The inaugural World Cup got off to an inauspicious start. The competition was cold-shouldered by the European powers. They objected to the fact that a new-fangled competition purporting to discover the best footballing nation in the world was being held in a continent of former Spanish and Portuguese colonies.
Eventually, only four European nations entered the tournament. Others, including England — where the game was invented—stayed away. Uruguay won the title.
Uruguay pulled out of the second World Cup to retaliate against most European teams boycotting the previous tournament. Argentina and Brazil were the only two South American nations who participated
The competition was held in Italy during the reign of the demagogic dictator Benito Mussolini (1922-43). For his Fascist Party, the tournament was intended to showcase Italy, making it an early example of “sportswashing.” Italy won the World Cup. Success on the football field masked Mussolini’s totalitarian and oppressive rule.
An hour prior to a 1938 international match between Germany and England in Berlin, English players were informed they had to give Nazi salutes in pre-match rituals. At the time, Nazi Germany was embarking on a campaign of expansion and aggression. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain pursued appeasement to avoid global conflict.
All but one English player complied with German instructions to give the Nazi salute. Stan Cullis, the exception who went on to become a successful manager at Wolverhampton Wanderers, was dropped before the kickoff.
This was the only World Cup tournament boycotted by an entire continent. FIFA’s Byzantine rules effectively left just one place for three continents: Africa, Asia and Oceania. This affected 12 Asian and African nations that were trying to qualify. Ghana, the first sub-Saharan nation to achieve independence, was also the top African footballing power.
At the time, the “winds of change” were swirling through Africa as nation-after-nation gained independence. FIFA and England were still engaging with apartheid South Africa, which enraged the rest of the continent. Hence, the boycott.
Two years after the 1966 World Cup, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos made arguably the most politically potent gesture in the history of sport, when they gave the “Black Power” salute at the Olympics.
El Salvador beat Honduras 3-2 in a World Cup qualifying game. Three weeks later, these two neighboring countries went to war. The war is still blamed on football though it is important to remember that relations between the two Central American countries were strained anyway.
Salvadoreans had been migrating to Honduras for years and resentment among Hondurans had been growing. Two years earlier, Muhammad Ali had brought attention to the connection between sport and war when he refused the US draft and repudiated the Vietnam War.
In 1976, the military took over Argentina after two years of near-civil war. After Juan Perón’s death, right-wing paramilitaries and communists had been battling to fill the power vacuum he left behind. From 1976 to 1983, critics of the military regime “disappeared” in their thousands and this era is called the Dirty War.
FIFA was not interested in such disappearances or other atrocities. The World Cup went ahead in Argentina with the junta at its strongest and bloodiest. In retrospect, this tournament was similar to the “sportswashing” pioneered by Mussolini in 1934. Like Italy, Argentina won.
Many Chinese still resent Japan's invasion and occupation of parts of their country from 1931 to 1945. Tens of millions died. When Japan beat China 3-1 in the 2004 Asian Cup final in Beijing, hundreds of Chinese fans clashed with riot police, burning Japanese flags.
Protests against the World Cup erupted across Brazil in the run-up to the tournament largely over concerns about public safety and transport infrastructure. The unrest was fueled by claims of corruption and bribery. Demonstrations on the streets and strikes occurred. Protestors argued that the money spent on the tournament would be better spent on social projects.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 despite the opposition of the West. FIFA’s logo for the World Cup showed Crimea as part of Russia. It later apologized for this oversight. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s then general secretary, rejected calls for Russia to be stripped of the tournament, which went ahead as planned.
Serbia does not recognise Kosovo’s independence and relations between the two countries remain tense. Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri are of Albanian-Kosovan heritage. Both players celebrated their goals in a World Cup match when Switzerland beat Serbia 2-1 in Kaliningrad. The players joined their hands together to form what appeared to be a double-headed eagle that is portrayed on the Albanian flag. FIFA charged and fined Xhaka and Shaqiri because its disciplinary code prohibits “provoking the general public.”
In arguably the most significant departure from football’s traditional avoidance of political issues, England’s Premier League allowed players and staff to take the knee in a gesture of solidarity with movements of equality, particularly Black Lives Matter. Taking the knee had previously been done at American sports events. Before June 2020, the Premier League had strenuously forbidden political slogans or any kind of symbolic signaling. Taking the knee before football games continued for two years. It is still encouraged for specific games.
The Qatar World Cup was undoubtedly the most politically charged football tournament in history. It acted as a catalyst for all manner of change — even in the dispositions of the fans. Protests against Qatar’s punitive laws against homosexuality led to calls for a boycott.
The conditions under which migrant workers built football stadiums became a major geopolitical scandal. Qatar’s supporters, including FIFA President Gianni Infantino, pointed out how the western countries were guilty of hypocrisy.
He took the view that the West has been extremely exploitative for three millennia, even 3,000 years of apology are not enough and, therefore, had no right to give moral lessons to anyone else.
This book on football
edited by Ellis Cashmore and Kevin Dixon tells you more.
You can buy this book on Routledge.
Written by Ellis Cashmore
Produced by Atul Singh
Art and design by Lokendra Singh
Images courtesy of Shutterstock and Creative Commons