The World Cup and boycotts have a lengthier history than you might imagine

Ian King
Overhead shot of the opening ceremony to the 1978 World Cup

International sport and politics have long been intertwined, but boycotting the World Cup altogether has something of a mixed record.


With just a couple of days to go before the start of the World Cup finals, the noise surrounding the decision to host the tournament in Qatar is only intensifying. Many are boycotting or will be limiting the amount of time they spend watching it, and there have even been concerns at the permanent damage that might have been done to the long-term future of the tournament over a broad church of concerns including human rights abuses, migrant worker deaths, the treatment of LGBTQ people, the corrupt process by which it was awarded in the first place, its scheduling, and more besides.

But the World Cup is an international sporting event, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that it has been shrouded in controversy before. Levels of anger over the tournament being held in Russia four years ago were nowhere near as high as they have been over Qatar, but they did exist, while there were protests in Brazil during the tournament held there in 2014. Even before that, there were times when the World Cup was boycotted…



Egypt became the first African nation to attempt qualification for the World Cup in 1934 and 1954, and as football’s global continued to grow, there was a growing clamour from African and Asian nations to be involved in the World Cup finals. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) was founded in 1954, with the Confederation of African Football (CAF) following in 1957.

But the hurdles to jump for African and Asian countries wishing to qualify for the finals were extremely high. For the 1958 World Cup qualifiers eight Asian and African teams entered into a knockout competition, but this ended up being a somewhat chaotic affair. Israel were drawn to play Turkey in the first round but Turkey refused to compete in these qualifiers, claiming that they should be included in the European qualifying section.

FIFA allowed Israel to advance to the second round automatically where they were drawn against Indonesia, but with ongoing political upheaval at home, the Indonesians applied for their home match to be played on neutral territory and, when this was rejected, they withdrew as well. When Sudan withdrew from the final round on account of the Arab League Boycott of Israel, it was decided that rather than having Israel qualify without playing a single game, they would have to play-off against a European team instead. Wales subsequently beat them 4-0 over two legs, meaning that there was no involvement from the African or Asian confederations in Sweden.

Four years later, there was no automatic qualification for either, with the winners of AFC and CAF qualifying tournaments both having to play off against European opposition, where Morocco lost to Spain and South Korea lost to Yugoslavia, meaning that the 1962 finals would again take place without African or Asian involvement.

With the decision that AFC and CAF winners could play off for a single place in England in 1966, the situation was barely any better, and by this time this insultingly low representation wasn’t the only aggravating factor. The other one was apartheid. South Africa had been admitted to FIFA in 1954, but expelled from the CAF in 1958 over their apartheid policies. They were suspended from FIFA in 1961 after failing to fulfil an ultimatum regarding anti-discrimination rules, but Stanley Rous was elected as FIFA president shortly afterwards, and he was a champion of South African football.

Rous was determined to allow apartheid South Africa into the World Cup, and in 1963 they were readmitted to FIFA after he travelled to the country to ‘investigate’ football in the country and accepted an extraordinary South African Football Association proposal to play an all-white team for the 1966 finals and an all-black team in 1970. But Rous’s plans lasted no longer than FIFA’s next annual congress, held in Tokyo just after the 1964 Olympic Games, when a large turnout of African and Asian representatives led to South Africa being suspended again.

Matters came to a head as the tournament drew closer. African teams threatened to leave FIFA en masse if Rous came through on a plan to allow South Africa and the also-banned Rhodesia form their own Southern Africa confederation. In the end, AFC and CAF nations withdrew en masse from the 1966 qualifiers and the whole African/Asian qualification competition came down to a single two-legged tie between the two nations that had defied the boycott, North Korea and Australia.

These two matches were both played in Phnom Penh, and North Korea won 9-2 on aggregate to guarantee their first appearance in the World Cup finals, becoming only the third Asian team to do so after the Dutch East Indies in 1938 and South Korea in 1954. They beat Italy in their group to qualify for the quarter-finals and briefly led Portgual 3-0 after 25 minutes before losing 5-3.

The boycott wasn’t covered a great deal in the British press. In July 1965, The Guardian briefly mentioned it in dispatches, stating that it was a ‘sour note’ in preparations that were otherwise going well. But the boycott did had some effect. From 1970 on there would be at least one African and one Asian nation at each World Cup tournament. Morocco and Israel were the representatives in Mexico.

But Rous’s behaviour had angered too many people too many times. He was replaced at the 1974 congress by Joao Havelange, who had compaigned on ending European dominance of FIFA. A new South African Football Association was founded in 1991 after the end of apartheid, and was admitted to join the following year.


North Korea play the USSR at the 1966 World Cup



The decision made to award the 1978 finals to Argentina was made in July of 1966, but the years following this were not particularly kind to their national team. They failed to qualify for the 1970 finals, and having got through their group stage four years later in West Germany they finished bottom of their second round group, getting knocked out with a game to spare after losing to both the Netherlands and Brazil.

In March 1976, a military coup left the country in the hands of a far-right military dictatorship, and there were calls for the tournament to be moved elsewhere. The ‘Dirty War’, in which the military justified rape, torture and widespread murder in the name of protecting the state, had begun prior to the coup, but international tensions against the tournament being held there intensified when General Jorge Rafael Videla seized control of the country.

Protests were led from France, with the opening of a centre of solidarity with the victims of the Dirty War in Paris called COBA. The organisation received widespread support throughout Europe, most notably in the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, West Germany, Switzerland, the United States, Sweden, Finland, and, to a lesser degree, Mexico, Spain and Israel.

But opinion on the political left was split, with some taking the viewpoint that because the USSR – who had previously refused to play in Chile in 1973 in the same Estadio Nacional stadium that Augusto Pinochet had used to execute left-wing prisoners – had tacitly supported the Argentinian junta, they should support the hosting of the competition.

In addition to this, the Argentinian Communist party, PCA, stated that the tournament would offer the vision of a prosperous, peaceful society and that no boycott was necessary, a decision which persuaded some other left-leaning political organisations in Europe to temper or drop their support for a boycott.

The threat of bombings or assassinations during the tournament also seemed very real, but the guerilla group Los Montoneros started to come out against the boycott, too. In April 1978 in an interview with the French weekly new magazine L’Express, their leader Rodolfo Galimberti stated that the boycott ‘is not a realistic policy’, that ‘the Montoneros will not take any action during the World Cup that might endanger athletes or journalists’, and proposed a ‘truce’ with Videla for the duration of the tournament.

Players also found themselves being dragged into it all. When Johann Cruyff retired from international football in October 1977, his decision was widely interpreted as having been influenced by the boycott, but Cruyff ended up working as a pundit during the tournament for ITV, and it wasn’t until 2008 that he confirmed that the reason for his retirement from the international game was concerns for his safety having been held at gunpoint with his family rather than any specific political considerations.

No teams ended up boycotting the 1978 World Cup finals and they did proceed without violent incident, but the controversy surrounding the tournament didn’t end there.  There were long-held rumours of match-fixing concerning Argentina’s 6-0 win against Peru in the second group stage (Argentina needed a four-goal win to get through to the final) which were finally confirmed by a Peruvian senator in 2012.

Even the final itself was affected. The Argentine FA successfully lobbied for a late referee switch, arguing that designated Israeli official Abraham Klein was an inappropriate choice due to the political links between Holland and Israel. Klein also happened to have refereed Argentina’s 1-0 defeat against Italy in the first group stage.

On the day of the final, the Dutch team was made to wait again on the pitch at the the Estadio Monumental in front of a hostile crowd after the Argentina players emerged five minutes late. When they did turn up, the hosts immediately began to protest René van de Kerkhof’s forearm plaster cast, despite the defender having been wearing it prreviously throughout the tournament without objection. The replacement referee Sergio Gonella gave in and forced van de Kerkhof to apply an extra bandage. Argentina won 3-1, after extra-time.

Protests in Argentina during the tournament had to remain clandestine. Stickers in public restrooms, in train stations, graffiti on some hidden walls at night, and surprise flyer-handing were some of the actions most commonly taken, but even these had to be carried out in a manner similar to a military operation.

Meanwhile, the Argentinian government and media orchestrated a counter-campaign. An editorial from newspaper El Grafico summed up the official line:

For those on the outside, for all those insidious and malicious journalists who for months pursued a campaign of lies about Argentina, this competition is showing the world the reality of our country and its ability to do important things responsibly and well. As for those on the inside, for the unbelievers whom we had in our own house, we are certain that the World Cup has managed to shake them up, thrill them, and make them proud.

External media coverage was mixed. German television reporters mentioned the ‘disappeared’ the opening ceremonies, while other compared the Junta’s political exploitation of the tournament to Benito Mussolini’s actions in the 1934 World Cup and the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. But on the other side of the equation, a correspondent from the Times wrote that the Argentines were ‘neither unhappy nor, any longer, repressed’.

But while the 1978 World Cup boycott didn’t end up amounting to much, it did go on to have some degree of influence elsewhere. Similar tactics were more successful two years later when a US-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics – protesting the the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year led to 65 nations refusing to participate. In response, citing security concerns and ‘chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States’, 14 Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.


In the 21st century, social media has revolutionised what is possible in terms of boycotting a tournament of this nature. Information spreads rapidly around the world in a way that was impossible fifty or sixty years ago. But for all this, no players have refused to travel to Qatar this winter, and no nations seem to have given it much serious consideration either.

And as we all know from the images burned into our brains from both the 1966 and 1978 World Cups, of Geoff Hurst’s shot bouncing down onto the goal-line at Wembley or the ticker-tape receptions given to the Argentina players twelve years later, neither of those tournaments are particularly remembered for the controversy that surrounded them. Perhaps our different media landscape will mean that 2022 is different. But perhaps it won’t.