With the World Cup just days away, we publish these articles on the abuse of football’s most prestigious tournament again. They are particularly timely as Brasil has been polarised by hosting the tournament. Demonstrators will once again take to the streets in major cities throughout the country to demand social changes – ones that should have been delivered after last year’s Confederations Cup.
by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 18th 2008)
The early years of the World Cup had been tainted by the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s shameful manipulation of the tournament in 1934.1 He was captured and executed by partisans in 1944, but ten years earlier the nation celebrated the World Cup triumph and Mussolini basked in the adulation that accompanied that victory.
They celebrated again four years later as the world edged closer to war. The legendary Italian coach Vittorio Pozzo remains the only coach (manager) to have won the World Cup twice.
Pozzo successfully countered the threat of his friend Hugo Meisl’s prototype of total football Austria’s Wunderteam of 1934 with a more physical approach exemplified by the Oriundi Luis Monti, who man-marked Austria’s star player Matthias Sindelar out of the game. He repeated the trick on the flair of the Brasilians in 1938, benefiting from the complacent decision not to play the tournament’s top scorer Leônidas da Silva. The Italians also prevented Hungary’s star striker Gyula Zsengellér from scoring in the final – the only match he failed to do so.
Mussolini was the first despot to exploit the power of the World Cup to legitimise nasty regimes, but he wasn’t the last. During the World Cup in México in 1970 Edson Orantes do Nascimento (Pelé) took an England player aside and told him: “Our country is ruled by despicable people.”
It was a sentiment that was later echoed by one of Pelé’s great rivals for the tag of greatest ever player, Diego Maradona, when he vowed that he would never allow himself to be used by Argentina’s military despots again after discovering the extent of the lies the military junta had fed to the Argentinian people during the World Cup in Spain in 1982.
Four years earlier the teenage Maradona was part of Argentina’s World Cup winning squad without getting playing time, but he sampled the atmosphere in Buenos Aires as his compatriots celebrated winning the World Cup while a truly bestial régime ruled through fear and murder. It was later proved to be a World Cup tainted by that evil régime.
Argentina had tried to win the right to host the World Cup on many occasions previously, but every attempt had failed, while even small neighbours Uruguay and Chile had hosted it in 1930 and 1962 respectively. The World Cup tended to alternate between Europe and Latin America – mainly South America – and Brasil had hosted it in 1950.
It was Argentina’s turn to host the tournament and everyone knew it, so they prepared to welcome the football world in 1978, having been awarded the tournament long before the Dirty War scarred the country.
President Isabel Martínez de Perón succeeded her husband Juan in that office on his death in July 1974 and expected to preside at the opening ceremony of Argentina’s World Cup, but the man she promoted to Commander in Chief in 1975 – General Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo2 – had other ideas.
Perón’s government was authoritarian, but it was also ineffective. Few tears were shed for Isabel Perón when she was toppled in a coup d’état, led by Videla, in March 1976, but his régime was merciless, cruel and utterly brutal. It soon attracted international condemnation for systematic human rights abuses that included torture: kidnap, disappearances and murder – the Dirty War.
There was talk of a boycott or even moving the World Cup finals elsewhere. Videla’s international reputation could not have been lower, but the talked of boycott fizzled out in the end and the dictator managed to keep his tournament and he had big plans for it.
The Argentinian economy was a complete mess, but Videla spent a fortune on the World Cup – sound familiar? From the very beginning he intended to use it to legitimise his rule and was allowed to do so by the football world and its governing body FIFA, but this was a time when to their shame western governments in particular turned a blind eye to horrific abuses of human rights committed by allies like Videla.
1 For further information see the four part series Despicable People and the World Cup that was published previously in the magazine.
2 Videla is universally despised in Argentina now. In March 1981 he was replaced by Roberto Viola. The junta was brought down as a result of losing the Falklands War. With democracy restored in 1983 Videla was prosecuted for widespread human rights abuses. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1985 and discharged from the military.
But Videla was pardoned under an amnesty granted by President Carlos Menem in 1990, but in 1998 he briefly returned to prison over his role in the kidnap of the children of those who had disappeared during his dictatorship. He was then put under house arrest due to ill-health. Five years ago President Néstor Kirchner began moves to remove the immunity that Videla had been granted by Menem.
Videla is no longer recognised as a legitimate President of Argentina. Two years ago Judge Norberto Oyarbide struck down the pardon given to him by Menem as unconstitutional and last year his human rights convictions were restored. Videla remains under house.
Update: Videla’s convictions over the deaths of 31 opponents of his coup were restored in 2010. Two years later he was sentenced to a further 50 years for his part in the systemic kidnapping of children. He died in prison in May 2013.