Football, Corruption and Dictators – An Endless Love Affair

As the world is gripped by World Cup fever, Jacob discusses FIFA’s seemingly endless love affair with dictators and despots throughout the history of the competition – and argues it is a flame that will only grow stronger.

FIFA’s obsession with dictators is nothing new. As Vladimir Putin welcomed the world to Russia and Robbie Williams cringed us into oblivion, it’s worth noting that we have seen this all before.

There is no greater spectacle to enhance a dictators standing and image than a World Cup; hence why so many have attempted to host such events. But before immersing ourselves in the spectacle in Russia – and eventually Qatar – there is a history that must be addressed, one that Putin and no doubt the Qatari royals are all too aware of.

Dubious Beginnings

World-Cup-1934-Italy-FootballIn 1934, fascist Italy under Mussolini had won the right to host the World Cup just four years after Uruguay had hosted and won the first ever competition. Mussolini saw opportunity in increasing the stock of the Italian nation, inviting the countries of the world to marvel at Il Duce’s reborn nation. Italy went on to win the tournament – the stadiums filled with Mussolini’s blackshirts, urging and apparently sometimes corrupting the officials to assist the Italian national side to victory.

At a conference on World Cup history hosted by FIFA, the idea that the 1934 World Cup was tainted by corruption became an increasing reality. Apparently the blackshirts had intimidated and corrupted officials, leading to certain lenient decisions going the way of the Italians.

A victory on the international stage for Mussolini helped convince some abroad and the masses at home that Italy was indeed a unique nation capable of incredible world conquering feats; the Roman Empire and its glorious Emperor had returned.

It is worth noting, however, that four years later Italy won the World Cup hosted in France. There was a distinct lack of rampant corruption in this tournament due to the sheer quality of the Italian squad in this era.

Rampant Corruption

The same conference that saw the revelation regarding Italy in 1934 also brought about another victim – Argentina 1978 . Argentina had won the right to host the World Cup four years prior in 1974. This was before a US sponsored Junta coup overthrew the democratically elected government and put in its place a violent dictatorship led by General Jorge Rafael Videla.

World-Cup-1978-Argentina
Jorge Rafael Videla

Videla used the World Cup to his advantage, building new stadiums as well as infrastructure to try to market Argentina as an emerging player on the global stage – a process that led the South American nation to overreach and culminated in the invasion of the Falklands.

It is claimed that Argentina corrupted the officials and the tournament in order to give Argentina the greatest chance of winning. The aforementioned conference cited multiple accounts as well as sources to back up its claim.

When Argentina reigned victorious in the final versus the Netherlands, their victory had been bought. FIFA had their chance to take this opportunity for positive propaganda away from Videla as before the tournament the Netherlands were close to boycotting the tournament unless guarantees were made that certain actions would not take place during the competition.

FIFA, however, remained consistent and allowed another dictator to benefit from the marketability of the World Cup.

Again it must be stated that the Argentina team was good enough to win on its own merit without the help of outside factors. Nonetheless, certain facts came to light and another tournament appears to have been bought. Russia and Qatar could spend the entirety of their national budgets on bribing FIFA officials to throw matches and their teams would still stand no chance of coming out host nation champions.

Instead they used their money to bribe FIFA officials simply for the opportunity to market their country and their leaders tenuous grasp on power.

Following a Trend

Russia will no doubt be intolerable for all of those who are neither white, straight or conform to the party line in Putin’s Russia. Putin, like Mussolini and Videla before him, has been responsible for the imprisonment and murder of political opponents as well as those who create ‘social disorder’ – a common buzzword for despots and dictators to clamp down on genuine political opposition.

His government is homophobic, backwards and regularly interferes in the affairs of other nations, with the attempted murder on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, the most recent of events.

Putin’s Russia can only dream of reaching the despotic levels of Qatar, however. A nation bound together by an archaic system of governance yet one that has been marketed as a progressive nation.

World-Cup-2022-Qatar
Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup – Photo by Florian Wehde.

Qatar has so far murdered hundreds of Asian workers in abhorrent working conditions whilst building new stadiums and the politics of the Gulf state are as far away from moderate and inclusive as one can get.

 FIFA has remained consistent throughout its history of building crooked relationships with dictators and it shows no signs of changing in the immediate future.

After Putin hosted Sochi 2014 he invaded Crimea; perhaps he will fancy Bulgaria if Russia can muster a run into the later rounds? Luckily for many in Eastern Europe, the Russian squad in this tournament is far below its past capabilities.

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