sport in fascism

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Benito Mussolini (1883—1945) Italian Fascist statesman, Prime Minister 1922–43



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Fascism emerged from the political currents of World War I and its aftermath in Italy. A patriotic and anti-communist movement took root at this time and culminated in the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini in the 1920s. From that time and throughout the 1930s sport was a core part of the fascist state's project, not only at high-profile events such as the Olympics and at the two successful campaigns for the football World Cup, but as related to the everyday life of the people. Youth groups and university associations were targeted through sport to acclaim, reaffirm, and reproduce the values of the extreme right-wing state, with its inherent authoritarian and racist kernel. The term ‘fascism’ was taken from the Italian word fascismo, and that in turn from the Latin fascis, a bundle of rods with an axe in the middle that acted as an ensign of authority in ancient Rome. Thus Mussolini linked his movement to a classical heritage. Fascist movements elsewhere in Europe sought to emulate the Italian project—the blackshirts in England, for instance. And neo-fascist associations have linked sport and the extremist right state, as in the case of National Front leader Martin Webster in England in the 1970s, who saw in some English football hooligans the ideal recruits for his movement; strong and robust English lads, he saw them as, who would physically confront left-wing and any other groupings opposed to the Front's extreme right-wing agenda.

Fascist states that have used sport explicitly to assert forms of national prestige include Franco's dictatorship after the Spanish Civil War, and Argentina in the 1970s. In both these cases, international football afforded the opportunity for such manipulation. The club side Real Madrid dominated the early years of the European Champion Clubs' Cup (the precursor of the UEFA Champions League), winning the trophy five times in succession from its inauguration in the 1955–56 season. Franco insisted that the best players in the world be attracted to the club to play alongside the Spanish international Francisco Gento (Ferenc Puskas from Hungary, Alfredo di Stefano from Argentina, Raymond Kopa from France). Argentina, so often the underachievers of South American football, won the football World Cup in 1978, under the regime of the Generals, in a climate of brutality and internal oppression of Argentinian liberals and dissenters, and amid suspicion that other nations were victimized and even bribed; the nationalistic frenzy that accompanied the victory was later directed towards the Generals' follies in its Malvinas escapade, the invasion of the Falkland Islands. Fascism in the first half of the 20th century proposed a doctrinaire ethos of physical culture in which the body as the armoury of the individual was little more than the tool of the state; in this, it has been observed that although fascism and communism were at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, their ideologies of sport and perspectives on the sociocultural and political value of sport ran along uncannily parallel lines. See also communism, sport in; Nazism, sport in.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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