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Down in front, der Führer

April 30, 2010
By David Hirshey and Roger Bennett
Special to

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event," copyright 2010 by David Hirshey and Roger Bennett. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books and Ballantine Books. Available in bookstores May 4.

Click here to purchase the book.

Rare is the modern tyrant who does not make soccer a central priority of his regime. Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu dispatched his son, Valentin, to propel Steaua Bucharest to European glory in 1986. Stalin's secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, was so fanatical about Dynamo Moscow that he had rival players shipped off to Siberia. And Chile's General Augusto Pinochet took time out from making his opponents disappear to serve as honorary president of his beloved club team, Colo-Colo. More effective than a robust domestic policy, soccer is one of the greatest tools a dictator has at his disposal to enhance his popularity. The reflected glory of the victory adds luster to any faltering regime, while a loss can trigger a national uprising, or even an international conflict. Herewith is a rogues gallery of the world's worst soccer fans.

That Mussolini's ascent to power triggered a golden period for Italian soccer in which the team twice won the World Cup was no coincidence. Il Duce was crazy for the sport, realizing the double propaganda opportunity it offered: It reinforced a sense of Italian unity domestically while burnishing its reputation on the global stage. Mussolini directed his party to remold Italian soccer as a Fascist game, creating a single domestic league to symbolize national unity and installing Fascist bureaucrats to run every important club. When the national team played at home, he enjoyed making a dramatic entrance onto the field riding a white steed, and when they traveled abroad he instructed the players to hold their Fascist salutes until whistling protesters had run out of energy.

While Hitler appreciated the emotional power and spectacle of soccer, its unpredictable nature left him cold. During the Third Reich's infancy, the national team was strategically employed as an international ambassador for the regime. In 1935 Hitler ensured that 10,000 fans received subsidies to travel to England and cheer the team on for propaganda purposes. The only time he was known to attend a game in person, Germany was defeated 2–0 by the lowly Norwegians in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. When Norway scored its second goal, Hitler headed for the exit, prompting Goebbels to write in his journal, "The Fuhrer is very agitated. I am almost unable to control myself. A real bath of nerves."

The dictator, who ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975, viewed soccer as a game in which, to quote the fascist newspaper Arriba España!, "the virility of the Spanish race can find full expression imposing itself over the more technical but less aggressive foreign teams." But his national team frustrated him with its poor form. Although he delighted in squeezing every ounce of public relations value out of Spain's sporadic wins against Eastern Bloc opposition, the sports newspaper Marca was appalled at the team's lack of commitment, claiming that the players were "so conditioned by foreign tactics that it no longer plays like a team of real Spaniards with passion, aggression, virility, and above all, fury." Franco drew solace from the performance of his favorite domestic club, Real Madrid, although their powerhouse status may have had something to do with the director of State Security's regular, intimidating visits to the opponents' locker room before crucial games.

The Argentina-hosted 1978 World Cup was used by the military junta as an extended infomercial for their regime. They cut spending in areas like hospitals and schools, diverting it to ensuring victory, allegedly even bribing Peru to throw a critical game with a combination of free grain, forgiving millions of dollars of credits, and allegedly an arms shipment or two. The effort was worth it. When Argentina won, the streets were flooded with people, who cheered the generals as they stood on the balcony of the presidential palace to bask in the acclaim of the nation. To build on its newfound popularity, the junta proceeded to engage Chile in a territorial dispute.

The Iraqi president, or "Glorious Leader," was not much of a soccer fan, but he recognized the sport's strategic value and so entrusted the national team to his son Uday, who utilized a series of unique motivational strategies to improve its performance. One of his first acts was to install an iron maiden and a 30-cell prison in the offices of the Olympic federation. Players who were deemed to have underperformed had their feet scalded and toenails ripped off. Squads sent to play abroad were threatened with the possibility that, in the event they lost, their return flight would explode in midair. The team promptly qualified for the 1986 World Cup. Their failure to qualify in 1994 led to the entire squad being forced to kick concrete balls until the bones in their feet were shattered.