World Cups under suspicion: propaganda and corruption in the history of the tournament

"Bringing the World Cup to a country where there is a flagrant violation of human rights is irreparable damage to football," denounces Orfeo Suárez, editor-in-chief of the Sports section of the newspaper El Mundo.

NewsEditor
NewsEditor
18 November 2022 Friday 23:33
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World Cups under suspicion: propaganda and corruption in the history of the tournament

"Bringing the World Cup to a country where there is a flagrant violation of human rights is irreparable damage to football," denounces Orfeo Suárez, editor-in-chief of the Sports section of the newspaper El Mundo. In a conversation with Historia y Vida, the journalist highlights "the impressive ability of football to 'whitewash', as the main mass phenomenon of our time."

Thus, Suárez anticipates, we will witness significant media noise in the days prior to the World Cup event in Qatar, but, when the ball begins to roll and the great football stars make their appearance, the controversies will go to the background. Undoubtedly, the Qatar World Cup has been surrounded by controversy since the moment it was named, on December 2, 2010.

Then doubts arose about the process of awarding the championship to a country with zero soccer tradition, little territorial extension, inexistence of large stadiums and subjected to high temperatures, which would make the dates of the celebrations change to the months of November and December, with the paralysis of the main European leagues as a consequence. Even with all these factors against it, the Arab country imposed its candidacy against rivals such as the United States, South Korea and Japan.

Criticism regarding the sporting organization of the event was overshadowed, however, by the scandal, in the opinion of many, of holding a world championship in a corner of the planet where respect for human rights is conspicuous by its absence. A country that contemplates the death penalty in its legislation, where homosexuality is persecuted and women are subjected to a strict guardianship system that prevents them from living with full freedom.

“What has Qatar given in return? Money, money and more money. What is FIFA interested in? Money, money and more money”, affirms Julián Redondo emphatically, president of the Spanish Association of Sports Press. Others, such as Alfredo Relaño, director of the sports newspaper As for twenty-three years and honorary president since he left office in 2019, prefer to look to the future in a positive light and highlight "the universal dimension" of the beautiful game, as well as its determined commitment for “linking areas of the earth”.

Despite the criticism, the fact that the World Cup event ends up "in a geostrategic region of such importance" can contribute to promoting the changes, according to this veteran journalist. "Little by little, these events are creating a positive contagion, that opens borders and can change habits and laws." Gaspar Díez, editor-in-chief of Sports at Europa Press, holds the same opinion, for whom the World Cup in Qatar could be "an opportunity for those countries", while highlighting the ability of football to generate benefits thanks to these events, which can then invest in women's football or grassroots sport.

Cristina Cubero, deputy editor of the Mundo Deportivo newspaper, also believes that the World Cup could be “an opportunity we have to show that things can be done differently. They will have to adapt to us in many aspects that before the arrival of the World Cup were totally implausible”. The veteran journalist, who has accumulated in her career the experience of covering six soccer World Cups, six Euro Cups or six Olympic Games, knows well what the "force of soccer" can do for the progress of society. "If by going to Qatar we get the women of this country to gain freedom, it will have been worth it," she says.

“Soccer is the sport that can be practiced anywhere in the world, whether you are rich or poor. A cloth ball and two stones are enough to make a goal. In addition, it passionately reproduces the tribal confrontation: our country, our neighborhood, our team”, argues Orfeo Suárez. These two main reasons make soccer, he adds, the "greatest mass phenomenon of our time."

Since the first World Cup edition, held in Uruguay in 1930, the great football competition has not ceased to conquer countries and territories, while serving as a mirror of dark, turbulent times, opening moments or explosions of hope. Twenty-one world championships have been played to date: eleven of them have been held on the European continent, eight in America, one in Asia and another in Africa. In the first chapter of this long history, football already taught the world that this simple sport, increasingly popular, could become a game board for various influences and interests.

The 1930 World Cup in Uruguay has gone down in history as the European boycott. There were several countries of the Old Continent that aspired to dispute the candidacy of the Uruguayans. The awarding of the first World Cup to the American continent caused a massive resignation from the European teams. Finally, after pressure from FIFA President Jules Rimet, the teams from France, Belgium, Romania and Yugoslavia attended the event.

In France 1938, the political context decisively conditioned the competition. Spain was already mired in a civil war and could not participate. Austria had qualified, but, being annexed by Nazi Germany, left its position vacant. Uruguay, which maintained the boycott of European countries, did not participate either. The star duel of the quarterfinals pitted the hosts against Italy. Democracy versus fascism on a pitch. Maximum expectation and war drums on the pitch.

The World Cup returned to Brazil in 1950, after the 1942 and 1946 editions were suspended. With Europe devastated as a result of the ravages of World War II, FIFA accepted the American venue. In a marked post-war political climate, Germany and Japan were penalized for not participating, while the USSR declined the invitation.

In turn, Spain '82 showed the world that the path of change that began with the death of Franco in 1975 had crystallized into a scenario of democratic normality. The massive event, gestated in the times of the dictatorship, evolved alongside the two regimes, until it materialized to the beat of the young democracy. For a month, Spain was in the spotlight of the world's media, as a modern country up to the demanding organizational challenge.

The 1990 World Cup in Italy was played in the middle of the German reunification process, which began in mid-1989 and ended on October 3, 1990. While the East German (GDR) team, not classified for the World Cup, headed inexorably towards its dissolution, the Federal Republic of Germany was made with the longed-for title. A triumph presented as “all” Germany. The twenty-three districts of Berlin, now free of the obscure border posts, were able to celebrate the historic triumph with fireworks. A new world was dawning.

On occasions, the World Cups have been used as a propaganda weapon by certain leaders in order to legitimize their regimes, as a way of laundering their image and hiding their crimes. Two controversial dates stand out on the black list: Italy 1934 and Argentina 1978.

The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini immediately saw football as a great opportunity to publicize his fascist regime. “There are great parallels between that 1934 Soccer World Cup and the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936 in the capital of Reich Germany, already governed by the Nazi party, with Hitler at the helm, where significant rights violations had occurred” explains Orfeo Suárez.

For the Duce there were only two options in that championship: “win or die”. The Italian regime prepared the victory of its country in advance, using all the means at its disposal, from the express nationalization of four Argentine players and one Brazilian to arbitration scandals responsible for more than "suspicious" results.

At half-time in the grand final against Czechoslovakia, Mussolini entered the locker room with a clear message for the Italian coach: "Mr. Pozzo, you are solely responsible for success, but God help you if you fail." The victory of the Italians by two goals to one was the success of fascism and the relief of some players frightened by the wrath of the dictator. “It is one of the first world championships where there is a great political instrumentalization by the fascist regime of Mussolini”, asserts Suárez.

"As a soccer fan, the World Cup that left me embarrassed was the one in Argentina '78, which legitimized a criminal regime," recalls Alfredo Relaño. The championship held in the South American country ran parallel to the state of terror imposed by the Military Junta headed by Jorge Rafael Videla, for many Argentines the incarnation of "absolute evil."

“The World Cup was held under conditions of a military dictatorship in which murders and outrages were committed on every corner”, adds Julián Redondo. A few meters from the Monumental stadium, where the teams played their future in the competition, in the sinister Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), thousands of detainees had their future taken from them. “It is the most execrable episode in the history of the World Cups, the World Cup of shame”, concludes Orfeo Suárez.

The shadow of corruption has also tainted numerous world championships, the most recent and those to come. In 2015, the German magazine Der Spiegel denounced the existence of a corrupt plot surrounding the awarding of the 2006 World Cup to Germany, which splashed the resigning president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, and the candidate to succeed him, the Frenchman Michel Platini.

The Brazilian politician Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has recently acknowledged that the image offered by Brazil during the organization of the 2014 World Cup was that of a corrupt country where “everyone stole”. In turn, the confessions made by different informers have confirmed the existence of bribes prior to the designation of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Finally, the investigation carried out by the Swiss authorities into the process of choosing the venues for the 2018 Russia and Qatar 2022 World Cups identified up to fifty-three suspected money laundering relationships. "Over time it is usually found that behind the choice of venues there is vote buying or hidden interests that go beyond sports," says Gaspar Díez. Waiting for the ball to start rolling, tomorrow, November 20, controversy surrounds the great football festival, the world's largest showcase.

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