The holding of sporting events to legitimize regimes that do not respect human rights is not a novelty that has come with the choice of Qatar as the venue for the World Cup. Russia hosted the previous edition of this competition. And Saudi Arabia has celebrated, and will celebrate again next year, the Spanish Super Cup. Even military regimes have hosted this tournament. The Jorge Rafael Videla dictatorship in Argentina hosted this competition in 1978. A few decades earlier, in 1934, it was Benito Mussolini who hosted this championship in Italy.
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The role of soccer as one more factor that influences world geopolitics is one of the theses supported by a current of the university academy. Not only to launder totalitarian regimes, but also to give visibility to political claims. “Football is a tool of political resistance. Paradoxically, the United Nations does not have as many members as FIFA does”, explains Xavier Brito-Alvarado, a professor at the Technical University of Ambato (Ecuador), who considers that “the clearest example is Great Britain”. “It’s just one country in the United Nations, but in FIFA there are England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland,” he points out. Palestine is another of the examples cited by the interviewee, since having its own soccer team is granted “a status of social claim.”
Football, as an “arm” of dissemination of fascism
In the case of football events linked to totalitarian regimes, from Amnesty International they defend that there has been an evolution in the social digestion of the face washes of political systems that do not respect human rights. For Carlos de las Heras, spokesman for the NGO, “20 or 30 years ago” the bleaching carried out by these tournaments “was much more common and contributed a lot to covering the image of certain countries.” The tournament hosted by Mussolini, he adds, was “a loudspeaker” for fascism.
For his part, Víctor Gómez Muñiz, history professor and author of Wins and losses, history through the ball, He maintains that through the sports buildings to house the matches, the Italian dictator promoted “a brutal propaganda of a fascist regime from the architectural style itself.” Along the same lines, that of extolling the regime, Brito-Alvarado considers that at that time, in the interwar period, soccer was a tool to demonstrate superiority – “an arm to spread Mussolini’s Italian fascism” – and not a whitening item.
Italy won the World Cup, just as Mussolini had required the president of the federation when FIFA chose them as the venue. “Italy must win this World Cup, it is an order”, asserted the dictator. And the request was fulfilled. Not without help, since in some matches the host team had favorable treatment by the referees. Spain was one of the teams that paid for a controversial arbitration. “They have stolen the game from us,” lamented the goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora, as stated in the reconstruction carried out by the newspaper abc of that game thanks to its newspaper library.
Three decades later, this situation was repeated in Argentina. A military regime hosted a soccer World Cup. It was 1978 and the host, Videla. In this case, there is more unanimity among the interviewees to specify that this event was an action of sportswashing, a facelift of authoritarian regimes through sport. With this event, the Argentine dictatorship aspired to demonstrate a certain normality in the day-to-day life of the country. The aim was to export an image of a “free country, where you could walk down the street, which did not stop anyone, when it was the opposite,” recalls Gómez Muñiz.
The 1978 World Cup final, which was won by Argentina, was held just a thousand meters from the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), one of the most emblematic centers for the detention, torture and extermination of victims of the dictatorship. “It is estimated that approximately 5,000 kidnapped persons passed through there, in the then Official Casino, most of them remaining missing to this day,” recalls the National Archive of Memory in a publication titled ‘Dictatorship, sport and memory’.
In addition to the “distractive” nature that this competition had for society, the celebration of this sporting event represented an “attempt for political legitimization by the Armed Forces in full ferocious repression and a waste of state resources that”, according to the institution Argentine memorialist, “they had dubious overprices and suspicious recipients.”
From Amnesty International they consider that at that time, the World Cup served to “hide the violation of human rights.” “In this sense, society has been learning that not everything goes and that sport does not serve to cover up this type of violation either,” insists De las Heras. Faced with the showcase that this tournament represented, Videla made a “completely political” inaugural speech, Gómez Muñiz points out. And he adds: “It was a speech to the masses, [sabiendo] which is the image of the world”.
Parallels between the 1978 and 2022 World Cups
This history teacher sees certain parallels between the World Cup in Argentina and the one currently taking place. “In Argentina, the deaths on the death flights, the disappeared, and the existence of torture centers were known. Here, in Qatar, we know all the thousands of deaths that have occurred in the construction of these stadiums”, adds Gómez Muñiz.
The use of sportswashing by authoritarian countries has become over the years a strategy that can unleash unintended media fallout for host regimes. In the case of Argentina, for example, the World Cup also helped “exiles and the recently created human rights organizations themselves -such as the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo-” to have social attention to publicly denounce “the atrocities committed by the dictatorship”, reports the National Archive of Memory.
“This World Cup [en alusión a Qatar] it has been the one that has had the most media coverage since it was awarded in 2010”, explains Xavi Ginesta, professor at the Central University of Catalonia and author of the book ‘Entertainment multinationals’ Edited by the UOC (Open University of Catalonia). This teacher has spent a decade studying how the emirate of Al Thani is using sport “as an element to build the country brand”.
In the comparison of these two events, Gómez Muñiz highlights that both Argentina and Qatar have used “soccer as a political screen for cleaning up and international propaganda”, given the inactivity of “all international bodies, from FIFA to the national federations ”, who did nothing to prevent a World Cup from being held in countries with regimes that violate human rights.
The choice of the World Cup venue four years ago was also controversial. It was held in Russia. “It is true that it may not have had much impact, but there was also a wave of savage repression, especially against members of the LGBTI community and human rights activists. Many of them were even imprisoned”, points out the Amnesty International spokesperson.
Why was the 2018 World Cup held in western Russia? To teach that Russia is not the enemy”, explains Brito-Alvarado, delving into the geopolitics of these events. It was an attempt to show “a modern Russia, open to trade, to large factories”, where there were large international corporations such as “McDonalds” and “Ferrarri”. “They didn’t show that Muslim Russia of Chechnya and that rural Russia,” she points out.
Not only FIFA has opted to give visibility to authoritarian states: the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) has also signed up to this trend by granting Saudi Arabia the venue for the Spanish Super Cup. The agreement supposes an economic reimbursement of 40 million euros per season for Spanish football, according to the different information that has addressed these economic relations. Kosmos, the company of former Barcelona soccer player Gerard Piqué, also played an important role in these negotiations. as revealed The confidential.
Faced with the controversy of choosing a country widely denounced for human rights violations, and whose Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salmán has been held responsible by the CIA for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Spanish delegation of Amnesty International tried to contact the federation Spanish “to assess what role this sports institution could play” and “how this event could be used,” says De la Heras, “to introduce improvements in human rights” in the country on the Persian Gulf. Despite these communications, there was no response from the institution led by Luis Rubiales: “The Federation has ignored it.”