Propaganda and sports

A weekly sports column from the 100 Mile Free Press

I have always been fascinated with the role of politics in sports. Not in terms of teams or players promoting or dismissing progressive ideas, but how they became established and/or used as propaganda.

For example, two Spanish clubs formed one of the biggest rivalries in soccer’s history during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Real Madrid was Francisco Franco’s favourite club and until 1975, it became a symbol of Fraconism, Spain’s brand of fascism.

The 1950s was the peak of his influence on the club when he sabotaged Barcelona’s bid for the legendary forward Alfredo Di Stéfano. According to the BBC’s Fascism and Football documentary, the president of Barcelona was arrested by police and blackmailed. They told him that his textile business would be hit with a hefty tax bill unless he gave up on Di Stéfano.

The forward, from Argentina, would become a powerhouse for Real Madrid playing 701 games and scoring 514 goals (in all competitions) from 1953-1964.

Barcelona, for their part, was openly anti-fascism and pro-Catalonian independence. Showing up at a game against Real Madrid was seen as an expression of dissent. Under Franco’s rule, it was illegal to speak any other language than Castilian, fly regional flags or even meet with people in large numbers. All these rules were broken at Barcelona’s home games.

Franco believed soccer (and sports as a whole) could pacify the Spanish masses, much like what Hitler and Mussolini did in Italy and Germany. It could also help squash some resistance and sympathy for defiant parties, like Barcelona.

The Catalonian club was the country’s leading club prior to 1953, and Franco was out to destroy them. He went as far as having the director of security threaten Barcelona’s players live during a semi-final cup match in 1943 after they beat Real Madrid in the first leg 3-0. The second leg was won by Real Madrid by 11 goals to one.

Of course, with Franco long gone and Spain back to a constitutional monarchy, the fascism aspect of this rivalry no longer exists.

However, Real Madrid is still regarded as a club for aristocrats, while Barcelona is strong in its working-class roots (and still pro-Catalonian). The clubs are still giant rivals, with a downright hatred for one another.

Many other Spanish clubs hold close connections to Franco or anti-Franco, pro-Catalonian and/or pro-Basque movements.

In Northern Ireland and Scotland, several clubs were born in Catholic or Protestant neighbourhoods, taking up either Irish Republican or Unionist political connections. The biggest example of this is Glasgow Celtic (formed by Irish immigrants) and Rangers FC (also in Glasgow). Both clubs have a history of sectarian violence, including murder.

I tried to find a case of existing professional sports clubs in Canada and the U.S. that have any strong foundation of political ideals but wasn’t able to.

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