Written in 2009 by Emma Anspach, Hilah Almog, and Taylor.
Edited & Updated in 2013 by Brittney Balser and Alessandro Santalbano
Politics & Sport
Although this fact is often overlooked, sports and politics are intricately intertwined. Politics often manifests itself through sports, and sports have often been used as political propaganda. This is possible because of the ways both national and local identities become associated with sports teams. This is particularly true in the realm of what has become the world’s sport: soccer. Since so many countries have become so physically, emotionally and mentally invested in that particular game, it has become another branch of political expression, identity and propaganda. For example, the 1978 World Cup in Argentina was used by the country’s dictators to try and show the rest of the world that there was harmony under the dictatorship. In Europe, during the era of the dictatorships that plagued the continent from 1930s through 1950s, the link between soccer and politics was extremely visible.
Internally, the game itself has its own political system. Among the writhing social-status-free players is a dictator in the form of a referee, whose laws are uniform, unbreakable and ultimately nonnegotiable. With this comes all the demented corruption so typical to politics, as players argue and dramatize in order to sway the dictator. As Christian Bromberger puts it, “a match opens itself up to a debate of theatrical proportions on the validity and arbitrariness of a flawed system of justice.” 1 This aspect successfully pinpoints a parallel between soccer and the global political atmosphere from the 1930s-1950s. Each game offers a mini-dictatorship in which the culture is subject to the prime commander, just as it was all over Europe at this time. This component explains the global obsession with football and its political meaning especially during times of international turmoil.
In addition, soccer can seem to be a metaphor for war. Two nations, with different ideals and styles, attack each other on the battlefield and with the graces of skill and luck (and the help of the dictator) one side wins; the other, a sore loser. Eduardo Galeano describes it as such: “In soccer, ritual sublimation of war, eleven men in shorts are the sword of the neighborhood, the city or the nation. These warriors…exorcize the demons of the crowd and reaffirm its faith: in each confrontation between two sides, old hatreds and old loves passed from father to son enter into combat.” 2
The end of World War I instigated great political unrest throughout Europe. The balance of power structure, known as the “Concert of Europe,” between Great Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria crumbled and led way to the modern nation state. However, severe economic troubles prevented democracy from flourishing in many nation states. Looking for stability, some European nations turned towards authoritarian regimes. In Germany, Adolf Hitler gained power through democratic means. However, once in control, he systematically stripped away the rights of people that did not fit his master Aryan race. In Italy, Benito Mussolini was a proponent of fascism. Before the outbreak of World War II, he significantly improved the Italian economy and tightly controlled the Italian culture. In Russia, Joseph Stalin carried Vladimir Lenin’s legacy and brought communism to all of Russia and later expanded communism’s influence to Eastern Europe. In order to promote communist economic policies in the Soviet “sphere of influence,” severe control of the state apparatus was required. In all these regime styles, the dictators attempted to control all aspects of life—from the economy, to entertainment, to sport. Sport, particularly football, was used as a mechanism to showcase the “success” of these regimes to the rest of Europe. Mussolini and Hitler were quick to showcase their athletic teams. Stalin, on the other hand, wanted to be sure of his team’s success before having his teams compete internationally.
Political and cultural movements and moments often see themselves calcified in sport. Football is a game that can bring out the best in people, and the worst in people. It is often easy to see only one side of the coin. Some people point to the uplifting stories of football alone, while others point solely to the moments where football was a force for ill.
The 1930s, 40s, and 50s make up a formative period for football as an international game, with 1930 being the year of the first World Cup. The period was also one of widespread political and cultural unrest. Inevitably, these three decades were host to numerous cases where football transcended sport and took on wide reaching political or cultural relevance.
The stories stretch from the victorious villain, such as the Italian Fascists and their national football team in the 1934 World Cup, 1936 Olympics, and the 1938 World Cup, to the uplifting triumphs of good over evil, with Jesse Owens and his triumph over Hitler’s Aryans. There are also stories of courage, like the Death Match that pitted concentration camp prisoners against their Nazi captures. There was even the so-called “Match of the Century”. Throughout these stories, football was much more than a game.