These articles were originally published by us as one article. We have split the original into four articles for ease of reading. We think it timely to remind readers, especially now, that football’s greatest tournament has been subject to political exploitation by despicable people previously. It is fitting that despite his interference Francisco Franco never lived to see Spain become the dominant force in football – consecutive European Championships and a World Cup – let alone benefit from it. There must be no return to such exploitation of the world’s most popular sport.
by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 8th 2008)
After an exhibition of enthralling football in México, Brasil were champions of the world for a record third time. The country forgot its problems to celebrate, but it should never have been allowed to happen the way it did. The country’s dictator General Emílio Garrastazu Médici had no right to interfere in football matters – organisation and control over Brasilian football was the domain of that country’s FA.
Médici’s interference was a flagrant breach of FIFA’s Charter. João Saldhana was the coach and had a very good record – he had not lost in six matches in charge. Plainly, he was sacked for non-footballing reasons and he should not have suffered such outrageous interference. His record did not deserve such abuse of the rules. It was a flagrant breach of FIFA’s Charter – sadly far from the first time that FIFA did not enforce its Charter when dictators came courting.
The Brasilian FA could not stand up to the fascist despot Médici. The players could not either. It is the nature of vile dictatorships to rule through fear and torture. However, FIFA have no such excuse. They could have told the dictator and the Brasilian FA that they would suspend Brasil from the 1970 World Cup if Médici did not stop his interference. They could have made other demands too, but did not. It was not unusual for sporting bodies to turn a blind eye at the time.
Without being in the tournament Brasil could not win it and without that Médici could not exploit the win. Médici needed the win to justify his dictatorship – FIFA therefore had the power to uphold its Charter and did not. It was yet another example of a dictator being allowed to flout the rules and reap undeserved rewards by shamefully manipulating the power of football. Médici had learned well from Mussolini’s use and abuse of the power of football.
A delighted Médici received the team and enthusiastically greeted some of the greatest players ever to play the beautiful game. They had little choice. Médici took credit for the triumph and used it for propaganda purposes. He also used it to distract attention from the torture and executions, especially in prisons. Brasil’s military dictatorships ended in 1985 after more than two decades in power. He was perhaps the worst of the despicable people that Pelé referred to.
They only had one World Cup success to exploit and Médici proved adept at using it to bolster the popularity of his government – a time that the gap between rich and poor increased significantly. Despite economic growth, the benefits were not distributed fairly and poverty became a real problem. And then there were the human rights abuses.
People disappeared, were tortured or murdered. Médici is remembered now as the most cynical and brutal of Brasil’s military tyrants. He died in October 1985, having lived just long enough to see the military rejected by the Brasilian people who voted overwhelmingly against their choice and in favour of Tancredo Neves. His military successors relaxed the brutality, but there was no doubt that Brasil was under the control of a military junta with no respect for even the most basic of rights.
Restoration of Rights
Civilian rule had been restored for less than a decade before another World Cup triumph was delivered to the football-loving people of the biggest nation in South America. It was the first of three consecutive appearances in the World Cup final itself – two of which would result in victory. But the restoration of democracy came at price – a high one.
The amnesty laws that paved the way for elections gave the perpetrators of gross abuses of human rights on both sides of the political divide immunity from prosecution. Many years later, with the spectre of military coups receded, the crimes of the past demand a hearing. One in particular affects the integrity of the forthcoming World Cup, the shocking death of journalist Vladimir Herzog in custody in October 1975 in São Paulo. We covered this story previously and will do so again.
In the fourteen years between hosting the World Cup for the first time and the military coup the country celebrated two World Cup triumphs and in the seventeen years since the restoration of democracy in 1985 and Asia’s first World Cup in 2002 they celebrated another two triumphs and suffered a defeat in the final as well.
The military dictatorship delivered poverty: repression and misery along with one World Cup win in twenty-one years in power. Readers will draw their own conclusions from that. Back in 1970 Brasil needed the joy of the World Cup triumph to forget the horrors of Médici’s rule even for a few days. The tyrant needed football far more than it needed him.
He used and abused the triumph for his own ends, but some people knew Médici for the tyrant he was. Pelé took an England player aside during the 1970 World Cup and told him: “Our country is ruled by despicable people.” He was criticised by some for not using the platform fame had given him to speak out publicly, but many who had did not live to tell the tale.
Médici was neither the first nor last despot to use the World Cup to serve his own political needs. The next two World Cups would include two further attempts – one of which would succeed and the other would demonstrate the the consequences for ordinary people. And the following two would involve attempts to escape that unwanted legacy of the World Cup.
It remains an outrage that football did not prevent it from happening again after Benito Mussolini had shamelessly exploited its power in the 1930s. It is perhaps even worse that Médici was not the last dictator to benefit from abusing the power of football for his own ends on the world stage. The gross abuses of human rights under the vile dictatorship of the now universally reviled General Jorge Videla in Argentina were known about long before the fall of the junta.
Nevertheless, despite knowledge of Videla’s crimes, the tournament allowed to take place in Argentina when it was subject to such use and abuse. Why? How did FIFA learn so little from allowing the dictator Mussolini to host and fix in 1934 and Médici to use the power of footballing success. Football has a social responsibility – one that should have been understood and embraced after Mussolini was allowed to utilise the power of the sport. Videla should never have been given the chance to follow il Duce’s example.