Lesson #374: The Time Zaire Lost 9-0 at the World Cup

Apologies for the delay in getting this up. After a month of binging on football, — because that’s really what the World Cup is…a month-long football bender — I took a few days to detox by reading books, catching up with some friends I all but abandoned, running non-pressing errands I’d been putting off, and generally being away from the computer. 

I was sat at the bar in the Irish pub down the street from my house, where I spent all my pub-watching time, for the Brazil/Germany semifinal. I was cheering for Germany, in part because I had them winning it all in my bracket, in part because of Manuel Neuer,* but mostly — because England didn’t even get out of their group (but Costa Rica did…oh, World Cup, your sense of humour!) and Diego Forlan’s flowing locks’ advancement past Colombia were hindered by age and Luis Suarez’s appetite for Italian — because Michael Ballack has long been my footballing God, even if he did play for Chelsea.**

Anyway, among the other regulars at this bar is a guy my Spurs friends and I met in May during the Champions League final. He’s been interesting to hang out with because he’s from Tanzania and is the only person I’ve ever met who can talk about the history of African football.*** So there we are, Guinness in hand, watching Germany crush Brazil. Five goals in, I decided to look up the worst routs in World Cup history. Among them, my new friend mentioned, I’d find a 1974 match in which Yugoslavia defeated Zaire 9-0.**** And then my friend started telling me this insane story (that isn’t all that insane when you consider sub-Saharan Africa’s history of post-colonial despots, but that’s a whole separate issue):

In 1973, Zaire became the first sub-Saharan African team to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Hooray! So off they went to West Germany. After a 2-0 loss to Scotland, the Leopards learned that the wages they were expecting to see for their effort was being, shall we say, reallocated. Directly into the pockets of an incredibly corrupt Zaire government (that embezzled somewhere between $4 and $15 billion over the course of Mobutu’s 30-year rule). Now, as you can imagine, the players were not especially thrilled by this and decided not to play the following match against Yugoslavia. They were eventually convinced to play the match, but, as you can probably deduce from the scoreline, they didn’t put a whole hell of a lot of effort into it. They also went a man down in the 22nd minute.

Anyway, at the time, the country was run by a guy called Mobutu Sese Seke, who was, by all accounts, not a nice man. Funnily enough, though, he was installed as President with support from both Belgium (who had been Zaire’s colonial overlords) and the United States. Mobutu’s solution to opposition was the beloved trifecta of psychotic rulers since the dawn of man: kidnapping, torture, and execution. And he was not particularly pleased by a 9-0 humiliation. So he did what any tyrannical dictator would do in this situation; he sent his presidential guards to threaten the players. They were told that if they lost 4-0 to Brazil in their final match of the group stage, they would not be allowed to return home. In the end, Zaire lost 3-0 and its players returned home without further incident, but Mobutu had a policy that kept the members of the Leopards from pursuing football careers outside of Zaire.

If you’re interested, the scoresheet is here. You can read more about this madness here, here, and here.

*Neuer appears in conversation between me and a friend in the Texas capital on at least a weekly basis. He’s also the subject of the biggest fight The Swede and I ever had. I was mad at him because for an engineer he was being impossibly idealistic, and he was mad at me because for a student of revolutions, I was being impossibly pragmatic. In the end, we nearly got kicked out of a bar in Berlin.

**During the 2008 Champions League final, a friend looked at me before Ballack took his penalty and said, “you know he’s just standing there thinking, ‘of course it’s going in; I’m Michael fucking Ballack!'”, which is still the best ascription of emotion I’ve ever heard.

***The only Africans I’ve ever really known on a regular basis were when I lived in an Eastern European capital, and they had some seriously disturbing stories about how they’d ended up there; we didn’t talk much about football.

****The record is a goal difference of 9. Two separate 9-0 matches — Hungary vs. South Korea in 1954, Yugoslavia vs. Zaire in 1974 — and one 10-1 match — Hungary vs. El Salvador in 1982.


World Cup Break (duh!)

It’s the World Cup. As such, your humble researcher will be spending time cheering for England’s continued mediocrity/Diego Forlan’s flowing locks/the underdog (unless that happens to be Portugal), judging countries on their national anthems (Spain is #1), exchanging sarcastic commentary with friends around the world, and taking everything Michael Ballack says as gospel truth for the duration.

Lesson #360: The Tottenham Crest

The supporters club I’m part of has a Facebook page where we keep each other updated on team-related news. Sometimes, it’s whether we need to relocate to the Chelsea bar (ugh) for the super early match because our bar staff didn’t show up to open for us. Sometimes, it’s videos of fans spontaneously deciding, despite being down four goals to Liverpool, to cheer like Spurs scored a goal (which they did not). Sometimes, it’s lost posters for a certain Argentinian striker. Sometimes, it’s wild speculation that I feel the need to correct. Because, as you may have noticed, I cannot abide poor research.

In this case, it’s the source of the cockerel (or, as Spurs fans are wont to call it, “the cock on a ball”) that makes up the Tottenham crest. One of the members of the club posted about the possibility that the crest had arisen from the fact that White Hart Lane was built on what used to be a farm.

It literally took me 20 seconds to find the actual information. Twenty. Seconds.

According to Ken Ferris’ book, Football: Terms and Teams, the cockerel has been part of Spurs since the 1901 FA Cup final. The cock and ball* first appeared in 1909 when a former player cast a copper statue to place in the West Stand at White Hart Lane. The spurs on the cockerel are related to the late medieval nobleman Harry Hotspur’s riding spurs.** And also, you know, because fighting cocks wear spurs. As I’m sure you can guess, Tottenham Hotspur take their name from our friend Harry, who had ties to North London.

*That just never gets old…I sometimes have the sense of humour of a 12-year-old boy.

**That’s late medieval, not late, medieval, though that’s also accurate. Obviously.



Lesson #349: Wagnerian Singers

One of my friends brought his new girlfriend out to the pub for the match today. She’s freaking awesome! She admits to knowing nothing at all about football, but was game to come and socialize and meet his friends (and then game to come with us while we watched my team play his team in hockey). But what makes her awesome is that it turns out that she’s an opera singer, studying for her MFA. So we were talking about opera while my friend stood there and stared at me before asking “how are you so into football and also this into astrophysics* and opera? You shouldn’t exist!”

She and I quickly moved from opera itself to the music and theory of opera. When the discussion moved to Wagner (who, if you’ve been reading for a while, you know I love) and she told me that she can’t do Wagner, which sounded absurd to me until she said that in her class, there’s only one Wagnerian singer. It turns out, and this makes perfect sense, because Wagner vastly expanded the orchestra for his operas, singers have to be able to project over all those added instruments, and the percentage of people who have that ability is not very big, even in the opera community. So the complexity of his music, which is the thing I like most about Wagner, is also the thing that makes his music hardest to sing.

In other news, Englebert Humperdinck was an actual person (other than the pop singer whose name is not actually Englebert Humperdinck)…he composed Hansel and Gretel, which my friend’s girlfriend is performing in next month.

FYI: As a point of personal pride, because it was the derby, some friends and I took it upon ourselves to change the Arsenal supporters club’s (which is literally 25m from ours) sign to read “[Neighbourhood redacted] is Arsenal Red” to “[Neighbourhood redacted] is Lilywhite.” It was a vast improvement in our opinions, but the Gooners were nowhere near as amused with our changes as we were. Because Gooners take themselves way too seriously.

*The reason he and I have gotten to be such fast friends is our mutual love of space.

Lesson #343: Biathlon

Once every four years, I remember that I think biathlon is effing awesome. Because it is effing awesome! Honestly, most of the time between Winter Games is spent forgetting that biathlon even exists, but ten days out of every 1461, I’m super excited about the sport. I will seriously watch biathlon for hours; I find it soothing in the same way I find watching fish soothing. And much as I love hockey (a lot, despite my favourite player’s old-age absence from the Canadian squad this go), I care who wins in hockey. In biathlon, I could not care less who wins medals or which country’s flag they’re wearing. I can watch without an elevated blood pressure and a constricted chest. So I do.

Four thousand years ago, the Norwegians — or at least the people living in what is now Norway — drew us some pretty pictures on rocks depicting people on skis hunting with spears. To be honest, I’m not sure what more information you need. We’re talking about an Olympic sport that people were effectively participating in 4000 years ago. Out of necessity, sure, but still participating. The first written mention of hunting on skis comes from Virgil ca. 400 BCE. Later, because the Scandinavians are kind of good at the whole ski-across-the-country thing*, militaries began adapting the sport for their own purposes. The Finns, for example, put the military aspect of the whole skiing/shooting thing to good use against the Russians in the Second World War. But the practice itself has been noted for a couple millenia; the historians Xenophon, Strabol, Arrian, Theophanes, Prokopius, and Acruni all wrote of soldiers making use of skis.

Etymologically, biathlon is derived from the Greek (obviously), meaning dual contests.**

And I guess it probably matters that the first recorded competition in biathlon as we know it took place in 1767 near the Swedish/Norwegian border. Its Olympic debut came at Chamonix in 1924. Just like a certain other sport I wrote about four years ago.

As an aside, the Russian military runs a tank biathlon competition. Because of course they do.

For more, see here and here.

*Two years ago, the Swede took part in the Vasaloppet, the world’s longest cross-country race at 90km. A mutual (also Swedish) friend of ours is currently training for this year’s women’s race.

**If you’d like to expound on this, it’s the same with pentathlon (seven contests) and decathlon (ten contests). 

Lesson #334: That Time the Stanley Cup Spent the Night in the Rideau

In 1905, the Ottawa Silver Seven (pre-NHL, so the team was made up of amateur players) won the Stanley Cup*, after which the team went boozing. Like victorious teams — and losing teams, I suspect — are wont to do. As a group of adrenaline-high, liquored up macho dudes aren’t usually the best decision-makers, their post-game festivities took a turn for the rather stupid when forward Harry Smith accepted a dare from his teammates to drop-kick Lord Stanley’s Cup into (or over, depending on what you read) the Rideau Canal. 

Now, I’m definitely not one to throw stones because I have been known to make my own stupid choices after a few beers,** but the men of the Silver Seven then promptly forgot all about Lord Stanley’s Cup and sauntered off — presumably to get more beer — without it. So it spent the night in the Rideau.

Smith went back the next morning to retrieve it.

Here’s the thing: there are varying reports about this. It’s January in Ottawa (remember, this is well before the days when hockey season ends in June). I’m pretty familiar with winter in Ottawa, and the Rideau freezes up pretty well; it’s a big thing to skate on it. So the likelihood that the Cup ended up at the bottom of the Rideau in the dead of winter is almost nil. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s page says it was pulled from the water. Sports Illustrated says it was retrieved from the dry bed of the canal. The Wiki mention of it on the Sens’ page cites Michael McKinley’s Hockey: A People’s History and says it was rescued from the surface of the ice. So…I guess go with whatever version you like? I’ll go with the one that makes the most sense. 

As an aside: I also learned that the Fourth Earl Grey was the Governor General of Canada at the time. As a tea-drinker and hockey fan, this amuses me — though the tea was not named for this particular one, but for his grandfather, the Second Earl Grey, who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland in the 1830s. The Grey Cup, however, was named for this Earl Grey.

For more, read the Sports Illustrated article from before I was born. (See, Dad, I’m not “nearly old.” Jerk!***Or see if you can find McKinley’s book. The Hall of Fame’s reference is here. Or you can read the Wiki entry

*which, at the time, was just the sterling silver bowl that makes up the top of the modern trophy

**True story: I have a scar on the back of my left leg from the time I forgot there was a ditch on the other side of a barbed wire fence a friend and I had climbed over in the middle of nowhere in the southern state where I used to live so we could go climb a windmill in the middle of the night. I managed, in one jump, to rip a two-inch gash into my flesh from one of the barbs, damage my right ankle in a way that, to this day, doesn’t allow me to wear certain pairs of high heels, leave myself with a limp for two weeks, and require a tetanus booster. And that was only after three beers. Legally, I was still sober.

***Dear readers, please don’t think I say that with any sort of seriousness. My dad is awesome, and I love him very much.

Lesson #322: Powderpuff Football

So…an old friend conned me into playing beer league American football this autumn. He didn’t really have to try that hard, to be honest, but I’ve never played American football in my life. His pitch was “you played rugby, you like beer, and the league needs girls.” Right, okay…I’m in.

Anyway, I was telling The Swede about this at the weekend and tried to explain my hesitations with, “I’ve never even played Powderpuff!” which left him blinking rather confusedly, as Powderpuff is not a thing that exists in Sweden. So this morning, I thought I’d send him a link to try to explain better than my, “it’s a Harvest Week* thing where girls play touch!” (like I thought he’d understand what any of those words meant together as a sentence) and threw the Wiki article at him.

But here’s the thing: it turns out Powderpuff has a longer history than you’d expect.

Powderpuff has been around since 1945 when Eastern State Teachers College in South Dakota fielded a team. The story of how it came about is quite cute. Because of the war, most everything festive had been suspended, but in the wake of the Japanese surrender, and the announcement at ESTC that there would, once again, be a homecoming — even though there was no football team to field — a bunch of girls got together and decided to field a football game of their own. And so Powderpuff was born.

The first game was played between those who lived in the dorms on campus and those who were commuters from the local community of Madison. It was decided that Eastern State’s colours of blue and gold should be used for the teams.

It became known as “Powderpuff” because, during the game, the girls opted, instead of heading for whatever they head for at halftime in American football, to re-up their makeup with powder puffs and all. A local journalist called the the teams, “the Powder Puffs and the Rouge Elevens,” which named Powderpuff as we know it (or don’t if you’re Swedish).

The game was then lost for nearly 30 years until Mark T. Sheehan high school in Wallingford, Connecticut** played a game in 1972 that became a tradition that spread to high schools and universities throughout the US and Canada. This actually makes a whole lot of sense. I had always assumed that Powderpuff had been a bastard child of the Title IX ruling; it turns out that Title IX came into effect in June of 1972.

According to Wiki, the longest running Powderpuff rivalry in the US (and probably anywhere) is the Samaha Bowl*** — named for Sheehan’s then-athletic director, Judy Samaha — which is played on the Wednesday before American Thanksgiving every year between senior girls of Sheehan and Lyman Hall High Schools (also of Wallingford, CT). Unfortunately, I can’t find any information as to whether or not the game, which is played to this day, is still limited to seniors.****

As much as I hate to admit this, Wiki has the best information here. It’s a lot of citation, so I’m more okay with it. Notice the theme here in my acceptance of Wiki as a source, but there’s still a part of my soul that dies every time I link to a Wiki article. But overall, it kind of makes sense; niche things tend to have quite well-cited Wiki pages, but not much else outside of it. Because it’s niche.

*My high school didn’t have Homecoming (although I think that has changed in the 15 year since I graduated). When I was there, it was called Harvest. So we had Harvest Week and the Harvest Game and the Harvest Dance, and I actually kind of prefer it because it’s less generic.

**Oddly, this is the second time Wallingford has come up in my life in the past few weeks. I happen to have an old, old friend who went to prep school in Wallingford, but the earlier reference came from my brother.

***I so wanted to be able to find a proper source for this, but the best I can find are some YouTube videos of the event, so here you go! A clip from 2012.  I will say that this game is way more organized, better played, better uniformed, better supported, and played by far more people than the Powderpuff game at my high school.

****Given the popularity of this game, I think it’s completely feasible to field a pair of teams of 45(ish) senior girls from a town of 45,000.