A different era:
Juan and Eva
Perón view a
soccer match in
SIMON KUPER Sports Populism
to a civilian government. General Videla himself was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for
the human rights abuses committed under
But in the simplistic view of the military,
Politicians are wrong to believe
national victories in sporting events are sim-
ilar to victories in war. They matter for the
intense nationalistic feelings they evoke, for
their ability to bring people into the streets cheering
It is noteworthy that the other major event that was
used to generate national triumphalism during the gen-
erals’ tenure was the 1982 Falkland Islands war with the
UK. Not coincidentally, the military junta recycled the
1978 World Cup song, “Vamos Argentina, Vamos a Ganar”
(“Go on Argentina, Go and Win”), during the conflict.
“These generals were kids,” the Anglo-Argentine writer
Andrew Graham-Yooll told me, referring to the Falklands
War era. “In 1982 they launched a military invasion and
thought the world would applaud them!”
Why were they so naive? “Our military never had
to play politics. They have been brought up from the
1920s to believe, ‘You bark an order and everyone does
as they’re told,’” Graham-Yooll continued. “At the World
Cup, they said, ‘Now you bloody well enjoy yourselves!’
and they thought everyone would.”
that the national team’s success
can keep them in power.
Leadership to Politics
Today there is one clear example of a poli- tician helped to national power by soccer: Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister. His case clarifies just what soccer can and cannot do for a leader. In 1985, Berlusconi became president of A.C. Milan, a club then recovering from a bribery scandal. He quickly made Milan
one of the best organized and most successful sports
teams in Europe.
Berlusconi then founded Forza Italia in 1993, a political party named after a popular soccer chant. When he
gave a keynote speech explaining why he was entering politics, Berlusconi began with a soccer metaphor:
“I have chosen to take the field.…” Part of his pitch to
voters was that he would transform the country as he
had his club. He promised “to make Italy like Milan.”
Italy, recovering in 1993 from its own bribery scandal—
the Tangentopoli affair—longed to be rich and dominant in Europe.
Berlusconi named his candidates “azzurri”—as the
players on Italy’s squad are colloquially known—and
called his local parties “clubs.” John Foot writes in his
history of Italian soccer, “After long research, Berlusco-
ni’s advisors came to the conclusion that the only lan-
guage that unites Italians was that to do with football.
Half the electorate is self-confessed fans, after all.”
However, Berlusconi made a plausible soccer-related
pitch in a way that glory-chasers like Videla and Médici
could not. A.C. Milan’s success was seen by many Ital-
ians as an example of Berlusconi’s business acumen.
When Martínez de Hoz promised in 1978 to remake
Argentina like its World Cup championship team, the
claim was clearly spurious. The country’s technocratic
economy minister had nothing to do with that national
team and therefore couldn’t replicate its secret of success. Ordinary Argentines judged the regime not on the
results of the national soccer team, but on the military’s
influence on their daily life—which was resoundingly
negative. Inflation in the late 1970s was running at over
100 percent a year, while foreign debt was piling up along
with the corpses of dissidents.
Students of the link between soccer and politics too
often focus on how politicians try to manipulate the
game to their benefit. In other words, the topic is studied “from above”—from the regime’s point of view.
There is little doubt that Videla, Juan Perón and Médici
believed that soccer could help them maintain power.
But it is more useful to study the topic “from below”—
from the citizens’ perspective.
It is questionable whether the people who were on the
streets chanting “Argentina! Argentina!” after the soccer
victory transferred their patriotic enthusiasm to the regime. Former Argentine footballer Claudio Tamburrini,
who had been jailed and tortured by the military before
escaping from prison in March 1978, told me, “I wanted
the national team to win the Cup, even after the experience I had been through.” Tamburrini had been in hiding in the months before the World Cup, but when the
streets suddenly filled with jubilant fans after the final
game, he felt emboldened to go out: “I went out with the