Not fixing what’s broken: the World Cup and its troubling relationship with dictatorships

Not fixing what’s broken: the World Cup and its troubling relationship with dictatorships

FOURTEEN MINUTES INTO EXTRA-TIME, after he opened the scoring for Argentina and Dick Nanninga equalised for the Netherlands, Mario Kempes burst into the box. He charged past two Dutch defenders and bundled the ball past the goalkeeper to make it 2-1. The Estadio Monumental erupted into a rapturous collective shout of “goooooool!” The ticker tape fluttered from the stands to the pitch, blue and white flags were waved in the air, and the stadium shook with excitement.

Ten minutes later, the ball fell to Daniel Bertoni in the box and, from close range, the winger finished off Argentina’s third goal. La Albiceleste had won their first ever World Cup at home in their capital city. Excitement filled the Monumental and celebrations spilt onto the streets of Buenos Aires.

Retrospectively, Argentines don’t feel the same way about that World Cup as they did in the summer of 1978. There is remorse. The image of Argentina’s Daniel Passarella lifting La Selección’s first ever World Cup with General Jorge Rafael Videla grinning in the background has a sinister dramatic irony to it. On that day in 1978, the noise of El Monumental’s festivities travelled a mile and pierced through the walls of a building whose façade claimed to be the Naval School of Mechanics. What a lie that was.

The façade masked a concentration camp of innocent political opponents, ranging from students and journalists to private citizens who had spoken a bit too loud about their troubles. Norberto Liwski was one such prisoner who recounted, in an ESPN interview, how he and many other ill and tortured bodies were cooped together in minuscule cells among their own faeces and urine left completely dehumanised.

Yet they heard free Argentines rejoice, despite the violence, injustice, bankruptcy and oppression the country was enduring. Prisoners were forced by their sinister grinning guards to watch the World Cup victory and celebrate the goals, torn between their past love for their national team and the pain their nation was simultaneously inflicting upon them.

In the lead up to the tournament, the world was catching a whiff of Operation Condor, the state terror campaign coordinated across South America by military juntas and the United States against left-wing opponents. Operation Condor was the South American theatre of the Cold War. Argentina’s rivals in the final, the Netherlands, almost didn’t play at all, calling for a boycott and forcing the military junta to promise good behaviour during the World Cup.

World Cups are often celebrations of a host country’s prosperity and development. For Videla, a strong Argentine showing and a well-run World Cup were key to responding to the allegations facing his regime and bolstering his support at home. The yeat 1978 was a major diplomatic opportunity to rewrite the emerging narrative across the world about the new right-wing government’s abuses. With shiny stadiums, new infrastructure and the opportunity to present a staged image of the nation, Videla had a chance to distract the world’s press, players and tourists from reality.

Read  |  The politicised history of Argentine football

The tournament would not only provide a chance to ease international pressure but also domestic pressure. Having brought the World Cup tournament that captured the minds and hearts of so many home, Videla had a prime propaganda piece to show his Argentina hosting the world in a festival of football. A possible victory by Argentina would be the ultimate showpiece of his country’s strength.

Videla was so desperate to see Argentina win he allegedly had a hand in affecting his country’s matchesIn 1978, FIFA allowed a brutal dictatorship a temporary cover-up during the period Argentines remember as the Dirty War.


A Lesson Never Learned


If FIFA had a merely acceptable moral compass, which they seemingly don’t, 1978 would’ve been the last World Cup hosted in an authoritarian nation shrouded by human rights abuse. But the 2018 World Cup will be Vladimir Putin’s government’s opportunity to fortify his reign, despite the fact that they have eliminated and banned opposition movements and candidates, censored journalists left and right, labelled human rights activists as national traitors, banned religious groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses, and legalised discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation.

As we rejoice in our favourite festival of football wondering about whether Lionel Messi will snatch the only trophy that eludes him, whether England will be less disappointing than usual, whether jogo bonito and tiki-taka football are reborn, or whether Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco, or Panama will shock us all with plucky underdog football, we will likely forget all of the aforementioned misconducts.

Obviously, things won’t get better in 2022 when the world re-congregates in Qatar. Based on the 2017 Polity index, a widely-regarded and accepted measurement of democracy developed by academics, neither Russia nor Qatar can be considered democratic countries. While Russians still have a degree of freedom as the Russian government does not have absolute power over all affairs, they live under an anocracy, a system of government that sees strong authoritarian tendencies and a fake sort of democracy consisting of fraudulent elections.

Polity, meanwhile, classifies Qatar as an autocracy with the lowest possible democracy score. In Qatar, absolute political power is concentrated in the hands of the monarchial Al Thani family and there is widespread human rights abuse. Migrant workers in Qatar, often from places like Nepal, Bangladesh, and India, are modern-day slaves, earning negligible salaries for brutal labour in one of the richest countries on earth based on GDP per Capita estimates. Meanwhile, homosexuality is outright illegal and speaking out against officials can land you jail time. LGBT fans will feel hugely alienated from attending a tournament in Qatar, regardless of changes made in the law for the tournament.

As Qatar builds stadiums for the 2022 edition of the tournament, thousands of migrant workers die from the brutal conditions they are being subjected to by the Qatari government that has repeatedly failed to intervene. Estimates by the International Trade Union Confederation predict the 2022 World Cup will cost 4,000 lives.

The Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, was the first to see the power of a World Cup as a propaganda tool and fought ardently and successfully for the rights to host the 1934 edition. Mussolini had not risen to power peacefully. Though he never staged a coup d’état, he employed gangs of loyal thugs to conduct political violence that pressured the Italian populace and government into handing his fascist movement anti-democratic control of the nation. His political violence exiled and oppressed countless members of Italian society and put Italy on the wrong side of history when they forged an alliance with Nazi Germany in World War Two.

Read  |  When the World Cup rolled into fascist Italy in 1934

Mussolini’s fascist movement was centred on nationalism and an idea of Italian exceptionalism. In the lead up to Mussolini, Italy had been gripped by economic crisis and class conflict between Marxist labour unions, the middle class, and the corporate and political elite. By using violence to quell Marxist revolutionaries, Mussolini’s movement gathered pace and soon seized power. Much of Mussolini’s fascist movement was based on the idea that Italy was strong and unique and could operate under an autarky, an economy with no imports.

The 1930 World Cup, where Uruguay won the first iteration of the tournament at home, beating Argentina in the final, inspired Mussolini’s 1934 bid. The victory led to huge national celebrations throughout the tiny nation. The emotion, excitement and passion of the World Cup excited Mussolini. A World Cup was an excuse to build impressive infrastructure and show it off to not only Italians, but visiting fans, press and players, and an Italian victory would also strengthen his movement by fueling the nationalism and Italian exceptionalism that it relied upon.

Italy were victorious in 1934, beginning a brief period of dominance in international football, arguably with a hand from biased officiating. Mussolini’s fascist newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, ran the headline, ‘In the name and in the presence of Il Duce, the Azzurri win a new world title’. The image was shown throughout Italy as an example of the country’s dominance and the restored Italian might Mussolini promised.

Except, Italy was no stronger than before. Its economy was still in shambles and conditions had hardly improved despite the heavy-handed control Mussolini exerted over society. Like 1978, 1934 bided a failing oppressor some good press. Il Duce, as Mussolini insisted he be called, saw what social scientists would confirm empirically later in history: sporting results influence politics in favour of the incumbent and fuel national pride, sometimes dangerously.


Verifying the Cliché: Football is More Than a Game


Sport is mostly arbitrary in politics and what happens in competition should not affect political behaviors significantly. Yet we live in a reality where sport significantly affects our mood and allegiances and consequently our political attitudes. With the emotions it provokes and the tribalism it fosters, sport is an effective propaganda tool. This has been both good and bad in the past.

Football carried a unifying message in 2005 when Didier Drogba and the Ivorian national team used qualification to their first ever World Cup as a platform to get on national TV and, with arms linked in unity, call for the country to come together in peace talks. To this day, Ivoirians hail Drogba’s impromptu and candid speech as a turning point in the civil war.

But at the same time, success in football has been found to correlate greater military aggression and conflict by states, arguably as a result of the nationalism it enables. A study of World Cup qualification provides some alarming insight into how sporting success might have a dangerous way of enabling confrontational nationalism. Andrew Bertoli, a professor at Dartmouth College, analysed how the military aggression of nations that qualified for the World Cup marginally and those who barely missed out varied.

Bertoli found that statistically significant increase in state aggression by states who qualified for the finals over those who didn’t was found. Bertoli found that the average number of Militarised Interstate Disputes (a count of the number of armed conflicts between two states that did not develop into full-scale war) for nations that qualified for the World Cup marginally was 15 and was only 11 for non-qualifiers. The reasoning for this is that regional sporting success hardens national pride and nationalism that contributes to public support for greater aggression towards other countries.

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World Cups can be great shows of positive patriotism, like the type that helped unify the Ivory Coast, and also bring countries together through symbols of sportsmanship. World Cups in authoritarian nations can breed nationalism, however, a dangerous anti-democratic national pride that emphasises the superiority of the state above all. Mussolini and Videla used World Cups as nationalist propaganda tools because nationalism was the fuel that their regimes used for survival.

Sporting success usually cheers us up and it makes us more likely to accept the present and support political institutions. Researchers from Northwestern University conducted two random surveys on approval of Barack Obama at an American Football match between two collegiate teams, Ohio State University and the University of Oregon. One survey was conducted before the match and another one afterwards.

Ohio State University won narrowly in a thrilling contest to capture the title. After the match, the new random sample of Ohio State fans demonstrated a statistically significant increase in support for Obama. Another study showed that incumbent lawmakers in the US had a higher chance of winning re-election if the local collegiate team had won in the last week.

Finally, World Cups bring in huge revenue streams and in authoritarian nations are more likely to be concentrated among the powerful than distributed to the population at large. Russia ranks poorly when it comes to measures of corruption in the public sector, meaning that revenues from a World Cup would likely end up in the pockets of Putin’s allies and henchmen than in the pockets of common Russians. The rewards for a World Cup can be immense and dictators don’t deserve them.


Instilling Some Morality in FIFA


In the introduction of its bidding instructions for the 2026 World Cup, FIFA outlines its key objectives from the organisation’s statutes. FIFA’s first objective as stated in the document is “to improve the game of football constantly and promote it globally in the light of its unifying, educational, cultural and humanitarian values, particularly through youth and development programs.”

FIFA’s commitment to those principles are dubious. There is nothing humanitarian about the Qatari and Russian governments practices in the last few years. Arguably, one could find non-humanitarian practices across the world, even in the democratised Western world; the US for example still maintains Guantanamo Bay open and operates a derided cruel and discriminatory penal jail system.

At the end of the day, however, Russia and Qatar are classified as countries that are “not free” by Freedom House, a prominent advocacy NGO, whereas the US is “free”, based on an extensive evaluation of criteria that evaluate a country’s adherence to the UN general assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, the truth seems to be that after four years of waiting for a World Cup, we don’t care too much about the circumstances of the World Cup. That’s a sad truth that we all partake in. I know I will watch every goal and prance around excitedly for a month and, while in principle I’d support a boycott of the World Cup, I doubt I would actually fulfil it.

Read  |  Can FIFA really be trusted with video referees?

Football fans are in a severely compromised situation as clouds loom over our heads as we watch the drama and storyline of 2018 and 2022 play out. FIFA is aware of this and empowered by it. The organisation has repeatedly awarded the World Cup to authoritarian countries because they provide such lucrative proposals from a business standpoint.

During the bidding for the 1934 World Cup, it was the promise made by Giovanni Mauro that set Italy apart as candidates for hosting rights over their bidding rivals, the Swedes. Mauro, on behalf of the fascist party of Italy, promised that the Italian government would cover all losses of the World Cup if they were incurred, something a nascent FIFA could hardly turn down.

Russia and Qatar both offered the largest budgets in their World Cup bids too, giving them a distinct advantage. Qatar’s authoritarian structure allowed it to bend the bidding rules, being able to offer finance through state-funded sport and state agencies. The Qatari bid for 2022 was heavily shrouded in impropriety with extensive allegations of Qatari officials buying the vote of FIFA officials that were later validated in 2015 when Swiss and American authorities indicted and arrested compromised officials and executives of the game. Italy did the same in 1934, with widespread reports of illegal payments and arm-bending.

Argentina was handed the 1978 World Cup during a democratic reign in 1974 but, after the US-backed military junta seized power and human rights abuses by the junta surfaced, FIFA failed to pull the plug on the hosts or merely properly investigate the allegations. The Netherlands led calls for a boycott before being appeased, but the best player in the world at the time, Johan Cruyff, stood by the boycott.

FIFA’s morality is clearly up for sale. After all, the World Cup has to be profitable to be feasible; players must by paid, stadiums must be built and infrastructure improved. Vague promises and rhetoric are not enough to guarantee that FIFA will choose appropriate World Cup hosts. We also can’t trust the democratic nations of the world to make sure worthy hosts are chosen for World Cups.

The newly heralded saviours of world football, who were at the forefront of the corruption indictments that brought down disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter in 2015, the United States, have been unreliable guardians of world football. In 1978, the US had been enabling Videla’s regime, with US Secretary of State at the time Henry Kissinger being Videla’s guest of honour at the World Cup final. The US intervened this time mostly because they lost their World Cup bid to Qatar and Russia; they didn’t spontaneously take an interest in shady South American sports marketing and a sport that is still ridiculed by most of the population.

In the absence of rules and good judgment, a basic threshold has to be put in place for World Cup hosts. Minimum requirements for democracy could be a good start. For example, all countries that host the World Cup must be classified as democracies by Polity, classified as free nations by Freedom House, and guarantee certain rights for workers. Also, FIFA should reserve the right and be obligated to change World Cup hosts should matters change.

We love football too much to be self-regulating when it comes to picking a World Cup host. A boycott of 2018 and 2022 seems very unlikely. As fans, we most likely won’t put up enough resistance to prevent FIFA from hosting more World Cups in countries with bad human rights practices and an aversion to free and fair elections. FIFA, or for that matter any association that may possibly succeed it, needs well-defined regulations in place, not vague and vapid paragraphs in its bidding instructions. Indeed, the mark of stupidity is doing something wrong repeatedly without changing anything.

By Nicolas Berlinski  

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