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The Dictator's Game

If you’re currently enjoying the Euro 2012 soccer championship, you probably aren’t thinking about the peculiar relationship football (as everyone but us Americans calls it) has had with dictators of every stripe over the years. Franco, Mussolini, and General Jorge Videla (in Argentina) are just a few authoritarians who profited from the successes of a club or national team; at the very least they identified with those successes during their time in power and used them for propaganda purposes. We’ve written about the concept of ‘bread and circuses’ in The Dictator’s Handbook as a technique for distracting and sedating the masses; the spectacle of international football is certainly one resource dictators have exploited time and again.

Take the case of the Italian national team in the 1930s. From about 1928 until 1940, it was the probably the best team in the world, winning two World Cups (1934 and 1938), and an Olympic gold medal (1936, at the Berlin games); Mussolini certainly tried to tie his somewhat portly figure into the success of this remarkable squad, partly by building stadia that were themselves glorifications of his Fascist regime. Sometimes the relationship went both ways -- in 1938 at a game in Marseille the Italian coach had his players strike and hold the Fascist salute in response to boos and whistles during their national anthem, an event that was certainly ripe for exploitation as propaganda by Mussolini. Earlier, Mussolini had used the 1934 Word Cup tournament, which was staged in Italy that year, to broadcast the ‘strength’ and ‘success’ of Fascist Italy to the world -- something made easier of course by the eventual Italian victory.

Of course there are other, darker examples. In 1978 in Buenos Aires, political prisoners held in detention centers could hear the roar of a full stadium during the World Cup, which naturally was won by Argentina that year.

Keep all this in mind when you’re watching the winner of Euro 2012 in a few days' time; when you see the players hoist the trophy, imagine what it would be like if Richard M. Tater were there to share their glory. 

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