The Evolution and Political Dynamism of Football in Mussolini’s Italy


On a November night in 1934, the English national football team faced their Italian counterparts, Nazionale di calcio dell’Italia. The match was held at Arsenal Stadium in London –more commonly known as “Highbury” – on this day filled to capacity. Unusual attention surrounded this “friendly,” which had no influence on rankings or trophies and was generally meaningless by ordinary standards of athletic success. The Italians were just months removed from a World Cup triumph in Rome, a tournament the English refused to attend (the English did not play in any international tournaments until 1950). Yet this competitively inconsequential game took on outsized mythos, dubbed “The Battle of Highbury” and labeled by one English announcer, “The most important international football match ever played. For both British and Italian spectators, the match was treated as a battle of not two teams, but two nations and two worldviews. Mussolini and his government took particular interest, forcing the Italian head coach, Vittorio Pozzo, to accept England’s offer to play and famously promising each Italian player a cash bonus and a new Alfa Romeo should they win.

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England scored three goals in the first twelve minutes. Italy picked-up two goals in the second half to make the scoreline look less harsh, but objective observers came away convinced of England’s superiority. For Mussolini and Italy, though, a moral victory had been won. Their more romantic, stylized, Italian approach had essentially matched English efficiency and physicality, even as one of Italy’s best players, Luis Monti, went off injured in the opening minutes by a typically English, industrious tackle (a characterization dismissed by English pundits, who themselves were troubled by the physicality of the Italians). “The Battle of Highbury” was one arena, as indeed was soccer more broadly – Calcio, to use the Italian name – for Mussolini and Italian Fascism to express itself and pursue its goals. Calcio was for Mussolini an opportunity. Through what was to many just a game, he could try to unify Italy spiritually and organizationally under the national team and a new professional league, to athletically prepare Italian young men for war, and, particularly as he grew closer to Hitler, to publicly enact racist, anti-Semitic policies. By most measures, calcio under Mussolini largely mimicked England. It adopted the structure of English association football in creating its own domestic league, Serie A. The Italian national team itself played with an altered version of a formation developed by Englishman Herbert Chapman. For Mussolini and the fascists, though, all of this could be swept aside, and the game could be reframed as authentically Italian, making the success of the league and the national team a powerful propaganda tool at home and abroad.

Coming out of World War I, Italy had incurred great losses with little to show for it. Estimates vary, but about 560,000 Italian servicemen died in the War, many from the Spanish Flu. Italy lost still more civilians, bringing total losses to somewhere around 1.7 million. The sense among many Italians was that their country had been unprepared for war both in terms of resources and mindset, amidst reports of many soldiers dying unnecessarily (by war standards, that is) due to hunger, exhaustion, or illness. On the battlefield, research suggests that Italian soldiers from poor and working-class backgrounds were more likely to die than their middle and upper-class peers, the opposite of what happened in the British Army. It is likely that the especially poor living standards in Italian trenches disproportionately hurt those who had had lower standards of living and worse health, to begin with.

Mussolini, though certainly aggrieved that his country’s war contributions yielded little at Versailles, also knew that a new generation of able soldiers would be needed to compete in another war. Thinking about the issue quite literally, he believed Italy needed strong and fit men, something frequent participation in athletics could facilitate. As has been mentioned, soccer was not native to Italy. The game was imported by a businessman from Turin named Edoardo Bosi, who began arranging games with fellow aristocrats after being taken by the sport during an 1887 trip to England. Popularity quickly grew, often supported and organized by the Church. While Fascists initially rejected the game, arguing that Italian participation amounted to emulation of other, lesser nations, and attempted to promote games invented in Italy, the popularity and emotional hold of Calcio made it a clear choice for those trying to sway the masses. By the end of the 1920s, Mussolini and his sports and recreation administration began to take a more active role in various soccer spheres, from the lowest level to the highest.

Through organizing, financing, and promoting this game so reliant on endurance and strength, Mussolini could make heroes out of Italy’s best athletes and inspire young men to follow. Italy was to be filled with energetic, vigorous, and athletic would-be soldiers. The game itself, though not violent like rugby or American football, can teach lessons applicable in a military setting. As described by John R. Tunis in a 1936 essay for Foreign Affairs: “pleasure, sport, individuality, are all subordinated to the assumed military needs of the nation. Sport becomes just one branch of army training.” Like many sports, soccer demands an awareness of teammates and a kind of selflessness, since a given player may not touch the ball for minutes on end while running almost constantly. The game is free-flowing compared to some sports, but also requires structure, organization and strict delegation of responsibilities to have success. While Mussolini would have been wise to focus on military improvement through technological development and not overcommitting to unnecessary conflicts, it is easy to see why he earmarked calcio as a tool for improving national fitness.

For Mussolini, the athletic side of calcio was about more than just physically raising an army — it was consistent with the energetic spirit of Fascism itself. In his manifesto, Mussolini argued that “Fascism, now and always, believes in holiness and in heroism,” a vague, but moving idea. Through calcio, fascists could momentarily stop culling through history in search of great Italians to mythologize; sports create instant heroes out of almost nothing. The stories write themselves. Mussolini favored the aesthetics of violence and viewed battle and war as productive in and of themselves. Effort, sacrifice and enduring hardship for a greater goal — the high values of war — are easily applied to sport.

Italian soccer teams, and in particular the national team, were encouraged to embody this war-like spirit and win at all costs (even as journalists excused losing at Highbury by dismissing the physical play of England as somehow lesser). John Tunis remembers witnessing the Czechoslovakian team after a match against Italy: “Limping, hobbling, patched and battered, they were the football team of Czechoslovakia. Their Italian opponents that afternoon had gone out to win regardless of the rules and the umpire; they had hammered, hit, and gouged their way to victory.” Tunis’ judgment of the game could easily have been influenced by a conformation bias, but regardless, his anecdote shows that like fascism itself, fascist soccer was as much a form of expression as it was anything else, emotional and in certain respects unintellectual.

The difficulties of creating a national identity and a feeling of unity in Italy predate Mussolini. However, a lack of unity was a more acute, pressing issue for the fascists, who generally got by not on policy fulfillment, but by the engagement and excitement of a large portion of Italians. Cultural differences and the points of division they created were both generally regional and highly localized. The North/South divide was largely borne out of economic realities. The North, home to wealthy industrial cities like Milan, Turin and Genoa naturally grew apart from the largely poor, agricultural, “backwards” South.

Local identity was also a source of division, as people were more likely to think of themselves as citizens of their city or town than of Italy as a nation. This heightened sense of local patriotism sources back to what the Italians call “campanilismo,” a concept without a useful English translation. Camanilismo is derived from “campanile,” or “bell tower,” used in this case to describe the prominent bell towers in seemingly every Italian city or town, each a symbol of identity and cultural autonomy. Most of these bell towers were built in the Middle Ages, when towns were physically siloed by castle walls and military lines. This led to the development of traditions, dialects and cuisines far more varied that their short distances apart would suggest.

A few decades of national unification could not undo centuries of parochialism. A feeling of national unity was necessary to the fascist project, however, and campanilismo was seen as a threat. It could not be eliminated through street violence or intimidation like political rivals; the public had to be convinced that Italy as a nation was something worth living and dying for. Despite early reservations about professionalizing a sport of non-Italian origin, Mussolini and his government formed Serie A in 1929, Italy’s first division professionalized soccer league. While the teams were privately owned, Serie A was supposed to be a source of pride for all Italians and bring an end to “the grave problem” of campanilismo, to use the words of journalist and fascist sports organizer Lando Ferretti. The Carta di Viareggio (Viareggio Charter) laid the groundwork for this league which was, for all its claims of Italian authenticity, essentially modeled after English-style association football. The fascist-run Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC) took control of league oversight and organization, including standardization of club finances, league structure, referee assignments and player classification. This type of administrative centralization, though supposedly imagined by Mussolini, was implemented by Leandro Aprinati, who had by that time earned control over almost all Italian sports.

The fascist government set several policies to encourage engagement in the league. Train fares to Bologna were cut in half in the days leading up to a match with the goal of bringing fans from across the country to see Italy’s most famous and popular team, Bologna F.C. 1909. Through programs and newspapers, the regime tried to popularize Italianized versions of English soccer vocabulary and nomenclature to popularize and Italianize the game itself, and limit the influence of local dialects. As will be discussed in further sections, Mussolini also led massive construction projects in the name of sport and most often calcio, building some “3,280 sports grounds by 1930.” Grounds gave legitimacy to the league and brought more people into now nearby stadiums (many of these 3,280 grounds were just parks for ordinary people to play calcio and stay fit, not stadiums). Clubs were warned against emphasizing rivalries and displaying open animosity on the field. The league had to come first. The government also had a financial incentive to raise stadium attendance and club wealth. 15% of stadium ticket sales had to go to the government, which came to thirty-eight million lire in 1938, no small sum and thirty-six million more than the second wealthiest sports organization, cycling.

According to league organizers Giuseppe Zanetti and Giuglielmo Tornabuoni, Serie A was meant to mirror fascism’s “general and revolutionary concept of government.” The organization of Serie A never really matched that of the Italian government, as by nature no sports association would, but Serie A did follow the government by becoming increasingly dependent on Mussolini’s personal influence and top-down decision making. An obscure but illustrative 1937 report from The New York Times details this dynamic. A small, relatively ordinary scuffle broke out between C.F.C. Genoa and the visiting Austrian club SK Admira Wien (now FC Admira Wacker Mödling). In response, The Times wrote, “The Admira players returned to Vienna tonight, announcing that they had been expelled from Italy by the order of Mussolini. Evident here an overreaction typical of Mussolini, but also a degree of intervention in sports that would be unthinkable for an ordinary head of state.

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Despite the significant investment in building a unifying league to help empower the state and promote fascist ideals, Serie A did little to solve the issues Mussolini had hoped it could. By giving more power and influence to clubs, paying players, building stadiums and scheduling regular meetings between clubs, Serie A only intensified campanilismo. Partly by a quirk of Italian history, and partly by the ordinary, tribalistic side of human nature, rivalries grew fiercer. In a 1925 match between Genoa C.F.C and Bologna F.C. 1909 (based in the two Northern cities after which they are named), tensions between fans escalated to the point that twenty-five gunshots were exchanged (the sources of which are unclear). Perhaps the violent culture of fascist Italy did not help the unification project in this respect.

Italy’s North/South divide was not fixed either by the creation of this new professionalized top division, even if calcio brought more cross-regional travel to attend games. At the time of Serie A’s creation, sixteen of the league’s twenty teams sourced from the preexisting Northern League, only four coming from the Southern League. Even within the former Southern League, the club furthest south was in Naples, not exactly the heel of the boot. Of the aforementioned 3,280 grounds built by 1930, 2,500 were in the North. Within Serie A, the dominant teams in the early years were Juventus F.C. (based in Turin), Genoa C.F.C., and A.C. Milan, all based in Northern cities and owned by Northern industrialists with close ties to Mussolini’s government. The big clubs of course owned the best players, who accounted for the majority of the Italian National Team. Association calcio, then, did little to ameliorate preexisting problems of unification or regional cultural and economic inequality.

Mussolini was a mythmaker, drawing on history both real and imagined to construct a continuous, congruous narrative of Italy. He famously quipped, “It is faith which moves mountains because it gives the illusion that mountains move…Illusion is perhaps the only reality in life.” It is striking to hear a politician speak so openly about power of perception and the willful manipulation of reality, but Mussolini was no ordinary politician. Through symbolism and rhetoric, a version of Italy could be not just remembered, but created. As has been discussed, sports offer a ready-made platform for mythmaking by the heroes and history they create. Mussolini also recognized that clubs themselves could propagate myths, chief among them the rhetorized link between 20th century Italy and Ancient Rome. Mussolini spoke often of Roman heritage and returning Italy to its rightful place in the world as an empire and cultural leader.

Two clubs dominate Roman soccer: A.S. Roma, founded after a club merger overseen by the fascist sporting committee in 1927 to consolidate Roman soccer and S.S. Lazio, founded in 1900 and the personal favorite of Il Duce. Both clubs are shrouded in Roman imagery. Roma’s crest depicts the Roman founding myth of the Capitoline Wolf, feeding Romulus and Remus.

Their uniforms feature the red of Imperial Rome and the Vatican yellow. Lazio, meanwhile, sport the Hellenic sky-blue and have a crest centered on Aquila, the Roman imperial eagle. It is not at all uncommon in club soccer for crests and colors to speak to regional identity (super clubs F.C. Barcelona and F.C. Bayern Munich famously sport Catalan and Bavarian imagery, respectively), however seldom do clubs so directly align with the goals and rhetoric of their government. Club symbols and colors spread by fans around Rome fit neatly with government-created posters and the stories they told. Rome was brought into the present, fulfilling the fascist hope articulated by Il Duce himself: “Rome is our point of departure and our point of reference…We dream of a Roman Italy, an Italy that is wise, strong, disciplined and imperial.”

Great teams required great stadiums. Il Foro Mussolini (Mussolini’s Forum, now Il Foro Italico, or the Italian Forum) opened its doors in 1932. A massive four-stadium complex in northwestern Rome, Il Foro was designed by the famous architects Enrico Del Debbio and Luigi Moretti. It became home to Roma and Lazio, as well as host to future major sporting events in Italy, including the 1934 World Cup and 1940 Olympics. In this way, the stadium was designed to speak to both an Italian and international audience. One could not enter Il Foro Mussolini without thinking about the stadium’s namesake and fascist history. Mussolini’s obelisk, still standing, welcomes crowds into the complex. A mosaic road connected the four stadiums to one another, “tiled with images of the fascist revolution and the 1922 march on Rome.” Mussolini himself was a frequent guest at Il Foro, emerging from this box to roaring crowds.

Architecturally, the four stadiums were designed to evoke some kind of futurist colosseum, again fusing the worlds for Ancient Rome and 20th century Italy. Beyond Rome, fascist-built stadiums celebrated Mussolini and Italy in their own ways. In Turin, for instance, the new home of massive clubs Torino F.C. and Juventus F.C. was the massive, modernist Stadio Mussolini. Rising over the stadium entrance was a glass façade inscribed with Mussolini’s name, which glowed in the night sky. In Florence, AFC Fiorentina’s stadium was similarly named after the Florentine fascist Giovanni Berta, demonstrating Mussolini’s willingness to allow localities to maintain aspects of their identities within certain parameters. Just as today sponsors pay to have stadiums named after their companies (Capitol One Arena, United Center etc.), in Italy the clear presence of the fascist government served to create a relationship in people’s minds between the teams they loved and Mussolini’s state, as if one could not exist without the other.

Even with these new stadiums, club soccer did not combat campanilismo as effectively as Mussolini and the fascist sporting organizers hoped. A more concrete unifier, surely, was the Italian national team, which Mussolini began more publicly supporting. As has already been mentioned, most of the team’s players came from the North and played for the wealthy Northern clubs. Still, rivalries and divisions softened and Italians rallied around the team, which enjoyed massive success through the 1930s and earned the soccer world’s admiration. Head coach Vittorio Pozzo remains to this day a legendary figure for his success and development of the “WW” formation, a progression of Englishman Herbert Chapman’s “WM” and progenitor of more modern styles of play. This playing style known as “metodo” relied upon highly systematized movements, technical play, and an energetic, but organized pace. The innovation and energy perfectly suited the fascist self-image, which used the past, but described itself as a governing system for the future.

Vittorio Pozzo

Apparently contradicting quotes and reflections from Pozzo make it difficult to assess his own sense of nationalism or allegiance to Mussolini and the PNF, but his philosophy of the game, as articulated in a 1929 article, is instructive: “The game is beautiful…when it constructs when it gives life to something when it thinks and works, not when it simply demolishes, defends, destroys and suffocates. Man has true merit when he does something of his own, that is alone: not when he limits himself to knocking down what others have built.” Language of this kind is common in sports so it should be treated with caution, but Pozzo does express a typically fascist sense of positivity and creation, the appeal of being part of something new and unique. Pozzo was also known for rallying his players by trying to evoke a kind of militant patriotism, on occasion even bringing his team to famous battle sites before big games.

For Mussolini and the PNF, national team success could be presented as a national success. Each victory evidenced Italian superiority, and particularly as Italy defeated certain European powers, fascist media framed the results as demonstrations of Fascism’s superiority over Democracy. Never was fascist and Italian supremacy more on display than the 1934 World Cup, hosted in Italy and won by Pozzo’s men. Following the triumph, fascist mouthpiece Il Popolo D’Italia wrote that in the Italian team, fans could see a “vision of harmony, discipline, order, and courage.” It was allegedly these qualities that set Italy apart and defined Fascism on and off the field. Each calcio victory was celebrated as a foreign policy victory, transforming soccer from a game into what Simon Martin calls a “war without the shooting.” In the day before a match against a poor Czechoslovakia team in the early rounds of the tournament, Italian press reported that the Czechs had renewed ties with the Soviet Union. The next day’s victory, then, could easily be considered a fascist victory over Communism (some historians have speculated that this match would never have happened without government manipulation, as the Italians were allegedly slated to play the less politically salient Germans).

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Success was a source of pride and an affirmation that Mussolini’s Italy was on the right path. The World Cup was at that time still a new entity, with Italy serving as only the second host. Still, it was hoped that success could move an international audience as well as an Italian one. Broadcasts heavily featured fascist flags, images of the aforementioned stadiums and appearances from Il Duce. Mussolini himself grew increasingly inseparable from the team’s image, at least in the press analysis. Fascist Il Messaggero told its readers: “It is in the name of Mussolini that our team has won in Florence, in Milan and yesterday in Rome for the conquest of the world title.” The language of “conquest,” true to Mussolini’s imperial ambitions, linked nicely with the press’ match reports that were laden with battlefield-like descriptions of play. As at Highbury, the government offered uncommonly sizable bonuses to incentivize winning. Another victory at the 1938 World Cup in France confirmed Italy’s dominance and assuaged doubts that hometown match fixing and referee bribes were the only reason for Italy’s 1934 win.

Stadium attendees and television viewers alike would also see the Italian team’s ostentatious pre-game fascist salute. Vittorio Pozzo describes the ritual in the face of a jeering French crowd in 1938: “I was rigid, with an arm outstretched horizontally I couldn’t check the time. The German referee and Norwegian players looked at us worriedly. At a certain point the hullabaloo began to die down and then ceased … We had just put our hands down and the violent demonstration started again. Straight away: ‘Team be ready. Salute.’ And we raised our hands again, to confirm we had no fear … Having won the battle of intimidation, we played.” As Pozzo writes, Italy was determined to with the game within the game, demonstrating fascist resolve.

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The national team success of the 1930s was driven by not just a gifted coach, government incentives, and Mussolini watching from his private box. Italy sourced a gifted squad, but not an altogether Italian one. Prominent players included Attilo Demaría, Enrique Guaita, Raimundo Orsi, and arguably the team’s best player, Luis Monti, all Argentinian by birth. Brazilian Anfilogino Guarisi featured as well. These South Americans who came to play for Italy were known as “oriundi” (singular: “oriundo”), immigrants with some degree of Italian heritage who repatriated.

The Carta di Viareggio of 1926 banned foreign players from participating in Serie A and the national team, but these regulations could easily be worked around if officials could cite some Italian lineage, however slim, that qualified players for dual citizenship. The logistics of the oriundi system are well illustrated by Luis Monti’s story. Monti captained his native Argentina and played for Argentinian clubs through the 1930 World Cup in neighboring Uruguay. Following the World Cup, he was approached by representatives from Juventus, who offered him $5000USD/week, plus a car, house and a signing bonus, up from about $200USD/week in Argentina. Monti was also told that Mussolini had personally requested that he be brought to Italy. Monti signed for Juventus in 1932 and quickly became a citizen (in thanks to an Italian grandfather), following the pattern of accepting a massive pay raise and expedited Italian citizenship begun in 1928 by his teammate and fellow Argentine by birth, Raimundo Orsi.

Luis Monti

For a regime so insistent on recapturing the authentically Italian, it is seemingly contradictory that Mussolini would personally promote South Americans to such prominent roles. However, this was simply an issue of presentation. Oriundi were not foreigners, but, as historians Christian Koller and Fabian Brändle describe, “lost sons of the fatherland,” returning now that Italy had reclaimed its rightful spirit. Like Rome itself, Monti and his teammates were part of a myth, a notion of the nation that imagined Italian influence far beyond Southern Europe. More broadly, Mussolini fretted constantly about the Italian birth rate and population, prompting the famous, bizarrely named “Battle for Births.” By loosening the standards for what was required for citizenship and national participation, Italy could grow faster. These dual citizen players, after all, were also eligible for military service and some were later called to arms. As a final consideration on this point, ultimately, Mussolini and the fascist sporting organizations cared most about winning, otherwise few would take note of the propagandized national team and the fascist supremacy it supposedly represented. In the 1930s (as now) some of the best soccer talent came from Argentina and Brazil. At least in the case of players like Monti, it seems his ability to help Italy win was the top priority.

While through the 1930s, Mussolini, soccer administrators and club owners grew more receptive to South American influence, attitudes towards Slavic and Jewish participation moved in the opposite direction. In certain respects, these biases had always influenced calcio. The Fascist President of Italian National Olympic Committee, Landro Ferretti, understood “sport as a racial gymnasium,” a “gymnasia of discipline, courage and solidarity.” Club owners apparently felt the same way. Despite his well-known talent, Bruno Scher spent most of his career in the lower divisions of Italian soccer because he was viewed as a “Communist from Istria, one of the ‘reclaimed’ territories.” Scher decided against abandoning his allegedly inferior Istrian roots (the ethnically mixed territory then in Italy, now in Croatia) in the name of sporting acclaim, refusing to change his name to the recommended, Italianized “Scheri.”

More dangerously, Mussolini’s growing closeness with and eventual dependence on Hitler brought changes to fascist racial policies, which carried sporting implications. What had begun as relative ambivalence developed into proud and explicit racism, articulated in the 1938 “Manifesto of Racial Scientists.” This manifesto, published in the fascist Il Giornale d’Italia, offers a few telling if scientifically dubious insights. Among other points, the manifesto argues that “the actual population of Italy is of Aryan origin and its culture is Aryan,” and that “a pure Italian race exists at the point.” Plainly, “Jews do not belong the Italian race.”

Prior to the policy changes, Slavic and Jewish players and coaches played a significant role in shaping the style of Italian play. The so-called “Danubian School of Football” was in the 1920s and 30s the most influential movement in the soccer world, with Hungary, in particular, producing great players and transformative ideas. One manifestation of this was Arpad Weisz, the Jewish Hungarian who coached the famous F.C. Internazionale Milano (Inter Milan) as well as S.S.C. Bari, Novara Calcio and Bologna F.C. 1909. His spell at Bologna ended with the racial laws of 1938, when Weisz’s forced resignation and subsequent deportation meant a move to join F.C. Dordrecht in the Netherlands. Weisz and his family were later captured by the Nazis and killed at Auschwitz. Weisz’s story is more tragic, crueler than most, but he was not alone in facing a mandatory exit. Indeed, after 1938, the leading minds in the Italian game became homegrown. Fascist sporting organizers created the now-famous “calcio universities” to produce coaches and club administrators. Florentine paper Lo Stadio described these schools as an ideal way to “take Italian football away…from the intrusive foreign technical direction.” English or Hungarian soccer vocabulary was more fully replaced with Italian counterparts. Out of an otherwise unrelated, foreign policy driven law change came an opportunity to further Italianize an imported game.

For Mussolini and fascist Italy, soccer was a foreign game that grew into so much more. It initially served as a simple means to physically improving the fitness and battlefield readiness of Italians. Any sport or rigorous activity could have taken its place. But no other game so captured the people and the national imagination. Once this was recognized, Mussolini’s presence at stadiums and behind the scenes became increasingly apparent. As a propaganda tool directed both domestically and internationally, calcio became a means of mythologizing and pridefully demonstrating Italian identity and superiority. Newly built stadiums and World Cup successes served the fluid, but the relatively cogent goal of translating love of the game into a love of the state, while racial and foreign player policies set the parameters of who could be part of this game and state.

Mussolini is of course long gone, as is the variety of Fascism distinctive to his era. And yet Il Duce’s legacy in Italian soccer and beyond is hard to miss. The stadiums he built are by and large still standing and still visited every weekend, albeit after some rebranding. Serie A remains one of Europe’s five biggest leagues (along with those of England, France, Germany, and Spain). Despite a poor last decade, the national team is generally one of the world’s best, winning a World Cup in 2006. South American players still are more likely to play in Italy, or at least stop there first as an entry into the European game because of looser visa regulations and the ability of some to cite distant Italian heritage. The uglier aspects of Mussolini’s influence remain, too. While nowhere is immune, Italian soccer stadiums are particularly notorious for racist and antisemitic chants. Some Italian fanbases have prominent far-right segments who bring flags and posters covered in fascist imagery or even Il Duce’s face.

Italian soccer fans hold black flags effigying late dictator Benito Mussolini, during an Italian major league soccer match in Rome in 2006

Internationally, the days of states and the ideologies they represent fighting proxy wars on the soccer field are mostly behind us. Still, politicians aligning themselves with popular sports teams are in vogue as ever. More dramatically, there is a new wave of so-called “sports-washing,” whereby governments like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates purchase popular teams with the hope of distracting from atrocities committed at home and winning over international public opinion. Mussolini was not the sole architect of state manipulation of sports, but his example is telling, as he demonstrated the surprisingly wide scope and power of a game famed Italian soccer manager Carlo Ancelotti would later call, “the most important of the less important things in life.”

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