The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Considered as a World Cup Soccer Match




Author note: June 28th is the 100th anniversary of the incident that sparked World War I: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. With the 2014 FIFA World Cup in full swing in Brazil, and with a hat tip to Alfred Jarry and J.G. Ballard, I thought I would reimagine that world-shaking event as an international soccer match.

Serbia had never gotten over its devastating loss to Austria in 1909.

Its 1913 defeat of Bulgaria did little to ease the pain. Serbia wanted revenge. It would get its chance at the 1914 World Cup in Sarajevo.

The Balkan team knew it had its work cut out for it.

Standing in Serbia’s way was the Austrian team’s colorful captain, Franz Ferdinand. Endearingly referred to as “the Archduke” back home, Ferdinand was something of a dandy off the field. Yet no one questioned his command on it. Even after the Austrian tabloids took Ferdinand to task for his high profile marriage to a Czech countess, fans continued to adore him.

The Austrian coaches, not so much.

A near scandal broke at the start of the 1914 match when “the Duchess” Sophie appeared on the field with “the Archduke.” Inexplicably, FIFA officials allowed it.

The Serbians planned a relentless team attack. No grandstanding or showboating by individual players: This was the message hammered home by the Serbian coach, Dimitrijević. Serbia had an arsenal, it had the will, and the cyanide pill each player kept sewn in his shorts pocket made it clear the team was playing for keeps this time.

It was a young, impressionable Serbian team, with names like Čubrilović, Čabrinović, Grabež, Popović. In the end, however, it was a lone Bosnian Serb player by the name of Gavrilo Princip who would lead the team to victory.

Serbia got off to a bad start.

Austria had set up its formidable “motorcade” defense. Serbia found it practically impenetrable. Near the end of a scoreless first half, Serbian hopes rose when its midfielder Mehmedbašić found himself with a clear path to the Austrian goal. However, Mehmedbašić hesitated at the last second and passed to Čubrilović, who, not expecting the pass, allowed the ball to roll out of play.

Serbia managed to take back possession after a careless Austrian throw-in, with Čabrinović making a fine inside cross near the goal. Unfortunately, Čabrinović was overeager and launched the ball over the bar and into the stands. A handful of fans were injured by the wayward orb.

The Serbian team was showing its youth.

Humiliated by his miss, Čabrinović fell to the ground and immediately swallowed his cyanide pill. The pill was a dud, bringing not death but nausea. Referees called time as Čabrinović knelt vomiting near the goal line. Medics were brought in to carry him off the field. Serbia had no available substitutes.

As play resumed, part of the Austrian motorcade defense was blown up, a clear violation of the Laws of the Game. Two Serbian players drew red cards. The team was down to eight.

Ferdinand was visibly upset, leading him to botch the penalty kick. At halftime, he was still complaining to Sarajevo’s mayor about the atrocity. Sophie had to calm him down.


No one saw the winning goal coming.

The game remained scoreless at the end of the second half. It was only by chance that Princip, a quick and relentless Serbian striker, had decided to hold back near the Austrian goal box. Ferdinand, the sound of the bomb still ringing in his ears, made a furious attack on what he believed to be the Serbian goal—but he was dribbling in the wrong direction!

The crowd was dumfounded. Were they about to witness a rare own goal in a World Cup match?

Sophie was fast on Ferdinand’s heels, trying to apprise him of his error, but to no avail. Ferdinand, it seems, was in the zone. The Austrian coach screamed furiously from the sideline, waving his arms and tugging at his hair. Princip could not believe his eyes as he saw Ferdinand coming toward him full-bore. Near the Austrian goal, Ferdinand suddenly recognized his own goalkeeper—and his dreadful mistake. He tried to stop and reverse direction. But as he did so, he lost his footing and the ball deflected off his mustachioed face.

Princip, seeing an opportunity, dove toward the airborne ball and made a spectacular header into a corner of the net.

The Serbians in the crowd erupted, “GOOOOOAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL!!!!”

Ferdinand and Sophie, in a final, touching embrace, lay defeated on the playing field.
As the full time whistle blew, the Serbian team went wild.

At last, Serbia had avenged the humiliation of 1909.

The victory was short lived. Anti-Serbian riots erupted throughout Sarajevo. News of the controversial win reverberated around the world.

Many accused the Serbian players of unsporting behavior.