The 2022 World Cup is now over, and from a purely footballing perspective, what an exhilarating few weeks it has been. Upsets were seen, heroes had been made and villains had been forged; all from within the confines of the little resource-abundant nation of Qatar.
An estimated 5 billion people tuned in to watch the story-tale ending of Lionel Messi finally being united with the elusive World Cup trophy, with his subsequent Instagram post celebrating his successful campaign becoming the most liked post ever… on any social media platform.
Even without seeing the viewing figures for the Final in December we know that the World Cup is a big deal. If England are doing well in football it can appear as if all our nation’s ills and struggles are drowned out by the unifying chants of “It’s Coming Home” with footballers like Jude Bellingham quickly becoming household names and local heroes. The World Cup is more than just a sporting competition, it is a religion, a social event like no other, a chance for your country to be represented on a global scale.
It is this last point which has made the World Cup historically controversial. At such a large scale event held in one nation, politics and propaganda seeps through the barriers of it just being a sporting event, as covertly it can be perceived as a tool to demonstrate a nation’s soft power to the international community. There are allegations and evidence to reinforce this point on practically every World Cup since its conception, however this blog will outline two which I deem to be the most controversial in its concoction of propaganda, soft-power and football.
Soft Power will be defined in this piece as a subtle way a nation can exert its political or cultural agenda; in which it may go unnoticed by some.
1934 World Cup in Italy
Arguably the most overtly corrupt World Cup in history, it was during a time when fascism in Europe was on the rise and ambitious President Benito Mussolini wanted to demonstrate the might and power of a reborn Italy.
Mussolini had already been in power for over a decade and his Orwellian grip on Italy was not seen as favourable by the international community and by FIFA (Flood, 2018). However, given the power that a global event could have on the portrayal of his nation, he was determined to use this new sporting event to shift the narrative surrounding his regime; ultimately aiming to use the Cup to legitimise his government and to promote his fascist ideology worldwide.
As mentioned, his government was not seen positively by the international community, however allegations spread of the Italian Government assuring FIFA that if they host the Finals, then any monetary losses from the tournament would be taken care of by them (Hart, 2016). If true, one can see the beginning of the corruption in FIFA, something which consistently remains apparent through to the 2022 World Cup; and has allowed for the consistent use of soft-power through football to legitimise World Leader’s aspirations for nations.
Regarding the tournament itself, two things stick out which indicate the manipulation of the tournament for soft-power purposes. The first being the coverage and overall ambience surrounding the games, and the second being the general refereeing of Italy’s games. Instances of half-filled stadiums were common, however State radio applauded the packed-out and enthralling atmosphere. One can see the desire for Mussolini to portray Italy as a mighty fascist nation to the world, and this carries over to the alleged bribing (but questionable decisions) with the referees.
Italian referees were used in big games, such as the semi final between Czechoslovakia and Germany, causing questionable decisions against Germany as the Czechs were seen as an easier opponent for the Italians in the final. The Italian-Spanish Quarter final also saw two Spanish goals disallowed under precarious circumstances (Flood, 2018).
The manipulation of the tournament from Mussolini can show that even the beginning of the World Cup was controversial. This is only the second Finals held yet it was used to promote Italian fascist ideology worldwide; causing a fixed tournament allowing Italy to win. As the curse of hindsight has shown us, the effects were extremely successful in not only consolidating Mussolini’s grip on the nation, but also on the exertion of the soft power of their fascist regime. The following year, he mobilised Italian forces to invade Ethiopia which marked the beginning of fascist expansion from Europe; culminating in the Second World War.
1978 World Cup in Argentina
Described as a “cover for the atrocities which would reconvene following the final” (FHB, 2019), the 1978 World Cup in Argentina took part following the vicious US backed “Junta” successfully achieving a military coup of the nation. This Junta is known for its blatant and brazen oppression of anyone going against the new regime, with a multitude of people disappearing from society creating a whole generation of “Desaparecidos”. In the 10 years between 1970 - 80, at least 30,000 individuals joined this unfortunate demographic for simply acting in disagreement with this far-right regime (Meade, 2016).
In an awfully similar fashion to what we have seen in more recent World Cups in Russia and Qatar, the international community voiced their concerns in hosting the most influential tournament in the world in a country with a corrupt regime. West Germany, much like Germany did in 2022, protested the decision for the tournament to remain in a nation which is run by such a government and very nearly pulled out of the competition entirely (Hersey, 2018). Amnesty International utilised their blunt yet effective slogan of “Yes to football, no to torture!” which was particularly effective in Europe.
Already one can see similarities between controversies of historical World Cups and more recent iterations of the event (particularly Russia), as the Argentine military leadership used the spotlight to broadcast an alternative narrative of their governance, and to distract the international community away from atrocities which were being committed against the civilians of Argentina.
While decisions were not as overtly rigged as Italy ‘34, the right-wing politics of the Junta still leaked into the games. The entertaining final between the Netherlands and Argentina saw minor controversy as the Argentine FA complained about the decision to have an Israeli referee given the close ties between Israel and the Netherlands. Instead, an Italian referee was brought in due to the closer ties Italy has to the host nation (Hersey, 2018).
Argentina ended up winning the final, and was the nation’s first World Cup victory. The nation erupted into celebration, but years later the dark truth behind the ‘78 World Cup came into the spotlight. The Argentine player Ricky Villa commented on the use of their victory as a political tool, claiming there was no doubt they were “used” to benefit the regime (FHB, 2019). The victory helped disguise the atrocities of the Junta internationally but also within Argentina. The silence of FIFA in the build-up to the tournament had allowed for the military regime to use it as a force of their soft power, which we have seen is extremely effective in legitimisation, and the football acted as a distraction from the atrocities the regime was committing within the nation.
After reading about two previous tournaments which were full of controversy, it is easy to compare them with Qatar and Russia over the past 4 years. With all eyes on one nation but more particularly on football, it is easy to be susceptible to a host nations’ exertion of soft power and legitimation. What has been interesting looking back is the actual success that they have brought. For instance Argentina ‘78, while the prelude to the tournament was very controversial in Europe, its legacy nowadays seems to only be on the flair on the pitch and the football-mania which filled the host nation; not on the military regime’s atrocities.
Perhaps we can see the same thing in Qatar ‘22. Again, European nations were quick to voice concerns over a host nation using cheap labour not too dissimilar from slavery; yet it has been three weeks since the final and it is becoming clear that the legacy will be that of Messi cementing himself as one of the greatest of all time. The football has been acting as a distraction to the atrocities which had been occurring in the build-up. Russia ‘18 can link in with Italy ‘34 also, given the fact that the tournaments served as a legitimising force for controversial European regimes.
There is no escaping politics in football. On the contrary to what some fans think, which is that FIFA has only recently become corrupt and allowed for government’s to use the tournament for their own gains, I believe FIFA became this as soon as it became an organisation… When international teams are concerned, their politics looms over them like a dark shadow.
Flood, A. (2018) 1934 World Cup – The Story Of Mussolini, Italy, And The Fascist Blackshirts, Punditarena, Available at https://punditarena.com/football/thepateam/1934-world-cup-mussolini-italy-fascists/
Football History Boys (2019) The 1978 World Cup: The Most Controversial Competition in History?, Football History Boys, Available at https://www.thefootballhistoryboys.com/2019/06/the-1978-world-cup-most-controversial.html
Hart, J. (2016) WHEN THE WORLD CUP ROLLED INTO FASCIST ITALY IN 1934, TheseFootballTimes, Available at https://thesefootballtimes.co/2016/07/27/when-the-world-cup-rolled-into-fascist-italy-in-1934/
Hersey, W. (2018) Remembering Argentina 1978: The Dirtiest World Cup Of All Time, Esquire, Available at https://www.esquire.com/uk/culture/a21454856/argentina-1978-world-cup/
Meade, T.A. (2016) A history of modern Latin America : 1800 to the present (Second ed.). Chichester, West Sussex