Like the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup is a brutal redrawing of territory camouflaged as spectacle. The thousands of laborers dying in Qatar while working on starchitect-designed stadiums and the surrounding infrastructure in preparation for the 2022 World Cup are only the latest of the tragedies that flow out of hosting the World Cup: the inhumane working conditions in Russia, the “social cleansing” of favelas in Brazil, and the eviction of homeless people in South Africa, to name the last few. And since the World Cup is both immensely corrupt and an incredibly efficient way to implement shock-doctrine-style policies during match years, it’s no surprise that dictators love football.
North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, for example, is such an unabashed fan of Manchester United that whenever he’s not busy executing members of his government for their bad posture, he insists that every one of Man U’s games be broadcast on state television. Robert Mugabe is more of a Chelsea fan (who reportedly insisted on having servants kneel at his feet with a silver tray during government meetings so he could wash his hands); he once told journalists, “When I watch football, I do not want anyone to disturb me. Even my wife knows where to sit because while they are scoring in the field I will also be scoring at home, kicking everything in front of me.” As for Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, a man who both has a lively online presence and makes critical journalists vanish, he is an Arsenal fan and was once part of the “Wenger Out” movement, tweeting in 2012 that Arsenal’s (now former) manager Arsène Wenger needed to go. Turkey’s Erdogan proudly posed next to three German players of Turkish origin, while Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, posted a photograph of himself applauding Iran’s goal against Morocco.
It’s easy to see the appeal for these strongmen: sports, like war, provide easily digestible tales of victory and defeat. That said, it’s worth noting that these men don’t seem to (primarily) support their own country’s teams, none of which are powerhouses; they opt, instead, for the teams most likely to dominate. Something other than patriotism animates them; the tales they prefer to digest are of victory.
Despite its manifest authoritarian appeal, the men who first forged a link between football and political authoritarianism had a striking lack of enthusiasm for the sport itself. Benito Mussolini, for example, is widely credited with the first use of football as a demonstration of The Leader’s strength, but he was regularly heard speaking derisively of football players—and never attended a professional game until well into his political career. But, crucially, Il Duce understood the power of propaganda. When Italy was chosen to host the 1934 World Cup—after a bidding process conducted in the transparent and law-abiding manner that has earned FIFA so much respect throughout the world—Mussolini saw the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the Italian nation; hand-picked referees were “convinced” to make decisions favoring the host nation, which won the tournament. Yet the impact was limited; since it was broadcast only on radio, the glorious spectacle Mussolini had arranged was seen only by those in attendance.
For the true intersection of fascist ideology and telecommunications technology, we have to look to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the first event to be broadcast live around the world, used by Adolf Hitler as a demonstration of the supremacy of the German people. Hitler wasn’t really into sports either, but he relished the accompanying mass-media spectacle. As the Nazi party’s rise coincided with football becoming the world’s most popular sport, Hitler pounced on the opportunity to make the working-class sport an extension of the ideologies he was putting in place: Jewish players were banned by the German football association; propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared the German team was never to lose; and opposing nations did the Nazi salute before games. Hitler’s football tactics were exemplified by the mythical “Death Match” of 1942 between the German team Flakelf and the USSR’s FC Start, when—in Nazi-occupied Ukraine—several Soviet players were (allegedly) sent to a concentration camp for not losing the game.
Having seen Hitler’s humiliation when Jesse Owens triumphed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Stalin was keen to ensure that the Soviet Union never experienced anything of the sort. Communist rulers tended to view sports as bourgeois affectations (though Mao had a soft spot for basketball), and so, after the Russian Revolution, football clubs were dissolved and replaced by “voluntary” sporting associations linked to groups of industrial workers. Though Stalin used football as a means of soft diplomacy with England and Germany, he had little real interest in the sport. Once, when he watched a demonstration match, there was a man standing behind him, ready to signal the referee to end the game if Joseph got bored. It had been agreed upon in advance that seven goals would be scored and that the match would last only 45 minutes so as to make it more exciting—a spectacular misunderstanding of the entire point of football.
Since the World War II–era class of dictators, new generations of despots have tended to have a more genuine passion for the game. Mobutu Sese Seko and Idi Amin poured money into Zaire and Uganda’s sporting associations, for example, keen to use them to demonstrate the strength of their countries on the international stage. Others played favorites; when Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu found that his favorite team, Steaua Bucharest, was struggling behind rivals Dinamo, he put his son Valentin in charge of Steaua’s “administration.” The team suddenly went unbeaten for 104 games and won six league titles in a row. Star players were automatically transferred to Steaua Bucharest, requiring the consent of neither the teams nor the players in question. It was a pretty good time to be a supporter of Steaua Bucharest, all in all.
Enter the dictator’s son: an archetypal figure, always given to the worst excesses of the father, who brings football dictatorships into a new and more purely egomaniacal phase when he starts taking over programs. Saddam Hussein was a sports fan who insisted on hosting a Saddam Olympics every year to commemorate his birthday. Under his control, the Iraqi national football team had been one of the best teams in the Middle East, but this changed when his son Uday took over as head of the country’s football association. After running a small league team that was not allowed to receive red cards, his managerial triumph got him promoted to head of the country’s Olympic Association, which was also in charge of the national football team. Being of the opinion that the best way to inspire a team to success was to employ the same brutal methods used to keep a subservient population in check, he tortured players that made mistakes, devising a system to determine adequate punishments, from foot-beating to lashes with electric cables. Players who missed penalties would have their hair and eyebrows shaved off in full view of the spectators. The Iraqi team did not perform well at this stage; many players asked to be transferred abroad, which they were allowed to do if they paid 60 percent of their wages to Uday himself. (That they were allowed to leave at all was a minor miracle: Spanish dictator Franco famously banned Spaniards from joining football teams abroad.)
If Uday gets the nod for brutality, we must turn to the son of Libya’s former dictator Muammar Gaddafi for sheer extravagance. Al-Saadi Gaddafi was not only the owner and manager of Tripoli team Al Ahly, he was also their star striker and the only player on the pitch to have his name on the jersey. (The rest were to be identified only by jersey numbers.) When the Benghazi team had the audacity to end up in the lead 1-0 at halftime, the referee magically awarded two penalties and allowed an offside goal, quickly remedying a potentially embarrassing situation for Al Ahly’s star player. Al-Saadi later dissolved the Benghazi club for impertinence.
Not content with ruling Libyan football by buying the best players and intimidating the referees, Al-Saadi set out to join the greats of the game as a player. He hired Diego Maradona as his technical consultant and Ben Johnson as his personal trainer, bought himself onto the board of the Italian team Juventus, and joined Perugia as an attacker. Berlusconi, Italian prime minister at the time, told the president of the club to go through with the deal, as it would allow Italy to build a closer relationship with Libya. “If he plays badly,” Berlusconi is said to have said, “then so be it.” Al-Saadi was mostly relegated to Perugia’s bench, brought on only at the very end of a few certain victories, but that didn’t stop him from indulging in luxuries to make even the most lauded diva blush. He would stay only at the most exclusive hotels, away from the other players, often booking entire floors for himself and his wife while his dog was in a suite of its own. (The person in charge of the dog had to sleep on the floor.) His wife was known to bathe in milk, which caused one hotel to run out of milk entirely. Ultimately, Al-Saadi can console himself with the fact that he did, in fact, almost become a historic football player. In 2003, he was a runner-up for the Bidone d’oro, the “golden trashcan,” an award for the single worst football player to play in the Italian Serie A.
Today despots prefer to parlay their influence by indirectly purchasing international teams outright. Manchester City is owned by Abu Dhabi’s Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Paris Saint-Germain by Oryx Qatar Sports Investments, while Arsenal’s biggest shareholder is the Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov. It’s easier, after all, to demonstrate a country’s dominance by buying the world’s best players than by finding homegrown talent. It’s not a coincidence that the first instance of this new trend in football was when Vladimir Putin’s BFF Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea FC in 2003, mirroring the ways that Putin himself has redefined the rules of dictatorship in the twenty-first century. This is perhaps a natural evolution of the traditional dictator-sports relationship: though sports allow for a (usually) non-lethal way for countries to assert their supremacy—the USA/USSR hockey matches during the Cold War are a prime example of sports as abstract warfare—they are not the best outlet for dictatorships. There is too much uncertainty in sports; even if you bribe the officials, something unaccounted for could still cause the “wrong” result. It can be a bad idea to gather large crowds opposed to your team (and, by extension, your dictatorship). During Franco’s rule, Barcelona FC’s stadium was the only place the Catalans could wave their flag and sing their songs. Dictators are better off with tyranny and oppression. Football is for people who can accept a loss.