More Despicable People and the World Cup (Part One) – Archive

Editor’s Note:

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.

Derek Miller

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 18th 2008)

Early Days

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.

Bad Timing

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.



Despicable People and the World Cup (Part 2)

Editor’s Note:

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.

Derek Miller

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 8th 2008)


The South American challenge was weak. Argentina was enraged by the poaching of top players by Italy – the Oriundi – so they sent a weakened team to the 1934 World Cup in Italy. Uruguay, the defending champions were incensed by Italy’s boycott of their tournament four years earlier. They refused to defend their title. Brasil had yet to become Brasil.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini knew that despite the weakened field there were still European countries to deal with, so Mussolini left nothing to chance. There were scandals aplenty and that was before the controversy over Swedish official Ivan Elkind, who refereed the final.

Shameful Officiating

Spain drew Italy in the quarter final. The first match ended in a 1-1 draw, amid complaints that Belgian referee Louis Baert allowed the Italians too much latitude. Baert was a linesman in both the semi final and final, which were refereed by Elkind as well.

The rustic nature of their challenges in the first match, particularly on Spanish goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora1 caused him to have to miss the replay, which was even worse. It was so scandalous that the previously highly rated Swiss referee René Mercet was disgraced over it.

His refereeing was said to be so biased in favour of the Italians that the Swiss FA withdrew him from any further appointments for internationals. Just as Zamora had been persistently fouled by the Italians in the first game, Mercet allowed them to get away with it in the replay too.

Giuseppe Meazza benefited from yet another foul on the keeper to score the only goal of the match. Mercet was accused of shamefully favouring Italy and allowing the crowd to influence his decisions. Italy progressed to the semi final.

Bad to Worse

Elkind refereed it with Baert as one of the linesmen. Italy won 1-0 with a goal scored by Enrique Guaita.2 Elkind was appointed to referee the final. Mussolini still wasn’t satisfied. Leaving nothing to chance the dictator dined with the Swedish referee the night before the final. Italy beat Czechoslovakia 2-1.

Mussolini had his trophy. It was perhaps the most scandalous World Cup ever. Despite allegations of bribery and corruption against them over the 1934 World Cup, both Baert and Elkind enjoyed long careers as referees. Elkind refereed a total sixteen World Cup matches and Baert took a prestigious appointment with the Belgian FA after his retirement as a referee in 1952.

Basking in Undeserved Glory

Meanwhile, Mussolini basked in the glory of a World Cup triumph that allowed Italians to forget their problems while they celebrated. He also used the success to bolster the credibility of his government. Knowing what World Cup success could bring Mussolini wanted more of the same, but four years later as the world veered towards war he could not interfere as outrageously as had been achieved in 1934.

And Italy would have to win by fairer means in 1938. Nevertheless, they received some unexpected assistance. The threat of war resulted in some nations withdrawing early. The tournament was weaker than it should have been. And top European teams would miss it too. England apparently believed the World Cup was beneath them.


Spain was the first country to miss a World Cup due to war in 1938. The Spanish Civil War stopped international football, but not the Cup of Free Spain, which Valencian club Levante won. The World Cup continued without them. Austria – semi-finalists four years previously – qualified, but withdrew due to unification with Nazi Germany.

The Austrian Wunderteam was torn asunder by reunification and the ‘unified’ German team did not gel. It lacked Austria’s greatest player Matthias Sindelar. Rather than play for the Nazis Sindelar retired, claiming his age and injury and did so after thumbing his nose at the Nazis in a ʻunificationʼ match.



Sindelar was no Nazi and celebrated his goal against the Germans in that match in an exuberant manner. Sindelar had revolutionised forward play in the Wunderteam under legendary coach Hugo Meisl. Sindelar refused to play for Germany. He died in mysterious circumstances a year after the World Cup in France aged just 36. There was no shortage of conspiracy theories. Another pair of opponents had neutralised themselves.

Wringing Value

Mussolini was determined to wring whatever propaganda value he could from the defence of their title. The quarter final pitted the Italians against the host nation. Baert refereed the match with Elkind serving as one of his linesmen. The Italians wore the infamous black-shirts. It was highly provocative.

Nevertheless, Italy beat France 3-1. They faced a bizarrely chosen Brasil team in the semi-final, winning 2-1. Leading scorer and one of his country’s first super-stars Leônidas da Silva missed the match – possibly rested. His absence was attributed by some to interference by Mussolini, but that has never been verified.

Italian great Giuseppe Meazza scored the controversial winner from the penalty spot, but according to objective reports Italy deserved their win anyway. It was fitting that Brasil finally sent their strongest team to the World Cup, but somehow conspired to get tactics and selection wrong. Italy retained the trophy in 1938, beating Hungary 4-2 in the final. They were the best team, even though their physical approach, especially that of enforcer Luis Monti, had critics.

An Uncertain Future

World War II meant that there was no World Cup in 1942. It would probably have been held in Brasil. The world had other priorities in 1946. It was therefore unclear if would even be a World Cup ever again. Football and the World Cup survived. A World Cup in 1949 was mooted. The Superga Disaster ended that possibility. FIFA wanted Italy to defend their title, but after the tragedy Italy did not want to. They had to be persuaded to come, but the Azzurri were understandably deeply affected by Superga.


Brasil was chosen to host the next tournament, but insisted that it be held in 1950 rather than 1949 as FIFA originally intended. Germany was partitioned and originally banned. Football had not been organised in either East or most of West Germany at first anyway, so there was no German representation in Brasil in 1950.

Mussolini had been executed by Italian partisans in 1944, so Italy – the defending champions – were permitted to come, but originally decided not to play in spite of FIFA’s offer to meet their expenses. However, Italy defended their title, but deeply affected by the Superga tragedy the Italian FA refused to allow their team to fly. Instead they sailed, depriving the squad of training opportunities.

They were the first World champions to go out in the first round after a woeful defence of their title even though there were exceptional circumstances. Not only had they suffered poor transportation, they has lost the flesh of a truly great team – il Grande Torino. Two years before the Superga Disaster that team contributed ten out of eleven starters for Italy. Not even the world champions could afford to lose that amount of talent.

The 1950 World Cup finals ensured that the tournament would continue. But twenty years later the hosts of the first post-war tournament would abuse the World Cup again for political ends, as another vile dictatorship would seek to profit from the World Cup.

1  The goalkeeping award in Spain’s La Liga is named after him. He became a controversial figure as he represented both Cataluña and Spain and accepted awards from both the Spanish republic and fascists. He also won trophies for both Barcelona and Real Madrid.

2Enrique Guaita: Raimundo Orsi and Luis Monti had previously played for Argentina.