England, however, were without star goalkeeper Gordon Banks, who had been laid low by a mysterious bout of food poisoning, which conspiracists put down to sabotage rather than stomach infection. As England cruised towards the semis with a commanding 2-0 lead, Alf Ramsey withdrew Bobby Charlton from the action, the Germans scored, Banks' deputy Peter Bonetti dropped a Rob Green-esque clanger, and England were out. Ever since that fateful match England have been cursed on the world's biggest stage. Could that jinx be lifted in South Africa, or are the conspiracy theorists going to have a whole new raft of World Cup theories to spout?
Unlike the other theories, this one has an official backer (sort of), step forward Lord Triesman, the former FA chief booted out of the old boy's club for allegedly suggesting that maybe, on some level, someone, somewhere might have tried to influence a ref in order to sway the result of the World Cup. While Triesman insists his comments were taken out of context, the allegation of attempted match fixing by foreign officials is hardly the most outrageous suggestion, particularly when you think that the next European country to host the tournament in 2018, either England, Russia or Spain, will stand to make upwards of ÃÂ£5 billion. While Triesman's loose tongue cost him his job and earnt him the scorn of the British press, football men elsewhere in Europe were far less surprised and much more willing to believe the conspiracy theory. The high point of dodgy World Cup refereeing was surely reached in 2002, when hosts South Korea were on the right end of a lot of wrong decisions. We aren't suggesting for a moment that there was any dodgy dealing or foul play, and being fair to the refs involved, this could easily be explained by utter, schoolboy-like ineptitude. But when senior officials voice fears that World Cup results are being rigged to curry favour for the next hosts, there could just be more to this conspiracy theory than meets the eye.