Authoritarian Rules Football: When sport becomes a political weapon

“We are merely the stars’ tennis balls, struck and bandied which way please them.”

On the surface at least, this line from John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi explains the relationship between soccer and political power, except, obviously, the tennis balls are soccer balls, and the stars are ruthless tyrants swinging the racquets. Whether it is the 1974 Zaire World Cup squad (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo) that was a pawn of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, Argentina’s 1978 World Cup team that became unwitting poster boys for the country’s military junta, or the army and secret police-backed clubs of the former USSR and the Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, the stories of autocratic leaders manipulating teams and players to boost their popularity or egos are legion.

That such a relationship exists is hardly surprising. Dictatorships and authoritarian governments have historically placed great stock in figuring out ways to create a sense of local or national pride to mask legitimacy issues — issues that inevitably arise when regimes shun democratic elections and rely on violent oppression to establish or maintain authority.

And perhaps there is no better symbol of a regime and nation’s gravitas than its national soccer team or dominant club side. Soccer, after all, is the global game, and one of the few places where a leader such as Kim Jong-un or a country like North Korea can compete against France, Germany, or the United States in a meaningful contest — and, just as importantly, show the results of that confrontation (honestly or otherwise) to the cheering, hopefully inspired citizens back home.

Stars of solo sports such as boxing or athletics may earn admiration and stir emotions, but across much of the world it is soccer that represents neighborhoods, communities, towns, and cities, making it the ideal choice to conquer the hearts and minds of the masses. In modern times, soccer, not religion, is the opiate of the people.

Which is also, ironically, why authoritarian regimes everywhere should beware. For tapping into the mass popular appeal of the game encourages the very thing autocratic governments and leaders fear most: passionate, unruly public gatherings where vociferous, unchecked opinions can be expressed at will. That’s how the same seeds used to cultivate a sense of national pride and legitimacy can create the roots of uprisings and cries for freedom on the field and in the stands.

Soccer Balls
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, right, inspects some of the athletes participating at the National Sports Association meeting at a stadium in Rome, Italy, Oct. 31, 1927. (AP Photo)AP

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, right, inspects some of the athletes participating at the National Sports Association meeting at a stadium in Rome.

Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist strongman from 1922 to 1943, recognized the persuasive power of soccer to create unity and build international prestige. Under his leadership, the Italian government molded a burgeoning soccer scene through the Carta de Viareggio, a set of rules created to manage the Italian game. It determined who would be appointed to the game’s governing body and created a national championship, the Lega Nazione, all of which “required the heavy hand of Mussolini’s authoritarian sporting bureaucracy to enforce.” Massive amounts of money went toward stadiums, infrastructure, publicity, and hospitality to secure the right to host the 1934 World Cup, a tournament the Italians ultimately won.

Italian newspaper Il Popolo D’Italia called the Italy team that won the 1934 World Cup a “vision of harmony, discipline, order, and courage.” It was a victory that reinforced notions of Italian greatness and, no doubt, pleased Mussolini. American sports writer John Tunis wrote, in 1936, that an “Italian triumph in football, cycling, tennis, or any other sport, particularly if over old rivals like the French, is seized upon, written up and paraded as proof positive of the superiority of the race and its governing principles.”

But while there was no shortage of praise lavished on Italian soccer’s exploits, the game also provided an opportunity for opposition to Mussolini’s rule – even if it came abroad, rather than at home.

In The Guardian, Italian soccer historian Simon Martin writes that anti-fascist protests “became the Mexican Wave” of the 1938 World Cup in France. When the Italy squad arrived in Marseille, home to a significant presence of Italians forced into exile by Mussolini’s regime, midfielder Ugo Locatelli later recalled, in Martin’s words, “some 3,000 or more French and Italian protestors being controlled by baton-wielding mounted police.” In the quarter-final win over France, Italy wore black shirts emblazoned with the Fascio Littorio fascist symbol. Martin describes how the crowd were “manifestly hostile” to Vittorio Pozzo’s team.

But Mussolini probably wasn’t particularly bothered by a crowd of indignant soccer fans, especially considering Italy went on to lift its second consecutive World Cup trophy. Winning has a way of keeping even the most resolute fascists focused on praising their own victories, even in the face of resistance. It’s a tradition that was honored and continued by Mussolini’s old pal, Spanish General Francisco Franco.

In the 1950s, Franco realized that the domestic and European glory amassed by Ferenc Puskás, Alfredo Di Stefano, and the rest of the Real Madrid team — under club president Santiago Bernabeu, an ex-player and former Falangist soldier — was the perfect reflection of the values of centralism and Spain’s international importance. Sure, Real Madrid wasn’t a national team, but for Franco, the Madrid-based club could serve the same purpose.

But not everyone in Spain agreed, notably in Catalonia, where Franco, as David Goldblatt, author of The Ball is Round, puts it, had treated Barcelona in the “harshest and most humiliating” manner, in 1939, subjecting “the club’s stadium Les Corts…to a form of fascist exorcism in an attempt to quell and then expel the spirits of Catalan autonomy and identity that lingered there.”

“Franco destroyed our autonomy and forbade our language, and he supported Real Madrid,” Professor Lluis Flaquer, a Catalan sociologist, told Simon Kuper in his book, Football Against the Enemy. “You couldn’t shout ‘Franco, you murderer!’ on the streets…so people shouted at Real Madrid players instead.”

People, it seems, were realizing that if soccer was of such strategic importance to a leader, then it could also become an important tool for dissenters. But whether soccer as a tool for dissent could actually bring about change remained to be seen.

Soccer Balls
President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire watches a military parade in Kinshasa, Zaire, June 1976. (AP Photo)AP

Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko takes in a military parade in Kinshasa.

It was only a matter of time until the weaponization of the game extended beyond European borders. Mobutu Sese Seko, a former military man who had seized power in Zaire after a 1965 coup, quickly turned to violence and oppression to impose his will on his people. But as much as he succeeded in using his iron fist to assert his control over his compatriots, there was very little he could do to make his country’s hapless national team win a World Cup match. But it wasn’t as if he didn’t try.

Perhaps hoping to recreate the success of Ghana’s first post-independence president, Kwame Nkrumah, who had used soccer to create a sense of not just national but Pan-African identity (culminating in African Cup of Nations triumphs in 1963 and 1965), Mobutu set about revitalizing the national team, hiring Hungarian coach Ferenc Csanadi, bringing Belgium-based professional players back into the squad, and even inviting Pelé and his club, Santos, on an African tour to stir up interest in the game.

The formula seemed to work. Zaire won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1968 (playing as Congo-Kinshasa) and again in 1974. But the most notable success was the newly-spotted Leopards qualifying for the 1974 World Cup in Germany, becoming the first sub-Saharan African team to do so. (Mobutu changed the national team’s nickname from the Lions to the Leopards to match his trademark leopard skin hat.)

It was a historic moment for the country and Mobutu. As Goldblatt explains, the president made sure that “a vast entourage of administrators, factotums and witchdoctors of all kinds accompanied the Leopards to Europe,” and in their match against Yugoslavia, “on the most expensive advertising board in the stadium, now reserved for the very biggest multinational sponsors, read ‘Zaire-Peace.’”

Unfortunately, the positivity did not last long. Zaire could take some encouragement from its first game, a plucky 2-0 defeat to Scotland, but the wheels truly fell off in the country’s second match, a 9-0 annihilation by Yugoslavia, a game that was preceded by a row over expenses and win bonuses. Much of the money allocated to the players disappeared amid the aforementioned entourage. A threatened player strike was reportedly only quelled at the last minute.

Things then became considerably more sinister. “After the [Yugoslavia] match, [President Mobutu] sent his presidential guards to threaten us. They closed the hotel to all journalists and said that if we lost 4-0 to Brazil, none of us would be able to return home,” right back Mwepu Ilunga told the BBC in 2002.

Ilunga found his 15 minutes of infamy during that same Brazil game, which ended in a 3-0 defeat, when he hoofed a dead ball up-field as Rivellino prepared to take a free-kick. A laughing stock at the time, the player later explained his actions were a form of protest at the situation the team found itself in. “I panicked and kicked the ball away before he [Rivellino] could take it,” he admitted. “I shouted ‘you bastards!’ at them [the Brazil players] because they didn’t understand the pressure we were under.”

The players returned to Kinshasa in disgrace. “Mobutu washed his hands of the Leopards and of soccer. No one was at the airport in Kinshasa to meet the team on their return. Players were left to thumb a lift with friendly taxi drivers,” writes Goldblatt. “All became personae non gratae in public life in Zaire. Many of the squad disappeared into the impoverished slums where, like the rest of the country, they scratched out a living.”

Mobutu, meanwhile, had already switched his attention to boxing, spending millions to secure the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” showdown for Kinshasa later in 1974, complete with performances by the likes of James Brown and B.B. King. He would eventually be overthrown and flee into exile in 1997, dying of prostate cancer in Morocco later that year.

Since 1974, Zaire — now the Democratic Republic of Congo — has not returned to the World Cup. But other nations under the thumb of authoritarian rulers during the same era fared better, at least on the soccer field.

Soccer Balls
25th June 1978:  Mario Kempes of Argentina scores his second goal during the match against Holland. Argentina won 3-1.  (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)Getty Images

Argentina's Mario Kempes scores his second goal during the 1978 World Cup final against Holland.

Few Mundials have been played against a bloodier backdrop than the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. After seizing power in 1976, the country’s ruling generals waged a “dirty war” against anyone suspected of being aligned with socialism or any kind of opposition to their rule. “Eleven thousand ‘subversives’ …disappeared, were held in camps, and secretly killed. A favorite method was to drop them from airplanes into the River Plate,” notes Simon Kuper in Football against the Enemy.

Rarely has the cynical use of soccer to inspire loyalty towards the state been so obvious. The generals began meticulously planning the World Cup as the world began waking to the atrocities in Argentina, Kuper observes. “A smashing Mundial won by Argentina, they reasoned, would make up for the occasional death at home.”

Stadiums were built, new roads and communications were put in place, color TV arrived in Argentina, and the final bill came to $700 million (not including hidden, and still unknown, corruption costs) – around 10 times the original budget, and three times as much as the 1982 World Cup in Spain would cost.

With so much at stake, little could be left to chance, especially with Argentina needing to beat Peru 4-0 in the second round group stage to advance. According to a 1986 article by Argentine journalist Maria Laura Avignolo, later supported by David Yallop in his book How They Stole The Game, the cost of fixing the game was 35,000 tons of free grain and the unfreezing of $50 million in credits for Peru — where a military regime was also in power — plus three separate payments of $20,000 to three Peruvian players.

The hosts won 6-0.

Argentina’s campaign, which culminated in a 3-1 win over a luckless Holland in the final, ultimately ended in triumph. Victory sparked a public outpouring of emotion and patriotism across Buenos Aires and beyond. But the results of the generals’ plan to use the tournament to win over hearts and minds were mixed.

“It was very painful, very terrible to watch the euphoria on television,” Hebe Bonafini, then President of the Madres (Mothers) of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women whose children had “disappeared,” told Kuper.

Naturally, the junta tried to spin the moment into a victory. “The day that 25 million Argentinians aim for the same goal, Argentina will be a winner not once, but a thousand times over,” said Finance Minister Dr. Martinez de Hoy. The implication: this wasn’t a victory for the national team, but a victory for the nation.

But at the same time, foreign journalists, writing about the tournament and Argentina’s exploits on the field, couldn’t avoid the reality outside of the stadiums. Kuper notes how two German TV commentators spent time during the World Cup opening ceremony speaking about Argentina’s “disappeared,” while coverage teams from around the world kept returning to the images of the Madres’ weekly protest. “Europeans suddenly found themselves reading about Latin American politics and society over breakfast,” he observed.

Even the celebrations were tainted. Historian and film director Osvaldo Bayer, in his book Futbol Argentino, discerned that “the joy is not joy. It is a kind of explosion of a society which has been obliged to keep silent.”

It would take a few years, but pressure from the people and the media, coupled with rife corruption, a failing economy, and defeat in the Falklands War, would eventually bring about the downfall of Argentina’s military regime in 1983.

Soccer Balls
Fans of Brazil's former soccer player Socrates hold up a banner of him during his funeral at the Bom Pastor cemetery in Ribeirao Preto in Sao Paulo state, Brazil, Sunday Dec. 4, 2011. Socrates, who died Sunday at age 57, was mostly known for captaining Brazil at the 1982 World Cup, regarded by many as the best team ever not to win football's showcase tournament. (AP Photo/Celio Messias, Agencia O Globo)Celio Messias/AP

A banner for former Brazilian soccer legend Socrates is held up at his funeral in Ribeirao Preto in Sao Paulo state.

Argentina’s notorious 6-0 win over Peru at the 1978 World Cup had repercussions next door in Brazil, which itself, at the time, was also under the yoke of a dictatorship. The result meant that the Seleção — Brazil’s national team — slid disappointingly out of the tournament, just as it had in 1974 following a snapping, snarling defeat against the Dutch. The country’s glorious 1970 World Cup win seemed like a lifetime away.

The withering influence of the Brazilian generals was present throughout this period, as was a recurring theme regularly spouted from the mouths in power: sporting success is a reflection of the greatness of the nation and the regime that governed it.

“I feel profound happiness at seeing the joy of our people in this highest form of patriotism. … Above all, our players won because they know how to … play for the collective good,” trumpeted General Emilio Médici, the country’s third army president, after Brazil’s 1970 World Cup final win over Italy.

In Futebol Nation, David Goldblatt notes that “under Médici the military would use football as an exemplar of the unified and morally upstanding Brazil it was trying to create.” In the build up to the 1970 tournament, he explains, “Army Captain Cláudio Coutinho was made the squad’s physical fitness trainer…and the coach João Saldanha, whose communist principles had always rankled with the government, was fired.” Coutinho would be promoted to coach by the time the 1978 campaign rolled around.

The generals didn’t limit their meddling to the national team. Admiral Heleno Nunes was put in charge of the Brazilian Football Association, dozens of giant stadiums — charmless concrete bowls, for the most part — were built across the country to boost local pride, and the national championship was expanded to include as many clubs as possible (the 1979 edition featured a preposterous 94 teams).

Onde a Arena vai mal, mais um no nacional” (“Wherever ARENA [the pseudo-political party representing the military government] is doing badly, there’ll be another team in the national championship!”) became a commonly heard saying.

Like in Argentina, however, soccer did not take such manipulation laying down. As public frustration against the regime grew, culminating in mass Direitos Ja! (“Direct elections now!”) street rallies, the Democracia Corinthiana (“Corinthians Democracy”) movement emerged at São Paulo, one of the nation’s storied clubs. Led by legendary midfielder Socrates, players voted on signings, who to appoint as manager, and other soccer and non-soccer related matters, creating a microcosm of a democratic, socialist government in the middle of a military dictatorship. In the 1983 São Paulo state championship final, the team took the field carrying a banner emblazoned with the legend “Win or Lose, But Always with Democracy.”

A more personal and less well-known statement against the generals was made around the same time by Atlético Mineiro striker Reinaldo — the club’s all-time leading scorer and Brazil’s center forward at the 1978 World Cup — who raised his fist high in the air after scoring, mirroring Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ famous Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.

Both Socrates and Reinaldo’s individual stands took extreme courage. But it’s difficult to imagine those same types of personal stands taking place, particularly on the field, on teams directly affiliated with government branches. That wasn’t the case at Brazilian clubs, but in countries where teams were associated with official state organs, these kinds of political stands were far less common.

Soccer Balls
Moscow Dynamo players, all dark strip, attacking the Chelsea goal during the match at Stamford Bridge, London, on Nov. 13, 1945. Eighty five thousand fans jammed onto the terraces and spilt over onto the pitch near the touchlines. (AP Photo)AP

Eighty five thousand fans jammed onto the terraces and spilt over onto the pitch to watch Moscow Dynamo (all dark strip) take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, London, on Nov. 13, 1945.

The former Soviet Union was littered with teams married to state institutions. For example, CKSA Moscow was backed by the army. Dynamo Moscow was the KGB’s team.

Dynamos proliferated across the region under the auspices of the Soviet “Dynamo Society,” intended to promote athleticism and good health. “The military, educational, and social bureaucracies of the new state saw amateur sport and wholesome recreation as essential instruments in the creation of a new Soviet humanity: fit, disciplined, and cooperative,” writes Goldblatt in The Ball is Round. Soccer became a notably useful delivery system to spread the ideology.

Similar divisions emerged elsewhere in the Soviet bloc. At Dynamo Berlin, the “club president until the Revolution of 1989 was Erich Mielke, the feared octogenarian chief of the East German secret police, the Stasi,” Kuper writes in Soccer Against the World, while other Dynamos in Bucharest, Dresden, and Kiev, following the Soviet invasions of Eastern Europe, were also funded and run by the secret police.

Back in Moscow, the honorary president of Dynamo was Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria, described by Kuper as “Stalin’s secret police chief and one of the least genteel characters in Soviet history. When he was not purging millions of people he was cruising through Moscow in his limousine picking up adolescent girls, or watching football.”

Beria, unsurprisingly, was not afraid to bring his work into the boardroom. “Maybe a company of machine-gunners would be a good defense?” he once told a club coach. “It can be arranged. But remember that they will also be trained at your back.”

Understandably, this ecosystem is not particularly conducive to individual player protest.

With Soviet leader Joseph Stalin displaying little interest in the game, the role of the authorities in Soviet soccer became not so much about the aggrandizing of a regime, but about abuse of power by individuals within the system, diminishing the role of clubs to pawns in a game with greater stakes, and the struggles and meaning of the game itself in such an environment.

An example came in 1939, when, after arch-rival Spartak had clinched a second successive league and cup double, Beria demanded a semifinal replay between Spartak and Dynamo Tbilisi. As Goldblatt describes it, “Spartak won the match and kept the cup. In his memoirs [Spartak president Nikolai] Starotsin describes looking up at the end of the game: ‘When I glanced up at the dignitaries box, I saw Beria get up, furiously kick over his chair and storm out of the stadium.’”

It was a similar story in Romania, where the balance of power in the long standing, state-sponsored rivalry between Steaua (army) and Dynamo (secret police) Bucharest was forever altered when Nicolae Ceausescu came to power. With Ceausescu as benefactor, Steaua hoovered up the best players — such as Gheorghe Hagi and Gheorghe Popescu — controlled referees, and benefited from intimidation of their enemies. The effects were spectacular. The club went unbeaten for 104 domestic games between 1986 and 1989, and became the first club from Eastern Europe to win the European Cup, in 1989.

Yet while the meddling of the security forces and political players in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe sought to create a controlled, manipulated sporting environment, fans gathered on stadium terraces had a rare opportunity to raise their voices in an era of stark, brutal repression.

“In a Communist country…the football club you supported was a community to which you yourself had chosen to belong. The regime did not send you to support a club…It might be your only chance to choose a community, and also, in that community, you could express yourself as you wished,” Levon Arabmian, an Armenian soccer supporter, told Kuper. “To be a fan…is to be gathered with others and to be free.”

Arabmian’s presentation of the game as a refuge against an entire political ideology, rather than against a regime, shows that even in a highly politicized sporting environment, structured in a way that deters on-field protest, even the most restrictive constraints can’t completely silence resistance in a game where supporters are as much a part of the sporting experience as the players.

Soccer Balls

The absence of mass soccer protests against someone like Mobutu or Soviet authorities, coupled with the fact that men like Socrates and Reinaldo are rare exceptions, rather than the rule, reminds us that soccer is not always a sport perfectly suited to political activism on the field or in the stands. Whether this is because of fear, or because the game’s popularity and mass appeal almost inevitably breeds a kind of accepted conformity, or the result of the deadeningly anti-intellectual climate of locker room culture, or the simple pressures of performing (and therefore being on public display) week-in, week-out, often in front of hostile fans, is hard to say. It may well be that the game becomes an escape from real life, a place where winning can temper life’s other hardships. But whatever the reason, those in power are often drawn to soccer teams as blank slates to craft into powerful propaganda outlets.

Yet at the same time, by standing up to dictatorial regimes, people like Socrates and Reinaldo, along with defiant fans from Barcelona to Belgrade, provide a glimmer of hope in an otherwise herd-like culture. Soccer may not be the movement, but there’s no denying that it can be a movement, or, at a minimum, influence movements.

Today there are fewer dictators and fewer authoritarian regimes around, and it is hard to imagine sentences like this, from The Ball is Round, being written about many modern leaders: “Mussolini’s eyes were moving now from the football field to the fields of Abyssinia, from World Cups to world empires, from soldiers of sport to soldiers of war.”

Yet at the same time, the links between soccer and politics, especially in those occasional glimpses of free-thinking, independent spirit, where fans welcome refugees or highlight profiles of the Palestine national team, show that the spirit of soccer as political protest remains as strong, and as complex, as ever.