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World Cup Dictatorships | Part 1: Why is This Important?

This is the first piece in a series that examines the role of country dictatorship in the global soccer world.

Soccer: Mexico vs Wales Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the formative events of my adolescence was the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. South Africa featured the oddity of North Korea, the least democratic and most authoritarian nation on planet Earth. For the first time, my 12-year-old self was exposed, just a little bit, to the nature of authoritarian regimes. North Korea’s star striker, Jong Tae-se wept when the North Korean anthem was played ahead of their opening match against Brazil. The North Koreans managed a credible 2-1 loss and this convinced the regime to allow the televising of their final two group games in North Korea. They were then soundly beaten 7-0 by Portugal and that was the end of that. When the North Koreans went home it’s not entirely clear what happened. It was reported that the players faced a six hour session of public criticism and their coach, Kim Jung-hun, was sent to a hard labour camp but this cannot be verified. One of the players who did not have to face these hardships was the aforementioned Jong Tae-se. Jong is from Chongryon, a pocket of North Korean ex-pats who live in Japan but remain loyal to North Korea.

Despite the grim reality of the situation for the players and coaches, much of what people took away from their World Cup was either amusement or a sort of admiration. Two of the top comments on the highlights package on FIFA’s YouTube page are “The Koreans really deserved respect after this. Solid defending and a great goal…” and “the goalkeeper was executed in front of his team mates by Kim regime.” You can see these two sentiments expressed again and again throughout the comment section and across the internet. Despite the commonly repeated piece of internet wisdom “don’t read the comments” my view is that comments sections are usually a pretty good gauge of what the average person is thinking and feeling (even when it’s ugly). These responses indicate to me that people aren’t really grappling with the implications of authoritarian states in international sporting competitions on a serious level. This is not to say that admiration of the spirit of the Korean players, or finding some things about them funny, are not valid responses. But for dictators sport is a very important political tool and we must be aware of this.

Many people see sport as something that should be kept separate from politics. Unfortunately this is simply not the world we live in. Since the start of the 20th century almost every dictator has used sport to their advantage. The fascist trio of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco were all known to meddle in football affairs to further their political aims as is outlined in the BBC documentary “Football and Fascism.” In more modern times we can see examples of dictators using sport to support their rule. Famously during Syria’s World Cup qualifying campaign two of their best players, Omar Al Somah and Firas Al-Khatib refused to play for a team that would support Bashar Al Assad. The players who remained wore pro Assad shirts in press conferences. Eventually Khatib and Somah agreed to return “for the people” but they still played for an expressly pro Assad team. Assad has been denied the chance to have his team play for him on the world stage this year, but others have made it through. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Democracy Index classifies four of the countries at this year’s World Cup as “Authoritarian.” These countries are Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran and Egypt. These countries all have the potential to be a feel good story of the World Cup. Football is also, to varying degrees, important to the domestic politics of all of these countries. The results at the World Cup for these countries could have far reaching geopolitical consequences.

The following five-part series will examine how Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and Egypt came to be authoritarian and what role football plays in perpetuating and expanding the control of their respective regimes. At the end of it you may still decide that you don’t care and you’d rather not acknowledge the political factors at play in sport but you should at least first know the facts.