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Dictators and Soccer: Popes, PR and the Vatican Soccer Sin Bin

May 17, 2013 — by Rob Kirby


[Editor’s note: This is the 4th installment in the ongoing Dictators and Soccer series. See also the previous installments on Kim Jong-il and North Korea (or Football, Famine and Giant Rabbits), Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania and Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaïre. Stay tuned for Col. Gaddafi next.]

Sovereign city state nations with populations less than 1,000 find themselves irresistibly drawn to soccer. Or perhaps that pertains only to one-man rulerships like Vatican City, right smack in Rome, that can’t help but intersect with soccer and watch it blow up in their faces. When soccer runs amok, it self-inflates beyond all suggested parameters and eventually explodes, pressure pumped beyond the limits. (Picture serious, furrowed Vatican eyebrows in 2012, of which more to come.) But after a period of Catholic guilt, soccer redeemed itself when the offbeat priest-and-seminarian Vatican league called the Clericus Cup came to the papacy’s rescue in 2013, relaunched and refrocked from the previous spring’s flat-lining of the tournament. “Rescue” may overstate the case. Puff pieces on the unofficially taglined “Vatican World Cup” may not have substantively changed hearts and minds or effectively deflected scandal from the Vatican, per se, but they did and do provide comic relief, so you have to take that in consideration.

clericus_cup7And now we find ourselves with a likeable Argentinian pope and a Saturday, May 18 Clericus Cup final match at the Pontificio Oratorio di San Pietro, in the hills overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica. Vatileaks, who? Sex scandal, what? Once upon a time, however, the future did not look so bright in Vatican City.

Pope Benedict XVI, previously known as Joseph Ratzinger, the battle tank Panzerkardinal enforcer of Catholic orthodoxy, “God’s Rottweiler,” abruptly and inexplicably resigned on February 11, 2013, the first living pope to do so in 600 years. The surprise announcement put the Vatican under intense scrutiny. Theories abounded, with topics trending on corruption, cronyism, blackmail, male prostitutes and a clergyman allegedly caught on video chatting it up on a gay dating site. The scandal had set up shop not simply within the Church but within the sacred walls of the Vatican itself.

Unprecedented in its magnitude and wholesale breach of internal security, the scandal had infiltrated the Roman Curia, the elder priest junta that runs the Church. Ratzinger had ridden out the storm when it surfaced that he had joined the Hitler Youth party in 1941 at 14 years old (semi-involuntarily, as the Nazis offered no alternative), but this was another thing altogether. A splinter faction of the curia actively leaked documents to the press in 2012 to undermine the pope and his number two. Meanwhile, high-ranking gay priests allegedly started getting blackmailed by former flings. After the 2012 Vatileaks scandal but before his resignation, Benedict XVI had commissioned three retired cardinals to investigate and report back on their findings regarding the leaks, the attacking faction of the curia and any extracurricular sex scandals involving the curia. In January 2013 the report landed on his desk. On February 11, he announced his resignation.

clericus_cup2As all politicians know, it proves handy at times to have a news distraction, even for a semi-untouchable benevolent dictatorship like the papacy in Vatican City, with only 800 residents but a virtual population of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Fortunately, the Clericus Cup kicked off days after the pope’s resignation news, in a well-orchestrated media campaign. Whether convenient or calculated, the men-of-the-cloth-only soccer tournament would return after getting killed off in 2012. Despite a launch to mass fanfare in 2007 by Benedict XVI’s right-hand man, Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, a Juventus diehard who moonlighted as a soccer radio announcer while Archbishop of Genoa and reprised commentary for some Rome derbies over Vatican radio, the league saw the plug pulled in 2012 for losing sight of its ideals, namely two: not bringing the name of the Church into disrepute and not sabotaging perceived Christian values with questionable tackling, blatant diving and/or thuggery during or between play. PR is a perception game.

Now, however, the Vatican had brought the Clericus Cup back from the dead, and the Vatican doesn’t just do things off the cuff or on the fly. Why disinter the tournament that had so embarrassed the church with unsportsmanlike priest and student priest behavior the previous spring?

Through the press, anonymous colleagues hammered Cardinal Bertone for months with charges of Machiavellian methods, palace intrigue, curia cronyism and Vatican banking corruption. However, they did it by proxy, the sneakiest means of self-same palace intrigue. The anti-Bertone faction of the curia used letters written by others which then got the full oxygen of publicity through international news outlets.

benedict1In a scandal that developed into the phenomenon “Vatileaks,” a militant faction of the curia leaked confidential letters written to Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Bertone, many of which stolen directly from the pope’s quarters by his butler. Investigative reporter Gianluigi Nuzzi published them into a powderkeg collection as His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI in May 2012 and all hell broke loose. The documents proved intensely embarrassing and damaging to both Benedict XVI and Bertone, painting a picture of a lax, ineffective pope who over-delegated to a corrupt second in command.

The leaked letters also presented underlings learning too late that any time a whistleblower priest stepped forth about financial corruption within the Church, one of Bertone’s people replaced the letter-writing penpal turncoat. Bertone replaced the governor of Vatican City, the head of the Vatican treasury, and the Vatican’s top bank regulator with his chums from the Piedmont area around Turin (where both he and soccer giant Juventus hail). Any financial malfeasance whatsoever in the Vatican means big money—its portfolio and holdings add up to approximately $6 billion—and international financial bodies have begun to consider the in-house bank as a vehicle for money-laundering and tax evasion. At the moment, it’s safe to say the Vatican bank is not the whitest or most fiduciarily trusted lamb in international banking.

Meanwhile, out of not-really left field, a sex scandal involving high-level priests cinched the vise of his actual day job a few notches tighter. And as Benedict XVI make up his mind to fly the coop stage left, it so happened Cardinal Bertone was about to take charge as the acting head of state. In the interregnum between popes, the camerlengo, or chamberlain, takes charge. After Benedict XVI’s resignation, Cardinal Bertone had the winning trifecta ticket of camerlengo, brainchild of the Clericus Cup and epicenter of vicious controversy. Only two of those three claims to fame did he enjoy.

clericus_cup4But surely soccer could lighten the mood. In the annual Clericus Cup five-a-side tournament and its spring-weather soccer Saturdays–Sunday matches understandably verboten—international students from Roman seminaries and plucky older priests playing cup soccer makes the soul smile. The teams’ seminary school fans cheer in Latin, the global aspect makes for interesting contrasts in styles, and scripture in shin pads stops just short of qualifying as official uniform, easily the most pervasive match day routine, hands-down. (Perhaps the verses help stave off bruising with the extra padding.) Add to that a Vatican-only blue card that sends players to a hockey-style penalty box called the “sin bin” for 5 minutes of suspension and reflection on one’s misdeeds, and you’ve got a bona fide sports hit on your hands.

The league came up with a couple minor additional ground rules. First, no games on Sunday, for reasons the seminarians really shouldn’t need to be told (again). Second, matches would conclude not with players in single file, slapping palms, mumbling, “Good game, good game,” but with the teams praying together on field at the center circle. It definitely didn’t scream scandal material, more like bleach-clean Christian fun.

Judging from highlight clips aplenty on the Web, the player-priests from Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Italy, Africa and beyond have some genuine soccer skills. And devoted fans. During matches, spectators chant team-specific songs in Latin, and draw from a deep well of languages to heckle referees, insinuate bribery, shout for dismissals and hurl abuse at players adjudged to have dived. In short, a student priest with a foam finger announcing himself “Number One Fan” behaves like any other soccer fan (excepting Latin fluency).

benedict2Matches last two 30-minute halves–more elder-friendly, less ungodly–and teams have one time out per half. The red card theoretically exists for the unlikely scenario of one of the player’s taking the Lord’s name in vain—reflection on that misdeed in light of one’s career choice clearly requires more than 5 measly minutes. Over 300 international seminary students and priests in Rome represent 50+ countries on Saturday soccer fields just outside of Vatican City (given its size, the country has no dedicated soccer pitch) to celebrate discipline, clean-cut values and the occasional wondergoal. The players pose for photographs as upstanding paragons of Catholicism, with the awe-inspiring cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance. What could be more wholesome?

When the papal resignation announcement arrived, the PR machine sprang impressively into action. Benedict XVI informed the cardinals of his resignation at the Apostolic Palace on the morning of February 11. On February 15, the Cup’s Facebook page started pumping out photos of the picturesque St. Peter’s Basilica background and posts like the sic-worthy, “Big news are coming soon…. New edition is warmin up!” The Twitter account similarly crackled to life the same day with the again-English heads up: “we are warming up for a new edition… are you READY?” Normally both accounts post predominantly in Italian.

The Guardian got a sneak peek video onto the Web before the official announcement–Wired’s online article and video even coincidentally/perfectly came out on February 11, the same day as the pope’s shock news.

Before that, there had been radio silence for months. Why the sudden turnaround? Right, right. Inquisition rules–they ask the questions around here. The radio-announcing canon law power player Bertone knew full well the power of soccer over the flock. The swarming world press preferred salacious tabloid scoops, but the occasional fuzzy feel-good story would do.

A press conference on February 21 featured Spanish national team coach Vincent Del Bosque sending a light-hearted video shoutout to the Spanish team of the seminary Pontificio Collegio Spagnolo, among other chuckle-inducing PowerPoint pleasantries. The Cup began two days later, four groups of four teams each in World Cup-style group stage format, knockouts begin in the quarterfinals and on to the finish-line Clericus Cup final and pomp of the award ceremony. Thus concludes the seamless rollout.

A week before the UEFA Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund at Wembley, the 2013 Clericus Cup final decides a different, more shin-protected victor at the Pontificio Oratorio di San Pietro in those oft-mentioned hills above St. Peter’s Basilica. Before the world learns the European Cup champion, Catholicism crowns the first Vatican World Cup champions of the Franciscan papal era.

On opening weekend, the late February 2013 group stage league games straddled both the first Saturday and Sunday for expediency’s sake, seemingly flouting the Clericus Cup Fight Club Rule #1. Why the special Sunday dispensation? Don’t look for answers from a Vatican press secretary. Strategic silence continues a long tradition for Vatican information givers. Why was the tournament reinstated? The more basic the question, the less it requires direct address from the Vatican HQ. Meanwhile the Vatican perception strike team had leapt into action, executing a laser-focused sequence that activated social media buzz in the week leadup to a press conference that announces the league start two days later, and just 12 since the papal two (or so) weeks’ notice.

bertone2Zooming out for a moment, it helps to revisit the people in charge. Both Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone served in the 1990s and early 2000s on the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an office known for such treasured moments in junta history as railroading Galileo into a heresy conviction and shot-calling the Inquisition. Ratzinger presided as top dog prefect and Bertone as the second-in-charge secretary. Heavy hitters in the curia, both priests took part in the 2005 conclave that transformed Ratzinger into Pope Benedict XVI. On Vatican TV, Bertone the wise palace politician invoked the German legend Franz Beckenbauer of Benedict XVI’s favorite team Bayern Munich and obsequiously exclaimed, “The Church has found its Beckenbauer!”

Bertone went further with the Beckenbauer theme, although his descriptions largely fail to evoke the actual attacking defender. “He pushes us forward with his passes. He knows how best to use his teammates’ talents. He is a reserved director and a reliable midfield player.”

For those not familiar with Beckenbauer, or “Der Kaiser,” in addition to his haul of World Cups, the sweeper collected many Bundesliga trophies with Bayern Munich and a disco 1970s late-career segment playing with Pelé in the NASL with the New York Cosmos. Considering other possible German World War leader nicknames, Beckenbauer fortunately ducked “Der Führer.” Fortunate for Ratzinger, as well, he found himself still semi-embroiled with his association with the Hitler Youth during his wide-eyed Bavarian years.

beckenbauer1Swiftly after his gushing comparisons to Beckenbauer, Bertone was appointed by Benedict XVI as Vatican Secretary of State, the second-highest office in the country and the religion, perhaps not in that order. Some even tipped the Italian as the next pope. Not bad for a man whose previous most high-profile moment involved him spitting fire and fuming as the Vatican man who went on the attack against Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, decreeing that believers should boycott the book that spread such egregious lies and gross untruths.

He further mined the vein of soccer goodwill when, in announcing the Clericus Cup months before kickoff in December 2006, new Cardinal Secretary of State Bertone boldly speculated that one day the Vatican could put its own team Seria A team together and pit it against the traditional powerhouses. “The Vatican could, in future, field a team that plays at the top level, with Roma, Internazionale, Genoa and Sampdoria. We can recruit lads from the seminaries. I remember that in the World Cup of 1990 there were 42 players among the teams who made it to the finals who came from Salesian training centers all over the world. If we just take the Brazilian students from our Pontifical universities we could have a magnificent squad.”

Hours of press scoffing later, Bertone chimed in again, clarified he’d been joking and said, “I’ve got much more to do than cultivating a football squad for the Vatican.” The humor of a Catholic youth education based on the Salesian Order had confounded the journalistic laity once again. “It was fantasy fun to spread some cheer and maybe fill a half a page of the newspapers,” Bertone said.

benedict3When God’s Rottweiler’s sidekick Cardinal Bertone birthed the soccer oddity known as the Clericus Cup in 2007, it came on the heels of his lifelong club Juventus’ relegation to Serie B after the infamous 2006 Calciopoli match fixing scandal, as well as the infamous headbutt by Zinedine Zidane on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, about which Materazzi later copped to goading Zidane with, “I prefer the whore that is your sister.” Italy won that World Cup but Italian football was in disarray. Bertone proposed a better, cleaner model, a seminary league that would exhibit Christian values on the pitch, lead by example.

Then, of course, it had to shut down in 2012 for misconduct and corruption of the original purpose. But nothing substantively had changed. The competition had had scuffles, referee abuse and noise complaints from neighbors about the drums, music and overall decibel level since the beginning.

Whatever the reason, the Clericus Cup got canned. Perhaps it served as the stray dog that wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time, and Bertone engaged in the animal-kicking cardinal equivalent of ripping all the books, pictures and fixtures from the walls in a destructo-tantrum.

Soccer had done what soccer always does in a tightly controlled state of junta or one-man rule. Passions pitched beyond acceptable bounds, the volatile compound exploded, and shrapnel strafed the faces pushing into the publicity shots. It was minimal, but a last straw is a last straw.

It all went swimmingly until got it in their head that the competition was bringing scandal to the church (slight misidentification of the primary target on that one). Reports of unsportsmanlike behavior emerged. Problems had resided in the Clericus Cup from the beginning, however. Nothing about the proceedings in 2012 particularly spoiled the show, but authorities felt aggrieved.

Designed to contrast the match-fixing-embroiled Italian Serie A with a celestially approved alternative, the Clericus Cup prided itself on fair play and the integrity of its players. The organizers selected for its motto, “a different soccer is possible,” and while sometime, somewhere that may be true, the Clericus Cup did not best exemplify that case. News of a pitch brawl spread in 2010, in addition to various Italian press reports of uncharitable chants against rival teams. In the first year, even, contentious calls led to adrenaline-fueled eruptions against the referee, as between Redemptoris Mater and the Pontifical Lateran University in 2007. A questionable penalty elicited protest, chants and a hail of abuse from the crowd. At the final whistle, field indiscipline progressed to off-field antics. The Neocatechumenals of Redemptoris Mater ran to the touchline to rejoice with their fans, which soon escalated into showers of uncorked champagne. Redemptoris Mater, in any crusty priest’s eyes, could have exercised a bit more prudence and moderation in jubilation.

clericus_cup5However, in 2012 the main bugaboo for Bertone was Vatileaks, the albatross he couldn’t shake. The Clericus Cup was not top of mind. There was a darker stain on Vatican City than players arguing on the fields. Then suddenly things got worse. His powerful backer resigned. In the fallout from the leaked letters to the pope and the Cardinal Bertone, authorities arrested the pope’s butler and ejected the Vatican bank president for negligence. Pope Benedict later pardoned his butler in December 2012, in what would prove one of his final acts, although no one knew it at the time.

In the fallout, Cardinal Bertone accused journalists of “pretending to be Dan Brown” and channeling the sensationalism of the author’s The Da Vinci Code, ascribing to the profession “a will to create division that comes from the devil.” One wonders why he didn’t just go on an excommunication spree, aside from the Clericus Cup whose primary fault was aligning in time with the prepublication hype of His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI.

Regardless of punished parties, Cardinal Bertone’s reputation took a massive hit. The Italian media skewered Bertone, though Pope Benedict XVI came to his defense in a July 4 letter, subsequently released as a statement by the Vatican. Benedict XVI inclusively called Bertone “dear brother” and thumbs-upped the continued co-sign with, “Having noted with sorrow the unjust criticisms that have been directed against you, I wish to reiterate the expression of my personal confidence.”

In January, after the detective cardinals wrote up the dirt for Benedict XVI, the pope decided not to share the findings with the cardinals entering the conclave, that only the next pope would be shown the dossier. Did Bertone read it? Unknown, but it’s reasonable to assume that unless he featured prominently, Benedict XVI handed it over to him within minutes of reading, before or after asking for some painkillers and a place to lie down. Bertone may have even read it first, in accordance with criticism of Benedict XVI’s hands-off administrative posture, to detractors’ minds the root of the problem.

Even before the pope drafted the three cardinals for CIA op cloak and dagger action, Bertone had set into motion his own investigations. According Italian magazine Panorama, he instructed the head of the Vatican police to tap the phones and monitor the emails of selected curia cardinals and bishops, prime suspects in his dissident roundup. According to a spokesman, someone or someone’s “authorized some wiretaps or some checks.” Simple as that. Just a minor experiment in police state surveillance for more transparency in information flow patterns. Bertone wanted to catch the bastards that burned him with the Vatileaks and the book.

By the time Pope Benedict XVI did his last papal rites on February 28, Bertone had already set into motion the Clericus Cup campaign. On March 1, he transitioned into acting head of state–the official title for the job description he had essentially held all along. The first weekend of Bertone’s interim regime, the Clericus teams generated positive news through respectful inaction, observing the departure of outgoing Benedict XVI with a day of soccer field silence. Before that point, though, they’d granted many smiley interviews and people had stocked up YouTube with the clips. By the time Cardinal Bertone and the rest of the cardinals dipped into the conclave, the teams entered into the last final clutch matches of the group stages, but bantered easily again with eager reporters asking softball questions about who they were rooting for when it came to the next pope. (Brazilians: “A Brazilian!” The Argentines: “An Argentine!” Africans: “An African!”) Hard hitting journalism it was not.

The conclave sent up the white smoke on March 13, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina emerged from the St. Peter’s Basilica balcony as Pope Francis I. In the next batch of Clericus Cup YouTube videos, the Argentines of Incarnate Word seminary team in particular cheered, in vergingly overexuberant fashion, the selection. Reinstated after getting so unceremoniously defrocked, the Clericus Cup returned with the renewed life force of a Lazarus. Reporters canvassed players during the conclave, some of the best press to come out of the Vatican in yearclericus_cup9s.

Before presiding as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio grew up a fan of Buenos Aires side San Lorenzo de Almagro, or “Los Santos” (the Saints). The Saint’s Twitter account reacted to the pope’s announcement with respectable speed. Within hours of Pope Francis’ succession to the papal throne, a scanned membership card with his picture, name and number flew over airwaves. The new pope literally qualified as a card-carrying fan.

Also in the first few hours and also tweeted, a photo of Diego Maradona, grinning while holding a handwritten “The hand of God approves of the new pope.” El Diego later followed up with the media proper. “The god of soccer is Argentine,” Maradona humbly opined. “And now the pope is too.”

clericus_cup8Pope Francis I comes across as a good guy, a likeable and as-yet-uncompromised papal figure. Nevertheless, his handlers must urge caution with soccer. To wit, action one: prioritize. Keep the Clericus Cup, ditch Bertone at the first opportunity. (Francis I convened an advisory council with regard to the Secretary of State office in March, but the sooner someone new walks in, the sooner things die down over the Vatileaks incident, the more people read mood relaxers about Vatican football/soccer/futsal, the better. It’s the Catholic Church–what are they going to do? Change?) Action two: unleash a FIFA national team that challenges for world honors, with a merry band of Swiss Guards bossing the upcoming 2018 Russian and/or 2002 Qatari World Cup grounds. But that’s a discussion for another time.

On April 13, with the Vatican riding high on the positive reception to a well-liked pope, the quarterfinals signaled the knockout phase of the tournament. Team knocked out team and now the finals go down tomorrow. Tomorrow, May 18th, it’s the Vatican World Cup finals featuring reigning champions Pontificio North American College, the “Martyrs,” Maria Mater Ecclesiae and the small matter of the Clericus Cup title. And to warm up the crowd for the main event, the battle for bronze between third and fourth (a.k.a., the semifinal losers).

The Martyrs booked the first final spot by edging past Pontificio Collegio Urbano 1-0, whose supporters, incidentally, drape themselves in Vatican City flags. That is, when they’re not manically waving them (it’s their schtick). And then, in the next match on the same ground–the ultimate in the Catholic World Cup doubleheaders—Mexican side Maria Mater Ecclesiae gunned down Redemptoris Mater, the most winningest team in the history of the Clericus Cup, with a solid 2-0 scoreline.

Like the increasingly unrepresentative name “The Martyrs,” the North American seminary can’t honestly claim the plucky-American-soccer tag, since they have an English ringer on the squad that played semi professionally and once belonged to the Blackburn Rovers youth academy, now to a New York diocese. Another squad player is an Aussie.) In five a side, one ringer goes a long way. Perhaps they could change their nickname to something like “The Masked Crusaders” in line with a fan base that demonstrates deep costume wardrobes. Spectators frequently include superheroes like Captain America, Spiderman or Wolverine, the occasional Ninja Turtle, pirate or, in the case of the semifinal match, a giant chicken. Given the level of creativity in their support, one expected more inspiration in the team call sign, “Stars and Stripes,” but to each their own. With both an Englishman and an Australian on the team, whose national flags superimposed have stars and stripes, perhaps a mediator thought it the most team-bonding option.

Maria Mater Ecclesiae clearly have the Madonna on their side, the seminary having explicitly name-checked her with the school name “Mary, Mother of the Church.” And if Christian hype tales of Mary’s beatitude carry any merit, she surely locks down odds-on-favorite for the best bet.

francis1The Martyrs hope to retain the soccer hat in their winner-take-all against Maria Mater Ecclesiae. In the past, Pope Benedict XVI touched a copy of the trophy, albeit as a ceremonial present he probably had sent off to the furthest treasure lots on the premises. Pope Francis I, should he be not find himself on other more pressing papal business, seems like he’d be up to kick it up a level and present the trophy himself. He may even ask for one of the players’ jerseys. (A Jesuit by trade and humble by disposition, Francis has in his short reign racked up an impressive soccer jersey collection. A Spain national jersey signed by all the players, hand-delivered signed jerseys from Lionel Messi and Javier Zanetti, a team-signed jersey from his lifelong club San Lorenzo and even recently another San Lorenzo jersey from someone in the crowd as he drove through St. Peter’s Square.)

©CATHOLICPRESSPHOTOBenedict XVI has a replica of the silver soccer priest man silverware, as does Cardinal Bertone. To see the Saturno is to gaze upon the purest in bizarre Catholic-commissioned artwork. The unique specimen sports a giant silver disc of a Vatican flat hat atop a legless soccer ball nestled on a pair cleats, like a metallic, spherical pygmy priest that leaves waddling, spectral, studded footprints. With an extra-wide circular brim like the rings of Saturn, this specimen of soccer trophy awaits the lucky winner that prevails from February to May and takes top honors.

Before its death and rebirth, the Clericus Cup roared onto the scene in a blaze of glory. For a quick six-season primer, the inaugural title in 2007 went to Redemptoris Mater, who defeated the Pontifical Lateran University. Redemptoris Mater played in the tournament’s first four championship finals, winning three. Then, taking the mantle, the Pontifical North American College, the self-styled Martyrs, came into ascendance, losing two finals and two semifinals before finally lifting the odd silver trophy in 2012 against a team that had a bona fide cardinal in its ranks (albeit on the bench, to support the aforementioned Aussie), the Australian Gorge Pell. The Martyrs looked forward to defending their crown.

But in 2012 the Vatican cited failure to fulfill the sworn aim of educating young people about fair play and sportsmanship and withdrew its support. What had been conceived as a living model of the fostering of peace, honor and morality through sport had gone horribly wrong. The Clericus Cup had to pack up and shut down operations, effective immediately. Permission withdrawn, readmission denied. The Martyrs would not get the opportunity to defend their title.

We skip back and forth in time, but fast forward again to 2013 and the tournament’s reprieve. The powers that be rescinded the previous rescinding and the league kicked off again in February, back on that picturesque hillside overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica. Anyhow, just like a secretary of state may on occasion wear his minister of propaganda hat, abracadabra, alakazam, and the league materialized just in time to semi-deflect attention from Benedict XVI resignation news. Whether Bertone is a white hat or a black hat, he surely played his part in the mini-distraction that goes by the nickname of the Vatican World Cup.

The hunt for the Martyrs was back on. Is back on. As for first-time hopeful Mater Ecclesiae. The last stretch remains, but will be settled by mass on Sunday. Hunt in packs and take top prize, or roll over like a conscientious objector. WWBD? What would Bertone do?

He certainly wouldn’t conscientiously object. He’d set up a tournament and craft a compelling narrative. He’d hook the public with a high-definition soccer display. And then he’d make a bid for world domination.


Dictators and Soccer/Football:

Mobutu Sésé Seko (Zaïre)

Nicolae Ceaușescu (Romania)

Kim Jong-il (North Korea)

Pope Benedict XVI (Vatican City)


Copyright © 2013

AfricaHistoryLong ReadsNews

2012 Egyptian Stadium Massacre Still Killing

February 26, 2013 — by Rob Kirby


Expect more deaths on March 9 in Egypt—both from judicial death sentences and the inevitable post-verdict riot—in the continuing fallout from the demise of the Hosni Mubarak regime in late January 2011 and the Port Said soccer stadium massacre in early February 2012 on its near-anniversary. On the second anniversary, the courts sentenced 21 to death for their part in the soccer stadium killings, which then sparked a riot that claimed 30. But let’s rewind a year.

After portside rival Al-Masry defeated Cairo’s most successful club Al-Ahly 3-1 in Port Said in February 2012, fans set upon one another with rocks, fireworks, broken bottles, knives and reportedly even swords. Or rather, the locals set upon the traveling Cairo support. According to the Egyptian interior minister, 13,000 Al-Masry fans attacked the approximately 1,200 Al-Ahly away fans. Al-Masry fans jumped a low fence, invaded the pitch and stadium lights went suddenly dark, turned off at the switch by the orchestrators of the massacre. Riot police chose to stand by as Al-Masry’s ultras attacked the hated opposition. The police did not intervene because a year earlier, the Al-Ahly ultras had formed a battle-tested enforcement core for protesters that supported the anti-Mubarak uprising in Tahrir Square and brought down the regime. This was payback. It happened so fast that Al-Ahly players were seen running for the locker room, but the Al-Ahly manager got caught in the fray. Al-Masry attackers detained and beat him until Al-Ahly supporters helped pull him loose. Al-Ahly goalkeeper Sharif Ikrami was also injured.

Actively allowed and encouraged by Egyptian police, the riot at the Al-Masry soccer stadium killed 74 and injured 1,000-plus—almost exclusively fans of Al-Ahly. A year gone, the fallout continues and the body count rises. Late January 2013, a judge sentenced 21 Al-Masry defendants to death, which reflexively caused another riot in which an angry group stormed the city jail and chaos spread throughout the city. In addition to 30 dead, close to 300 lay  injured. The police definitely broke out the truncheons this time. However, the court still hasn’t said its final word. The January ruling failed to address everything in one comprehensive verdict, so now the judge will announce the fates of the remaining defendants on March 9th, meaning more death sentences and more reaction-riot deaths in response. It has gone full family-feud Hatfield & McCoy, and it shows no signs of stopping.

The verdict and the riot did not occur in a vacuum. Al-Ahly ultras sing anti-police songs at matches, venting the hatred some Egyptians feel toward security forces that perpetrated the dirty work of Mubarak’s regime. The army and the police, even post-dictatorship, still call the shots. The court unwisely synchronized the verdict with the second anniversary of the revolt that ousted the former president. Since the revolt succeeded in part due to the muscle of Ah-Ahly ultras, the military and the police that backed Mubarak, himself a military man, had a score to settle. In Al-Masry fans, they found volunteers only too happy to serve as proxy enforcers.

Al-Ahly has won six African Champions League titles and 36 domestic league titles. That generates a fair amount of resentment alone, from a rival’s perspective. But incur the anger of the Egyptian military and expect bloodshed, post-haste.

At the Al-Ahly vs. Al-Masry match in February 2012, police apparently waived searches on Al-Masry fans and opened strategic doors to expedite passage for armed Al-Masry hooligans, who descended onto the pitch from the stands in swarms. The police conversely locked the doors of a narrow corridor that would have served as an exit for fleeing, unarmed Al-Ahly supporters. Fleeing fans didn’t merely find locked doors—the steel doors were welded shut. The fix was in. Al-Ahly would pay the price for having gone against the regime. Mubarak may have been dead and gone, but the lasting regime of the Egyptian army and its civilian police arm had unfinished business with the Al-Ahly ultras. Exacting their wrath through the incitement of others gave them the perfect alibi. Astoundingly, the manager of Al-Masry even told TV station ONTV, “This is not about soccer. This is bigger than that. This is a plot to topple the state.”

Fans trampled others pressed against the welded steel gate. Some suffocated, some got sliced up by the pursuing rival fans that trapped them. The scene of the massacre was literally a dead end. Except for Al Ahly fans that scrambled to the upper balconies of the stadium, where some jumped and more were pushed off. Hundreds of black-clad, helmeted stormtroopers with riot shields stood aside in a sort of at-ease formation and did nothing, almost as if following orders for a death sentence that hadn’t been officially announced—not announced to the Al-Ahly supporters, at any rate.port-said

As antigovernment sentiment mounted in the 2011 leadup to the Arab Spring that kicked off with the revolution in Tunisia, a faction of Al-Ahly supporters—similar to the English hooligans and Italian ultras demonized by the international media—organized into a tactical unit called the Ultras Ahlawy. The natural cohesion of club loyalty made it a surprisingly crack paramilitary unit, which then joined forces with the fighter fans of Cairo club Zamalek SC, who self-identified as the Ultras White Knights.

When protesters occupied Cairo’s high-profile Tahrir Square to denounce Mubarak, the two ultra groups backed them, providing the muscle needed when defying a dictator and the military that kept him in power. They won, but as the stadium massacre shows, the victory did not come without casualties.

The deadliest event in Egyptian soccer history resulted in a death tally of 74 and over a thousand injured. Courts have thus far identified 21 defendants with guilty verdicts worthy of capital punishment. In the aftermath of the verdict, 30 more died. But the death designations are still not yet complete. By March 10, we’ll learn the next chapter. Few expect a happy ending.

AsiaCommentaryHistoryLong Reads

Dictators and Soccer: Kim Jong-il and North Korea (or Football, Famine and Giant Rabbits)

January 18, 2013 — by Rob Kirby3


[Editor’s note: This is the 3rd installment in the ongoing Dictators and Soccer series. See also the previous installments on Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania and Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaïre and later installments on Pope Benedict XVI of Vatican City and beyond.]

While some dictators qualify as relatively batshit crazy, North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il took run-of-the-mill guano and weaponized it with a deep, visceral nuclear fear factor. Against the backdrop of a starving nation, he enriched uranium, trained missiles on South Korea and Japan and generally gave everyone the heebie jeebies with the supremely iffy accuracy of the North Korean military’s test fires. To show another side—for, if nothing else, he was a well-rounded pot-bellied man—he then broadcast his eccentricities at back to back World Cups (his and hers, 2010 and 2011). Ultimately, this one-two proved too show stopping to top, so the tiny strongman took his bow and exited parts terrestrial for good in December 2011.

As two jumbo-sized phenomena in small form factors, Kim Jong-il and soccer were bound to collide, despite Kim Jong-il’s minimal interest in the sport (he preferred “mass games,” state-sponsored stadium displays of gymnastics and audience participation propaganda designed to praise all things Kim Jong-il; he also reportedly had video of nearly every game Michael Jordan ever played). The collision happened late in his totalitarian career, but collide they did.

In 2010, North Korea qualified for the World Cup for only the second time, the first since 1966, at the dawn of dictatorship of his father and Soviet apparatchik predecessor Kim Il-sung. Then, a mere year later, the women’s team qualified for the 2011 Women’s World Cup. The notoriously insular, isolationist state had two high-profile football events in a row, choc-a-bloc jam-packed crammed-in tight. Kim Jong-il got ready for his close-up, the cameras zeroed in and the world watched to see what he’d do. He did not disappoint.

In the lead up to the World Cup, Kim Jong-il was known for so many things: the long-standing nuclear standoff with the world community, labor camps for any that incurred his chimerical wrath, his star-turning role as a surly puppet in Team America: World Police, his bouffant hairdo, his grandma sunglasses and the food shortages that crippled his country as he had sides of donkey and lobster airlifted to him traveling by train. Yet, for all his fame, so few knew about his tactical prowess in soccer.

Before soccer blew up in the Dear Leader’s face—sorry to spoil the surprise—the sports community probably best knew Kim Jong-il for his renown as a crack golfer. According Pyongyang media in 1994, he shot 38 under par on a regulation 18-hole 7,700-yard golf course, featuring between 5 and 11 holes in one (reports vary). It was his first ever round of golf. Then, tearing himself away from his reported thousands of hours of Michael Jordan footage (intermixed with the world’s allegedly largest collection of porn), he bowled a perfect 300 his first go at Pyongyang Lanes, again according to state media. The platform-shoed leader clearly possessed uncommon athletic genius. Most likely, he also could destroy anyone domestically at competitive eating, but then he was one of the only people in the country with food, so it may have seemed in bad taste to flaunt that particular feat of physical excellence. After all, North Korea had initiated a “Let’s Eat Two Meals a Day” campaign, which many would happily have done, given the choice, as it wouldn’t have been revising downward so much as upward.

After North Korea qualified for the World Cup in South Africa, Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe got the circus started. In March 2010, Mugabe sent a celebratory if unorthodox World Cup qualification gift: an ark populated with pairs of giraffes, baby elephants, warthogs, zebras and other animals the Bible considers essential to post-diluvian life. Cue wildlife conservation group hysteria. Cue also a personal invitation from Mugabe for training ground hospitality in Zimbabwe, northern neighbor of the tournament host. Kim Jong-il graciously accepted the kind offer, very possibly for the allure of more game meat. The two dictatorships go way back, most formatively between North Korea’s care packages of guns and military aid during Mugabe’s post-revolution massacres of the Matabele tribe (20,000 dead) in the early 1980s. Training grounds just a hop from the host country, acclimation without the riffraff, nestled in the lap of troubled-nation luxury, feast amidst famine just like home. It all added up to good times and minimal culture shock.

Then, the North Korean national coach spilled the beans on the secret behind the team’s success. North Korean manager Kim Jong-hun reportedly got his coaching mandates straight from the man himself by means of an invisible headset that the Dear Leader had invented. According to Radio Free Asia, the coach received “regular tactical advice during matches” from Kim Jong-il “using mobile phones that are not visible to the naked eye.” Now that’s innovation. Of course, it’s not like he hadn’t invented impressive things before. North Korean history books proclaim that Kim Jong-Il invented the hamburger in 2000. He named it Double Bread with Meat.

After the invisible headset comments, journalists naturally peppered the North Korean manager with a barrage of questions, but he shut down into No Comment mode, especially after the additional fiasco of trying to sneak an extra striker into the squad. At some point, FIFA had noticed that of the three goalkeepers named in the 23-man squad, one had never actually ever goalkept. Rather, he was one of the country’s best strikers, and FIFA ejected him from the team. North Korea had tried to sneak an extra goalscorer into their team but ultimately went a player down. Chalk up an own goal to North Korea.

The tactical soccer genius had many personae. Perhaps you know Kim Jong-il by one of his many descriptive titles, such as Dear Leader, Who Is a Perfect Incarnation of the Appearance That a Leader Should Have. (This of a jump-suited pudgy anti-fashion plate who gravitated to platform shoes and a thinning bouffant befitting a character on Golden Girls.) Perhaps one of his cosmological honorifics has caught your ear: Sun of Socialism, Sun of the Nation, Sun of the Communist Future, Bright Sun of Juche (Self-Reliance), Bright Sun of the 21st Century, Guiding Sun Ray, Shining Star of Paektu Mountain, Guiding Star of the 21st Century. No? Perhaps one more military-minded: Glorious General, Who Descended From Heaven; Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love; Beloved and Respected General; Peerless Leader; Invincible and Ever-Triumphant General. Kim Jong-il had split personalities in spades, all of which were eccentric and several that were deadly. You really didn’t want to see him angry. Cross him and he’d take that world-famous comradely love and Hulkslam you onto a pile of concentration camp bones.

Born in a log cabin on North Korea’s tallest peak, the heavens heralded Kim Jong-il’s coming with the call of a sparrow, a double rainbow and a new, incomparably bright star in the skies. As the son of a dictator, let alone Sun of just about everything, the man’s destiny saw writ the country in the palm of his grubby little hands. Kim Jong-Il had dynasty on his side. Add a cult of personality in overdrive and the image of the permed Peerless Leader beaming forth from every North Korean corner, with his trademark demeanor of divine, slightly ill-tempered apathy. Rays of light streamed from behind and silhouetted him in classic Brother Communist shock and awe.

North Koreans were told their leader was vastly famous and revered worldwide. He didn’t heap those just-mentioned honorifics titles on himself, his admirers clamored to bestow them, both domestically and abroad. He simply accepted them with humility. Citizen comrades learned all this and more from the solitary state-run TV channel feeding a steady stream of Kim Jong-il praise clips and purported quotes and accolades from other world leaders about the Dear Leader. Newscasters had to recite them via TelePrompTer, as no video seemed available.

Then came the 2010 World Cup, for which Kim Jong-il had banned any live broadcast of the country’s matches. For its group stage, North Korea had gotten the worst draw possible: they faced Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast in the proverbial Group of Death. Portugal had reached the semifinals in both the 2006 World Cup and the 2008 Euros, Brazil had won the tournament a record five times, and the power-packed Ivory Coast squad represented the foremost hope of an African team winning on African soil. The North Korean dictator didn’t want to open himself up to embarrassment, and with good reason.

However, after a respectable 2-1 loss to Brazil in the opening match, in a moment of glorious optimism, Kim relaxed the restrictions and allowed broadcast of the next match against Portugal, the first sports event ever broadcast live in the country. Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. slaughtered the team 7-0. The state recoiled from the blow by reflexive ceasing of all further broadcasts to stanch the blood flow, although the damage had been done. North Koreans merely missed seeing the subsequent 3-0 loss to the Ivory Coast.

In addition to the scoreline, North Koreans may have puzzled at the North Korean rent-a-fans pictured in the stands at the 2010 World Cup. The “North Koreans” were Chinese actors paid to attend the North Korea games in South Africa. FIFA had granted North Korea 17,000 tickets for the matches, but actual North Koreans posed far too obvious a defection flight risk, so Kim hired Chinese extras to represent by proxy with their best North Korean impressions. The roles of their careers, right there on the world stage. Too bad they sucked at acting, and as a result the news spread like tabloid wildfire. In addition to all the goals scored by Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast, North Korea scored another great big own goal on itself.

All together, North Korea conceded the most goals of the tournament, though their total of 12 failed to equal the conceded goal tally of Zaire’s 1974 squad (14). Like the 1974 Zaire squad, however, there was hell to pay upon reentry home. Summoned to Pyongyang and placed on a stage of shame at the People’s Palace of Culture, the squad got pummeled by a torrent of glares, disappointment and betrayed looks, pilloried by 400 students, government lackeys and others for six hours, charged with “betraying the trust of Kim Jong-un.” (Kim Jong-il, heartbreakingly paternal, taught by example and perfectly demonstrated the art of passing the buck to his heir.) A wounded look from Jong-Il hurt more than 1000 deaths, went the rationale. After phase one of the public scolding, each of the players was ordered to reprimand the coach individually in turn. The state then reportedly sentenced Kim Jong-hun to hard labor for the team’s failings. It’s not certain that any nonverbal torture transpired after the theatrically staged rebuke and the inconsolable disappointment of the Kims, but neither can anyone entirely rule it out. No word on whether Kim Jong-il ventriloquized any scathing remarks via invisible headset.

Going into the tournament, players had received the bounty of Kim’s affection in the form of new apartments, refrigerators, cars, and televisions. Not much use if you’re sent to the coal mines upon return, but there you have it. (Carrot, meet stick.) Of course, many North Koreans minding their own business go to the coal mines on the daily, anyway.

The men’s team was not the only World Cup team to let Kim Jong-il down in that 12-month span. In the Women’s World Cup in the summer of 2011, after the North Koreans lost 2-0 to the U.S.—bad enough given the country’s geopolitical stance—five of their athletes tested positive for suspicious levels of testosterone. North Korea swiftly trotted out a perfectly reasonable explanation. The coach explained that a large portion of the squad had recently been struck by lightning, which would throw off anyone’s game. Using the time-honored traditional lightning-strike cure of deer musk gland, medics nursed the women back to health. Far from being cheats, these women had exhibited just the sort of self-reliance (or juche) that the state always drilled into them, with a healthy side of deer testosterone. Lightning clearly explained everything.

Kim Jong-il naturally excelled at golf, bowling, competitive eating and soccer tactics, but perhaps the feat of strength Kim Jong-il mastered most was the totalitarian stranglehold. Propaganda tightened his grip over the people and perpetually indoctrinated the hapless, hungry masses in a feedback loop. The state employed propaganda as varied as it was pervasive: marches, rallies, parades, textbooks, airbrushed photographs, statues, murals, billboards, posters, signs, state-run print and TV media reports, speeches, gun-in-the-back endorsements—you name it. At the arena where the national soccer team played, up to 20,000 schoolchildren in the mass games would collectively present huge stadiumwide depictions of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung as thousands more enacted contortionist gymnastics on the field. The oversize pixel-picture books they held aloft contained approximately 170 pages, so that in an instant they could all flip to a specified page in tandem and display yet another victorious image of the Dear Leader. Such books may strike one as a bit heavy for schoolchildren eking by on two meals a day, but again, there you have it.

According to Kim, however, no food shortages existed. He should know, he lived there. In his universe, Kim said “Do as I say” without bothering with “or else.” One didn’t brook dissent. Nor did one mention Let’s Eat Two Meals a Day unless he did first. He made his fictitious North Korea real by simply refusing to countenance any other reality. To speak of any other reality meant detention, labor camps or execution. According to Amnesty International, approximately 200,000 prisoners in North Korean concentration camps perform 12-hour shifts of forced labor under the eye of guards who see beatings, torture and execution as the three levels of disciplinary action, three legs of a stool, all essential. Even relatives of convicts were sometimes imprisoned, due to Kim Jong-il’s belief that a propensity to criminality persists for three generations.

Incidentally, according to Kim Jong-il, no labor camps existed. Meanwhile, prisoners at the camps memorized and sang Kim Jong-il praise songs while working. They got soundly beaten if they didn’t sing loud enough or took overly long pauses.

Another crime worthy of corporal punishment: calling the country North Korea. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea represented the only Korea, full stop. Nothing lay to the south, unless one day Kim Jong-il managed to annex it. When South Korea held the World Cup in 2002, he rebuffed all offers to host a match and banned all broadcast of the event in his country, though he did not turn away food aid, as long as it arrived unpublicized. South Korea, with China, remains one of the largest donors of food aid, so the imaginary land beyond known borders served Kim Jong-il’s purposes. He conjured food out of thin air, like a giant rabbit out of a magician’s hat. (This is foreshadowing.)

Amnesty International estimates that nearly 1 million North Koreans have died of starvation since the mid-1990s, when the food shortages and Kim Jong-il’s reign (of terror) began. With regard to the concentration camps, Amnesty International has speculated on a 40 percent yearly death rate between 1999 and 2001, with malnutrition and starvation two primary factors. Extrapolating to the present, 80,000 political prisoners die per year in the camps. Accounting for possibly inflated figures, even a fraction of that number astounds.

Food shortages arose in part from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, from which North Korea received chemical fertilizer and other crucial aid. Once the stream from its Soviet benefactor dried up, agricultural mismanagement, food-delivery shutdowns from fuel shortages and serious flooding in 1995 combined to result in a reported 3 million dead from famine. Which one could argue was not Kim Jong-il’s fault, except when factoring in a military budget of $6 billion.

North Korea has the fourth largest military in the world, the Korea People’s Army. In a nation of less than 5 million men “fit for military service” (ages 17-49), North Korea fielded 1,106,000 armed personnel in a 2010 estimate. Largely attributable to the mandatory 10-year military service, that’s over 20%, a staggering percentage. In a country ravaged by famine and undernutrition, perhaps it also represented one of the safest bets for three square meals.

Meanwhile, the numbers quoted for his yearly bill for Hennessy cognac added up to astronomical sums—an estimated $650,000 to $800,000 annually, depending on the source, going back to the ’90s. Half gallons of Hennessy bestseller VS go for $65, so that amounts to a lot of booze, and at 5’2, one wouldn’t expect him capable of downing all that much by himself. Yet neither does he seem like the kind of guy who throws a party and exhorts all his guests to “Drink! Drink!” Perhaps he bathed in it, or cognac formed some part of the North Korean uranium enrichment program.

The U.S. went so far as to issue an embargo on luxury goods to North Korea to get to one man. Aside from Hennessy, the embargo theoretically deprived Kim Jong-il of favorites such as culinary delicacies and other goodies one might find in a duty-free shop. However, since he headed an exporting nation of arms and nuclear secrets, it’s unlikely Kim Jong-il encountered much difficulty acquiring any goods he wanted on the black market. The man had roast donkey and lobster regularly airlifted to him when he traveled by train to China, Russia, or wherever. (He had a fear of flying.) Kim Jong-il also had his personal chef personally fetch caviar from Iran and Uzbekistan, pork from Denmark and mugwort-scented rice cakes from a Tokyo department store. Until the personal chef defected on a sea urchin run to Japan, that is–a truly sad day for the Dear Leader.

Despite splurging on Hennessy and many and varied culinary whims, it’s not like Kim Jong-il didn’t try to solve the food shortages that didn’t exist. Yes, he pocketed foreign aid earmarked to feed his starving countrymen, but he also had a genius brainstorm one day: mutant-like giant rabbits.

In 2006, Kim Jong-il learned of a man named Karl Szmolinsky in Germany who bred giant rabbits. The Dear Leader saw pictures of the abnormally huge bunnies, found them delightfully appealing and deemed giant rabbit meat the key to solving North Korea’s food problems, or lack thereof. He ordered 12 rabbits and told Szmolinsky he planned to keep the rabbits at a petting zoo in Pyongyang, with a long-range plan of setting up a breeding farm. He offered to fly Szmolinsky over, but quickly reversed and rescinded the offer. After learning the rabbits cost upwards of $115 apiece, he despaired of solving the problem and just ate them himself.

Giant rabbits predictably return the discussion back to soccer tactics. Perhaps he could have fielded a team of ultra-technical springy-stepped giant rabbits. If anyone were to try, it would have been Kim Jong-il. Two problems, though. One, they had long since gone down the hatch, and two, FIFA had deemed the World Cup human-only, just as they had refused to allow fake goalkeepers to be strikers. Kim might have considered keeping the giant rabbits around for sport, whether rabbit races or rabbit polo, with those giant lucky feet. Instead, they passed through his digestive tract. (One consequently wonders what became of all the zebras, warthogs and giraffes from Mugabe’s ark.) So ultimately the rabbits did not put a dent in the nation’s food shortage problems, though their flesh did temporarily quell the hunger of one man, a man who, in fairness, did embody the nation, according to propaganda.

Kim Jong-il was an erratic character, but the man knew how to manipulate. He orchestrated never-before-seen feats of unpredictability in the art of brinksmanship, as shown by all the ever-ongoing talks about unilateral/multi-lateral talks about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In the arena of international soccer, however, he landed flat on his face. Everyone agrees that when you score a goal on yourself, it’s called an own goal. No precise term exists for 12 goals in the back of the wrong net. Dodeca-catastro-own goal will have to suffice.

North Korea is reclusive in the extreme, but Kim Jong-il certainly knew how success in the World Cup could amplify his cult of personality domestically. But like so many other dictators before him, he probably dreamed of how international soccer success might help on a broader international level. Move higher in the estimation of trader nations, at the very least, or get one over on the Japanese or South Korea, which would work perfectly for a tapeloop sound bite. Unfortunately for him, he hadn’t done his homework on how potent soccer can often be in backfiring in a dictator’s face. (See Dictators and Soccer: Mobutu Sésé Seko and Zaire.)

Soccer represented little more than a tangential curiosity to Kim Jong-il. His dangerous megalomania simply spread in every direction. Sports, and therefore soccer, just got sucked into the tractor beam along with everything else, as had other entertainment forms before, such as when in 1978 Kim Jong-il had South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and his leading actress wife kidnapped and held captive for 8 years, forcing the couple to produce propaganda movies, including Godzilla ripoff Pulgasari, considered a cult classic of B-movie awfulness.

Kim Jong-Il stabbed the Ministry of Culture with a ballpoint pen and spat at the screen when he saw himself parodied in the James Bond film Die Another Day. One does not know if he saw Team America or what poor sap got stuck with what office supplies that time. Kim with a stapler gun strikes one as a scary proposition. With putative superhuman strength like his, he could easily pile drive a minister onto a fax machine. He may have seen and drawn inspiration from the printer beatdown scene in Office Space, noted cinephile that he was.

What was the Jong-illian reaction to Team America: World Police and a parody-puppet Kim’s turn as a surly bulldog-jowled yet deep down just “ronery” puppet bent on world domination? More importantly, what would have been his new tactical approach for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil? We just don’t know. Logic suggests someone got stabbed with something and a few teams would have been stabbed, respectively. Perhaps in the post-Jong-un era, the answers to burning questions such as these and more will finally emerge.


Extra Special Kim Sung-il and Soccer Bonus:

For some historical perspective, the North Korea team of 1966 thrilled the nation. As one of the only all-Asian teams in the competition, as opposed to those limping out of colonialism, they had a successful tournament, showcasing the kind of prestige befitting Eternal Leader Kim Il-sung and his heir, the future Dear Leader. Kim Il-Sung proudly sent out his soldier athletes to the field of battle, their first ever involvement in the tournament in the promising years after the Korean War.

North Korea lost 3-0 in the first match to the USSR, probably a wise move since the country could not survive financially without the backing of the big Soviet bear. A 1-1 draw with Chile followed. Time to step it up for the third match, the last chance to qualify for the knockout stages, except the opponent was Italy, the pre-tournament favorites. Stunning the Italians, North Korea beat the team 1-0 in the final match of the group stages, sending the Italians packing and themselves into the quarterfinals. Pandemonium ensued. They were through, the first Asian team to make the knockouts. They beat the world giants and solidly announced the newish nation to the world. They were there to win it, to honor the sovereignty and divinity of Kim Il-sung.

All this from a team for whom the English FA officials refused to play the national anthem, in protest of the regime. Oddly, the incident was partially relived 46 years later in England, as well, albeit unintentionally and flag swapped for anthem in the 21st-century rendition. At the 2012 London Olympics, when introducing the North Korean women’s team, the video screen projected the South Korean rather than the North Korean flag, a gaffe made worse when organizers apologized to “North Korea,” which doesn’t recognize itself as North anything, prompting the organizers to release yet another apology, this time directed to the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” as the country self-identifies.

Returning to 1966, however, North Korea faced another dictatorship nation in the quarterfinals, Portugal under the rule of António de Oliveira Salazar. The team featured one of the standout talents of the team and the generation, a Mozambique-born gentleman named Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, also known simply as Eusébio or “The Black Panther.”

In the knockout match against Portugal, the North Koreans were even 3-0 up at one point, before superstriker Eusébio scored four straight and Portugal emerged victorious with a 5-3 scoreline. Although England beat Portugal in the semifinals and triumphed over West Germany in the final, Eusébio won the Golden Boot, finishing the tournament as the highest goal scorer. However, the Black Panther had performed so well that Salazar refused to allow him the leave the country for a big-money offer at Inter Milan. Scoring 638 goals in 614 matches for Benfica may have granted him some solace.

Kim Il-sung’s North Korea was even more secretive than the current-day incarnation, so it’s unclear what became of the 1966 heroes. Rumors circulated that upon their return the players were imprisoned for their hedonistic Western-style partying. Those familiar with the labor camps and torture activity in North Korea find this plausible, though there’s no definitive proof. Safest bet: players and coach were sentenced to labor camps, torture optional, depending on whether they tried to escape. Perhaps they were subjected to a nonstop recording of the national anthem, or conversely were deprived of the privilege. (Current-day striker Jong Tae-Se, the “North Korean Rooney,” weeps copious tears of joy whenever the national anthem is played, like an obedient if a bit obsequious comrade. Or maybe he weeps tears of non-joy—hard to say.)

The scrappy team of ‘66 wasn’t called upon for the soccer field again, at any rate. When the government refused to play Israel in the qualifying rounds for the 1970 World Cup, the team was disqualified and the world had to go nearly a half-century without the soccer stylings of North Korea until the looney-tunes antics of Kim Il-sung’s son, a man the likes of whom we may (hopefully) never see in power again.


Dictators and Soccer/Football:

Mobutu Sésé Seko (Zaïre)

Nicolae Ceaușescu (Romania)

Kim Jong-il (North Korea)

Pope Benedict XVI (Vatican City)


Copyright © 2013

AfricaCommentaryHistoryLong Reads

Dictators and Soccer: Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaïre

October 29, 2012 — by Rob Kirby3


[Editor’s note: This was the inaugural installment in what’s become an ongoing Dictators and Soccer series. See also subsequent articles on Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, Kim Jong-il and North Korea (or Football, Famine and Giant Rabbits), and  Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican City. Stay tuned for Col. Gaddafi]

In 1974 the ex-colonial and newly named Zaïre played its first World Cup in West Germany. The country’s diminutive strongman Mobutu Sésé Seko, famous for his trademark leopard-print pillbox hat, had rechristened the Lions the Leopards. (Consistency is key in propaganda.) He had convinced himself that Zaïrean soccer could further elevate his own stature. He liked elevating himself and he liked renaming things. He’d re-minted the country from Congo Crisis First Republic (formerly The Belgian Congo) to Zaïre, which translated to, “The river that swallows other rivers.” He fully intended to hoover up every power and exploit every possibility. He’d already outlawed all political parties except his own, and outlawed all wearing of leopard-print hats, except of course his own.

A huge fan of the cult of personality concept, he’d previously changed his own name from Joseph-Désiré Mobutu to Mobutu Sésé Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, or “The All-Conquering Warrior, Who Goes from Triumph to Triumph.” Clearly, Mobutu would accept nothing less than glorious triumph. Some translate the phrase as, “The Cock That Leaves No Hen Unruffled,” in reference to his boasted sexual prowess. (It’s odd how one long phrase could mean both, but Mobutu was an inscrutable master in the arts of naming and renaming.) He also went by the names “The Big Man,” “The Leopard” and, most humbly, “The Messiah.” Mobutu and his female companions took frequent shopping trips to Paris and Brussels by Concorde. (These female companions included his first wife Marie-Antoinette, his second wife Bobi and his mistress, somewhat creepily Bobi’s identical twin sister.)

Known more for plundering the treasury, pocketing $46 billion in foreign aid and trampling the rights of his people than bestowing gifts upon the people, he surprised everyone by inviting the soccer players to his presidential palace and giving each a house and car, upon qualifying for the tournament. Fake it to make it. Spend money to make money. He had similarly exhibited a shrewd marketing mind in teaming with Don King and fronting the $10 million outlay for Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman in 1974.

Of Mobutu and Zaïre, Ali famously said, “Some countries go to war to get their names out there, and wars cost a lot more than $10 million.” When Muhammad Ali praises your image technique, you know you’re on the right track.

As part of said propaganda campaign, law dictated every public building must hang Mobutu’s picture somewhere. The evening news showed a spectral image of him arriving to Earth on a sort of magic carpet of pillowy clouds. Only his name could be spoken, and the TV really just largely reported supernatural feats of Mobutu’s, such as killing a lion with bare hands at age 7, or how bullets and spears would deflect off his bare chest as if he were made of adamantium.

But back to soccer in contact with Mobutu’s relentless ambition. With the boxing match set for October 1974, and with summer generally preceding fall, Mobutu first demanded greatness in the 1974 World Cup. Zaïre had just won the 1974 African Cup of Nations, they were sub-Saharan Africa’s celebrity squad and greatness seemed within their grasp. Only it didn’t quite work out that way for the first all-black African team in the tournament.

In the first group stage match, Zaïre lost to Scotland 2-0. No catastrophe there. The 9-0 mauling from Yugoslavia the next match smarted somewhat more. The night before its third match versus reigning champions Brazil, Mobutu sent presidential guards to threaten the players, saying if they lost 4-0, there would be hell to pay. Forget 4-0, a double-digit scoreline seemed more likely—even without Pelé, Brazil was still Brazil, and the team packed legends such as Rivelino, Jairzinho and Edu. Fortunately, Zaïre escaped with merely a 3-0 hiding. Bizarrely, as Rivelino lined up to take a Brazil free kick 30 yards from the Zaïre goal with five minutes to go, one of the Zaïreans burst from the defensive wall and hoofed it downfield. He got a yellow card. He probably preferred West German jail time with some remote possibility of defection.

Zero goals scored, 14 conceded. One of the weirdest free kick moments ever. The players understandably did not relish their homecoming. Mobutu may have looked playfully cartoonish in his leopard print, but in his daily dictatorship duties, coldblooded cruelty defined his persona much more accurately.

Six years previous, in 1968, when the Leopards had won the African Cup of Nations, the homecoming was vintage bizarre Mobutu. Garlanded with flowers, players disembarked the plane wearing large white boards hung around their necks, their names printed on the unwieldy semi-sandwich boards. Afterwards, Mobutu had invited Pelé and Brazilian club team Santos for exhibition matches in Zaïre and elsewhere, introduced the the teams in lavish PR grandstands and it was officially football fever.

Such was not the case in post-defeat 1974. The stadia at the World Cup may have featured slogans on expensive advertising boards proclaiming “Zaïre – Peace” and “Go to Zaïre,” but returning players would be excused for not dying to go back to Zaïre and the alleged peace that awaited. One thing that did not await at the airport in Kinshasa, the capital, however, was any sort of welcome committee or transportation. Players had to cadge rides from sympathetic cab drivers, as they had no money. Officials from the Zaïre football federation had apparently appropriated players’ wages for themselves.

“We got back home without a penny in our pockets.” Leopards star Ilunga Mwepu (the guy who beat Brazil to the free kick, from the wrong direction) told the BBC in 2002, “but we had the erroneous belief that we would returning from the World Cup as millionaires.” He claimed he intentionally took the kick to get sent off in protest against Mobutu, the strongarm tactics and the (correct) suspicion that the players would not get paid. Others say he didn’t know the rules, which seems pretty ridiculous since he was a professional soccer player.

The rumor mill says that Mobutu dressed down the players in no uncertain terms the following day, and everyone not wearing a leopard-skin hat slunk off with a sort of bad omen clinging to them that more than a few would have interpreted as of premonition of death. The country’s best players like Mwepu were forbidden to seek out pastures new in other countries, toiling away in the country’s barely remunerative home league. This included all the recently repatriated Belgian Congo-born players playing in Belgium that Mobutu hoodwinked into returning home. The country withdrew from 1978 World Cup qualification and Mobutu washed his hands of the miserable affair.

It’s not a happy story. So we’ll end with a little random factoid. Mobutu played goalkeeper for his Catholic high school in the ’30s until he got kicked out for chasing the drinks and ladies of Leopoldville, the town that in his later renaming frenzy he would one day call Kinshasa, where it’s sometimes hard to get a ride home from the airport. By Belgian Congo law, getting kicked out meant he had to join the army, which is ultimately how he seized power.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (*breath*…the country’s current name) will play in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Hopefully post-Mobutu, who was overthrown in 1997, the DR Congo has a shot to return triumphs again to the beleaguered nation. (In the knockout qualification round, they beat Equatorial Guinea, one of last year’s co-hosts and the subject of an upcoming Dictators and Soccer installment. Two Equatorial Guinea dictators, uncle and nephew, occasionally included soccer in their nefarious plots, not least in suppressing freedom of the foreign press in the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, or when the uncle assembled 150 political opponents in a soccer stadium and had them all shot. To read about Nicolae Ceaușescu, match fixer, see here.)

A 2010 documentary Between the Cup and the Election chronicles a reunion of the ’74 Leopards, with a walk down memory lane in “The Leopard Neighborhood,” where Mobutu had gifted some the houses they later had to sell to survive. Good times, golden memories.

Dictators and Soccer/Football:

Mobutu Sésé Seko (Zaïre)

Nicolae Ceaușescu (Romania)

Kim Jong-il (North Korea)

Pope Benedict XVI (Vatican City)


Copyright © 2012

CommentaryEnglandLong Reads

Salman Rushdie & Spurs

October 1, 2012 — by Suman


Via his twitter feed, here is Salman Rushdie on Saturday’s remarkable result at Old Trafford:

For more from Rushdie on the game, and on his history as a Spurs supporter, read this New Yorker essay from 1999: “The People’s Game.”

Part II (“First Love”) of the piece begins:

I came to London in January 1961, as a boy of thirteen and a half, on my way to boarding school, and accompanied by my father.  It was a cold month, with blue skies by day and green fogs by night. We stayed at the Cumberland, at Marble Arch, and after we settled in, my father asked if I would like to see a professional soccer game. (In Bombay, where I had grown up, there was no soccer to speak of; the local sports were cricket and field hockey.)

The first game my father took me to see was what I would later learn was a “friendly” (because the result doesn’t count toward anything) between a North London team called the Arsenal and the champions of Spain, Real Madrid. I did not know that the visitors were rated as perhaps the greatest team ever. Or that they had just won the European Cup five years running. Or that among their players were two of the game’s all-time immortals, both foreigners: a Hungarian named Ferenc Puskas, “the little general,” and an Argentine, Alfredo di Stefano.

This is the way I remember the game: in the first half, Real Madrid tore the Arsenal apart.

Take the time to read the whole essay (although doing so online does require a New Yorker subscription).

(I’ve thought at times of doing a “CultFootball LongReads” series of posts–links to longer essays on the game. Rushdie’s New Yorker essay, along with some of The Blizzard pieces, are what got me thinking about doing such a thing. So consider this the first in a series–more will appear here if/when we get around to posting any more.)