Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Sports Populism

Fans like their teams—but not necessarily the politicians who support them.

When Brazil’s national soccer team flew home with the 1970 Jules Rimet trophy from that year’s World Cup, the players’ first stop was Brasilia, where they were warmly welcomed by then-leader General Emilio Garrastazu Médici. To everyone’s surprise, Médici had opened the presidential palace gates to the general public for the first time since the coup d’état of 1964. Along with a lunch hosted by the President, the players received tax-free bonuses then equivalent to $18,500 each. Pictures of the love-in—and of Médici hoisting the trophy—filled the Brazilian media.

The President didn’t stop there. He later took the team’s World Cup anthem, “Pra Frente Brasil” (“Go Ahead Brazil”), and made it the theme song of the regime. It was constantly played by army bands, writes Janet Lever in her 1983 book Soccer Madness, about soccer and Brazil. Like many leaders before and after him, Médici strategically attempted to link his administration with the successful and popular Brazilian squad. Even before the World Cup, writes Lever, Médici appears to have helped remove the communist sympathizer Joâo Saldanha as coach of the national team. After the Cup was won, the general said in a speech to the nation, “I identify this victory won in the brotherhood of good sportsmanship with the rise of faith in our fight for national development […] our players won because they knew how to […] play for the collective good.”

When I first began writing in the early 1990s about the ties between soccer and politics, most of what was being said and written argued that the World Cup victory in 1970 had given Brazil’s military rulers a new lease on power. The idea that political success rides on the success of the national soccer team is a common one. But after 20 years of exploring the soccer-politics nexus, I’ve come to think that this notion is mistaken.

There are indeed tight connections between fervent nationalism and a particular national team. When the national team plays a big game, and when a majority of the population watches it on TV, that is a shared national moment arguably like no other. People use the team’s performance to debate what is right or wrong with their country beyond the field. But politicians are wrong to believe that the national team’s success can keep them in power. This July, with Argentina hosting the Copa América tournament during its own election year, the relationship between soccer and the political fortunes of an incumbent regime in Latin America has become a topical issue again.

The Political Expediency of Soccer: Fact or Fiction?

Certainly, soccer has its political uses. The game can help a politician’s perennial effort to identify with the average citizen. For instance, when Ernesto Geisel was named Médici’s “pre-elected” successor in 1973, the Jornal do Brasil included among the key facts of his biography that he was a fan of Sport Club Internacional (in Porto Alegre) and of Botafogo de Futebol e Regatas (in Rio de Janeiro). The Jornal ended by proudly stating, “Ernesto Geisel will be the 23rd president of the republic.” In fact, Geisel had no interest in soccer. The propagandists had linked him with Internacional and Botafogo to make him seem more like the ordinary Brazilian.

However, there are other ways of tying yourself to a sports team short of draping yourself in your national team’s glory, as Médici did. The politics-sports connection doesn’t always require a victory. Traumatic defeat—such as Brazil’s loss to Italy in the second round of the 1982 World Cup—can also unify a nation and benefit politicians who use the defeat to boost nationalism.

Yet, while many voters might be more inclined to vote for a soccer fan, it’s a stretch to argue that the euphoria and despair around a national team can stabilize or unseat a government. There has been almost no academic research on the subject. But let’s start with the one case that I know of: the British elections of June 18, 1970, in which the national team’s performance in the World Cup may have contributed to ousting the incumbent government.

Before the match, the incumbent Labour Party had been expected to stay in power. When Prime Minister Harold Wilson called elections at the end of May, Labour held a 7.5–point lead in a Gallup poll. The party had also triumphed in local elections earlier in May. In one late poll before the general election, only 13 percent of the public had predicted a Conservative victory. Yet the Conservatives won, taking 52 percent of the seats in the House of Commons.

A couple of things had changed quickly in the days before the vote. One was the trade balance. Wilson had been boasting about the UK’s improving balance of payments. But just before the election, the trade figures suddenly fell into deficit because of the purchase of two jumbo jets.

The national sense of malaise may have best been captured by England’s unexpected June 14 loss to West Germany during the World Cup in the Mexican city of León. In the burning heat of the day, England’s second-choice goalkeeper, Peter Bonetti, fumbled and England lost a 3–2 thriller. Just four years earlier, England had beaten the West Germans in the World Cup final in London. “Have you noticed,” Wilson joked then, “how we only ever win the World Cup under a Labour government?”

There was little to joke about after the 1970 loss. The public had shown more interest in the World Cup—which many had assumed England would win again—than in the election. The morning after the soccer defeat, Minister of Sport Denis Howell and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins held a factory-gate meeting in Birmingham. Howell later recalled, “Roy was totally bemused that no question concerned either trade figures nor immigration, but solely the football and whether [England’s soccer manager Alf] Ramsey or Bonetti was the major culprit. I tried to be good-humored about my answers, but for the first time I had real doubts and knew the mood was changing fast.”

In this case, the national team’s performance in León may have captured for many the sour economic mood in the country. After the 1970 elections, Tony Crosland—a cabinet minister under Wilson—blamed “the disgruntled Match-of-the-Day [BBC TV’s traditional soccer highlights program] millions” for Labour’s defeat.

Indeed Wilson, himself a professed supporter of lowly Huddersfield Town F.C., had apparently been worried in advance that the World Cup might hurt him. Richard Crossman, another cabinet minister, recalled how the prime minister had agonized over the exact date on which to set the election: “Harold said one of the problems was the World Cup. If it wasn’t for that, he would favor the end of June.” Years later, Wilson’s defense minister, Denis Healey, wrote in his memoirs that in April 1970 Wilson had called a strategy meeting at the prime minister’s country house, Chequers, “in which Harold asked us to consider whether the government would suffer if the England footballers were defeated on the eve of polling day.”

Defeat in León alone didn’t sink Wilson. Voters were surely more worried about inflation, especially after the pound was devalued in November 1967. But an election is a referendum on the state of a country. The problem is that few people know whether their country is doing well or not, because government typically has little daily effect on their livelihoods. Periods of boom or bust are rare; more often than not the economy just muddles on.

People’s sense of whether the country is successful is nebulous. In contrast, a lost soccer match can help crystallize the public mood. A soccer game involving England is a rare occasion when the nation is made flesh—those 11 young men are the country—and thus the end result is clear. In the quarterfinal of the World Cup, you win or lose. There’s nothing nebulous about that.

The 1970 loss to West Germany echoed a particular political narrative. The story most people were telling about English soccer was, “1966 was a time of optimism when a modernized England outdid the foreigners, but we have since declined.” This happened to be a plausible take on the political situation as well. In 1966, Wilson won a mandate by preaching modernity, but the subsequent four years had been ones of national decline compared against a rising continental Europe. In other words, England’s defeat in soccer clarified a way of thinking about politics…


Tags: Argentina, Simon Kuper, Sports
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter