Twenty-two athletes, two goals, and one ball. In England, commentators refer to it as, “A Funny Old Game,” though for many that statement is far from sound. The game is football, futebol, or in America, soccer. While Americans fervently follow gridiron, basketball, and baseball, none of these games have changed international history or altered how society functions like soccer has. Therefore, its influence on modern history must not be undermined.
Benito Mussolini, the Fascist leader of Italy from 1925-1943, used the second World Cup as a platform to secure power. His fellow totalitarian General Francisco Franco, of Spain, saw soccer as a way to bolster control of his Fascist state. More recently, Saddam Hussein and the beautiful game proved to be detrimental to the nation’s prosperity. Since the surge of football’s popularity in the early to mid 1900s, extending through the present day, the beautiful game was integral to the success of dictatorships, including those of Benito Mussolini, General Francisco Franco and Saddam Hussein, as they utilized the sport, as a political catalyst to control society, gain prestige, and portray a positive image to the world.
In 1863, a group of Englishmen prescribed the first official rules for the game of football, thus establishing the Football Association. Originally a rugby-like sport in which players dribbled the ball down the field without thought, the game developed into a sophisticated yet simple fixture. Over the next 70 years, the British spread soccer to the ends of the earth, though the best football was played in Argentina and Uruguay. The two nations fought for international supremacy throughout the 1920s and settled the score at the first World Cup in 1930. Uruguay played hosts and defeated the Argentines in the final to claim victory, but neither nation competed four years on. The Great Depression of the early 1930s crippled the economies of each nation, making it financially impossible for players to travel to the host nation.
Cue Benito Mussolini: The man who believed that Italy needed one man, more intelligent than commoners, to turn the country into a world superpower. Mussolini took control on October 8, 1922. The new dictator used his Blackshirts to impose authority, as the brutal police force could keep people in check. However, Mussolini knew that the Italians could not be silenced forever, thus he found an activity that they all enjoyed. To exploit the minds of his people, he used soccer as propaganda. Known as calcio, “The Leader” lifted moral and brought a “feel good factor” to those under his reign, including himself.
Mussolini used the terraces and his nation’s youth to install his power. Il Duce saw the stadium as a cathedral. It was the one place where people united to drive on one cause. Therefore, Mussolini began to build an arena in 1926, as the Littoriale was erected in Bologna. The city’s team incurred success, leading to the construction of the Giovanni Berta in Florence. In addition, Mussolini strived to bring back the glory days of the ancient republic‘s muscular athletes. Thus he created the Fascist Youth, a program strongly based around the principles of discipline and organization. Uber Gradella played for Lazio, a football club in Rome, from 1939-1948, as a goalkeeper. In the BBC documentary Football and Fascism, the Italian said that he was, “indoctrinated and brainwashed,” along with other Youth members, for whom only soccer remained.