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Sean Ledwith takes a look at the history of the world cup

George Orwell’s famous remark that international football is war minus the shooting is nowhere more apparent that in the history of the World Cup.

The current controversy over the hosting of the 2022 football World Cup is only the most recent example of the sober reality that not only is it futile to try to separate sport and politics but that sometimes the two are indistinguishable.

From its unsteady origins in the inter-war period, the tournament has reflected the changing dynamics of global capitalism and frequently generated a toxic cocktail of nationalism, racism, propaganda and corruption. The event has expanded exponentially into a financial behemoth that only the Olympics can match for global impact and scale.

South Africa spent $3 billion hosting the last tournament; the final of which delivered a worldwide television audience of 1 billion people. Inevitably, commercial factors now override the original sporting ethos.

The street protests in Brazil this year and the squalid corruption surrounding the bidding process for future tournaments are manifestations of how, over decades, the event has morphed into a neoliberal juggernaut that rips up social infrastructures. As radical football historian, David Goldblatt observes:

'Every facet of the World Cup-the teams that played and those that didn’t; how the game itself was played and the architecture of the stadiums it was played in; the ceremonial and symbolic dimensions of the tournament and the informal and spontaneous carnival that forms around it-all have been shaped by economic, military and cultural forces operating at the intersection of global, national and local politics.'

Nationalist origins

Fifa, international football’s ruling body, was created early in the twentieth century, primarily by two Frenchmen, Jules Rimet and Henri Delaunay, who perceived the huge financial possibilities of international football and wanted to carve out a niche beyond the control of the newly-revived Olympic movement. They also considered football as a suitable vehicle to restore French nationalism after its humiliation in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Before the first tournament could be staged, however, the Wall Street Crash wrecked the feasibility of any Western state being willing to underwrite the cost. Fortunately for Fifa, the relatively young South American capitalist state of Uruguay saw the tournament as an ideal opportunity to bang its own nationalist drum and celebrate 100 years of independence. The government there offered to fund the 1930 event at its own expense.

The World Cup’s potential for unleashing aggressive nationalist sentiment was immediately apparent when Uruguay‘s victory in the final over regional rivals, Argentina, resulted in a siege of the Uruguayan consulate in Buenos Aires by a stone-throwing mob.

The next two tournaments were played out under the lengthening shadows of fascism and imperialism as the global system lurched towards the Second World War. In 1934, Mussolini exploited Italy’s hosting of the event as a showcase for his fascist regime. He visited the Italian dressing room before the final against Czechoslovakia and gave the team the benefit of his tactical insight:

'If the Czechs play fair, we’ll play fair. That’s the most important thing, but if they want to play dirty, then we Italians have to play dirtier. Following Italy’s victory, a fascist newspaper exploited the match to maximum effect: In the name and in the presence of the Duce, the azzurri win a new world title.'

Italy retained the trophy four years later in France, playing in black shirts, rather than their traditional blue, as a mark of submission to the Mussolini regime. The captain gave a fascist salute as he collected the trophy. By that time, Hitler had also identified the propaganda value of the tournament and instructed the German team to give the Nazi salute before their matches as the national anthem was played. Austria had reached the semi-finals in 1934 but months before the 1938 finals the country had been absorbed by Hitler’s Anschluss. Consequently, the German squad was bolstered by the inclusion of a number of highly-rated Austrian players whose own team had been dissolved on the Fuhrer’s orders.

Imperial hubris

England had arrogantly refused to participate in the first three World Cups and was punished for its imperial hubris when it was sensationally beaten 1-0 by the USA in the 1950 tournament, still regarded as the biggest upset in the event’s history. Four years later in Switzerland, West Germany’s first World Cup triumph was greeted by many as symbolic of Nato’s embrace of that problematic state as a bulwark against Russian influence in the Cold War era.

The next two tournaments, in Sweden and Chile respectively, marked the rise of Brazil as the pre-eminent international football power; a position it has managed to retain fitfully ever since. In 1958 and 1962, Brazil successfully assimilated the insertion of black players such as Pele and Garrincha, who up to that point had been excluded by a racist selection process.

In 1966, Pele and the other gifted Brazilians were cynically and literally kicked off the pitch as the European nations sought to cling on to their faltering imperial status in the face of the rising challenge from South America. England’s sole World Cup triumph in that year retrospectively resembles an imperial swansong; the team’s risible failure to repeat that success indicative of the British state’s ejection from the top table of great powers.

Beauty and the beast

The World Cup’s potential for triggering belligerent nationalism was most dramatically illustrated in the qualifying rounds for the next tournament when political tensions between Honduras and El Salvador climaxed in the ‘Soccer War’ of 1969-70. Border tension between the two South American states was exacerbated by a series of controversial refereeing decisions in three matches the teams played against each other. An escalating sequence of protests and counter protests ultimately led to military aircraft bombing each other’s capital cities and 3000 deaths. Orwell’s warning about the game’s potential to trigger political hostilities has never been more dramatically illustrated. Chris Bambery makes a similar observation about this aspect of sport in the modern era:

"Sport then is totally integrated into a framework of inter-state rivalry, capitalist production and class relations. As an ideology, transmitted on a huge scale by the media, it is part and parcel of ruling bourgeois ideology. The hierarchical structure of sport reflects the social structure of capitalism and its system of competitive selection, promotion, hierarchy and social advancement"

The 1970 tournament in Mexico is best remembered, however, for the exuberant football played by Brazilian legends such as Pele, Rivelino and Jairzinho that seemed to many observers-then and now-to encapsulate the aesthetic ideals of the beautiful game. The manner in which the predominantly black Brazilian team swept aside Italy in the final seemed to capture the spirit of anti-colonial movements around the world casting off European shackles. Unfortunately, there was nothing beautiful about the military regime in Brazil at that time. Emilio Medici, the figurehead of the dictatorship in Rio used the team’s triumphant homecoming as a pretext to consolidate the regime’s grip on the population. As he greeted the victorious team on their return, he cynically sought to reap the political benefit:

"I feel profound happiness at seeing the joy of our people in this highest form of patriotism. I identify this victory won in the brotherhood of good sportsmanship with the rise of faith in our fight for national development."

Each player was publically presented with given an $18 000 bonuses by the dictator and Pele’s image was used on government propaganda. As football writer Jamie Rainbow notes:

'Brazil’s 1970 World Cup triumph endures as the pinnacle performance in football history. Regrettably, it also doubles as a testament to the dictatorship’s masterful ability to apply the sport as a sugary coating to its own bitter pill.'

Window dressing for dictators

The shadow of South American fascism was also cast over the next two tournaments. One year before the 1974 finals in West Germany, General Pinochet had toppled the elected left-reformist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in a bloody coup that cost thousands of lives. In protest, the Russian team refused to play a qualifier that was due to take place in the Santiago stadium used as a detention and torture centre by the Chilean military. By doing so, they forfeited the match, allowing Chile to qualify without kicking a ball. Once the tournament was underway, the Chilean team was subjected to constant whistling and booing by anti-fascist protesters. Appropriately, the team were knocked out by a goal by the West German player, Paul Breitner-an avowed Marxist!

The 1978 finals were hosted by an Argentine dictatorship that had come to power two years earlier. Like their Italian and German predecessors in the 1930s, the fascist regime exploited the tournament as window-dressing for a savage and repressive system. A regime spokesman announced the intention to use the event to wipe the country clean of disturbing elements before the first tourist sets foot in it. Argentina is going to show the world its capacity for recuperation. That meant they would exterminate dissension at all costs.

At one point, it seemed likely the host team would be knocked out unless they could achieve an improbable victory over highly-rated Peru. Fortuitously for the generals in Buenos Aires, Peru was also ruled by a duplicitous military dictatorship and a deal was allegedly stitched up between the two to avert an embarrassing exit for the Argentine team. The stunning 6-0 win for Argentina is still regarded as one of the most suspicious results in World Cup history. One member of the winning team subsequently commented: With what I know now, I can’t say I am proud of my victory… But I didn’t realize, most of us didn’t. We just played football.

The cheering triggered by Argentine goals in Buenos Aires could be heard in a nearby military prison, full of left-wing detainees. One inmate recalls the surreal scene that took place during one match:

'The guard’s reaction was curious. We heard him run around the cell, yelping like a dog after the goals. But then he went quiet again, lent in close to us and whispered, ‘That’s the last goal you’ll ever cheer you sons of whores.'

Quantity versus quality

The increasing profitability of the tournament led Fifa to expand the finals from 16 to 24 teams in 1982. In 1998 it was expanded again to 32 .Predictably the grubby pursuit of television and commercial rights has overridden considerations of quality and now the bloated size and scale of the event is inversely related to the calibre of football. The event is dragged out over almost five tortuous weeks, the first two of which are crammed with predictable mis-matches between the strong and weaker national teams. Kick-off times are increasingly organised around peak television viewing times in Europe, rather than appropriate local conditions. Consequently, the players who make to the climax of the tournament are often physically exhausted; hence the recent trend for bad-tempered and low-scoring finals, settled on penalty shoot-outs.

Apart from the current fiasco over the 2022 finals, the commercial meddling in the tournament was also apparent in 1998 when there was a strong suspicion that the Brazilian star, Ronaldo, had been forced to play in the final against medical advice as his boot sponsors, Nike, insisted on it. The tradition of despots dipping their blood-soaked hands in the conduct of matches has continued. When Iraq failed to qualify for the 1994 finals, Saddam’ s psychopathic son, Uday, ordered the players to be whipped for three days and to be forced to play with a concrete ball in a prison yard.

In the last World Cup, North Korean television unwisely chose to show live coverage of the team’s game against Portugal. The subsequent 7-0 mauling unsurprisingly did not go down well in Pyongyang. The players were brought back in disgrace and subjected to a six-hour excoriation on stage for ideological shortcomings. The unlucky coach was forced into anunscheduled career change that ended up with him working on a building site.

Progressive zeitgeist

Despite these scandals, recent World Cups have also demonstrated the ongoing potential for the tournament to tune into a more progressive zeitgeist. Inspired by their left-wing ,Che Guevara-reading captain, Socrates, the Brazilian team of 1982 audaciously wore shirts saying I want to vote for my president on their backs, at a time when the country was still ruled by the military successors of Emilio Medici.

The triumph of the multicultural French team on home soil in 1998 was widely regarded a fitting riposte to the racist politics that was starting to gather pace in that country due to the demagoguery of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the fascist National Front. The team included immigrant players from a conspicuous diversity of locations - Armenia, Guadeloupe, Senegal and the Basque region. Following the victory over Brazil in the final the projected image of the team’s Algerian-born talisman was projected onto the Arc de Triumph with the slogan,'Zidane Président'.

Iran’s victory over the USA in the same year was greeted with glee by anti-imperialists around the world. David Goldblatt reminds us of the significance of these emancipatory impulses that survive beneath the neoliberal coating of the modern World Cup:

'Brazil’s 1970 World Cup triumph endures as the pinnacle performance in 'Rarest and most precious of all, are moments of true cosmopolitanism, when the frameworks of national identities, stereotypes and rivalries inherent in international football, are momentarily transcended ;when the football is just so good that it doesn’t matter who it is; when the story is better than victory or defeat; when the promise of a universal humanity is made emotionally tangible.'

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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