Football and Fascism
R.W. Johnson · Football and Fascism
Several people have asked about fascism and football. The key figure here was Mussolini, who saw soccer as a key tool for creating national unity and international prestige. He created the Serie A as the first national league in 1929 and, once the World Cup had been launched in 1930, he made Fifa an offer it couldn't refuse to hold the 1934 Cup in Italy. It was, of course, essential that Italy should win (they had already won the first European Cup), so Mussolini himself invited a favoured Swedish referee to run the semi-final between Italy and Austria, in which the Italians were allowed to barge the Austrian goalkeeper into his net from three metres out. The ref duly gave a goal. Mussolini naturally selected the same ref for the final, Italy v. Czechoslovakia, and the ref again failed to notice a rather prominent Italian handball, so Italy won.
Mussolini had already emphasised to Hitler the political uses of sport. This did not come naturally to Hitler, who, arriving in Munich as a pasty-faced youth, had been recommended to take up soccer for his health. He declined on the grounds that he didn't like sports in which one might lose. Nonetheless, he got the point, not only attracting the Olympics to Berlin but supporting the German team which came third at the 1934 World Cup. However, somewhat disappointed by some of the athletics results at the Berlin Olympics (Jesse Owens etc), Hitler was told by his staff to go and watch the German soccer team annihilate Norway. He went along, Norway triumphed and Hitler never went to another soccer game in his life. But, of course, Germany came top of the medals table in 1936 – especially the medals tables run by the German press, for they refused to count any medals won by Untermenschen (Jews or blacks) and simply 'awarded' the medal to the next-best Aryan (this helped a lot with the Jesse Owens problem). And Italy won the World Cup again in 1938, completing a golden era for Fascist sport. Hitler was in negotiation with Fifa to stage the 1942 World Cup when war broke out.
The British, of course, were generally seen – certainly by themselves – as the kings of soccer but they had made it easy for the Fascists by withdrawing all British teams from Fifa in 1920, partly so as to avoid having to play countries who had recently been enemies in war, but also as a protest against the encroachment of foreign influence over the British game of soccer. They didn't rejoin till 1946, and as late as 1953 the English FA were still organising games of England v. Rest of Europe. Nonetheless, it has to be said that Mussolini's all-conquering Italian team repeatedly played England and repeatedly lost.
General Franco also got the message from Mussolini. He knew that Catalonia was the heart of Republican resistance and that Barcelona FC was the heart of Catalonia. Accordingly, within a month of the start of the civil war fascist troops assassinated the chairman of Barcelona, Joseph Garriga, and in 1938 fascist planes bombed Barcelona FC's social club. Once he won, Franco banned the Catalan flag and language, forcing Barcelona FC to change its name and remove the flag from its shield. Even so, Barcelona stadium was one of the few places in Spain where people freely spoke Catalan. Franco did all he could to build up Real Madrid as a Catholic, conservative rival and personally intervened in the transfer market to ensure that the great Alfredo di Stéfano signed for Real. As Franco aged, his power waned, a key sign being in 1974 when Barcelona took back its old name and signed Johan Cruyff, who publicly said that he could have gone to Real but would never go to a club associated with Franco.
Lazio S.S. of Rome are the only remaining throwback to that era. They were Mussolini's own team and still play in the stadium he built for them. They try not to sign black players and their supporters are famous for their racism and anti-semitism. One of their players, Paolo di Canio, had Fascist emblems tattooed on himself and gave the Fascist salute whenever he scored. Happily those days are gone. It's bad enough that so much money rests on who wins and loses but fascist regimes also had to win for political reasons. In 1938 Mussolini sent a telegram to the Italian World Cup team saying: 'Win or die!' This was actually a standard Fascist slogan but when the Hungarians lost 4-2 to Italy in the final it gave the Hungarian goalkeeper, Antal Szabo, an excuse which other keepers can only envy. 'I may have let in four goals,' he said, 'but I saved their lives.'