Why the World Cup is not a reliable political football

World leaders have often found, to their cost, that using football as a political emblem isn’t always as successful as they might hope.

The crowds at the coronation of Felipe VI of Spain. Photo: Getty
The crowds at the coronation of Felipe VI of Spain. Photo: Getty

As King William-Alexander of the Netherlands watched the Dutch football team qualifying for the next round with a win over Australia on 18 June, the Spanish royal family saw the handover of power from King Juan Carlos to his son King Philip VI (Felipe VI). The ceremony sandwiched the Spain-v-Chile football game; the law approving the succession receiving royal assent at 6pm local time and the act of abdication being signed-off at midnight.

The royal ceremony happened on Wednesday, according to the speaker of the Spanish parliament, because that is how long it had taken to complete the legal formalities following the announcement of Juan Carlos’s abdication on 2 June. But, surely the Bourbons were hoping that the juxtaposition with the game would be a great symbol for what the old king said would "open a new era of hope". After all Spain were reigning World and European champions. However, the Spanish football team also abdicated their title with the 2-0 defeat to former colony Chile. It is not the only time that football has proved to be an unreliable emblem for national rulers.

In 1974 when Zaïre (Congo-Kinshasa) became the first sub-Saharan African team to qualify for the World Cup it was seen as widely symbolic for the post-colonial era. Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko wanted to make the most of it but everything went wrong. The team almost did not go to the tournament in a dispute over payments. When they did eventually turn up perhaps they would have wished that they hadn’t – three defeats and no goals. After the second loss, a 9-0 drubbing by Yugoslavia, the players were even threatened by Mobutu’s goons.

The Nazis staged their own symbolic football match in 1938 to celebrate the annexation of Austria. The so-called Anschlussspiel featured the German national team against the then world-class Austrian side as a prelude to the latter being subsumed into the Germany squad. However, led by talismanic striker Matthias Sindelar, Hitler’s old country embarrassed him by defeating his new Reich 2-0. Sindelar, goal-scorer and a known opponent of Nazism, then retired from the international game and was found dead along with his girlfriend a few months later – the official verdict being carbon monoxide poisoning.

The notorious Football War in July 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras took place following the three game play-off to qualify for the 1970 World Cup between the two countries. El Salvador won the decisive game in neutral Mexico City 3-2 at the end of June 1969, on the same day that Honduras broke off diplomatic relations with its neighbour. The games had been marred by violence and intimidation of the Honduran team before the second game in San Salvador. Hostilities broke out two weeks later and lasted four days (hence the conflict’s other name the Hundred Hours War) before the Organisation of American States brokered a ceasefire. An estimated 2,000 people were killed and many thousands became refugees. However, though the football games did not help relations, the war was actually rooted in long standing land and emigration disputes.

Even when football seemingly acts as a perfect political symbol things do not always go well. The 1978 World Cup tournament in Argentina was hosted by the country’s military junta. Awarded to Argentina before the military take-over in 1976, the generals managed to dissuade participants from boycotting the tournament and amid much hurrah the national side went onto win the first of their two World Cups. The generals celebrated their win in a stadium within earshot of Naval Mechanics School prison where they tortured and murdered political prisoners. However, the international media did not ignore the demonstrations by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. And although the World Cup may have been the junta’s high-watermark rising inflation and unemployment soon brought the regime into disrepute. Its last throw of the dice, the Falklands War, ended with the Argentine army surrendering Port Stanley to the British the day before the Argentine side lost their opening World Cup game 1-0 to Belgium in the Spain 82 tournament. The 1978 World Cup win is now remembered with embarrassment, especially when compared to the thrilling way that Maradona led Argentina to triumph in 1986.

One later Argentine rumour relates how elected President Carlos Menem (1989-1999) is a harbinger of bad luck – famously he greeted the team before their 1-0 defeat to Cameroon in the opening game of Italia 90. Reportedly his reputation for bad luck when watching the national team became such that he started staying away from games!

The World Cup therefore is not a reliable political football, something that may be on the mind of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is up for re-election in October.