Why does a country bid to host the World Cup? Ignore the grandiose claims about a celebration of all things football – the reality is much more nuanced. It’s about global prestige, international business deals, and domestic politics. Football itself is some way down the list, though that doesn’t necessarily make for a bad tournament.
What’s certain is that every host nation wants to tell the world something. It may want to shake off a negative reputation, accentuate its positives, or simply shout about how wonderful it is.
The most recent World Cup in Brazil was awarded to the country during an economic boom that they wished to showcase, but by the time the tournament rolled around it was on the verge of crisis. Russia will host 2018 as a show of strength from an increasingly self-confident nation. For Qatar, World Cup 2022 is an announcement of its presence on the global stage – albeit one that has been fraught with problems.
None are doing anything new, of course. From the earliest years of the World Cup, it has been used as a platform from which countries can make a grand statement about their place in the world.
Every host has had this in mind, but two stand out for doing so in a particularly aggressive manner: Italy in 1934 and Argentina in 1978.
THE FASCIST WORLD CUP
When Italy began to lobby FIFA to award them the 1934 World Cup, it was because the country’s leader – the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini – wished to demonstrate his power both at home and abroad.
First elected prime minister in 1922, Mussolini had given up any pretence of democracy in 1925 and ruled an authoritarian one-party state where he was Il Duce – “the leader”.
As a follower of football, if not quite a match-going fan, Mussolini understood the sport’s power to connect the elite with the common man. Hosting a global tournament would also allow Italy to showcase its progress under fascist rule.
Europe in the thirties was characterised by competing ideologies: fascism was gaining traction in Italy and Germany, while in the east communism dominated through Josef Stalin’s USSR.
Unlike Stalin, who had used sport as a domestic propaganda tool but did not send his athletes abroad, Mussolini understood that winning on a global stage would make for an even greater demonstration of his nation’s strength.
On the home front, he wanted to use the 1934 tournament to unite Italians under the fascist banner. Thousands of posters went up featuring a bronzed and towering Italian footballer giving the fascist salute; a set of World Cup stamps were issued, and there was even a cigarette brand named Campionato del Mondo (world championship).
Eight stadiums in eight cities would play host, taking the tournament from Milan in the north to Naples in the south. To demonstrate the fascist state’s organisational prowess, all eight first-round games would kick-off at exactly the same time on 27 May. Keen to be seen as a man of the people, Mussolini even queued up to buy his own ticket for Italy’s opener, which saw them thump the United States 7-1.
ITALIAN TRIUMPH, FASCIST GLORY
It was no surprise when Italy reached the final, not least as they only required three wins (this was the first of only two World Cups to be run as a straight knockout competition). After the U.S. they beat Spain in a vicious set of encounters, a 1-1 draw followed by a 1-0 replay win the following day. Such was the violence meted out by the Italians in the first game, Spain were forced to make seven changes for the replay. Italy then dispatched Austria in the semi-final, triumphing 1-0 in Milan.
Their opponents for the deciding contest would be Czechoslovakia. The night before the match Mussolini spoke to the players, urging them to play fair if the Czechs did the same, but to turn nasty if their opponents used dirty tactics.”
The final was a nervy encounter in which Italy fell behind on 71 minutes but equalised with 10 of the 90 remaining, before grabbing a dramatic winner in extra-time.
Contemporary reports tend to agree that refereeing decisions went Italy’s way throughout the tournament, though this was not a side without a great deal of ability – proven four years later when they retained the trophy in France.
Regardless of the means by which they achieved it, Italy had carried out Mussolini’s orders and won the World Cup. Unimpressed by the diminutive Jules Rimet Trophy, Il Duce commissioned a second, much larger reward for his players. The resulting Coppa del Duce was a full six times larger than FIFA’s trophy and was presented to the victors by their leader.
Four days after the final, Mussolini met with Adolf Hitler for the first time, accelerating Europe’s path towards total war. Nazi Germany was two years away from hosting the 1936 Olympics, though Hitler would not enjoy the same level of sporting dominance as his Italian counterpart.
THE JUNTA’S WORLD CUP
More than four decades on from Mussolini’s tournament, the World Cup had grown into a major sporting event broadcast to a global television audience of millions.
Developments had been less positive in Argentina, which was ruled by a brutal military dictatorship (also known as a military junta). Led by General Jorge Videla since 1976, the junta had spent the years preceding the World Cup eliminating opposition to their regime. Allegations of the crimes were widespread – some European nations threatened to boycott the tournament in protest – but the true scale was not yet apparent.
Argentina had been awarded the World Cup long before the junta took power and it is extremely unlikely that the country would have been appointed hosts in the circumstances that had developed by this time.
In this sense 1978 was quite different from Mussolini’s World Cup. While the Italians sought out the tournament to promote themselves on a global stage, Argentina’s military leaders merely inherited it.
Given the wave of negative publicity they faced across the globe, General Videla and his colleagues became enthusiastic supporters of the World Cup. They ploughed huge sums of money into the tournament, spending almost 20 times what West Germany had on hosting four years earlier.
This did little to please their people and even led to criticism from the regime’s own treasury secretary. It may or may not have been a coincidence that his house was bombed during the tournament.
The junta believed this to be money well spent. By staging a successful World Cup, they hoped to counter negative perceptions of their leadership in the international media. In recent years, attempting to divert attention from human rights violations in this way has been dubbed ‘sportswashing’.
The junta promised that this would be a “World Cup of Peace” and told “all patriotic Argentines to unite behind the national flag.”
Like Mussolini in 1938, Videla also made his presence known. During the tournament he was photographed watching several games and was joined for one by Henry Kissinger, then the U.S. Secretary of State and among the most influential men on the planet. This gave the regime exactly the kind of legitimacy they had been looking for.
MATCH-FIXING AND BRIBERY
There is widespread suspicion about what the junta did to ensure victory in 1978. Rumours abound of fixed games, threats to opposition players, and unpunished substance use by the Argentine team.
Nothing has been proven definitively. The refereeing was plainly very kind to Argentina, though their ferocious tackling was by no means unique in 1978.
Their encounter with Peru is often cited as the clearest example of match-fixing. Needing to win 4-0 to reach the final, Argentina defeated the Peruvians by six unanswered goals. In the decades that have followed it has been claimed that Peru received a huge shipment of grain in exchange for throwing the match; it has even been alleged that Videla and Kissinger visited the Peruvian dressing room before the match.
The final was a different matter, as Argentina faced a Dutch side that had no intention of allowing them an easy win. In fact, the Netherlands had led calls for the tournament to be withdrawn from Argentina. The players may have been intimidated, but they would not roll over.
Despite the Dutch side’s best efforts, a 3-1 win for the hosts – with two extra-time goals sealing the trophy – gave the junta exactly what they’d wanted, just as Mussolini had got his wish 44 years earlier.
This was not the only similarity. Like Italy, Argentina disproved suggestions that they needed home advantage to succeed by winning the World Cup again in 1986. But by this time the junta was gone – democracy had returned in 1983 – and today the 1978 win is seen as a poor relation to the glory of 1986.
GETTING THE MESSAGE ACROSS
Seeing Videla rub shoulders with Kissinger, or Mussolini on the pitch awarding his team a custom-made trophy, helped each regime to make a clear statement.
Italy was trying to tell the world that it was a successful fascist state; Argentina that it was not the horrendous dictatorship shown on news reports. In both cases they were able to pull off the deceit, at least to a degree.
But you can only fool people for so long. Mussolini lasted for just over 10 years after his World Cup, while Argentina’s military dictatorship had fallen within five. A World Cup is only so powerful.
Of course, it’s not just oppressive regimes that convey a message in this way. In 1998 France hosted and won the World Cup with an electrifying multicultural side that mixed French and African-born players.
Their great star was Zinedine Zidane, born in France of Algerian parents; their skipper was the quintessentially French Didier Deschamps; and their midfield lynchpin was Patrick Vieira, born in Senegal and raised in France.
Their success was a victory for multiculturalism on the eve of a new millennium. True or not, France had told the world that it was a diverse and united modern nation.
In each case, winning the tournament was extremely significant. If Brazil 2014 was about displaying the country’s 21st century status, it failed badly. There was vocal criticism of the money spent on stadiums and protests by unhappy citizens. Perhaps this would have been forgiven if the team had won the tournament, but their semi-final humiliation against Germany made for a disastrous conclusion. Brazil’s message became negative, one of overconfidence and underachievement.
Which leaves us to conclude that the best way for the host nation to convey a strong international message is by winning the World Cup. Perhaps it really is about the football after all.