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.