Making The World Go Round

Editorʼs Note

The final of the Europa League will take place in Warsaw a couple of months from now. We covered Polandʼs bow at hosting a major football even and look forward to returning to see how football has helped to develop Polandʼs infrastructures on and off the pitch. Here we republish an article on how politics and football collided with football playing its part in fostering political change.

Derek Miller

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 4th 2012)


Collision Course

A recurring theme in Euro 2012 was the desire to keep politics out of football. But why? Euro 2012 took place in two countries that know better than most that football and politics, especially liberation theory politics, most definitely do mix.

It was ironic to hear one of Poland’s greatest ever players Grzegorz Lato make that plea.

Lato knows how important the history and politics were back in his heyday as a player and also now. He remembers the 1982 World Cup in Spain well, having had a good tournament. Politics and football didn’t just mix then, they collided full on. Poland and Argentina bore testimony to that on and off the pitch.

The Mix

I don’t want to mix politics and sport”, Lato said. “I had several matches, especially in 1982 during the World Cup in Spain. We were in a group with the Russians and political aspects were very important during those times also”.

That’s not only an understatement, but somewhat economic with the truth. Those were very important times for Poland. Poles living abroad brandished their Solidarność (Solidarity) banners and placards. They filled the stadiums with their protest and defiance of the Polish junta led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski for Poland’s matches.

Damned Junta

Jaruzelski replaced Edward Gierek as Communist Party leader in December 1981 and imposed martial laws, clamping down on Solidarność, putting its leader Lech Walęsa under house arrest. The junta tried to destroy a popular movement and take advantage of football, but it had underestimated both the power of football and the desire of Polish people to be free of the shackles of an oppressive and deeply unpopular regime.

It also tried to censor the political protest made during the matches, thereby underestimating the power of football. Those demanding political change in Poland made far better use of the sport as a mechanism for political change than the then government of Poland.

Failed Junta

Ultimately the junta failed, but in 1982 a good Polish team inspired by the political events in the stands secured third place. Meanwhile, the junta reacted to the impromptu demonstrations by ensuring that Poland’s World Cup matches were broadcast with a delay that allowed it to cut out the Solidarność protests.

But it was too late. Poles already knew from the first match that politics had entered the world of football to great effect in support of political and human rights for them. Both players and Polish people could not claim to be unaware of what had happened.

The junta may have hoped to profit from the success of the team in Spain, but the Solidarność protests ensured that it could not steal the glory of a remarkable achievement by the players.

The collision had occurred and did so in a country that had only recently emerged from a debilitating dictatorship and had undergone an attempted coup just a year earlier.

In 1986 Jaruzelski was told by the then leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, that he would not intervene in Polish affairs, forcing the General to negotiate with Walęsa. Four years later Walęsa succeeded Jaruzelski as President of Poland.

Added Spice


I don’t like politics to get into this”, Lato said as 1982 had added spice – a match against the old enemy, Russia, then part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But would Lato or any of those complaining about politics and sport mixing object to the political protests of 1982 at the football in support of Solidarność and Walęsa?

I’m looking at the context of the history of Polish-Russian relations from another perspective. This [Euro 2012] is just a sporting competition. I have played against the Russians three times. During the Olympics we won 2-1. We lost 4-1 in Volgagrad and we had a 0-0 draw in Spain, so we are staying away from the politics. We are not interested in all those issues created by mass media. We are not interested in politics”.

A Force for Change

But why not? Politics can change the world. Football also can change the world for the better. Why shouldn’t they combine to do that, for example by opposing and even stopping wars as Didier Drogba did in la Côte d’Ivoire and Seydou Keita tearfully tried to do for his country Mali in this year’s African Cup of Nations? If football cannot and should not do that, then shame on it!

Seydou Keita

So, coming from Lato this plea to keep politics out of football is strange. ‘Communism’ in Poland collapsed just eight years after the Solidarność matches in Spain. Lato was there in that different era and knows that politics and football collided for the greater good.

In the independent Poland that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union – a process that football played a part in – Lato became a Senator and later the President of Poland’s FA, the PZPN. Both were political positions. How can he credibly say that politics and football do not and should not mix?

An Uneasy Relationship – Archive

Editorʼs Note:

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.

Derek Miller

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.

Limited Powers

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.