In his 2006 book How Soccer Explains the World, author and editor Franklin Foer examined the role that a given nation’s government plays in its World Cup success. As it turns out, the correlations between repression and good soccer seem to be closely related. With the exception of 1998 champions France (its 1940-44 Vichy regime notwithstanding), only one World Cup champion since 1970 can boast of a fascist-, strongman- or junta-free twentieth-century history. Notably, 1970 champions Brazil and 1978 hosts and winners Argentina won their titles while toiling under authoritarian military juntas. So it takes a good right-wing dictatorship—fascist, military, or otherwise—to incubate a soccer team and, even with Italy’s embarrassing flameout, the 2010 tournament has proven quite fruitful for nations with some twentieth-century right-wing extremism on their resumes. Sixteen teams out of thirty-two advanced to the second round of the World Cup; of these, ten spent a significant portion of the twentieth century under the thrall of a strongman or military junta. Those freedom-loving Americans and Glorious Revolution-staging English never stood a chance.
This year, Argentina plays Germany in the quarterfinals, a rematch of a 2006 quarterfinal match (won by Germany on penalty kicks) and of the championship games in 1986 and 1990. (Although it should be noted that all of Germany’s postwar World Cup success is attributed to West Germany, which is considered the official statistical predecessor to today’s unified team; sorry, DDR.) Led by Maradona, Argentina beat West Germany 3-2 in the 1986 final, played in Mexico City. And in an ugly game in Rome, widely considered to be the ugliest final ever played, West Germany exacted a 1-0 payback from the Albicelestes, who finished the match with just nine men on the field after two were sent off with red cards.
Now, with the exception of its relationship with Adidas (whose founder took a break from shoe production in 1943 and, on Hitler’s orders, recalibrated its Herzogenaurach factory to produce the Panzerschreck, or antitank bazooka), German soccer has long been divorced from the state’s harrowing history. But Argentina, while able to ignore Justicialism—the kinder, gentler quasi-fascist political movement of Juan and Evita Perón—has had more trouble dissociating itself from the brutal National Reorganization Process government. El Proceso disappeared, kidnapped, and tortured tens of thousands during its seven year reign between 1976 and 1983. The 1978 Cup, which Argentina hosted and won, was notable for the various (and suspicious) logistical advantages that the hosts bestowed upon themselves, and the Dutch team, who wound up finishing second, publicly discussed boycotting the tournament altogether as a protest against the ruling junta.
But the Argentine connection between state and soccer runs deeper than that. César Menotti, who coached the team in 1978, was considered a left-wing dissident, and his long hair, flamboyant personality, and Communist party membership contributed to an overall air of bohemianism. Indeed, he dubbed his free-flowing style of play “left-wing” soccer, and he wasn’t talking about the larboard side of the field. For the ’86 run eight years later, coach Carlos Bilardo led Argentina to glory, this time with a conservative, “right-wing” approach that fans and commentators saw as regimented, martial, and defensive-minded. As with Menotti, all of Argentina knew of Bilardo’s political ideology, which was decidedly conservative. With one world championship apiece for Left and Right, then, conservatives and liberals alike argued for decades which was better for the team—and the nation.
So say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Justicialism, and the National Reorganization Process—at least they win championships.
Simon Maxwell Apter is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Nation, The Guardian, and The American Prospect.