The Beautiful Game and Ugly Regimes

Hero Footballers
March 25, 2021

The Beautiful Game and Ugly Regimes

Football and corruption seem constant bedfellows now, but, in fact, it dated back decades. The Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) fell into disgrace in 2015 with the arrests and indictment of many officials, but the flaws were deep-rooted, and it wasn’t just about trousering riches.

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (December 30th 2020)

The Ugly Game

Football and corruption seem constant bedfellows now, but, in fact, it dated back decades. The Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) fell into disgrace in 2015 with the arrests and indictment of many officials, but the flaws were deep-rooted, and it wasn’t just about trousering riches.

It involved maintaining power and far worse. Dictators knew the power of football – it wasn’t the most popular sport in the world for nothing. Sadly, Brasil, undoubtedly the greatest football power, has a torrid story of how the beautiful game fell victim to despicable people, who knew how to utilise its popularity to ‘legitimise’ dictatorship, brutality and worse. This was naked abuse of football’s power, but FIFA’s silence on it was deafening – it still is.

The ‘Well Intentioned’ Dictator

In 1964 Brasil’s military overthrew President João Goulart. The Chief of Staff of the Army, Field Marshall Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco took power – it was the first time a soldier of that rank had taken power in that manner since 1889 when Deodoro da Fonseca overthrew the Emperor Pedro II. It was not the first time the military had seized power in the intervening 75 years.

Castelo Branco claimed that he intended to restore civilian rule after ‘completing’ Goulart’s term, which had been due to end in 1966, but as with other dictators ‘good intentions’ gave way to further bad practices..

It was yet another example of a so-called ‘benevolent dictator’ – an oxymoron if ever there was one – proving that his idea of democracy was the right to vote for what the dictator wanted.

The Mask Slips

In 1965 political opponents won gubernatorial elections in the states of Minas Gerais and Guanabara, leading to the dictator Castelo Branco reneging on his ‘intention’ to restore civilian rule. Castelo Branco refused to annul the gubernatorial results as his militantly repressive right-wing colleagues wanted but acquiesced with their demands for harsher policies and greater repression.

A coup against Castelo Branco was averted by his successor Artur da Costa e Silva who persuaded his colleagues that repression would follow, and it did. The benevolent dictator shed his democrat clothing with consummate ease. Yielding to repressive demands, Castello Branco extended his term to 1967 and introduced a repressive Constitution passed legislation banning political parties and curtailed media rights – so much for Castelo Branco’s much vaunted respect for democracy.

When it really mattered, Castelo Branco proved that if he was not a vicious right-wing repressive dictator himself, he was prepared to acquiesce with those who were, adopt repressive powers and pave the way for more brutality. Wool was this lupine’s attire of choice.

Successors – More Repressive Dictators

Having served his purpose of legitimising the coup against Goulart, Castello Branco soon shed all democratic pretensions and ushered in the most vicious dictatorship in Brasilian history – he was replaced by da Costa e Silva on March 15th 1967. A few months later Castello Branco was killed in an air crash. His legacy – a consummate liar who paved the way for brutal repression for the best part of two decades while claiming his intentions were to restore democratic rule. Football paid a high price for his treachery too.

Naked Repression

While Castello Branco wore tatty democrat clothing at first – he soon cast them aside – his successors didn’t bother even pretending. Corporations happily did business with the fascist dictatorship. The only credentials that mattered were anti-communism and rampant greed. Da Costa e Silva brought in the era of fascist brutality but without Castello Branco’s duplicity the lurch rightward would not have been possible.

Da Costa e Silva abandoned all pretences in December 1968 by taking dictatorial powers. It didn’t last. The following year his health failed, and he was replaced by a Military Junta led by General Emílio Garrastazu Médici. A year later the despicable people, led by Médici basked in the glory of football. Médici’s government involved the vilest cruelty of the dictatorship, but while bestial cruelty was inflicted on opponents the football world saw the game played at its beautiful best – many fell in love with football and Brasil in 1970 knowing nothing of the vile crimes of Médici and his thugs. Médici assisted Richard Noixon in the overthrow of Chile’s elected government of Salvador Allende.

He was replaced by the supposedly less rigid Ernesto Geisel in March 1974, but Geisel was yet another lupine dressed in wool. After Geisel’s death evidence of human rights abuses emerged – Médici made no pretence of being anything other than an authoritarian with contempt for human rights. He died in 1985 a year after the dictatorship fell.

Samba football was very pleasing on the eye, but the cost to Brasil – hiding the crimes of Brasil’s vilest dictatorship came at too high a price. But Brasil is far from alone in delivering glorious football in times of repression and bestial regimes.

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