The phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ probably makes your brain wander to those numerous History Channel documentaries, where alien ‘experts’ babble on about the lizard people that have taken over our planet, or the secret bunker where Tupac is currently enjoying a cuppa with John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley, which, of course, doubles up as the set for the staged Moon landing.
It’s unlikely that it makes you think of football. Yet, the beautiful game and conspiracy theories go hand in hand. Every time your team loses it’s undoubtedly the result of some covert power who has ensured that the result was always going to go against your team. There was no chance of them winning with so-and-so, who clearly favoured the opposition, in charge of proceedings.
Then you have the media, who are willing to do just about anything to sell a few newspapers. Facts are twisted and turned until they have a story that will undoubtedly turn heads - Chelsea didn’t just have a bad 2015/16 season, for example. The Chelsea squad purposely had a bad season because they wanted Jose Mourinho to get the sack. This is widely regarded as the truth, yet there is little evidence other than their poor results, making it one of football’s numerous conspiracy theories.
However, that is pretty tame in comparison to some of the wild stories that football has birthed over its long history - stories involving everything from lasagna to octopuses. Here are six of the strangest football conspiracy theories to date:
Howard Webb: Manchester United’s 12th man
It’s no coincidence that Manchester United struggled following Howard Webb’s retirement from football in 2014. The famed Premier League referee was best known as Manchester United’s 12th man throughout the later stages of Sir Alex Ferguson’s time in charge of the club, due to the sheer number of decisions that would go United’s way. Likewise, the phenomenon which would come to be known as ‘Fergie Time’ only added further fuel to the fire.
There are numerous incidents which linked Webb to United. One notable example came in the April of the 2008/09 season, when the title race was in full swing. Manchester United were leading the table. However, Liverpool weren’t far behind and a United slip up in the final weeks could have swung the title their way.
The lucky change that Liverpool needed seemed to come in week 34, with Tottenham pulling two goals ahead in the first-half against Ferguson’s side. With almost an hour of the game gone, Manchester United appeared to be heading for defeat, until Webb stepped in, awarding United a penalty for an alleged foul committed by Spurs goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes on Michael Carrick.
United went on to secure a 5-2 victory and, despite pleading that it was nothing more than a error of judgement, accusations of favouritism quickly resurfaced. However, all of the league’s bigger teams were found to have similar percentages when Webb was in charge of their games. Meaning, statistically at least, that Manchester United weren’t favoured by the iconic referee at all.
1966 World Cup fixed?
Everyone knows the story. England, host nation and founders of the beautiful game, overcome France, Mexico, Argentina and Portugal to set up a final meeting with rival nation West Germany. The Three Lions don’t have much luck against Germany nowadays, but 1966 was England’s year.
The 1966 World Cup is one of the fondest memories in the history of English football. With the national team struggling to replicate anything even close to tournament-winning form, England fans cling onto that one aged victory like Geoff Hurst had smashed in those winning goals only yesterday.
However, what if England’s one moment of glory wasn’t actually as impressive as it seems?
According to many South Americans, the entire tournament was fixed to allow European teams to progress after a decade of dominance by the likes of Brazil, Uruguay and Chile. Brazil, led by phenomenal goalscorer Pelé, had claimed the cup on the last two consecutive occasions, and Europe wasn’t happy.
Claims of a fix were prevalent in the years that followed, with many claiming that European officials had been placed in charge of South American games and decisions had unsurprisingly gone against them, while persistent fouling by European sides had also been overlooked. Pelé himself claimed that football had ‘stopped being an art and instead became a war’.
Of course, European nations refused to acknowledge the rumours and football went on. However, in 2008, talk of a conspiracy resurfaced after former FIFA president Joao Havelange claimed that both 1966 and 1974, two tournaments hosted in Europe, had been fixed for the host nations to win, in order to wrestle away South America’s dominance.
Similar speculation has plagued World Cup events ever since. As recently as 2002, referees were accused of favouring the home nation.
Despite their low ranking, South Korea were able to finish top of their group, ahead of Poland, USA and Portugal, which was surprising enough. However, they then went on to produce victories over Italy and Spain to reach the semi-final. While they didn’t win the tournament, which would have been nothing short of unbelievable, for a side that had never won a World Cup game in the past to progress so far unsurprisingly raised suspicions.
..And the 1958 World Cup never took place
Although, the 1966 World Cup couldn’t have been rigged against the Brazilians, as their dominance never really existed, according to 2002 documentary Conspiracy 58.
That 1958 tournament confirmed Brazil to be among the sport’s heavyweight nations and announced Pelé to the world as the greatest player that football had ever seen. However, according to famed historian, author and professor Bror Jacques de Wærn, the tournament never actually took place. Allegedly, Sweden didn’t have the resources to go ahead with their World Cup plans, and rather than cancelling it, they co-conspired with America to ‘test the effectiveness of televised propaganda’.
As a result, the entire tournament was staged in a Los Angeles television studio by the CIA, but what makes De Wærn so certain that the tournament never took place? Well, houses next to pitches that shouldn’t have been there and shadows that didn’t match up to the position of the sun in Sweden at the time, among other minor giveaways.
By now you’re probably thinking that both De Wærn and his theory are absolutely nonsense, and you’re right. As the credits roll at the end of Conspiracy 58, the entire documentary is revealed to be faked. However, some people seemingly missed this small detail, as rumours of a staged World Cup tournament have been rife ever since.
Dodgy lasagna, or Arsenal conspiracy?
With Tottenham just one game away from a place in the Champions League, nobody expected their entire season to come crashing down as a result of a dodgy lasagna.
Spurs were cruising to a top place finish in the 2005/06 Premier League, until a defeat to Manchester United and draw with Arsenal in their final four matches left them just one point in front of their North London rivals going into their final game. They needed just one more victory, over a mid-table West Ham side, to secure fourth. Given their form throughout the season, it seemed likely that they would triumph.
However, their last supper would quickly see their dreams scuppered. Martin Jol’s side had checked into the Marriott West India Quay the night before the West Ham clash. A number of key players had recovered from injury just in time to make the squad and Tottenham appeared to be ready to top Arsenal for the first time in over a decade. Until they went down for dinner.
Within a few hours of finishing their meal, a number of the players, all of which has seemingly chosen a lasagna, began to feel ill. Edgar Davis, Michael Dawson, Aaron Lennon, Michael Carrick and Michael Keane, among others, were all wiped out by the mystery illness and Daniel Levy was forced to call the Premier League organisers to discuss a possible postponement.
With their request turned down, Tottenham’s star-studded squad were forced to play through their vomit-inducing sickness and eventually fell to a 2-1 defeat, much to the delight of Arsenal who had snuck into the Champions League as a result.
The hotel’s catering team have since been cleared of any wrongdoing, which has left the club scratching their heads as to how the illness came about. According to many, they had been poisoned by a rogue Arsenal fan in the kitchen, out to sabotage their season.
Paul the Octopus(es)?
Paul the Octopus was one of the standout performers throughout Spain’s periods of dominance between 2008 and 2012. Born in the Weymouth, England, Sea Life Centre, the eight tentacled phenomenon soon found his way to Germany, where he would go on to become a hit for his incredible divination abilities.
Prior to the start of the 2008 European Championship, Paul’s keeper presented him with two boxes, one marked with the German flag and another the Polish flag, representing the nation’s first group game in the tournament. Paul picked Germany, which soon proved to be correct, before going on to make another three correct predictions, with Germany progressing to the final.
However, Paul’s greatest moments would come at the 2010 World Cup, when the seemingly enlightened octopus correctly predicted all of German’s group games, their victories in the Round of 16 and quarter-final, their defeat to Spain in the semi-final and victory in the third-place play-off, as well as Spain’s triumph over the Netherlands in the tournament final.Paul’s predictions were shockingly accurate throughout.
Yet, following Paul’s death in October 2010, rumours began to surface that Paul had actually died in July, midway through the summer tournament, only to be replaced by another octopus to prolong the media attention that Paul had generated.
Bebé: Signed to save Nani
Tiago Manuel Dias Correia, or Bebé, as Manchester United fans with surely remember him by. Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t make many mistakes throughout his 26 year spell as the manager of Manchester United, but the signing of Bebé was by far the biggest and the worst.
The unknown Portuguese striker had only just made it into the world of football, having played a single season with lowly Estrela da Amadora in the Segunda Divisao Portuguesa, the third tier of the Portuguese football league system. After his contract expired at the end of the season, he joined top tier side Vitoria SC during the off-season.
However, aside from a few pre-season friendlies, he would never make his debut for the club, as Premier League giants Manchester United came calling a few months later. The historic club were thought to have paid approximately £7.5 million for the unknown player following a recommendation made by Portugal national team coach and former United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz - a claim which he denies to this day.
Unsurprisingly, Bebé turned out to be one of the biggest flops in the club’s history, making just two appearances for the club before he was eventually sold to Benfica in 2014.
However, many believe that there was more to the Bebé saga than we have been led to believe.
One such rumour involves Nani’s mysterious removal from the Portugal squad at the 2010 World Cup. Nani had travelled to South Africa, before returning home with a shoulder injury before the tournament had kicked off.
Some believe that Ferguson had demanded Nani returned to England following the announcement of a drug test at Portugal’s training camp. According to the wild theory, Ferguson knew Nani would fail the test, resulting in a lengthy ban, and called on Queiroz to pull him out before the test went ahead. Bebé’s transfer, which was investigated by the Portuguese authorities, was a thank you gift, with Queiroz pocketing much of the transfer fee involved.