“Who’s that wanker?” This was probably not the reception Henry Kissinger had expected when, in December 1976, he visited Stamford Bridge to meet the Chelsea players before kick-off. It was, the Blues striker Steve Finnieston recalled later, the funniest moment of his career: “Henry Kissinger – one of the most powerful men in the world – was introduced to us in the dressing room before the game. He said he loved soccer. The players’ comments ranged from ‘All right, mate?’ to ‘Who’s that wanker?’ … Not a lot of respect was shown.”

As a political strategist, pragmatic statesman and Secretary of State to two presidents – Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford – Kissinger had a reputation for being economical with the truth when it suited. (The redoubtable American journalist Seymour Hersh once said of him, “He lies like other people breathe.”) Yet he was being completely honest in Chelsea’s dressing room. He really did – and, at the age of 95, still does – love soccer. 

In April 1976, flying to the UK to discuss the Rhodesian crisis with Anthony Crosland1, he was told the meeting would have to take place at Blundell Park so the Labour foreign secretary could watch his beloved Grimsby Town play Gillingham. As US secretary of state, the senior partner in the vaunted Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, Kissinger could have baulked at the idea. He didn’t, enjoying the match (the Mariners won 2-1) sufficiently that Crosland dragged him to Stamford Bridge eight months later where, after being disrespected in the dressing room, he watched Chelsea draw 3-3 with Wolves in the old Division Two. 

In these more cynical times, we have become accustomed to politicians using the game to court popularity, improve their image and convince us they are not complete egomaniacs. Although Kissinger has, in the past, loved the limelight enough to alert photographers to his next appearance at a society event, his love of soccer is more low key – he has not, for example, played head tennis with Kevin Keegan in front of the TV cameras – and is rooted in the historically exceptional circumstances of his youth, as a Jewish adolescent in Nazi Germany. 

Kissinger was born in the Bavarian city of Fürth on 27 May 1923 into an observant Jewish family. His father Louis loved opera, the works of German polymath Friedrich Schiller and local history. The young Heinz – he changed his name to Henry later – rebelled against all this high culture, becoming a fervent supporter of the local club SpVgg Fürth which had won the German championship in 1914, 1926 and 1929 and lifted the South German Cup four times. 

Though they now play in 2. Bundesliga – and are known as SpVgg Greuther Fürth after a merger – Fürth were one of German football’s first superpowers, famed for playing, in one historian’s words, “the Scottish passing game”. Kissinger won a place in the club’s schoolboy team and became so obsessed with football that his mortified parents banned him from watching games.

As Kissinger recalled, “I started playing when I was about six. My grandfather had a farm near Fürth and they had a big courtyard and we played pick-up games there. I played goalie for a brief period, then I broke my hand. After that, I played inside-right and midfield. I played until I was 15. I really wasn’t very good but I took the game very seriously.”

So seriously, indeed, that he invented new tactics for his team. By his own account, his system “as it turned out, is the way the Italians play soccer. The system was to drive the other team nuts by not letting them score, by keeping so many people back as defenders. It’s very hard to score when ten players are lined up in front of goal.”

Although Kissinger would like the world to think he anticipated catenaccio, his system – probably best described as 8-2-0 – sounds much simpler than that. There is, for example, no evidence that he had someone sweeping up behind the defensive line or gave his left-back counter-attacking duties. 

This young midfield general’s passion for the game deepened as Nazi persecution of Jews worsened. Forbidden to play against gentiles, he joined the Bar-Kochba sport association, playing for the Jewish Sports Club’s junior team in an all-Jewish league. He didn’t give up on Fürth though. As he told Brian Kilmeade, author of Games Do Count, “I used to sneak out to watch the local soccer team play even though, as a Jew, you ran the risk of getting beaten up if you were there and they recognised you.” 

Realising that in such a climate the family had no future in Germany, Kissinger’s mother Paula insisted they emigrate. It must have been an excruciating decision because her father – and Heinz’s beloved grandfather – was dying of cancer. After relatives in the US guaranteed to support them financially, the family – Louis and Paula Kissinger, their sons Heinz and Walter – set sail from Belgium on 20 August 1938. They left just in time. Less than three months later, hundreds of Jews were killed, and 30,000 incarcerated in concentration camps in the orchestrated violence of Kristallnacht, the worst pogrom in Germany since the Middle Ages. 

The Kissingers settled in Washington Heights, a Jewish enclave on the north of New York’s Manhattan Island. One of the many changes he had to adjust to was that, in the words of his biographer Niall Ferguson: “Soccer was nowhere to be seen. For 15-year-old Heinz Kissinger, it was time to study batting averages.” A year later some of his workmates at a shaving brush factory took him to watch the New York Yankees and, inspired by the glory that was Joe DiMaggio in his prime, he became a lifelong fan.

Yet he never forgot soccer. In 1969, when he became Nixon’s national security adviser, staff included Fürth’s results in his Monday morning briefing papers. One of the best things about being a globetrotting secretary of state, Kissinger told Reuters in 2009, was getting free tickets to the best games in Europe and South America. As well as his beloved Fürth, he began to follow the fortunes of Arsenal, Juventus and Manchester United and became an honorary member of Bayern Munich.

As his trip to Grimsby made evident, football could be a useful icebreaker on the diplomatic circuit. In May 1973, preparing the ground for an upcoming superpower summit, Kissinger flew to Moscow to meet Leonid Brezhnev. After they had discussed the cost of grain, nuclear non-proliferation and the arms race, talk turned to soccer. “I just read a book about Brazilian football,” Brezhnev said. “There was a great Brazilian player, Garrincha, better than Pelé. There was a bar in his town and it was going broke. The owner was a friend of Garrincha’s and Garrincha announced a reception for all his friends there. After that, the bar was chock full for the rest of the year.”

Brezhnev was not famed for his intellect, so it is fascinating to discover that he cared so deeply about football that he had read a book about the game in Brazil. Under his predecessor Nikita Khrushchev, the future Soviet leader sloped off to matches so often that his colleagues criticised him for being lazy. In November 1974, briefing Ford for his first arms limitation talks with the Soviet leader, Kissinger noted in a ‘sensitive eyes only’ memo: “Brezhnev prides himself on being a sportsman. He mentions ice-skating, skiing, cycling and parachute-jumping as former pursuits. He vows he will never give up hunting and he remains an avid soccer fan, attending matches at Moscow stadiums. Prior to the important concluding session of our SALT discussions in the Kremlin two weeks ago, he suddenly suggested that we adjourn instead so that I could go to the ballet while he took in a soccer match.”

Pelé was involved in one of Kissinger’s most unorthodox diplomatic coups. In 1970, the Warner Communications boss Steve Ross, with the backing of Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, founders of Atlantic Records, created the New York Cosmos, intending to spend whatever it took to turn them into a team of superstars that would dominate the young North American Soccer League. As a three-time World Cup winner and regarded, even in semi-retirement, as the living embodiment of the beautiful game, Pelé was top of Ross’s wanted list.

Santos – and Pelé – were touring the world in the summer of 1973 and, at Kissinger’s suggestion, the team played a friendly against the Baltimore Bays. The Brazilian remembers the game well because, for the only time in his career, he scored a gol olímpico, direct from a corner. 

Kissinger had two motives for doing this: he wanted to sweeten relations between the US and Brazil by helping João Havelange unseat Sir Stanley Rous as President of Fifa and convince Pelé to play in the US. As the Brazilian legend noted in his autobiography: “Kissinger’s argument was impeccable: as a lover of football, he wanted the game to be as strong in the United States as it was elsewhere, and this could only be achieved by bringing the best-known footballer of the time to play there, and with the country taking a turn to host the World Cup. Both these things would, eventually, come to pass.”

The protracted negotiations that led to Pelé’s transfer required the considerable assistance of America’s most powerful diplomat. The player recalled: “I knew that Kissinger was doing all he could behind the scenes to make it possible for me to move.” The deal was formally announced on 10 June 1975. On 28 June 1975, Kissinger sent a memo to brief Gerald Ford, president after Nixon’s resignation, for a meet and greet with Pelé at the White House.

The memo, declassified from the CIA archives in May 2018, is thorough (it even alludes to the USA’s shock 1-0 defeat of England in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil), anodyne and gives Ford cues for small talk, with such lines as: “I hope your country doesn’t mind us borrowing you for a little while.” There is also a note clarifying the differences between soccer and American football: “Soccer is a great game to play as well as to watch. It’s easy to learn and, since the object isn’t to hide the ball, as in our football, it is easier to follow. It doesn’t have all those pauses in the action, either.” 

It’s hard not to wonder how Ford, a star of Michigan University’s American football team, would have taken this blunt assertion of soccer’s superiority. Yet the meeting was a success, certainly smoother than Pelé’s first visit to the White House when he had been obliged politely to correct Nixon when he asked him, “Do you speak Spanish?”

Havelange could see the benefits of Pelé’s transfer too – for soccer in general, the Brazilian game and his own image as Fifa’s new president. For a while, Havelange and Kissinger were close allies. In the build up to the 1978 World Cup, both extolled the virtues of the hosts Argentina, even though a brutal military dictatorship had seized power in 1976. At a meeting with the new regime’s representatives, Kissinger said: “No matter what happens, I will be in Argentina in 1978.” 

He insisted that the hosts would win and, when one member of the visiting delegation demurred, joked, “If you can control an Argentinian crowd when Argentina lose, then you can say you have really solved your security problem.” Given the torture, murder and enforced disappearances that were occurring in Argentina at that time, the joke was in poor taste. Yet Kissinger went further, telling his visitors: “If there are things to be done, you should do them quickly.” He made the same point to Admiral César Guzzetti, Argentina’s foreign minister, in October 1976, telling him, “The quicker you succeed, the better.”

Held under the slogan “We Argentines are right and human,” the 1978 World Cup was a pioneering example of the phenomenon we now call ‘sportswash’, with talk of the country’s dirty war obscured by the beauty of its football. At the victory banquet, Havelange toasted the champions, saying that the world had now seen the “true face” of Argentina.

True to his word, Kissinger did watch the World Cup, embarking on what was essentially a private diplomatic tour as the junta’s honoured guest. He held meetings, posed for photo-ops and quietly undermined the president Jimmy Carter’s “romantic” notions about human rights. But did he, as several Peruvian players allege, appear in their dressing room with Argentina’s president General Jorge Videla, before their match against the hosts? A match Peru lost 6-0, guaranteeing Argentina a place in the final.

That 6-0 is one of the most controversial scorelines in World Cup history. There are many theories swirling around about that match yet when you boil it right down, the choice is a familiar one: conspiracy or cock-up? 

Conspiracy theorists argue that Peru lost so heavily either because the Argentinian dictatorship bribed the Peruvian government with grain, arms and the unfreezing of US$50m in assets – or because Videla had agreed, as part of the Condor Plan (a deal among South American dictators to jointly combat dissidents) to torture several Peruvian prisoners in Argentinian jails.

Under these scenarios, the visit by Videla and Kissinger to Peru’s dressing room was presumably an attempt to remind the team of their duty. Kissinger’s office has consistently said that he has “no recollection” of being in the Peruvian dressing room. (This is what Ben Bradlee, the legendary Washington Post editor, used to call a “non-denial denial”.) Videla seems to have visited the Peruvian players – with or without Kissinger – and left them deeply troubled. 

As the captain Héctor Chumpitaz told Channel 4, “It seemed like they were there just to greet us and welcome us. They said they hoped it would be a good game because there was a great deal of anticipation among the Argentinian public. He wished us luck and that was it. We started looking at each other and wondering shouldn’t they have gone to the Argentinian room, not our room? What’s going on? They wished us luck, I mean. It left us wondering.” The withdrawal of the midfielder José Velásquez, one of Peru’s more consistent performers in that campaign, just six minutes after half-time was also deemed suspicious, even though they were already losing 4-0, a wide enough margin for Argentina to progress.

The fact that Peru’s goalkeeper Ramón ‘El Loco’ Quiroga was born in Rosario, where this vital fixture was played, also suited the conspiratorial narrative. That said, as Jonathan Wilson points out in Angels With Dirty Faces, his history of Argentinian football, Quiroga made a string of fine saves during the match. You could hardly call Peru’s defending robust but nor was it suspiciously comical for any of the goals. As Wilson concludes, “Whatever the circumstantial evidence of a fix, from the match footage itself it looks as though Peru are guilty of nothing more than not fancying it very much when the goals started to fly in.” 

Thirty years later, in discontented retirement, Havelange insisted that the 1978 World Cup had not been fixed, but the 1974 one had – by none other than his erstwhile ally Kissinger who, the former Fifa president insisted, orchestrated the Netherlands’s 2-0 victory over Brazil in the second round. 

The former Fifa president’s argument – if that’s not putting it too strongly – is as follows, “The Netherlands had problems with oil, they had no oil because [the price] had risen a lot and they were riding bicycles. It was Kissinger who had gone there to settle that. He arrived at the stadium to watch Brazil-Netherlands, and [the Fifa president] Stanley Rous designated [the referee Kurt] Tschenscher, from Germany, who was 50 [actually, 47] at the time.”

Havelange did not explain what exactly Kissinger is supposed to have settled, how he might have benefitted from a Dutch victory or, for that matter, what the price of oil had to do with any of it. 

Though vastly experienced, Tschenscher did referee the match poorly – he should have sent off the defender Marinho Peres after he took out Wim Jansen with his shoulder and smashed his elbow into Johan Neeskens’s face. In the event, only Luis Pereira was shown a red card, punished for his studs-up, waist-high challenge on Neeskens. 

Kissinger did watch the match in Dortmund, with his usual escort of 38 security guards, sitting next to Havelange. When Johan Cruyff volleyed home to make it 2-0, Kissinger rose from his seat in acclaim, only for Havelange to grab him by the shoulder and drag him back to his seat. Although the Dutch committed their share of fouls, the mundane reality was that Brazil had lost to a better team. 

In retrospect, Havelange took all this personally, saying, “Tschenscher harmed me. I lost 2-0.” Yet why did he blame Kissinger? Diplomat and president may have fallen out during the USA’s doomed bid to host the 1986 World Cup. The original hosts, Colombia, had pulled out, pleading poverty. That seemed to give Kissinger the opportunity to fulfil his long-held dream but it transpired that Havelange had secretly promised the television rights to Mexican broadcaster, Televisa, which entirely uncoincidentally happened to be run by a good friend of his, Emilio Azcárraga. Even less coincidentally, Guillermo Cañedo, one of Televisa’s founders, was a FIFA vice-president at the time.

Fifa’s selection committee refused to visit the rival candidates, the US or Canada. In May 1983, at a Fifa meeting in Stockholm, Mexico was unanimously chosen as host, even though Havelange admitted that Canada and the US had made better presentations. Mexico’s flimsy bid document was 10 pages long, compared to Canada’s 90-page proposal.

There is speculation that Fifa’s leaders were determined to punish the US for tinkering with the laws of the game. Trying to revive flagging interest in soccer, the NASL moved the offside line to 35 yards, allowed for three substitutes and introduced penalty shoot-outs to decide drawn matches. Such acts of lèse majesté did not impress Fifa which, in 1981, threatened to suspend the US Soccer Federation (USSF) and ban the NASL. American soccer stood its ground, with the NASL even threatening to take Fifa to court. Havelange was not a man to take such slights lightly.

Appalled by Mexico’s triumph, Kissinger observed, “The politics of Fifa make me nostalgic for the Middle East.” He seems to have found the footballocracy – as managed by Havelange and his general secretary Sepp Blatter – even more venal, secretive and corrupt than Nixon’s White House.

When Kissinger’s dream finally came true in 1994, he played only a minor role in the US bid. A personal meeting between president Ronald Reagan and Havelange, and a shrewd campaign by Werner Tricker, the president of the USSF, helped swing the vote against Brazil and Morocco. Yet America’s most famous soccer fan was soon basking in reflected glory as a pundit.

There are few things Kissinger loves as much as the sound of his own thoughts. Emboldened by an intensive reading programme (which probably included the collected works of Brian Glanville), his knowledge of the game’s great and good, and a willingness to draw parallels with the history of international relations, Kissinger was in his element.

This is how he summed up Germany in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff: “Both the national team and the generals who followed the Schlieffen Plan during World War I paid meticulous attention to detail. But there is a limit to human foresight and both suffered when, under the pressure of events, they were forced to deal with contingencies that overwhelmed their intricate planning. 

"If they’re not ahead by the 75th minute, a certain melancholy settles in, and the Germans are shadowed by the underlying premonition that, in the end, even the most dedicated effort will go unrewarded.”

This is both brilliant and daft, as if Kissinger was competing as a football fabulist with Eduardo Galeano. (Funnily enough, Galeano name-checks him as a “special guest” at the 1978 World Cup in Football in Sunshine and Shadow). There was no certain melancholy in 1954, when Helmut Rahn won the World Cup with an 84th minute goal; in the 1990 final, when Andreas Brehme scored the only goal with an 85th-minute penalty or in 2014 in the Maracanã when Mario Götze scored the winner seven minutes from the end of extra time.

It’s true that German football has, historically, paid meticulous attention to detail but, putting clichés of Teutonic efficiency to one side, various nations – Hungary 1954, Brazil 1958, Netherlands 1974, Italy 1994 – have all, at different times, been significantly better than the rest when it comes to pre-tournament and pre-match preparation. 

Kissinger was closer to the mark in 2010 when he told the New York Times’s Roger Cohen: “Brazil has played the most beautiful football, while Italy has specialised in breaking hearts.” He stuck to his World War I analogy when analysing Germany’s prospects but noted, more perceptively, that the USA team was “better, but we don’t have a national style that I can figure out.”

Despite his bitter experience of the World Cup bidding process, Kissinger returned fruitlessly to the fray for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments but was a peripheral figure when Canada, Mexico and the US were selected as joint hosts for 2026. In the summer of 2011, during the death throes of Blatter’s presidency, Kissinger was nominated by Fifa’s blazer-in-chief to help clean up the federation, alongside Plácido Domingo, Johan Cruyff and the former FBI boss Louis Freeh.

“People say Kissinger is an old man, but he is a wise man,” said Blatter, when asked to explain his choice. Kissinger was sharp enough to ask what terms of reference he would be operating under, by which time the whole idea had been ridiculed to death. That freed up the nonagenarian Kissinger to focus on a much more enjoyable sporting role – as global ambassador for his boyhood club Fürth. 

In September 2012, he fulfilled his pledge to watch Fürth if they were ever promoted to the Bundesliga. In photographs, his gaze during the match is studiedly neutral, as if he was not trying to show his hand while Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin wrangled over the nitty gritty of peace in the Middle East. Although Kissinger said he hoped Fürth would go on to win the title, they lost the match 2-0 to Schalke and went straight back down, finishing bottom of the table with 21 points.

Ironically, Germany, the homeland he fled, is one of the few places that Kissinger can now be assured of a warm welcome. In America, his self-cultivated image as an international man of intrigue, the most eminent grey eminence of his time, eventually caught up with him. 

In the 1970s, he had been able, reasonably convincingly, to present himself as a statesman worthy of comparison to the great Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian count who dominated European diplomacy in the first half of the 19th century. Even his accent – surprisingly Germanic, sometimes demonstrative, often inaudible – played to that image. The joke on the global conference circuit is that Kissinger can speak American English perfectly well but figured out, long ago, that he sounded more intelligent with a Teutonic accent. 

Yet, as Havelange’s match-fixing charges showed, by 2008, Kissinger’s stock had fallen so low he could be credibly accused of almost anything. The revelation of Kissinger’s obfuscation of – and complicity in – America’s secret illegal bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and 1970, a policy he still defends even though it is estimated to have killed at least 100,000 people, led many to brand him a war criminal. His attempts to defuse these charges with humour – such as his quip “The illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer” – haven’t always helped his cause.

One of his fiercest critics is the former Coventry City goalkeeper – and now self-styled “son of the Godhead” – David Icke, who believes Kissinger is one of the reptilians whose machinations prevent humanity from fulfilling its true potential. Icke concluded, “For a huge variety of well justified reasons, Dr Henry Kissinger is believed by millions to be one of single most evil individuals to be still living, or to have ever lived.” 

Where Kissinger would rank in an all-time league table of villains is a matter probably best left to posterity. (His decision to hire Niall Ferguson as his official biographer suggests he still hopes to influence that eventual verdict.) Whatever your view of Kissinger’s record, it is clear that soccer has been both a genuine passion for him and a useful window on the world.  

It does not seem too much of a stretch to say that Kissinger’s support for – and understanding of – the one truly global game has influenced his globalist outlook on foreign policy.

In September 1970, his knowledge of soccer helped avert a second Cuban crisis. He burst into the office of HR ‘Bob’ Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, slapped some U2 spy plane photos of Cuba on the desk and drew attention to the football pitches. “Those soccer fields could mean war, Bob,” Kissinger warned. When Haldeman looked quizzical, Kissinger added, “Cubans play baseball, Russians play soccer.” 

The pitches provided the clinching evidence that Russians were helping to build the Cuban naval base Cayo Alcatraz, a flagrant violation of the deal that had ended the 1962 missile crisis. After a few complaints from the Nixon administration, the naval base was left unfinished, scuppered by Russia’s – and Kissinger’s – love of soccer.