When the dust has settled: World Cup and Dictatorship

More than 700 million people around the world watched Spain win the World Cup against the Dutch. For the “La Furia Roja”, and the 46 million people behind them, the Jules Rimet cup was definitely something they need in the middle of the biggest economic crisis that they are facing. The Cup will give a moment of relief for millions who are out of jobs.

Del Bosque, the manager of the Spanish squad said on returning from South Africa, “Spain, the country, deserves this triumph. This goes beyond sport. We have to celebrate and are delighted to be able to offer this victory to all the people of Spain.” Here we see the attempt to “unite the nation”, the 20% unemployed, the temporary workers, the poorly paid workers, as well as the Spanish bankers, capitalists, the royal family.

However, once the dust of celebration has settled, when the champagne bottles have been emptied and the people have woken up from their drunken stupor, the ugly face of the capitalist crisis will dawn on them again. No amount of Jules Rimet and Henri Delaunay trophies can solve the contradictions of Spanish society. The circus is over, and now it will be back to the daily drudgery under capitalism.

This is also true for the working masses of South Africa. The national pride of hosting the most celebrated sporting event in the world will erode fast. Back to work, it was on Monday! The Soccer City, once looked upon as a national achievement of South Africa and also a “holy ground” where Nelson Mandela gave his first speech after being released from prison, will quickly turn into its opposite ‑ multi-billion stadium standing in the midst of sickening poverty. A gleam of “Las Vegas” light when many people are living in the darkness.

But there are more dilemmas of this kind to be told, such as that of the Argentineans, both the host and the winner of the 1978 World Cup under the military junta of Jorge Rafael Videla [who had deposed Isabel Perón on March 24, 1976, and become the president as part of a three-man military junta]. That also was the first World Cup title for Argentina, ironically also over the Dutch in a 3-1 game after extra time. There were scenes of great jubilation, but when the dust had settled – and it took five years – the horrific crimes of the junta came to light and shocked Argentinean society and the world. It was estimated that between 9,000 to 30,000 communists, socialists, trade unionists, journalists, etc., were killed or “disappeared”.

Years after the events, Oscar Ortiz, a member of the 1978 champion squad, declared: “I would have swapped the title we won to stop what happened during the military dictatorship.” This is a sentiment shared by many in the squad. The 1978 trophy was always looked on with ambivalence as it was drenched in blood.

Argentina in the early 1970s was in a stage of pitched class struggle. The populist government of Peron/Campora swept away the military police dictatorship in 1973 when they gained almost 50% of the votes. The majority of workers and urban poor voted for the Peronists as a symbol of defiance against the military junta.

In 1973, Ted Grant wrote in the Militant newspaper about the state of Argentina in the early 1970s:

“One armed forces clique has replaced another in rapid succession, while the standards and conditions of the masses have deteriorated... A whole series of general strikes have taken place. In some areas this resulted in virtual insurrection, with barricade fighting in the streets... In the province of Mendoza on April 4th 1972, a state of emergency was declared, after a 24-hour general strike against increases in electricity charges. In the subsequent demonstration, one was killed and 69 injured in fighting with the police. 147 cars were burnt, 200 shop windows broken...

“In June 1972 there was a 24-hour general strike in Tucuman. Troops and tanks were called out to remove students and demolish street barricades. On June 28th 1972 there were demonstrations in Buenos Aires, Bahia Blanca. Tucuman, La Plata and Mendoza, which were suppressed by troops and police combined.

“Demonstrators seized the town hall and radio station at Malargue on July 3rd. The army was compelled to take over. On July 9th in the town of General Roca (Rio Negro province) the population forcibly prevented an army parade. On 18 July, the town was put under military control.

“In one area there was fighting with "special formations" of the Peronist Youth on December 3rd 1972. The casualties were: 1 killed, 30 wounded, including 14 policemen.

“These instances could be multiplied indefinitely. To describe them all would be to take up the entire issue of the paper. But the growing tide of revolution, which the generals' regime could not dam up, was mounting higher and higher.” (The Argentine Revolution, Ted Grant, 1973)

It was on this wave that the Peron/Campora government rose to power with a programme that straddled between socialism and capitalism, a “third way” that would make Blair’s pale in comparison. The populist government made some gestures to appease the workers such as “nationalisation of various banks which have been acquired wholly or partly by foreign investors in the past few years.”

However, this gesture in reality was empty as the Financial Times of June 29 could report: “Frightened bankers and foreign businessmen have been reassured by the Central Bank that the measures announced will not turn out to be as bad as they look. 'We are not xenophobic nor dedicated to merely destroying the system' Dr Alfred Gomez Morales, the president of the Central bank remarked to me this week... He put forward arguments why 'Argentina should still be an attractive place for foreign investors'.”

Just like in 1945-1955, Juan Peron, in a Bonapartist fashion, balanced the antagonistic classes of workers and capitalists. He leaned on both classes, but in reality represented the interests of the capitalists. The result could not be any different. The Peronist government was overthrown by the military junta in 1976 the same way as it was in 1955. The act of balancing between the classes could succeed only when concessions could be given to both classes. In the end, one class has to give in. The ruling class could not rely any longer on the Peronist government as it could not afford a sustained pitched class struggle, so it turned to the “fascist” military junta.

The rise of the military junta was a counter-revolution, one of many in the late 1970s that closed the revolutionary period that had begun in the 1960s around the world. The masses were defeated. This was the main reason why on the surface it seemed that the Argentinean working masses had forgotten or ignored the tens of thousands of left-wing militants who were massacred and tortured during the 1978 World Cup. Nobody could deny the fact that just over a kilometre away from the River Plate stadium, where the Argentine team beat the Dutch and claimed the trophy, was the Navy Mechanical School, the largest torture and detention centre of the military dictatorship. Amidst the cheers of joy was the screaming of the tortured inmates.

We could ask ourselves: how could FIFA and the “world community” allow the World Cup to take place under such circumstances? The point is that FIFA at the end of the day is a sporting body of the ruling class, which fits into the needs of the capitalist class on a world level. The military junta in Argentina was on a mission to uproot communism, hence the bourgeoisie around the world was silent. FIFA and its sponsor at that time, Coca-Cola, claimed that it neither engaged in politics nor took a moral standpoint. They could only do so because of the deafening silence of the world ruling class.

Had there been a revolutionary government in place in Argentina which was on a mission to uproot capitalism, who – instead of persecuting communists – was waging a bitter struggle against the capitalists, landowners, etc, and putting on trial all those elements that had carried out crimes against the people, pressure would have been brought to bear on FIFA to cancel the World Cup with the threat of a worldwide boycott like in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Instead, the 1978 World Cup proceeded like business as usual.

The World Cup was also needed to establish the legitimacy of the regime and also to bring national unity to a society fractured by class struggle, i.e. to pacify any remaining turmoil. The 1978 World Cup was truly a gift to the generals, especially in a nation where soccer is loved so much.

The extent of the defeat of the working class was illustrated by the fact that even the tortured inmates cheered alongside their torturers to support the national team, knowing full well that the national team was the team of the military junta, that the World Cup was the military junta’s project to whip up chauvinism and pacify the masses. Claudio Tamburrini, an imprisoned political activist and professional football player, who escaped from one of many jails of the regime in March 1978, wrote the following twenty years later:

“What is the fascination of sport that makes it possible for torturers and tortured to embrace each other after the goals scored by the national team? During the 1978 World Cup, the Argentines – including myself – replaced the critical political judgment of the situation of the country with sporting euphoria.” (Perfil, June 12, 1998, p.14)

The notorious Captain “Tiger” Acosta, one of the most violent torturers of the navy, is said to have entered a room after the final because the prisoners were shouting, “We won, we won,” and then participated himself in this spontaneous display of euphoria with the very people that he tortured daily. He took prisoners out in a car to show them that nobody cared about their disappearance, that people only cared about the World Cup. One of the victims told journalist Fernandez Moore that she asked Acosta to open the window so that she could have a better view of the carnival on the street. When he had done this, she thought about screaming that she was one of “the disappeared”, held and tortured in a jail not too far away, but she realized that this was pointless, and in the midst of the national celebrations, in the context of a defeated movement, people would just think that she was a crazy woman.

Such was the extent of the defeat of the Argentinean working class. In every period of the defeat, the masses keep their heads down.

The philosophy of the military junta towards soccer was in many respects similar to the fascist philosophy, especially of Italian fascism during the 1934 and 1938 World Cup competitions when the Italian squad won the title. The military junta’s proclaimed objective was the reestablishment of the lost social order. In their own words, they intended to reinstate “Christian morality, the national tradition, and the dignity of being Argentine” and to promote harmony between the state, capital, and the workers. Benito Mussolini and Italian fascism also rose to power under such programme, riding on the discontent of the petty bourgeoisie who were tired of class struggle that had not brought any decisive end to the problems of society.

For the Italian fascists, as much as for the Argentinean military junta, soccer, which was loved so much in both countries, was a national project to articulate “the excellence of the nation” and the importance of staying together, all classes united for a common national goal. It was estimated that US$700 million – 10% of the national debt at a time when the country’s finance was in ruins – was spent by the regime on building the infrastructure needed to host the game.

The philosophy of building the nation and a “New Man” as the embodiment of the quality of the nation, of the state, was at the core of the fascist approach towards sport. General Videla, at his meeting with the football team, proclaimed that footballers were obliged:

“to show that they were the best of the nation and the best Argentina could present to the universe... and they were obliged to demonstrate the quality of the Argentine man. This man, that at the individual level or working in a team, is able to carry out great enterprises when guided by common goals... I claim from you the victory, the winners of the World Cup, winners because you will show courage in the games... and will be the right expression of the human quality of Argentines.” (Suplemento Clarin Mundial, May 27, 1978, p. 6-7) [Emphasis added]

Italian fascism, in the Florentine Fascist weekly Il Bargello, wrote the following during the 1934 World Cup:

“[It was] the affirmation of an entire people, the indication of its virile and moral strength and not an essentially sporting fact. We Fascists cannot understand how this indispensable contribution of the national spirit can be separated from the result that needs to be attained. Working in every field of human activity, you struggle in the name of the motherland, it is the motherland that triumphs over everything, it is the entire nation that participates towards the objective, spurs on and encourages the protagonists that become anonymous but aware instruments of this will.” (‘Gli azzuri nel nome del DUCE’, Il Bargello, 17/6/34) [Emphasis added]

The 1978 World Cup was tarnished with the blood of the working class. Such was the reason why the victory of Argentina in the 1986 World Cup, that took place three years after the fall of the military junta, was remembered and celebrated more. The former symbolized a traumatic epoch that could never be forgotten by the working class of Argentina. The latter somewhat settled the dilemma of the Argentineans’ love of soccer and the dark chapter of their history.

Sport, just like art, at the end of the day should be free from political influence, from ideology, from propaganda, and only then it can flourish. Athletes should be free to express themselves fully, without economic constraint – which is a major obstacle for athletes under capitalism – and without political constraint. However, a great athlete is a committed athlete, those who through their sports reflect the striving of humanity around them, those who push the boundaries of humans physically and spiritually, such as Muhammad Ali, Bill Russel, to name a few. Sports under capitalism have been so degraded, reflecting the decay of the system itself, that what we have got are superstars groomed to make millions of dollars in commercials, TV rights, etc. The masses have been turned into passive agents, mere spectators.

Soccer originally started out as a working class game played by factory teams, neighbourhood teams and so on. It has gradually been taken out of the hands of the class that created it, the working class, and fed back to it in its present form. It has become the equivalent of the “bread and circuses” under the Roman Empire, where a rotting, decaying system, in order to appease the masses and hold them down, provided them with stadiums such as the Colosseum where hugely expensive and enormous spectacles were provided. Today we do not have gladiators killing each other, or animals eating human beings – the killing is done elsewhere ‑ but the concept is more or less the same.

Capitalism today, and Fascism in the past, have instilled rabid nationalism into sport. Socialism on the other hand will free the development of sport, as it will of arts, science, and humanity in general, from the stifling clutches of capitalism so that men and women can find their fullest individual and collective expression in this endeavour. Throughout the World Cup, we heard some insightful comments such as how small nations like the Dutch, with a population of only 16 million, can produce such talents – amongst them are some of Indonesian descent – when its former colony Indonesia, with over 250 million people, cannot muster any football squad worthy to compete in an international scene. Socialism will release the full potential of 6 billion people around the world, and bring sport not as a competition for national chauvinist pride but as a vehicle to elevate the achievement of humanity, of liberated people freed from centuries of class society.