Nothing illustrates footballʼs power to foster change than a World Cup. FIFAʼs decision to release doves as part of a commitment to peace is welcome, although the worldʼs most popular sport can do a lot more. But is a dark side. The power of football has been used and abused by some of the reprehensible people the twentieth century has spewed forth.
Tonight world and European champions Spain – a country that has first hand experience of a dictator abusing footballʼs power and of success without the shadow of political abuse of their achievements – play the Netherlands in their opening match defending their title. We therefore publish this article again.
By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 2nd 2012)
Over half a century before Euro 2012 an ageing fascist dictator decided to meddle with football to try to score a political point – actually to avoid the risk of a propaganda defeat. Generalissimo Francisco Franco decided not to risk the possibility of humiliation through defeat to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Franco’s meddling not only prevented a talented generation of Spanish footballers that may have left a legacy and rewritten football history from having the chance to do so, but handed the opportunity of a propaganda coup to his bitterest rivals. This was a boycott that failed spectacularly and should have had even more serious consequences.
Politics and Football
Spain played a very important role in proving that politics and football not only mix, but often collide at speed. The very first European Championship took place in a different era both for politics and football.
A liberating football revolution was taking place in Africa under the guidance of Kwame Nkrumah and Ohene Djan. The football face of that revolution Charles Kumi Gyamfi began his assault on African football’s highest echelons. Gyamfi went on to become one of (if not the) greatest coaches in African history.
Early Boycott Backfires
Meanwhile, Spain was enduring the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco and the dictator refused to allow Spain to play against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It should have had consequences – ones that properly affected Franco. The dictator had interfered with football and the consequences should have been a ban from the next competition. That didnʼt happen.
Benefiting from the bye gifted to them by the Spanish dictator, the Soviet Union went on to win the inaugural European Championship courtesy of Victor Ponedelnik’s extra-time decider against Yugoslavia. Nikita Khrushchev and his colleagues took full advantage, basking in the glory of the USSR’s only title – by then Olympic gold had lost its lustre. Politics and football mixed at will.
Four years later it was a case of different ideology, but same story. Khrushchev had savoured his moment, but his colleagues brought him down in disgrace after the Cuban Missiles Crisis. His successors hoped for a repeat dose, but Franco had learned his lesson.
His boycott had handed a propaganda coup to his ideological adversary in 1960. That would not be allowed to happen again. The defending champions would have to beat Spain on the pitch if they wanted to retain their title.
Football and Politics
Franco’s fellow fascist dictator Benito Mussolini knew the power of football. He had used it to great effect in 1934 and again in 1938. An England team had given the Nazi salute in an international in the 1930s in Berlin. If that wasn’t a mix of politics and football, what was?
Even more controversially, Mussolini had brazenly interfered with the tournament in 1934. The night before the final he had dinner with the referee, who had also refereed the semi-final – a very controversial match. It was perhaps the worst fix in football, but being champions has its benefits.
Success on the pitch unites a nation. Politicians know this and dictators know its value better than most. Mussolini started the worrying trend in 1934 and continued it in1938, but football had the last laugh on the dictator, helping to bring him down with Hajduk Split in the starring role.
Ducking the Issue
Dictators know the power of football and use it to their advantage. But UEFA, admittedly a very young organisation at the time, made a serious error of judgement almost half a century ago. Franco chose to put himself above football in 1960.
Instead of paying the consequences with a ban UEFA appeased the dictator allowing Spain to not only compete in the next tournament, but to host it. That disgraces the competition and undermined UEFAʼs authority in the future.
The Soviet Union relinquished their crown, never to win it again and although Spain succeeded the USSR as champions of Europe, they had a 44 year wait to win it again, by which time Franco was long dead and Spanish democracy firmly rooted. But it was not all smiles for the politicians.
José Luis Rodríguez Zapotero became one of the few political leaders to fail benefit from football triumph. Despite Spain winning both the European Championship and World Cup in his tenure Spaniards, feeling the economic pinch, unceremoniously kicked him out of power earlier this year. Mariano Rajoy Brey had best beware – not even footballing success guarantees power.