What It Takes to Win the World Cup

What does it take to win the World Cup? Past results suggest that going through a period of dictatorial government is almost a sine qua non for a nation to be a champion.

Consider the roster of previous winners: Uruguay (1930 and 1950); Italy (1934, 1938, 2006); Germany (1954, 1974, 1990); Brazil (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002); England (1966); Argentina (1978, 1986); and France (1998). England is the only country on that list that has maintained democratic government throughout the 80 years in which the World Cup has been contested. None of the others can claim that achievement and three of them -- Italy (1934 and 1938), Brazil (1970) and Argentina (1978) -- claimed the world title during a time of authoritarian rule.

Indeed, soccer prowess proved a national morale builder for the dictatorships of the last century. This was particularly true of Italy under Mussolini who believed -- wrongly as it turned out -- that victory on the playing field would instill the martial virtues that would carry the day on the battlefield. Hitler's Germany submitted the first bid to host the 1940 Cup, although the pursuit of more pressing items on the Fuhrer's agenda resulted in the cancellation of that year's Cup. Undeterred, Nazi sports officials began to lay the groundwork for a new European Sports Federation during the first years of World War II, proposing to enlist Germany's allies, satellites and occupied countries in a bid to "coordinate fascist sport and counteract the Anglo-American domination in many international sports federations," until Stalingrad put such plans on permanent hold. Vichy France actively promoted athletics as part of its recipe for national rejuvenation. More recently, soccer proved an asset for the military junta ruling Argentina in 1978 when that nation played host and won its first World Cup. Unwilling to buck the popular excitement in the sport, the Argentine guerilla opponents of the regime disappointed the international left by refusing to disrupt the competition which it acknowledged to be a "feast of the people."

So what does this history suggest about the outcome of this year's Cup? Of the quarter-finalists -- Germany, Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, Ghana, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay -- all except the Netherlands (occupation imposed by the Germans in World War II aside) have been through the hard school of dictatorship for some period of time since 1930. It's a record that makes the Netherlands very much an outlier if the Dutch hope to come out on top at last after a number of tough losses in the past. And perhaps also offers at least a sliver of a silver lining for the USA's own defeat.

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.

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