This week, FIFA is hosting a conference on the World Cup in history. Scholars from throughout the world are gathering to look at how the World Cup has been more than just a sporting event, filtering into the politics, society, and economics. At the conference, however, two scholars have made some rather bold claims about the connections between the World Cup and politics:
Soccer’s biggest prize may have twice been won with the help of dictators fixing matches for the host team.
Argentina’s triumph in 1978 and Italy’s in 1934 were said to be influenced by military leaders seeking propaganda coups, delegates were told Thursday at a symposium titled ”The Relevance and Impact of FIFA World Cups.”
”It’s the same old story: Sport and politics are brothers and sometimes sport is under the other brother,” Italian writer Marco Impiglia told The Associated Press.
Impiglia presented a paper suggesting Benito Mussolini ensured favorable refereeing decisions, helping the Italian team win.
Raanan Rein, an Israeli professor of Latin American history, said he was ”100 percent persuaded” that Argentina’s military junta influenced a 6-0 win against Peru. The match is a notorious chapter of World Cup lore and ensured Argentina advanced to the final instead of great rival Brazil.
Certainly, there is little doubt that dictatorships benefited from World Cup victories, and it is not even limited to Argentina and Italy. Though Brazil was not the host country in 1970 (Mexico was), its victory there and its status as the first ever tri-champion allowed dictator Emilio Garrastazu Medici to lead the country into the worst excesses of nationalistic pride, even while the military dictatorship was at the height of its most repressive phase. Certainly, dictatorships and repressive governments have benefited from World Cup victories in the past. Nonetheless, as tantalizing and fascinating as the idea is, the key sentence from the article is really this:
Still, Rein and Impiglia said their claims lack documentary proof.
Suffice to say, that’s a pretty big problem. That’s not to say the allegations are totally baseless – for years, there have been allegations and oral accounts from participants or politicians suggesting that Argentina’s 6-0 defeat of Peru in particular was suspect and may have counted on support from any number of officials, be they Peruvian coaches or players, or the referees themselves. Nonetheless, these allegations have generally been whispers, with a lot of contradictions between stories and not a lot of corroborating evidence. Documentary evidence could go far in helping clarify the issue, but that is something Rein and Impiglia lack. One can be “totally convinced” that match-fixing took place, but that does not address the actual issue of whether there is enough evidence to empirically say it did indeed occur. Indeed, although the allegation of manipulating the 1978 or 1934 World Cups is a sexy argument, it distracts from perhaps the more important (and demonstrable) fact that, regardless of whether or not regimes fixed matches, the World Cup played a key role in drumming up popular support for brutal regimes not just in Argentina and Italy, but in Brazil as well. Indeed, the World Cup was and continues to be one of the most visible forms of ultranationalism and sport in the world today, regardless of regime types or match-fixing.