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Political Use of Football Through Propaganda

Football is the most popular sport in the world today, with 4 million viewers, followed by cricket, which has 2.5 million viewers all around the world (Mundo Deportivo, 2022). Football is a sport that unites and is played in most countries globally. The World Cup is an event that brings nations to a standstill, bringing out the best (and unfortunately, sometimes the worst) in societies. Wherever people are in the world, regardless of culture, language, and religion, if someone mentions one of the greatest players currently active and one of the best football players of all time, Lionel Messi, most people will know him. A priori, some people might think that football and politics might not have many points in common; that is true in theory. However, in practice, something very different happens. As the most popular and consumed sport globally, political leaders are no strangers to this and have seen and are continuing to see it as a powerful tool for dissemination. History has shown multiple situations where certain political issues have become intertwined with sport, especially with football, which is probably offering the greatest examples, given that it is the most widely played and consumed sport in the world.

This article will focus on some emblematic cases in which certain governments have taken advantage of football and other sporting activities to disseminate their propaganda and to divert attention from other events taking place in their own countries or worldwide. It will provide a global analysis, applying examples from countries like Argentina, Chile, and others, showing that this is a phenomenon that affects many societies on a global scale.

Spain won the Eurocup of 1964 and in the picture can be seen Francisco Franco having fulfilled his mission
Figure 1: Francisco Franco delivering the World Cup (El Confidencial, 2016).

The first case to be analyzed is the use of football during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain, which lasted from 1939, when the Spanish Civil War ended, until his death in 1975. Several remarkable events during this period demonstrate the propagandistic use of sport by the regime. This procedure can be visualized in the following quote by José Moscardó, the first national delegate at the time:

We will appoint presidents of the federations who will have our absolute trust, and who will, in turn, guide the movements of the federations in the procedures deemed most effective for the high interest of the country. If ever there shall be a fundamental mistake, the culprit will cease to be welcomed, and his replacement will be unappealable.

(González Gómez, 2023, p. 25, trans. by Baldomero Villamil)

It is evident from his statement that the Spanish regime exercised total control and intervention in the field of sports, aiming to align it with its state policies and regime propaganda. This manipulation was exemplified in the Eurocup final between Spain and the Soviet Union in 1964, amid the Cold War. During this period, Spain began to open up and align more with the United States, making the Spanish state an interesting isolationist force against the Soviets (ABC, 2012). The Franco dictatorship leveraged sport, particularly the Spanish national football team, as a powerful tool to shape an image of the country's prosperity and development on the global stage. This influence extended to Real Madrid, one of the main football teams in the capital, which became a target of political manipulation. The Franco dictatorship embraced Real Madrid as its prodigal son, despite the team not winning European titles until 1954. Alfredo Di Stefano, the key player during this period, was acquired from the Colombian team Millonarios. Initially, there was a bidding war with Barcelona Football Club, as the Argentinian-born player played a few games for the Blaugrana at the outset. Under Franco's pressure and after an agreement was reached, Di Stefano alternated between playing for Barcelona and Real Madrid until the Catalan management eventually yielded, allowing him to play for Madrid's team. With Alfredo Di Stefano leading the way, Real Madrid went on to win five consecutive European Cups, projecting an image of success for the team in white. Franco understood that Real Madrid's European success created a misleading image of prosperity and development for the Spanish state, which helped to conceal the reality of his dictatorial regime.

A ball of the team that was used by Francisco Franco to spread the image of Spain through Europe
Figure 2: A ball of Real Madrid Football Club (Conquista la Historia, 2019).

Another intriguing case to analyze, in line with the previous one, is the Argentinian situation during the 1978 World Cup. This event unfolded against the backdrop of the country's last civil-military dictatorship, which endured from 1976 to 1983. Argentina clinched victory in the tournament with a formidable team led by Mario Alberto Kempes and coached by César Luis Menotti. However, this article will not delve into the game and other details. This section will try to explore the political and controversial context in which Argentina was subject to and how this difficult moment was crossed by a world sporting event that the government of the time tried to use to its advantage. During that period, Argentina was grappling with one of its most critical moments, characterized by political violence and guerrilla warfare within the country. The military government was marred by numerous allegations of human rights violations. Throughout the tournament, banners were prominently displayed indicating that Argentinians were "human and right", presenting a starkly different image from the documented cases of human rights abuses that would later come to light (Clarin, 2017). This strategic move by the military government aimed to divert attention from the serious socio-political context by placing the country in the global spotlight through the organization of the World Cup. The message "We are human and we are right" adorned the River Plate stadium in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Nunez, intending to establish a favorable image of the country at the time. Ironically, in close proximity stood the ESMA (Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada), which evolved into one of the largest clandestine centers for the torture of individuals in the country (El País, 2023). Probably, the prisoners who were being tortured could hear the cheers coming from the stadium, while people in the stadium were unaware of what was happening close by them.

Another event under analysis is the match between Argentina and Peru, in which the Albiceleste won 6-0. This particular match has sparked controversy due to claims that it might have been fixed, as Argentina needed a specific result to advance (Infobae, 2023). A favorable outcome in the World Cup would symbolize a kind of triumph for the ongoing military dictatorship. Football holds immense significance for society, particularly in Latin America, where the passion for this sport is profound. This influence has been aptly termed "the opium of the people." A positive sporting result likely served as a distraction for society, drawing attention away from other pressing political and social issues developing at the time.

The militar government celebrating a goal during the World Cup of 1978
Figure 3: The three members of the Argentinian military junta celebrating a goal (El Periódico, 2013).

An emblematic case of propaganda in football is the World Cup that was played in Italy in 1934, often referred to as "Mussolini's World Cup". This event marked the second edition in the history of the World Cup, following the inaugural one in Uruguay in 1930. Leading up to the tournament, the "Duce," as the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was known, ensured that the World Cup would take place in fascist Italy at that time. He exerted pressure on the president of the International Football Federation, Jules Rimet, and on the Swedish representatives, as Sweden was another contender to host the World Cup of 1934 (Sport, 2022). Mussolini was one of the pioneers in the use of propaganda and applied it greatly at the World Cup of 1934. Later in time, Argentinian and Spanish dictators tried to imitate him in the use of it.

One of the strategies employed by the Italian national team to secure victory was to recruit prominent players from other nations and present them as if they were native Italians. Examples include the Argentinian Luis Monti and the Brazilian Anfilogio Guarisi, among others. Italy emerged victorious in the 1934 World Cup, but not without the regime resorting to tactics such as threatening referees and even their own players. Complaints arose from the Spanish team during their match against Italy, expressing dismay over the excessive fouls committed by the Italians. Similar incidents occurred in the subsequent match between Italy and Austria, where the Austrian coach voiced dissatisfaction with the refereeing and, ironically, he contended that the cup should have gone to Italy given the unfortunate events transpiring during the tournament (TUDN, 2018).

The Italian National Team with Mussolini celebrating the World Cup of 1934
Figure 4: Mussolini on foot for the players of the Italian national team (Sport, 2022).

Stepping away from football but remaining within the realm of sports, another compelling example of sporting propaganda necessitates discussion—the case of Nazi Germany during the Olympic Games held in Berlin in 1936. Two crucial figures in this context were Adolf Hitler, who led the country, and Joseph Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda at the time (National Geographic, 2022).

Through the Olympic Games, the German government aimed to showcase a strong and unified Germany, especially following the aftermath of the First World War. Berlin was selected as the host city for the Olympics in 1931, two years before Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. Despite various attempts by the international community to boycott Germany as the host in order to delegitimize the Nazist regime, these efforts proved unsuccessful. Participation in the Olympics, to some extent, conferred legitimacy upon the German authority. During the 1936 Olympics, the German government toned down its anti-Semitic propaganda to present itself as a robust, peaceful, and tolerant state. A New York Times article from that period portrayed a Germany that had reintegrated into the world community and had been restored to its "humanity" (New York Times, 1936). Just three years after this international sporting event, Germany invaded Poland, triggering World War II with devastating consequences. The German case stands out as one of the most egregious examples of propaganda in sports, delving into Nazism—one of the movements that precipitated one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century and in the history of humanity: the subsequent Holocaust and widespread violations of human rights.

Adolf Hitler during the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936
Figure 5: A picture of the Olympic Games of Berlin in 1936 (La Vanguardia, 2021).

Today, the different societies of the world have more tools at their disposal to closely monitor all the measures taken by their rulers that could affect them. Everything (or almost everything) happens on social media and it is very easy to find out what is happening on the other side of the world immediately. This makes the use of political propaganda in football more difficult to apply nowadays, as the level of exposure is much higher compared to previous times. Forty years ago, there were not the achievements of technological development that the world has today, which allow anyone with a minimum of internet access to be aware of everything that is happening. This is another reason why it is more difficult to establish a level of political propaganda such as that which existed and was seen in the cases analyzed in the last century, prior to the technological boom.

In this article, various historical cases of political propaganda in football and sports in general have been presented. The four cases analyzed (Spain, Argentina, Italy, and Germany) share certain similarities as they involve authoritarian military governments seizing opportunities presented by major sporting events to use them as channels for propaganda. In the first case, Franco utilized the Spanish national football team and Real Madrid Football Club to disseminate the desired image of Spain in various European countries. In Argentina's case, the opportunity to host a football World Cup during the civilian-military government period provided a golden chance to convey a message of unity and peace to the world. Italy, with expansive objectives, sought to generate a powerful image of the regime by winning the World Cup on home soil in 1934. Departing from football, the 1936 Berlin Olympics followed a similar pattern, aiming to convey a message of order and progress amidst mounting accusations to the contrary. While the Argentinian case occurred forty years later, the other examples are contemporary and quite similar. Despite being developed in different contexts and societies through non-democratic governments, these cases reflect a consistent pattern. While it is possible that changes have occurred over the years and that such activities are more controlled today, governments remain exposed if they employ these tactics. Unfortunately, political propaganda through sports is likely to persist, necessitating vigilance from the global community for potential cases in the years to come.

Bibliographical References

Birchallwireless, F.T. (1936). Olympics leave glow of pride in the Reich; Germans themselves seem to have taken some lessons to heart and visitors gain a good impression. New York Times.

Bolaños, E. (2023). Mitos y verdades del 6-0 de Argentina a Perú en el Mundial de 1978, el partido de la eterna sospecha. Infobae.

Canals, X. (2022). Italia 1934: El Mundial de Mussolini. Sport.

Calvo Sánchez, B. (2022). Cuál es el deporte más popular del mundo. Mundo Deportivo.,Reino%20Unido%2C%20Sud%C3%A1frica%20y%20Australia.

Confino, E.H. & González Tizón, R. (2022). Revolución, Derechos Humanos y exilio: Montoneros y la Comisión Argentina de Derechos Humanos en los orígenes de la denuncia de la dictadura argentina (1976-1980). sociohistó (p. 10).

Criales, J.P. (2023). El mayor centro de torturas de la dictadura argentina mira al futuro. El País.

González Gómez, D. (2022). El fútbol como elemento propagandístico del franquismo. Un análisis de la Eurocopa de fútbol de 1964. Universidad de Valladolid (p. 25).

Huguet Pané, G. (2022). La propaganda Nazi en los Juegos Olímpicos de Berlín en 1936. National Geographic.

“Somos derechos y humanos”: cómo se armó la campaña. (2017). Clarin.

Tinta Mundialista: Mussolini y sus amenazas para que Italia fuera campeón en 1934. (2018). Tudn.

Viana, I. (2012). Franco «jugó» la Eurocopa del 64. ABC.

Visual Sources

Cover image: La verdad sobre Franco y el Real Madrid y el Barsa. (2019). La Galerna.

Figure 1: La "furia española": así utilizó Franco el fútbol y así le respondieron los nacionalistas. (2016). El Confidencial.

Figure 2: El fútbol durante el franquismo: mitos y realidades. (2019). Conquista la Historia.

Figure 3: El gol que coló Videla. (2013). El Periódico.

Figure 4: Italia 1934: El Mundial de Mussolini. (2022). Sport.

Figure 5: Berlin 1936, los Juegos Olímpicos que Hitler no quería. (2021). La Vanguardia.


Author Photo

Baldomero Villamil

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