Absolute power gives those who have it all kinds of crazy ideas. From creating your own all-star team to hiding your war crimes with olympic events, the most dangerous, homicidal and powerful people in the world often have a built-in way to rally their people together and convince them to ignore the terrible violations of freedom occurring while they cheer on their sporting icons.
In antiquity, this close association of autocracy and sport could mean death at the hands of the high priest, as in the famed Mayan ball game that predates our modern ball sports by millennia and yet shares many of its characteristics. In Rome, sometimes the Emperor would insert himself into the games and force other competitors to let him win. In the courts of renaissance Europe, sports and games were largely war games staged as elaborate shows of power.
But as authoritarian rule began to take a different shape as sporting culture became more important to national identities in countries across the world, sports became even more of a political tool than they ever had before. And with the advents of communism and fascism in the 20th century, sports were often outright political entities, from Lazio and Real Madrid’s latent fascism to Glasgow Rangers abject love of authoritarian rule and fascist salutes. Dictatorial spirits fit sports like a black shirt under Gigi Buffon’s jersey.
The following dictators, in various ways and to various extents, changed the sporting cultures in their country—often for the worse. Most of the time, this is the result of simple megalomania, but every once in awhile it’s a symptom of something far more evil.
11 Idi Amin
10 Vladimir Putin
8 Alyaksandr Lukashenka
7 Josef Stalin
6 Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo
5 Francisco Franco
4 Augusto Pinochet
3 Adolf Hitler
2 Kim Jong Il
1 Benito Mussolini
Italy won both two World Cups in the 1930s - both under the close watchful eye of Il Duce, the fascist dictator most closely resembling a cartoon character in retrospect. Mussolini didn’t actually give a fart about calcio, the national sport of Italy as it is in most places on earth, but he realized he could use it as a political tool. Mussolini, with the approval of his Italian Fascist Party, introduced Serie A, the top flight of Italian football that still exists to this day, and made damn sure that Italy wasn’t going to lose the 1934 or 38 World Cups. The performance of the Azzurri on the field couldn’t be controlled, but bribing referees and widespread corruption made sure Italy kept the Cup.
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