Soccer/Football Legends Revealed #3

This is the third in a series of examinations of soccer/football-related legends and whether they are true or false.

Let’s begin!

Actually, scratch that – before I start, I want to give a shout out to two excellent articles centering around debunking myths. On the one hand, it’s too bad for me that they did SUCH a good job that there is nothing left for me to write on the subject, but on the other hand, it’s good for you that they wrote such good articles!

So a tip of the cap to Roger Allaway and Colin Jose for their piece on the myth that the 1930 United States National Team was made up of British ringers and a tip of the cap to Leander Schaerlaeckens for his brilliant dissection of all the myths surrounding Joe Gaetjens, the US player who scored the winning goal in the famous 1950 World Cup upset of the US over England. Cheers to all of them!

Now on with the show!

SOCCER/FOOTBALL LEGEND: The Italian national team was threatened by death by Benito Mussolini if they lost the 1938 World Cup.

STATUS: I’m Going With False

In one of the most famous quotes in World Cup history, after the Italians defeated Hungary 4-2 to capture their second straight World Cup in 1938, Hungarian goaltender Antal Szabó said, “I may have let in four goals, but at least I saved their lives.”

This is based on a telegram sent to the team by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini…

that read “Vincere o morire!” which, translated literally into English reads “Win or die!”

Now it is possible that Szabó honestly believed that “Win or die!” meant that the Italians had to win or Mussolini would order them killed, but that’s not the truth of the matter.

First of all, the Italians had already WON the Cup in 1934. THAT World Cup, PERHAPS you could POSSIBLY see Mussolini being a bit hardcore, as that World Cup was played IN Italy, so the pressure was quite high for Italy to win in their own country. But to kill off team members for losing in the Finals after winning the previous World Cup? That doesn’t seem to follow.

Secondly, these players were all loyal supporters of Mussolini (publicly, at least) who wore black armbands and did Fascist salutes before each game. These athletes were pretty much the stars of Mussolini’s propaganda campaign about fascism and national pride. The idea that he would kill them off for coming in second in a match is silly. We’re not talking German Jewish athletes here – these guys were all major parts of Mussolini’s belief system.

Thirdly, and most importantly, while yes, the phrase is LITERALLY translated as “Win or die!” but it was actually a common term used in Italy at the time meaning basically “Victory or bust!” A forerunner to a popular term nowadays, “Win or go home.”

Mussolini was not actually threatening their lives in 1938, although it is interesting to wonder if Szabó was just making a sort of joke or if he honestly believed it, and if he DID believe it, did Szabó throw the game? I doubt it, but it’s an interesting thing to wonder about…

SOCCER/FOOTBALL LEGEND: A dog discovered the stolen World Cup trophy soon before the 1966 World Cup began.


In 1966, the World Cup was held in England.

The festivities almost hit a major snag before the games ever began – the Jules Rimet Trophy (the trophy awarded to the winning World Cup team ever since 1930) was STOLEN!

The Trophy was held by the Football Association, but they lent it out to the Stanley Gibbons’ stamp company for a museum exhibit featuring the trophy. On March 20, 1966, somebody broke into the museum and stole the trophy!!

The next day, the head of the Football Association received a ransom call. The police worked with him and on March 24th, when it came time to exchange the money, the police managed to capture the fellow who made the pick-up. The guy, a petty theft named Edward Betchley, claimed that he did not know anything and he was just a middle man.

After Betchley’s arrest, there was no more news until March 29th, when a man named David Corbett and his dog Pickles were walking in the Beulah Hill district of South East London. Pickles smelled something under Corbett’s hedges, and sure enough, it was the trophy!!

Naturally, this seemed a little TOO convenient for the police, who suspected Corbett. But he checked out, and so Pickles, for a short time there, became a national icon!!

Here is a replica of what the trophy looked like…

You might be wondering, “Brian, what do you mean REPLICA? The trophy was recovered, right?”

That’s true, but in 1970, the trophy was retired. It was given to the 1970 World Cup winner, Brazil, who won it for their record third time in 1970! But in 1983, it was stolen AGAIN! And as of today, it has yet to be found (and let’s face it, odds are it is long gone, melted down or whatever), which is why we only have replicas to look at.

You’d think they’d be more careful with it, huh?

SOCCER/FOOTBALL LEGEND: FIFA changed the rules of a contest when Diego Maradona was voted Player of the Century in 2000.


In 2000, FIFA decided to let fans vote on who would be given the title of the “Player of the Century.” The voting was done online, and in overwhelming fashion, the winner was Argentine star Diego Maradona.

Maradona certainly has a case for the honor. Most historians agree he’s at least among the five best players of the 20th Century.

However, he is also not Pelé.

The Brazilian star is perhaps the most famous soccer/football player of the 20th Century, and when the fans voted for Maradona, FIFA panicked.

Let’s face it – even if Maradona IS the correct pick (I’ll leave that up to you), online voting is, of course, going to skew towards more recent players, and as great as Maradona is, nearly 54% of the vote is probably a bit on the high side, with less than 19% for Pelé also a bit on the low sie.

So FIFA, after a quick bumbling routine when they first announced that the award would now be split into decades (so Pelé and Maradona could each get a decade), but then changed their minds again and said that when they said “Player of the Decade,” they meant Player of the Decades” meaning the whole Century so that they had not actually changed anything. Suuuure, FIFA.

In any event, FIFA put together a separate panel of football experts to vote on the award, and Pelé was the winner (with over 70% of the expert vote).

Maradona was not pleased, and the issue soon became a bit of an Argentina vs. Brazil thing (although I suppose it already was that from the get go). Maradona vowed not to attend the event if Pelé took his spot, or even if they shared it.

Eventually, FIFA’s compromise was that BOTH men would get an award – the fan vote for Maradona and the panel vote for Pelé.

Maradona did end up showing up to accept his award, but left before Pelé got his – these two fellows sure do dislike each other, don’t they?

They just recently got into the news arguing again over some comments Pelé made about South Africa, the current site of the World Cup.

I suppose FIFA’s compromise was probably the best way to handle it, as I can’t imagine how it would have sorted out if one of the two had been ignored for the Player of the Century, but boy, FIFA, you should try to think these things out BEFORE you announce them next time!

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is

One Response to “Soccer/Football Legends Revealed #3”

  1. Maradona had a talk show in Argentina, and Pelé was his star guest.

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