In spite of widespread willful denial and ignorance of reality, sport and politics are inextricably and intimately tied together.  Perhaps in no other sphere is this more obvious than in the relationship between authoritarianism and football.  Authoritarian dictators – on both extremes of the left/right spectrum – have often used football as a political tool to garner support for their regimes or to demonstrate their superiority over their geopolitical rivals.  The impact of authoritarianism on football was at its peak during the Cold War, when in the absence of actual fighting the football pitch became the arena on which ideological foes faced off.  In this section, Café Futebol explores the dynamics of the shared space in which both football and authoritarianism existed, from Salazar to Shcherbytsky, from the Argentinian military junta to the Soviet Ministry of the Interior.

The End of History and the 1990 World Cup

In the midst of the 1989 revolutions that toppled Communist regimes all over Central and Eastern Europe, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously wrote that the end of the Cold War was a harbinger of what he deemed “the end of history.”  With Communism thoroughly discredited, he argued, the Western liberal democratic model would be the final form of human government.  Considering the euphoria that was sweeping through Europe and the World during the Autumn of Nations, it is not difficult to see where Fukuyama was coming from. Starting in Poland and quickly spreading to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the rest of the Warsaw Pact states, the sudden, unexpected wave of revolutions quickly razed to the ground the iron curtain that had divided the continent in half since the end of the Second World War, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Two years later even the Soviet Union, the ‘evil empire’ which for 40 years had kept all of its so-called ‘allies’ on a tight, often bloody leash, collapsed and disintegrated into 15 different states.  These were turbulent times in world history that drastically altered the global geopolitical balance. But it was not just geopolitics that were affected.  The End of History was certainly not the End of Football, but the beautiful game was not left untouched.  Two tournaments: the 1990 World Cup and the qualifying cycle for the 1992 European Championships, reveal to what extent the 1989 revolutions and subsequent political instability affected the European footballing landscape.  [Continue Reading]

The End of History and the Demise of the DDR

The draw to determine the groups for the UEFA Euro 1992 qualifying cycle took place on 2 February, 1990 in Stockholm.  By that point the Berlin wall had already come down and West German chancellor Helmut Kohl had announced a 10-point program aimed at increased cooperation between the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany) and the GDR (German Democratic Republicor East Germany) with an ultimate aim of reunification.  But reunification had not yet been formalized, and thus the East German national team participated in the draw. Sensationally, they were drawn with West Germany in Group 5, along with Belgium, Wales, and Luxembourg.  But before the qualifiers even began, the End of History interfered. [Continue Reading]

Pinochet, the Cold War, and the Most Pathetic Match Ever Played


The bombs fall on the Presidential Palace

November 21, 1973. Estadio Nacional. Santiago. The match to determine the final participant of the 1974 FIFA World Cup is about to take place between Chile and the Soviet Union. The Chileans take the field and line up for the national anthem. They wave to the fans and kick off. But this is no ordinary World Cup qualifier. It is, rather, one of the most absurd sights ever seen on a football pitch. The reason? The Soviets are not there. Chile dribble the length of the field unopposed and roll the ball into an unguarded net, a strictly symbolic goal to ensure victory. The story behind this mockery of a match is yet another example of the inevitable intersection between sport and politics, a narrative of Cold War intrigues spilling over onto the pitch and producing what the legendary Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano deemed “the most pathetic match in the history of football.” [Continue Reading]

European Cup: Early Iberian Successes

Part 1 of a 3 part series


The eventual appearance of a universal European club competition to define the best club side on the continent was, to some degree, inevitable. One game that is often said to have precipitated its emergence took place on 13th December 1954 when Stan Cullis led his direct, well-drilled Wolverhampton Wanderers side to a victory that would have various repercussions.

The Daily Mail suggested that, on the strength of their 3-2 comeback friendly victory over Honved at Molineux, the world ought to ‘Hail the mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers – the Champions of the World’ [Continue Reading]

La Época Dorada del Real Madrid: 1955-60

Part 2 of a 3 part series

Continental competition in Europe and the época dorada (golden era) of Real Madrid began in 1955 propelled by the genius of their new signings from South America: Alfredo Di Stefano (recruited from Colombia’s Millonarios), and his compatriot Hector Rial (from Nacional of Uruguay).  The two Argentine imports would play a pivotal role in carvin\g out Real Madrid’s reputation today as the aristocrats of European football, a superclub which almost every player in world football would aspire to represent. [Continue Reading]

O Glorioso Benfica: Stolen from Africa

Part 3 of a 3 part series

As incredible as Real Madrid’s five consecutive trophies were, it was inevitable that they would be eusebio guttmanntoppled. Amongst an extremely competitive playing field, were an impressive Hamburg side, inspired by Uwe Seeler, arch-rivals Barcelona with their skilful Hungarian imports and the newly-crowned 1959/60 champions of England, Harry Potts’ Burnley side. In order to bolster his squad Potts made his first cash signing for the Clarets before the 1959/60 season. He splashed out £5,000 to secure the services of Alex Elder. He wouldn’t make a cash signing again for eight years. Anyway, I digress. The side that stepped up to the plate and took the European crown were the leading club from the other Iberian capital, Lisbon. [Continue Reading]

The Hungarian ‘Golden Team’: How Creativity, Joy and Self-expression Flourished under Authoritarianism

From a Western European perspective, the Hungarian ‘golden team’ of the 1950s can seem to stand outside of history. Exotic and flamboyant, they appeared from behind the iron curtain during the darkest days of Stalinist and post-Stalinist repression, playing football that celebrated the skill of the individual and affirmed a joie de vivre that few, if any, sides have since been able to match. Following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the side ceased to exist as suddenly as it had arrived.golden team

Were the Marvellous Magyars a historical aberration? A celebration the capacity of the individual spirit to retain its creativity and optimism under the most terrible repression?  [Continue Reading]

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