Off The Ball

The games that never were

Match cancellation
© Getty Images

Football: a sport where the ball never stops rolling, irrespective of circumstances or weather conditions. Or so one might think. If it were up to the players and fans, there would doubtless be football matches every day of the week, without interruption. The former because they are never happier than with a ball at their feet, and the latter because of the joy their footballing heroes bring. However, sometimes matches do have to be called off, mainly due to terrible weather, but every so often slightly more unusual factors come into play, as recalls.

We start our review of curtailed competitions and missed matches by taking a look back at the German title-deciding match between Hanau 93 and Viktoria Berlin in 1894. The Hanau players were unable to muster enough money to travel to the capital, thereby handing the Championship to Viktoria by default. A century later, the two teams, now languishing in the country’s regional, amateur divisions, decided to re-open this page of sporting history by playing the match that never was, 113 years after the fact.

And so it came to pass that in 2007 the 1894 German Championship was finally decided, but on the pitch this time. Statisticians will note that the two teams faced each other over two legs, using the same heavy, leather balls from the late 19th century, and that Viktoria again emerged victorious (3-0, 1-1).

Papers, please
A change of century provided no let-up in unusual administrative problems besetting the beautiful game. Also in 2007, FIFA was forced to cancel the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™qualifying match between New Zealand and Fiji, following the New Zealand government’s refusal to grant a visa to Fiji goalkeeper Simione Tamanisau. In order to maintain the integrity of the competition in the Oceania zone, FIFA made the decision to call off the encounter, which would finally take place a year later in November 2008. In the meantime, the Kiwis had secured their qualification for the next round, which may have rendered the result meaningless, but not the decision to postpone the original fixture, as Fiji earned a 2-0 victory on the day.

Rather than a visa, it was papers of a very different kind that led to the abandonment of the Dutch league match between Groningen and Ajax Amsterdam in April 2008. Fired up by the prospect of welcoming one of the Eredivisie’s giants to their ground, the Groningen supporters threw copious rolls of toilet paper on to the pitch. Unfortunately, some had the bright idea to light them beforehand, leading to fires breaking out within and in front of the main stand, and causing serious smoke inhalation problems for players and fans alike. Not surprisingly, the match was called off and rescheduled for a later date.

This was nothing especially new to the Ajax supporters, as a month earlier they had endured the cancellation of one of their team’s matches, versus their great rivals PSV Eindhoven, who were league leaders at the time. The reason was one of security, but not the kind at times associated with this fixture. Instead, the Dutch police happened to be on strike that particular day.

In an odd coincidence, a police-related decision during the very same week led to the cancellation of a full programme of matches in the Zimbabwean Championship, so that the country’s presidential elections could proceed without distractions. While football can stir great passions among its followers, it at times has to take a back seat when other national priorities arise.

This was never clearer than the weekend following the events of 11 September 2001, when the scheduled fixtures in Major League Soccer and in many other leagues across the world were called off as a mark of respect. In the same vein, but with a more localised effect, the death of Princess Diana in August 1997 led to the postponement of the English Premier League match between Newcastle and Liverpool, as well as the Crewe-Port Vale match in the division below.

Madonna, Beckham and boars
More recently, the French Ligue 1 match between Marseille and Lille, due to be played at the Stade Velodrome in August 2009, had to be moved to Montpellier. The reason? A stage erected for a Madonna concert had collapsed, leaving Marseille’s material world out of commission. And then there was the friendly match arranged in Australia between Los Angeles Galaxy and Queensland Roar (now Brisbane Roar) in November of 2008. As David Beckham had injured himself in the week leading up to the match and was not completely certain to make an appearance, the match was simply cancelled!

But the professional game does not have a monopoly on call-offs. In the quirky world of amateur football, the reasons behind matches being abandoned or postponed become more original and unusual. In March 2008, an English regional league match in Gloucestershire had to be called off, but neither the weather, a referee strike, nor a flu epidemic was the cause of the cancellation. Soudley were due to host Charfield at their Recreation Ground, whose pitch had been returfed just a few months before. But when the Soudley team arrived on the morning of the match, they were met with a scene of devastation, their home pitch having been completely ruined. The culprits of this wanton act of vandalism were never prosecuted, because they were wild boar.

Aside from the weather and wild animals, health precautions are a relatively widespread reason for calling off matches. The recent H1N1 flu epidemic forced French football authorities to postpone the eagerly-awaited match between Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain, as well as the match involving Monaco and Montpellier. A similar problem arose in the Czech Championship, where Teplice had to pull out of their match with Viktoria Plzen, as they only had ten fit players left in their squad.

That incident brings to mind the SARS epidemic in 2003 that caused the cancellation of numerous matches throughout the world of football. That year, a whole tournament was affected, namely the FIFA Women’s World Cup™, which had to be abruptly moved in its entirety from China to the USA.

We bring this quick world tour to a close by hoping that no other competitions will need to be postponed or cancelled upon such short notice, and by wondering about the weird and wonderful reasons that will provoke new call-offs over the next few years.

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