I recently watched a BBC documentary on football and fascism in the Europe of the 1930's. It showed how Mussolini, Hitler and Franco respectively used football as a political propaganda tool. As a person with a keen interest in both European 20th century history and in football, it was interesting programme, although the programme at times often rather simplified the hsitorical context, such as the German annexation of Austria or the reasons for the Falagist victory in the Spanish civil war.
But the programme was certainly interesting in regard to how football was used by these regimes as a tool in their propaganda machine. For instance the way in which Mussolini in the 1930's sponsored and pressured Italian football, leading directly to the victories in the world cups of 1934 and 1938.
In 1934 Mussolini directly influenced the Swedish referee Ivan Eklind, who dined with Mussolini before refereeing the final against Czechoslovakia. Mr. Eklind had also been referee in the semifinal between Italy and Austria, where he had gone very far in what he allowed the Italian players to do. The programme strongly suggests that Italy should not have won, but goes on to largely ignore the fact that Italy also was victorious in France in 1938. Italy did have an extremely good team in the 1930's. While the quality of the team always will be put in doubt by Mr. Mussolini's actions, the fact remains that they were victorious in two world cups, and their players were leading in what was one of the world's best leagues at the time.
Austria of the 1930's plays a important part in the programme's part on Nazi Germany. In the 1930's, Austria's national team was one of the bets in the world, led by the charismatic and popular Max Sendelar, one of the greatest players of the time. With the 'Anchluss', that is Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938, many Austrian players were absorbed into the German team. But Max Sendelar became a symbol of Austrian nationalism, and died under mysterious circumstances in 1939. The program focuses much on these mysterious circumstances under which he was found gassed in bed, together with his Italian girlfriend. It is obviously insinuated that he was killed by the Nazis. Nothing has ever been clarified, but the method would be very like the Nazis.
But this is not the only focus on Hitler. As is well-known, the Nazis were exceptional in using propaganda as a political tool. The 1936 Olympics were the first with the massive use of a mayor sporting event to promote the political agenda of the Nazis. The German football team was also part of this political machinery, and the programme alledges that the only football game Hitler ever went to was when Germany sensationally was defeated by Norway in the 1936 Olympics. I guess Norway were the Jessee Owen of football by this great result!
However, the programme tends to exaggerate the importance of this result, insinuating it undermined the regime. While football is a valuable propaganda tool, it was more an expression of the society and politics of 1930's Europe, and not a direct influence on the sustanability of the regime. This is a fault in the programme which is continued in the last part, which is about how Francisco Franco, in Spain, used football, and in particular the success of Real Madrid, as a tool in its relations with the outside world. That the international success of Real Madrid during the 1950's was central in ending Spain's isolation after World War II, is an overstatement to say the least. It ignores the whole cold war and anti-communist context leading US foreign policy at the time.
But that Franco was indeed a Real Madrid fan, and used its success as a stage to show off, is beyond doubt. It is interesting to hear an interview with the great Alfredo Di Stefano, who largely tells the period as he saw it: "We were just playing football, and paid little attention to the politics around us".
Real Madrid's success played an important element in attesting the superiority of Madrid over other Spanish regions, notably Barcelona. Today the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid stems very much from this period, where also Catalan nationalism uses the football of FC Barcelona as a political platform - a fact mentioned shortly, but otherwise largely ignored by the programme.
There is little doubt that Real Madrid had the upper hand in the 1950's, also showed by Real Madrid's amazing team of those years; by far the world's best at the time. Truly "Galacticos" - whose record will probably never be beaten: five European cups and six Spanish championships. Mr. Di Stefano's own transfer to Real Madrid was part of the upper-hand of Real Madrid: Barcelona had confirmed the transfer (according to Mr. Di Stefano himself, he was already ready to go to Barcelona), but at the last moment, there was a mysterious intervention to get him to Madrid. As we all know today, he was the greatest player ever in Real Madrid, which is not a small feat!
The BBC programme is recommendable to anyone interested in the role of politics in football, and viceversa. Politics and football do go hand in hand more often than not. As such, football was also used by fascist dictatorships, and the programme gives a good, although at times simplified, view of how it happened. But it is important to notice that football was just one little element of the political game, and that the use of football as a political tool is in no way an exception to these regimes.