Wernicke, Luciano. Incredible World Cup Stories: Wildest Tales and Most Dramatic Moments from Uruguay 1930 to Qatar 2022. Sutherland House, 2022. Pp. 368. $24.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski
Spanning almost 100 years, World Cup tournaments have been––without a doubt––some of the most exciting and popular sport competitions. Compiling just one book of stories about the tournament’s changes, surprising outcomes, and soccer legends seems a demanding, bordering on impossible, task. For instance, the 2018 World Cup, controversially held in Russia, featured the United States not qualifying and English singer Robbie Williams showing the middle finger to the television cameras during the opening ceremony performance––all before the games began.
On what basis does one decide which World Cup stories are, or are not, worthy of inclusion? Is the story of Peter Rufai, the Nigerian goalkeeper for the 1994 and 1998 World Cups who rejected becoming the king of his people in favor of playing professional soccer, more interesting than that of David Beckham arriving to the 2002 World Cup with his own stylist? What about the story of Andres Escobar, the Colombian defender who scored two own goals during a game against the United States in 1994 and later was shot down in his home country? Is that tragedy too horrific for inclusion, knowing it will be placed next to entertaining and/or funny stories about minor mishaps?
It takes a special author to make the selection, and an even better one to write about the selected occurrences and characters in a captivating manner. Luckily, Argentinian journalist Luciano Wernicke is a capable writer, who can report on humorous events with gusto and serious, global affairs with gravity. The collection of anecdotes is exceptionally impressive; however, there is one mistake that I found particularly curious. On page 244 there is the story of a Polish prosecutor named Skarzysko Kamienna. Skarzysko Kamienna is not a person; it is a city in south-central Poland. I know this only because, well, I am Polish. That mistake alone overshadows the rest of the book for me, which I know is unfair, as Incredible World Cup Stories makes for an entertaining and informative read for any sport historian.
Wernicke begins the book well before 3 p.m., July 13, 1930, when the first two games of the first-ever World Cup kicked off. Before the opening whistle blew for USA and Belgium, as well as for France and Mexico, in the stadiums of Uruguay, much behind the scenes work was involved. Most interestingly, the national team of the country credited with inventing the discipline of football did not participate in the inaugural tournament. Despite FIFA president Jules Rimet issuing an official invitation, England refused to join the competition until 1950. While the English national team’s absence was self-imposed, the same thing cannot be said for Germany, who were excluded from the 1950 World Cup due to the country’s role in World War II. Had Germany been allowed to participate in 1950, the German national team, like the Brazilian national team, would have participated in all World Cups.
Apart from being banned in 1950, Germany has had a somewhat complicated relationship with the tournament. In 1938, German supporters did not travel to France because of a decree by the government prohibiting the citizens from leaving the country. There also was the infamous “Water Battle of Frankfurt” during the 1974 tournament, when, in conditions not suitable for a soccer match, West Germany beat Poland, taking advantage of the unfavorable weather. The best Polish national team in history was eliminated in the semifinal following a 0-1 loss. But I digress…
The book also is filled with interesting trivia that just begs for deeper, academic exploration. For example, India dropped out of the 1950 World Cup because its players were not allowed to play with bare feet, which was the cultural custom in the country. During the next tournament, played in Switzerland, the average age of the South Korean national team was 31, as the majority of men ages between 21 and 23 were in the military due the war with the country’s northern neighbor. In 1998, Robert Prosinecki became the first player in World Cup history to score goals for two different countries: Yugoslavia in 1990 and Croatia in 1998. The civil war in Yugoslavia, which led to the balkanization of the country, explains why Prosinecki was able to accomplish the feat. Born in West Germany, he started playing youth soccer in Zagreb, Croatia. Playing for rivals was nothing new for the midfielder, as, at the time, he was the fifth non-Spanish player to suit up for Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
Those are just a few entries from Wernicke’s book, where each page contains at least one remarkable memory from the long and eventful history of the World Cup. But Incredible World Cup Stories is more than a collection of curiosities and anecdotes. While afficionados of the beautiful game will find it informative and entertaining, scholars should be inspired to pursue further research about the history of the globe’s most popular sporting event.
Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).