As Argentina prevailed over France 3-3, winning the penalty kicks shootout 4-2, it’s a great time to point out that both countries have embraced political freedom, as have the two finalists in 2018, 2014, 2010, 2006, 2002, 1998, 1994, 1990, 1986, and 1982 (22 teams). In fact, you’d have to go back to Argentina’s 1978 win to find an authoritarian country that won the World Cup, despite attempts by unfree countries to prove their superiority in sports.
Democracies and autocratic regimes seem to have it in for each other. But clashes between both types of countries occur in areas other than war. Witness the kitchen debate between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev about economic prowess of the Soviets and Americans. Even today, China, the United States, Japan, and the European Union vie for market share. There’s also the space race between the Cold War superpowers, which could emerge again in today’s environment between the United States, China, and others.
Sports is merely another arena for supremacy between democracies and authoritarians, played out in Olympic competitions, individual matches like Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, and even soccer. Argentina attempted to use the 1978 World Cup to cement the power status of the military junta which had taken power two years earlier. Russia similarly sought prestige in hosting the 2018 World Cup event, and Beijing became the first site to host a Summer and Winter Olympics. Berlin’s 1936 Olympics were used as a showcase by Nazi Germany, something they tried to replicate in soccer in 1942, though the FIFA games were canceled during World War II. Qatar’s hosting of this year’s World Cup was a controversial case as well.
But winning the event is another matter. Here democracies have prevailed, not only in the FIFA World Cup over the last 11 tournaments, but they’ve also dominated the teams that actually make the tournament, and the round of 16.
To test this, my students and I looked at data from Freedom House for 2022, an international organization that examines how well regimes respect civil liberties and political rights. Free countries receive a score of 2 in our analysis, while those coded ‘not free’ receive a score of zero. Those which are partly free get a measure of ‘1’.
In 2022, four countries at the World Cup in Qatar received a score of zero, while five countries were coded as partly free. The other 23 were fully free countries. Those who made it to the World Cup averaged a freedom score of 1.59, while those who lost had a freedom score of 1.044, a significant difference according to a t-test (a statistical test that is used to compare the [statistical] means of two groups).
Want to make the FIFA final 16, and get to the ‘knockout stage?’ Freedom also helps. Fourteen of the 16 finalists were free countries, with only partly free Morocco and Senegal getting that far, another statistically significant finding (finalists averaged a freedom score of 1.86, compared to the average freedom score of 1.31 for those who lost at the group stage).
Why do authoritarian countries perform so poorly these days in sports? Stricter drug testing prevents the success some undemocratic countries had in the past at international competition. Star athletes in authoritarian regimes have to watch their back, lest their popularity incur the wrath of dictators, as was the case of Turkey. Soccer stars Hakan Sukur, Arif Erdem, Ugur Tutuneker, and Ismail Demiriz from champion team Galatasaray (Sukur helped lead the Turkish team to their best showing in FIFA in 2002) have been targeted by the Recep Tayyip Erdogan regime for being associated with the Gulen service-based group, accused of being behind a coup in the country though such evidence is scant. Sukur wrote: “I have nothing left, Erdogan took everything: my right to liberty, freedom of expression, and right to work,” according to CNBC.
Such autocratic regimes often fear that these new stars might defect to a democracy to pursue the freedom that allows them to cash in on their fame, and even be able to criticize their host regime, as Turkish athlete Enes Kanter has been able to do in the United States. This leads those regimes to tighten their leash on athletes, which only contributes to poor play on the international stage, while soccer stars from democracies bask in the benefits of freedom.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. His views are his own. He can be reached at [email protected] His Twitter account is JohnTures2.