Civilian Soccer Tyrants: Leeds and Massimo

August 19, 2014 — by Rob Kirby


Northern English football fans are usually all-in or all-out. At Leeds United, however, the roller coaster highs and lows over the past decade have inner-ear imbalanced supporters. After a rogues gallery of financial disaster club owners, they remain wary of a flashy, volatile new Italian guy for whom “eccentric” puts it mildly. They could be excused for remaining cautiously fill_in_the_blank. (This said by someone who has never been to olde town Leeds and whose defining viewing moment involving the team begins and ends with the storybook match-winning FA Cup goal from an on-loan MLS Thierry Henry a few years back.) But as of August 3, Massimo Cellino, eccentric Italian entrepreneur, convicted fraud and serial sacker of coaches, announced he’s buying back the LUFC stadium grounds that the club’s broke ass previously had to sell, so that’s positive, yes? Yes, Leeds fans? I’ll take that grumbled assent as cautiously optimistic. And you’re no longer in the third tier, though he had nothing to do with that… Robble.

High-flying millennium era Premier League Leeds reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001 but they walked a razor’s edge to do so, and racked up huge debts in the process. After finishing fifth in 2003, meaning they didn’t qualify for the European competition (and more importantly, the associated TV rights cash), the “spend money to make money” strategy backfired massively. Debt collections led to mass player sell offs and a subsequent plummet down the table. Leeds sold the Elland Road stadium and grounds in 2004, and the team got relegated the same year. In the Championship, the team went into financial administration in 2007, which then triggered relegation to the third division with a 10-point deduction. They found themselves unceremoniously dumped down two divisions within six years. (Still, as Leeds fans will tell you, they’ve won the league more recently than Liverpool.) High-powered consultants were not required to explain the collapse. Simple financial fallout of reckless overspending. Leeds fought the big dogs Cold War CCCP-style and arms-raced themselves to bankruptcy by kiting checks and making bad big buys. They got burned in a very real sense, and have fought to keep creditors at bay the past decade as they heal in the burn victims ward.

Meanwhile, in Sardinia, during the whole rise and fall of Leeds Massimo Cellino operated a separate universe of terror and infamy in his war against the local Sardinian island government and its refusal to allow him to build his stadium how he wanted and where he wanted. As result, he threw one of the most incredible club owner tantrums of all time and relocated the Sardinian home grounds to Trieste, on the far northeastern end of Italy near Slovenia and Croatia–basically as far from the Mediterranean island off the western coast of Italy as one could get, 600 mixed-transport miles away. He fired 36 managers in 22 years at Cagliari, the club which he sold in June. The Italian Feds have found him guilty twice, once for agricultural import malfeasance (he’s a corn magnate) and once for accountancy issues regarding Cagliari (okay, for the English FA, that one seems rather pertinent…) with the specter of further charges perpetually overhead. At the time he was buying Leeds, in early 2014, he had some problem or other with customs over his yacht. Tax evasion and import malfeasance, something like that. The usual.

It’s nearly impossible to fail the English FA’s “fit and proper persons” test, but Cellino did. (Apparently, the yacht thing killed him, not the football-specific financial crime, or the other.) That is, before he didn’t, and passed it. He appealed, the FA reversed its decision, and Leeds, after a string of owners that have left it in different stages of ruin and bankruptcy, had a new man on the throne who may further destroy the club or actually scheme it back to the Premier League. He’s clearly got some sleight of hand skills, even if he does keep getting busted. Also he projects promotion to the Premier League in two years as his goal, so naturally ears prick up for the Leeds hopeful, cast out from the top tier for the past 10 years.

In contrast, the hated David Haigh, who managed Elland Road of a sort until last year as managing director, has been sweating in a Dubai jail for three months, incarcerated on charges of £3 million for fraud and embezzlement. From his cell, he counter-threatened previous owners Gulf Finance House Capital with “damaging allegations” of their own misconduct to which the mega corporation remained colossally deaf until it blasted back about a reported tell-all book deal Haigh may or may not slimily have in the works. Gulf Financial House Capital still cling on as 25% current minority shareholders. Again, Leeds has endured a run of pretty bad owners. And that’s just a fraction of the nonsense.

But back to Cellino. First, in the President’s vision to the masses, he plans to deliver the ancestral grounds. Next, the promised land: the top tier of English football. Unless the whole continental shelf erupts in the process. Past owners have showcased a sort of object lesson in what not to do, and then along comes Mr. Volatile, very likely to blow up an already detonated landscape, but promising to buy back the land. It’s contrasting but compelling, especially for Leeds supporters more than ready to “March on Together” back to the Premier League again.

Cellino doesn’t do warm and fuzzy, but he does do money and he kept (sometimes) island-bound Cagliari in the Italian top flight for a long time. Fans may see him as a crook, but if so, at least one who has the financial mind to make the right moves economically–like buying back the stadium at Elland Road, previously liquidated at massive long term cost to come up with cut-rate quick cash. Though the actual squad lacks Premiership star quality, he has brought in inexpensive but promising players from the top two tiers of Italian football, making use of his connections in and knowledge of players in Seria A and B. The club has lost and continues to lose money, and on the controversial side, In July, after 4 months, he has sacked his first Leeds manager for the second time (surprise!) in his first three months, having only bought the club in April 2014. He’d pared the budget also by firing well-liked staff, academy coaches and, most controversially, the best player, if for a pretty huge price. But Cellino requires all-aboard in righting the ship, by hook or by crook, as some say, but certainly not publicly by any sort of skipper. He doesn’t suffer insubordination lightly. (See aforementened “sacking of Sardinian fan base and moving stadium grounds to Trieste” incident.) But some people still have some beef.

The scarred and pessimistic point to the glaring exit of their source of goals (last season’s leading scorer Ross McCormack, sold by Leeds to Fulham for a fee of £11m). Too many foreign imports, too many young and/or academy players, too much deadweight that didn’t perform up to par in the season past, not to mention the unceremonious sending off of staff that people considered part of the Elland Road firmament. In addition to McCormack, 14 other where’s were sold or released. Hockaday has managed in the Conference, but never the league. These things can mount a bit worrisome for those who value the stability and experience. However…he apparently costs about a tenth of what McDermott earned, so Cellino balances some ledgers right there. Who needs a manager?

According to the Guardian, ( new coach Dave Hockaday seemed nervous as he repeatedly referred to Cellino as “the President” (echoes of Il Duce?), in an opening press conference. Fear of his infamously tyrannical new boss is, of course, well-founded. He fired Brian McDermott before rehiring him last season. In the the same Guardian interview regarding the Hockaday press conference, Cellino said, “I can change manager like underwear if needs be.”

After the bizarre, convenient freezing out of main goalie and second highest wage earner at the club because of Cellino’s superstition about the number 17 (more below), this summer Cellino also fortuitously signed young Seria A GK Marco Silvestri, “the best goalkeeper in Italy,” per Cellino, sort of via his other club Cagliari in Serie A. Conspiracy theorists will unquestionably swarm the scene if the £400,000 looks in hindsight an overly kindly price. Silvestri signed on June 9, having just been on loan from Chievo for the previous six months. Cellino then agreed to sell Cagliari itself two days later, embuing his last movements with a whiff of a backroom deal. Not so much as anyone could prove, mind, and Chievo actually owned Silvestri, not Cagliari, but seems like something there nonetheless.

But the day before the sale, in a narrative twist, Leeds had to pay £950,000 to Sport Capital, the company that filed a winding-up petition against the club and had tried to buy the club before Massimo Cellino’s takeover in April. Apparently backed by David Haigh (former Leeds man of Dubai incarceration) Sport Capital issued the petition in May after Leeds missed a repayment on the loan, to previous owner (and current minority owner), Gulf Finance House Capital, subsidiary of Bahrain finance giant Gulf Finance House, which owned the club from December 2012 to April 2014 and hemorrhaged debts to the tune of £1 million a month, according to the Guardian.

Sport Capital tried to buy the club before Massimo Cellino’s takeover in April and slapped petition on the court’s desk in May after Leeds missed a repayment on the loan to Gulf Capital (wherefore came that information?), and once Sport Capital complained with evidence that Leeds had £1.6m in their bank account, meaning that bank account account could be frozen, they got £1 million (plus legal fees) for their corporate watchdog altruism. Even though the money was to a partner unrelated to Sport Capital. It was sort of a bitch move. Though Haigh soon came into enough trouble of his own in the end.

In the season opener away at Millwall, Leeds lost, 2-0. At home, against Middlesbrough, they won, 1-0. The Serie A and B players haven’t yet scored, but one recent Southampton signing has, Billy Sharp. Sharp scored the lone goal over Middlesbrough in the 88th minute to secure Leeds 3 important points, as opposed to sitting two games into the season scoreless. The Hockaday wear may not need to be discarded yet. Which works for Cellino, because Hockaday comes cheap.

In addition to all his other eccentricities, other stories abound about Cellino’s abhorrence of the number 17, his dropping of goalkeeper Paddy Kenny (coincidentally second-highest earner) for being born on the 17th of a month; his alleged dread of purple (when does that even come up?); and other things that could be fact or fiction. The first two are apparently fact, though. He has actually spoken about them, and at Cagliari, he had all the seats renumbered from 17 to 16B.

Cellino isn’t first-choice as stabilizing forces go, but he could finagle the destabilization into heading upwards. As regards Cellino the cost-cutting yacht owner, he has apparently shut down the training ground cafeteria, which means brown bag lunches for players, and players are also responsible for washing their own clothes. Subtract player wages, manager wages, add player sales, he’s getting there, even if it’s shoestring jerry-rigged. And a lot depends on whether the Elland Road purchase comes to pass. Delivering on that sort of milestone could sway some minds toward his side, or at least serve as a solid first step.

Although, as a tarnish on that silver lining, he did recently get arrested last year in connection with a stadium redevelopment deal in Italy.

He’s a sketchy cat, what can you say?

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Dictators and Soccer: The Junta, Argentina 1978, Disappearings, Match Fixing and Early Deity Era Maradona (Argentina)

July 11, 2014 — by Rob Kirby


The ruthless military junta that hosted the 1978 World Cup in Argentina lit the stage to maximum wattage and leveraged the spectacle to flashiest effect, by hook, crook and any means necessary. A world champion team would obviously cap that off, as would an obediently silent public and extermination of political enemies, so they duly made this winning trifecta come to pass. That it should happen to involve match rigging, bribery, bulldozing of shantytowns and villas miserias, “disappearing” tens of thousands of dissenters in abductions, incarcerations and torture, as well as forced relocation of squatters or any other huddled undesirable masses, so much the better. The junta hired a PR firm Burson-Marsteller to help improve the likeability of their public face, however. They weren’t completely oblivious to popular opinion.

[Editor’s note: The ongoing Dictators and Soccer series includes other installments on Kim Jong-il of North Korea, Hitler of Third Reich Germany, Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, Pope Benedict XVI of the Vatican and Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaïre.]

imageThe generals had a three-point plan. Silence all dissent. Grease the wheels to first prize. Claim the glory as their own, a divine right along with the total subjugation of the people in their reign of terror. But the people would wear smiles for the cameras. Never mind that between 1976 and 1983 the junta brought about the death of 30,000 fellow Argentines. Or that as in Pinochet’s Chile, soccer stadiums sometimes doubled as temporary detention centers for political prisoners. One can understand why the world community might have issues with a World Cup in late-’70s Argentina.

But just like the devil may care of the cat burglar mustache on head junta big man General Jorge Videla, nicknamed the Pink Panther because of his overall look (but mostly the mustache and his stealthy lurk), it all went down, no matter what the moral authorities had to say about it. Exiles and human-rights organizations tried to organize a boycott from abroad, but missing out on the World Cup seemed too steep a price for most nations and no one delivered on their rhetoric when the time came.

Far outstripping an initial proposed budget of $100 million to $700 million, a mysterious murder transpired of the prime finance official days before the Dudley Doright planned to speak against the expenditure. The government conveniently blamed the murder on government dissidents, 30 of whom were found massacred the next day. The junta proceeded to spend big on the Mundial with no further interference. But just like that huge honking mustache on General Jorge Videla, the boldness of it was too obvious to fail to see–not to say they didn’t get away with it all. Only in the Plaza de Mayo did the mothers and grandmothers of the “disappeared” attract the cameras not trained in on the pitchside exploits. But mostly even the protests of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo went ignored.image

The junta cut funds for hospitals and schools, and allegedly (almost definitely) diverted them in part Peru to throw a critical game by at least 5 goals in last match of the semifinal group stage (different system from now). Arms, grain and $50 million in debt forgiveness sweetened a theoretical deal. The stakes? If Argentina won by more than 4 goals, arch-rival Brazil would see its tournament summarily terminated and Argentina in the finals. Peru lay down obediently to a 6-0 hiding. Allegedly, after the the fourth goal went in, a bomb detonated at the house of a minister who had criticized World Cup costs. Later, when ecstatic Argentinians flooded the street, toasting the generals presiding on high on the balcony of the presidential palace, the junta agreed as one “job well done,” money well spent.

To celebrate, the military provoked Chile over three small islands in the Beagle Channel that escalated to war, ended only by Vatican intervention. The event foreshadowed the attempted takeover of the Falklands which in turn brought the junta’s eventual downfall in 1983. The junta really should have stuck to match rigging, corruption and torture. Their track record with island military victories was abysmal. At the rest, they excelled.

imageIronically, considering Maradona’s later infamous drug busts, some players may also have been given illegal injections for the match. Insiders say Mario Kempes and Alberto Tarantini had to keep running after the match to wear off the excess effects and that a waterboy had to provide urine samples.

The Dutch team refused to shake hands with junta leader Jorge Videla after the Men’s World Cup final. He probably would have executed them all for their brazen disrespect but for all the damn cameras.

After the tournament, Maradona came on the scene. Controversially left off the 1978 team because he was too young (17), he captained the Argentine 1979 World Youth Cup team in Tokyo. Maradona exploded and brought the Cup back to Argentina in style. The junta had saturated state television with the Argentina victories, with an important exception. They’d censored all images of protest or anti-junta banners in the stands.

Upon his return, the junta paraded Maradona around, conscripted him into the army, sheared his hair and then–it seems laughable now–advised him to carry on in his capacity as a role model for Argentina’s youth. Maradona later claimed in his autobiography that he had no choice but to shake General Videla’s hand, and to be honest, at 18 he hadn’t developed the ego, waistline or godlike status he would later inhabit so profusely.

Videla either had no crystal ball, possessed an excellent sense of humor or just couldn’t see the weight gain, the coke, the prostitutes and the Che Guevara tattoo in that giant orb, or the classic future clip of him calling George W. Bush “human garbage.” Perhaps the mustache got in the way or scrambled reception.

Argentina made it to the semifinal group stage of the 1982 World Cup in Spain, but crashed out with losses to Italy and Brazil. Any feel-good revival factor the junta may have hoped for in the shambles of the Falklands aftermath died then and there.

Maradona didn’t have a great tournament in 1982. But in Argentina, Maradona is a god. Therefore, he must have done it on purpose, as gods do. Therefore, Maradona toppled the junta singlehandedly. One Maradoninian hand can smite whole armies.

After the junta collapsed in 1983, Videla got sentenced to life his many human rights crimes, then pardoned by a later president, then re-sentenced for apparently illegally distributing babies of pregnant dissident women his thugs abducted. You normally think of a cat burglar junta leader as above black market adoption, but then did anyone ever really know Videla? The court ruled his former pardoning unconstitutional, regardless, the nasty baby snatcher. He eventually died in prison on May 17, 2013.




Dictators and Soccer Short: Hitler Fandom Rejected by Schalke

July 10, 2014 — by Rob Kirby


Germany in the Brazil World Cup 2014 finals. The Brazilians are all rooting against the Argentinians, so there’s a core fan base. But then word gets out Hitler once supported the German national team. Then people bring up the old taboo of Nazis hiding out in Brazil and then counter allegations of Nazis in Argentina. Public opinion sways rapidly against Germany (amnesia or foolish forgetful forgiveness had set in at some point over the last 60 years) and the country’s PR department has to act fast.

[Editor’s note: The ongoing Dictators and Soccer series includes other installments on Kim Jong-il of North Korea, the Military Junta of Argentina, Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, Pope Benedict XVI of the Vatican and Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaïre.]

The German spin doctors swiftly publish incontrovertible evidence that Hitler never actually supported the German side. Far from it. In fact, in the one known Fürher appearance at a soccer match, the 0-2 defeat to Norway at the Berlin Olympics, humiliation at his own doorstep, he left at halftime muttering one choice obscenity or other, a distasteful experience that put him off the sport for good.

This is fact. May the press conference enter into evidence Exhibit A. [[shuffled papers]]



Fun fact about Adolf Hitler and soccer, also true (the PR machine and the German press conference, not true). Word on the street and a 1998 article “The 50 Worst Famous Football Fans” in The Times had it Adolf was a fan of Schalke 04, six-time German/Austrian champs during the Nazi era. Modern-day Schalke went so far as to launch an investigation and issue formal response that no photographic evidence whatsoever existed linking him at any club matches. The letter to The Times from Schalke PR is hilarious for the use of “bugger,” if nothing else. Exhibit B:



Formal refutations of previous past unassailable der diktator fandom. Now that’s up-to-the-minute unpopularity.

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Klinsmann, Rainforest Conditioning and the 1953 Hungarian Golden Team

June 17, 2014 — by Rob Kirby


[Extreme conditioning, cribbed from 1950s Communist Hungary? After last night’s 2-1 victory over Ghana in the coastal heat of Natal, that’s the ideal method for Klinsmann and the U.S. team as they stare down the barrel of the Ruffhouse in Manaus, heart of the Amazon, against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. Enjoy the Cult Football at Large article here in excerpt or over at]

It’s no secret that the U.S. Men’s National Team is not a favorite going into the World Cup in Brazil. The media has panned the team’s chances, pointing to its unfavorable inclusion in Group G—what some call the Group of Death, with some justification. The U.S. faces three big opponents in the group: Ghana in Natal on June 16, Portugal in Manaus on June 22 and Germany in Recife on June 26. Ghana has knocked the U.S. out of two straight World Cups. Portugal boasts Cristiano Ronaldo—probably the best player in the world—and always shows up in big tournaments (semifinalists at the 2006 World Cup, and the 2008 and 2012 Euro Championships). And Germany reached the World Cup finals in 2002, and the semis 2006 and 2010.

What’s more, America will endure a travel itinerary of almost 9,000 miles between the three group stage matches, kicking off in the far northeast of the country, the heart of the rainforest, then back to the far northeast of the country. None of their games take place near base camp in São Paolo (where the team will return after each match), and all of them hug the most extreme equatorial heat and humidity zones of Brazil.

For the USMNT, there are a lot of factors they couldn’t control: group selection, World Cup layout, the humidity of the Amazon. But prepping for climate extremes, now there’s something that could have been addressed in training.

Way back in January, USMNT head coach Jürgen Klinsmann organized a two-week training camp (of mainly Major League Soccer players) in air-conditioned, five-star facilities in São Paolo. The May training camp was in Stanford, California—hardly known for oppressive conditions. The team then played friendlies in California and New Jersey before confronting some actual humidity in Jacksonville, Florida, against Nigeria (Ghana’s neighbor and stylistic analogue) and winning 2-1.

If he really wanted to prepare his players, Klinsmann should have sent them to the Amazon, confiscated their passports and stranded them in the 80 percent humidity of the rainforest. To acclimatize, players need to swelter for long stretches, training in the muggiest midday heat available, rather than being strapped to electrodes in climate-controlled sports laboratories. Live in huts, not hotels. Yoga, but Bikram. Pull on the humidity like a second skin. The World Cup commences and the players leap through the gate as if on endorphin rushes, ripping through defenses at top speed.

So now what the U.S. needs is an alternate plan—and preferably an out-of-nowhere checkmate. Klinsmann could steer the USMNT out of its hellish World Cup group in Brazil and into the knockout stages, provided he gets dictatorial at the helm. He just needs to incorporate some Cold War Communist management tactics and perhaps jam some treadmills into the sauna.


Jürgen Klinsmann had a clinical soccer pedigree. He won German footballer of the year in 1988 and set controls for world domination. He won the World Cup with West Germany in 1990, the 1996 European Championships with unified Germany and two UEFA (Union of European Football Association) Cups—one with Internazionale and one with Bayern Munich. As a player, he barked orders like any authoritative striker, and his stats gave him automatic street cred.

As a manager, Klinsmann led Germany to the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup, and later managed Bayern Munich, only to fall out with the board. His “führer factor” had come under question due to his relentless optimism, yoga advocacy and his residency in Southern California. People sometimes doubted the tanned man in après-ski casual could be the cold-blooded dictator fans expect in a coach.

But when you don’t have superior force (as is the case with his current U.S. squad) psychological warfare and conditioning are your two best hopes. The horse has bolted on conditioning, but regarding mind games and subterfuge, Klinsmann may yet have some chops. Klinsmann goosed Cristiano Ronaldo a good half-year ahead of the World Cup in the FIFA Ballon d’Or voting. When ballot choices became public, people saw that Klinsmann had not only left Ronaldo off his list, but he also nominated his nemeses: Franck Ribery, who deprived Ronaldo of the UEFA player of the year award; the “New Ronaldo,” Gareth Bale—Real Madrid teammate and therefore enemy within; and Radamel Falcao from the smaller club in Madrid that knocked Real out of last year’s Copa del Rey, and handed the team its first city derby loss in 14 years.

The devious placement of the World Cup qualifying match versus Costa Rica in high elevation Colorado in March 2013—and the ensuing snowpocalypse against the group rival in zero-visibility blizzard—was another example, and showed some promising diabolical tendencies. Finding a way to present Ronaldo with a mirror palace built in the jungle would prove an even bigger coup; like Narcissus trapped by the beauty of his image, Ronaldo might miss training sessions or group stage matches entirely.

But yet, Klinsmann brought 26 American players to Brazil in January and let them all leave. That was his biggest mistake. Jürgen should have embraced his inner Iron Curtain coach; in particular, his inner Gusztáv Sebes. By cribbing from the 1953 Hungarian Golden Team’s shocking 6-3 victory at fortress Wembley, and the autocratic advance measures Sebes took in adaptation prep, Klinsmann could have concocted a modern-day heat-tolerance strategy to get America into the knockouts.


Back in newly nationalized 1949 Hungary, the Ministry of Defense appropriated the Budapest-area Honvéd team as the army team, whereupon Sebes, as deputy minister of sport, installed himself as coach, appropriated the team for international competition purposes and started conscripting the best players in the country to Honvéd. Conveniently, the club already possessed the deadly left foot of star player Ferenc Puskás, who went on to score 83 goals in 84 games for Hungary (357 in 354 games for Honvéd).

Honvéd doubled as club side and national team, winning the league title five times between 1949 and 1955. It shared trophies with MTK Budapest, the secret service team, because even a ranking deputy minister doesn’t provoke the secret police unnecessarily. MTK also held the final key players for when the operation went full Voltron into the aggregate entity, the Aranycsapat (the Golden Team).

Emerging from the darkest days of Stalinist repression, the Golden Team (also known as the Magical Magyars) fused full-court pressure with fluid interchangeability of roles, a precursor to 1970s Dutch total football. Sebes subjected his national team to a full-time fitness and dietary regimen to ensure their conditioning would deliver high tempo for the full 90 minutes—they were Communist soldiers, after all. (The English media called Puskás, in actuality a lieutenant colonel, the “Galloping Major.”) Sebes focused on technique across the board, so players could change position seamlessly, scoring at will.

After the Golden Team won the Olympics in 1952, England, which historically held up its nose at foreign opposition—having codified the rules 90 years previous, cementing their superiority—deigned to invite the actual world No. 1 team to play at the vaunted Empire Stadium at Wembley. England had never lost to continental opposition at home, and a wet late-November day would offer classic English home turf conditions. England needed a boost. After having declined part in any of the first three World Cups, they got dumped out of their first, the 1950 World Cup, in a stunning 1-0 loss to the lowly U.S. team, which did not qualify for another for 40 years.

Here’s where Klinsmann could have learned a thing or two. As if marshaling forces for something outlandish (you know, like a match in a rainforest), Sebes prepared for the 1953 match against England by importing every aspect of English football to Budapest. He resized a training pitch to the exact oversized dimensions of the Wembley field. He considered the different-style English leather ball that got waterlogged as the game went on; especially with the all-English conditions of a cold, wet November day, it would take on weight quickly. Sebes obtained some English soccer balls and instituted training with them on the replica pitch immediately. He also compelled opposition players in the league to play in an “English style,” in order that the team get used to the different formation the British employed.

Sebes tested the English ball as the match ball in a slightly concerning 2-2 draw with Sweden 10 days before the so-called Match of the Century. A final calibration of shot settings with the gradually heavier ball, in a 18-0 blowout against a patsy Renault factory worker side in France, got Hungary fully acclimated. And on the day at Wembley, Hungary scored within the first minute and destroyed England 6-3. Six months later at the return fixture in Budapest, Hungary inflicted an even more brutal 7-1.

Famously, no Communist nation has ever won the World Cup. Hungary won the Olympics in 1952 and dominated the 1954 World Cup tournament, including a group stage 8-3 rout of West Germany, until suffering a crushing loss to those same Germans 2-1 in the final. (But, somehow, not the same Germans–a totally different lineup, as if the Germans had initially played possum.)

Although Hungary’s Golden Team scored a World Cup record 27 goals in the tournament, logged the famous 6-3 and 7-1 victories over England and went 31 straight games unbeaten between 1950 and 1956, they lost that crucial match in 1954. They’re called the best team to never win a World Cup, though the Dutch team of the 70s also has a claim on that title. In 1956, the Soviets invaded to crush an uprising against Communist rule, and Puskás and several others defected while Honvéd toured South America on exhibition. After that, the national team slowly disintegrated.

Imagine Jürgen had stationed his players in Manaus ever since that January training camp, and all the clubs, agents, sponsors and litigators had miraculously allowed this to happen. Not in plush São Paulo, but in maximum acclimation Manaus—capital of the rainforest. The players willingly submitted to six months straight of Amazonian boot camp, with full focus on their Arena da Amazônia showdown with Portugal, the Ruffhouse in Manaus. Jaunts to the marginally less oppressive coastal Natal and Recife would have seemed like destination vacations. While Cristiano banged in all the goals in Spain and the Champions League, posed in various stages of nudity for magazine covers and photo spreads, and opened a museum about himself in his own honor, U.S. players would have explored new realms of heat exhaustion and emerged reformed, rebuilt and steeled for heat-tolerance in the group stage and beyond.  …

Full article: The Communist Guide to Winning at Soccer  at

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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

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


Dictators and Soccer: Nicolae Ceaușescu, Genius of the Carpathians

November 8, 2012 — by Rob Kirby4


[Editor’s note: This is the 2nd installment in the ongoing Dictators and Soccer series. See also the previous article on Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaïre and subsequent articles on Kim Jong-il and North Korea (or Football, Famine and Giant Rabbits) and Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican City. Stay tuned for Col. Gaddafi next.]

Up until Christmas 1989 when a three-man firing squad executed Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena after a quickie two hour tribunal, the archetypal Iron Curtain strongman ruled Romania with an iron fist. After getting strafed with bullets, however, the iron fist swiftly went limp, then rigor mortis. And as the title up top suggests, soccer most definitely played its part in the image engine of the autocratic regime.

Ceaușescu served as the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party from 1967 to 1989. He loomed larger than life, largely due to his carefully cultivated cult of personality, replete with relentless news propaganda, giant-sized murals and so on. He even nicknamed himself “Genius of the Carpathians,” ”The Great Conductor” and ”The Danube of Thought.” One imagines that someone else bestowed the dubious honorific of “The Idi Amin of Communism.” (To read about the “Mobutu of Soccer Mogul Marketing,” see here.)

No one would accuse Ceaușescu of being a rabid soccer fan, but he spotted the usefulness of rabid devotion in any form and fully intended to bend such to his purposes. Enter the Romanian capital’s soccer powerhouse, Steaua Bucharest (anglicized form of Steaua București). The lyrics of a popular Romanian song, “Poți să fii câine sau poți fi stelist,” epitomized the mantra of the time. Translation, “You can be a dog, or you can be a Steaua fan.” With Ceaușescu as benefactor, Steaua went on a run of consecutive titles and undefeated in 104 straight domestic matches from 1986 to 1989, which blows away anything as piddling as a one-season Premier League “Invincibles” streak. To get to 104, you’re talking multiple and consecutive, which inhabits a whole different plane of non-losing. Curiously (or not), it all crashed to an abrupt halt with Ceaușescu’s 1989 execution.

Ceaușescu sought to legitimize and whitewash the nation state through sport, with the mentality that good PR sweeps human rights atrocities under the rug. If the soccer’s good, people will give you some leeway and even participate in the charade. So, with the best Romanian players at its disposal, as well as opposing managers and referees in its pocket, Steaua went without a loss for three consecutive domestic seasons. Steaua became the first club from Eastern Europe to hoist the European Cup, in 1986, and reached the finals in 1989. Ceaușescu lived long enough to see it, but not much beyond.

To flesh out the dictator a bit, let’s itemize a few of his eccentricities. Aside from the usual nepotism (27 close relatives in the top party and state offices), he and his wife Elena once visited Queen Elizabeth II and stayed at the palace. After shaking anyone’s hand, including the queen, he would wash his hands, OCD style. This was debatably less offensive than their bringing a personal food taster and their own bed sheets, out of distrust. Ceaușescu harbored a bizarre fear of poison-dusted cloth. All his clothes were manufactured by state police under surveillance, worn once and then burned. The purpose of the UK visit was to buy aerospace technology, but when quoted the price, he explained he’d have to pay a large part in yogurt, strawberries and ice cream. Despite the sweet deal, no deal.

If a newspaper mentioned Ceaușescu, no one else but his wife could be named in the same paragraph. And if both he and Elena were mentioned in a paragraph, they had to both be on the same line. Furthermore, each page of a paper had to mention him a minimum of 40 times, with his name in a specialized font. Every telephone manufactured during his reign came standard with bugs for surveillance, and after once receiving a death threat letter, he instructed the secret police to procure handwriting samples of everyone in the country. His presidential parliamentary palace, widely considered one of the greatest eyesores ever, was the second biggest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon. It has since been transformed into a shopping mall.

In the ’80s, Ceaușescu shut down all radio stations outside the capital and limited TV to a two-hour broadcast on one solitary channel. The two hours part was simply pragmatism. The country battled with foreign debt that caused a trickledown effect characterized by drastic food rations, gas shortages and regular power blackouts.

Oh right, Ceaușescu also ruthlessly persecuted ethnic Hungarians, emptied the treasury and generally held the title of biggest asshole on the block, or bloc.

Returning to how soccer played into the man’s plans, even before Ceaușescu came to power, Romania had a fixed soccer duopoly in Dinamo Bucharest and Steaua Bucharest, supported and financed by the secret police and army, respectively. They had an “arrangement” between them known as the cooperativa. Whenever one needed a win or a specific scoreline in a head to head, the other complied. This arrangement itself transpired against a backdrop of deeply entrenched match fixing elsewhere in the league. Money needn’t exchange hands. If you played one of the top dogs, you obediently lost, or faced the consequences. Needless to say, neither came close to relegation during the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s. Several sources speak of a phenomenon in which teams playing either of the Bucharest teams would concede goal after goal until the manager stepped from the dugout and raised his hand, signaling that the opposition could actually start going for goal.

Threats, intimidation and payoffs ensured that Steaua and Dinamo stayed top. But since the country as a whole was strapped for cash, intimidation of other club owners, managers, players and referees usually did the trick, and at an undeniably cut rate.

A brief aside on Dinamo Bucharest. All the Dinamo/Dynamo teams in the Soviet era had links to the secret police, based on the mother club Dynamo Moscow in Mother Russia. (Think about that next time you taunt supporters of Dinamo Zagreb or Dynamo Kiev, though you’re probably pretty safe with regard to the Houston Dynamo.) Just as Dynamo Moscow essentially reported directly to the KGB, and Dynamos Berlin and Dresden to the Stasi—a terrifying proposition—Dinamo Bucharest grabbed the proffered appendage of the brutal Securitate and the two went hand in hand.

When Ceaușescu bestowed his allegiance on Steaua Bucharest, it spelled the decline of Dinamo Bucharest, which had ruled supreme in the ‘70s. In the early 1980s, however, the Ceaușescus became directly involved in running Steaua, shifting the balance of power decidedly to the army team. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu’s eldest son, Valentin, finagled his way into the organization and served as the club’s unofficial president (whether they wanted it or not). The backing of Ceaușescu gifted Steaua a powerful upper hand and fortunes swapped soon after.

With the army and the dictator as benefactors, many of the best young players joined Steaua for the many advantages of the club—not only better conditions and luxuries like television sets and video recorders but also a quite handy exemption from compulsory military service. And those players who didn’t come of their own free will came anyway. Steaua “borrowed” star player Gheorghe Hagi from FC Sportul Studențesc in 1987 and never returned him, despite his home club’s opposition. In 1988, Steaua didn’t even bother borrowing. They plucked Gheorghe Popescu from FC Universitatea Craiova with neither the club’s nor the player’s consent.

Also in 1988, Steaua and Dinamo faced off in the Romanian Cup. By this point Steaua had long been the dictatorship’s pet team. Tied 1-1 in the 90th minute, Steaua scored but the goal was disallowed as offside. Outraged, and perhaps slightly stunned at the referee’s audacity, Valentin Ceaușescu refused to play on and ordered his team back to the locker room. After they’d left the field, the referee gave the game and the trophy to Dinamo, by virtue of default.

The Minister of Sport instructed the media to report nothing. The next day, the referee recanted, declared the winning goal valid and Steaua got the trophy. All video of the match was destroyed. The referee and the offsides linesman were fired.

A happy ending for some, though probably not the referee and linesman, who likely have a few permanently damaged fingers, kneecaps or both.

Perhaps Ceaușescu’s small potatoes hometown village team Olt Scornicești best illustrates the state-soccer corruption connection and the absurdity and the totality of power possessed by the dictator. Adrift in the fourth tier of Romanian football in the late ‘70s, the team earned three promotions in three consecutive years. On the final day of the season before promotion to the top flight, the team had to beat Electrodul Slatina by a goal margin equal to or more than Flacara Moreni. Erroneously informed that Flacara Moreni were winning 9-0 (as opposed to the actual 3-0), with more than a slight touch of overkill, Ceaușescu’s team upped the ante and won 18-0. No use taking chances when goals come so easily. Finally, the team resembled one befitting the standing of the sitting dictator, order restored to the universe of the bizarro world. Furthermore, Ceaușescu built a 30,000 capacity stadium for Scornicești, despite the village being a third that size.

Beyond this classic, ridiculous case of miscommunication, the episode registers as a vintage example of sports corruption in the Soviet bloc. No phone line connected the two villages where Steaua and Flacara Moreni were playing, so men with hand radios stationed at intervals between the grounds relayed and garbled the score like Chinese whispers or plain old Telephone. (With all phones bugged, who dropped the ball on getting these villages on the telephone grid? It’s an issue of national security, after all.) After the referee blew for full-time and the teams filed off the pitch, he actually brought the teams back out for enough extra-special injury time in order for Olt Scornicești to bang in the goals they needed and rack up a monstrous tally to promotion. Scornicești scored once in the first half, 17 times in the “second half.”

(Sidenote on Scornicești coach Florin Halagian. He also employed such heartwarming antics as kicking underperforming players off the bus at away matches to find their own way home.)

By the end of the ‘80s, the jig was up for Nicolae and Elena and in December 1989 a populist uprising threw off the oppressive Ceaușescu regime. In the resulting proto-Saddam trial, Ceaușescu denounced the tribunal, trying to the last to intimidate, denying the court had any authority to try him for anything. After a hurry-up two hour trial and the foregone guilty verdict for genocide of ethnic Hungarians, corruption and more, he and Elena were shot. The moment, however, did not get recorded for posterity, even though the show trial was televised. One imagines it was some weird video format, anyhow, like a Betamax made by the folks at Yugo.

Apparently hundreds volunteered for the firing squad, but only three lucky comrades got the job, comrades so eager that they started firing as soon as the ex First Couple touched backs to wall. The video cameras hadn’t had time to start rolling before it was all over. Sadly, this dictatorial snuff film must ever remain incomplete.

And now Cluj is the nation’s team, with a definite chance of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League. Poor Steaua. Dictators and their passing whims can be so quixotic, especially when they get executed.

For anyone interested, Scornicești long ago resettled back into the fourth tier of the Romanian leagues. Romanian match fixing apparently remains robust, but after the fall of the dictatorship, some things at least returned to normal.


Dictators and Soccer/Football:

Mobutu Sésé Seko (Zaïre)

Nicolae Ceaușescu (Romania)

Kim Jong-il (North Korea)

Pope Benedict XVI (Vatican City)


Copyright © 2012

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)


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