TODAY – November 20 – marks the start of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

While rightly surrounded in controversy for many reasons, Spain will make their debut against Costa Rica in Group E next Wednesday, while England play on Monday.

The betting odds are in and the experts have given football fans a list of clear favourites to win the trophy. Brazil is a strong favourite, but look out for Argentina, Belgium, France (the 2018 winner), England and Spain to field strong, competitive teams.

Of course, there are always unpredictable surprises. And few have been more vivid than Spain’s experience during the tournament co-hosted by South Korea and Japan in 2002. 

Here is how it unfolded…

The 2002 Spanish team was a favourite to go deep into the World Cup competition and the players were determined to rectify their disappointing early elimination from the previous 1998 competition.

The Spanish team was not made of many big individual egos but rather one unit with a single-minded destiny – that of bringing the cup to Spain for the first time.

Although Spanish teams had always had a strong record in international competition (including the European Championships and the Olympics) the ultimate prize had continually eluded them.

The 2002 team was led by a 33-year-old goalie named Santiago Cañizares. He was no stranger to international competition having represented Spain in two previous World Cups and three European Championships.

Peter Schmeichel, the legendary Manchester United goalie and part of the BBC TV team that year, regarded Santiago as ‘the finest goalkeeper in world football’.

Strong praise indeed. However, on the last day of training while showering Cañizares slipped, dropped a bottle of aftershave and severed a tendon in his foot with the glass shards. Spain would enter the 2002 World Cup without the best goalkeeper on the plane.

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Unfortunate – Santiago Cañizares. Photo: Cordon Press

This proved to be a prelude to a string of bad luck – or perhaps something else, as we shall see – that would follow this Spanish team over the next few weeks.

The strange events really began with multiple controversies in the Round of 16 clash between host nation South Korea and Italy. 

The European press described it as ‘a steady flow of unpunished fouls’ by the Koreans coupled with ‘an unbelievable litany of refereeing errors’. 

Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno (more about him later) somehow tolerated the over-aggressive pressing game by Korea, while sending Italian superstar Francesco Totti off for a questionable ‘diving’ call.

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Francesco Totti was controvertially sent off. Photo: Cordon Press

Later, Moreno wrongly disallowed the potential winning goal for offside and the Koreans’ eventual 2-1 victory did not sit well and the Italian team and press went apoplectic!

The headlines were brutal. “Italy thrown out of a dirty World Cup where referees and linesmen are used as hitmen,” reported The Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Eventually FIFA agreed to a probe admitting: “As a result of a number of controversies, FIFA has decided to launch an investigation.” Four days later that plot would only thicken…

The record shows that South Korea would go on to knock out Spain, 5-3, during a penalty shootout in the quarter finals.

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The Spanish line up before their Quarterfinal with Korea.Gwangju Stadium. Photo Cordon Press

If only it was that simple. Egyptian referee Gamal Al-Gandhour wrongly disallowed two goals and had a litany of incorrect offside calls – some called from just 15 metres away. 

Bizarrely, when Javi De Pedro floated a free kick off a South Korean defender into the net it was mysteriously disallowed.

A second disallowed goal, a decision even more shocking than the first, came two minutes into extra time. 

The linesmen flagged that the ball had gone out of bounds though the replays clearly proved otherwise.

Spain’s Ivan Helguera, who had to be physically pulled away from the referee, claimed: “What happened was robbery…everyone saw two perfectly good goals. If Spain didn’t win it is because they didn’t want us to win.”

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Ivan Helguera was outraged. Photo: Cordon Press

The Spanish press was beyond indignant. ‘ROBBED’ was the Marca headline. ‘The officials are the thieves of dreams’.

Meanwhile Diario AS, claimed: “We did not deserve this – not the Spanish – nor any lovers of football”.

The European press once again was livid. Respected pundit Paul Hayward at the Telegraph wrote: “This tournament has descended into a farce.” 

He went on to rail against FIFA’s decision to select referees from minor footballing nations unaccustomed to the highest level of competition, labelling it ‘anti-meritocratic’.

The Argentinian daily La Nation called the tournament the ‘biggest scandal in World Cup history’ and wanted the tournament declared ‘null and void’. 

In both Italy and Spain, the prevailing opinion was that the match was ‘rigged or fixed’ in order to keep the host nation in the tournament.

Favouritism would justify FIFA’s grand ambition of expanding the sport into Asia (China being the biggest prize). 

But that was 20 years ago. Going into this year’s Cup, we must remember that some of this year’s 2022 squad were just infants (or were not even born).

Blaming the refereeing officials has never been a good strategy. As the saying goes: “When you blame others, you give up your power to change.”

Thankfully, the 2002 debacle was the exception rather than the rule. It is anticipated that this year’s World Cup will draw over one million spectators in attendance to the 64 matches.

The competition will reach a global in-home television audience of over three billion (yes billion!) people.

The World Cup is a much-anticipated occasion for fans everywhere to gather and celebrate community, culture and competition. My only advice to players and fans might be to avoid showering with a glass bottle of aftershave!

                                                Did You Know?

  • Santiago Cañizares would recover from his severed tendon enough to play a few more years with Valencia CF. By 2010 Cañizares, the great competitor, successfully changed sports. He competed for the first time in a scoring event for the Spanish Rally Championship driving a Suzuki. In 2017, he earned his first victory winning The Rally de Ceramica driving a Porsche 997. 
  • Ultimately, Brazil would win the 2002 World Cup making them the first and only country to have won the World Cup five times.
  • Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno was arrested in 2010 in New York for trying to smuggle six kilograms of heroin hidden in his underwear. He would serve two-and-a-half years in prison.

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