When dictatorial regimes jab their claws into sport

There is a long history of that phenomenon taking place across the globe

Saddam Hussein

An Iraqi football fan wears a mask of Iraq's late dictator, Saddam Hussein, during a match between the Najaf football and Irbil football teams in the final match for the Iraqi National league in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, July 16, 2009. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)

As discussed on Off The Ball by The Sunday Independent's Declan Lynch, when governments in democratic countries try to attach themselves to sportspeople, it can lead to plenty of eye-rolling, depending on how much political capital said politician is trying to derive by sitting in the shade of that sporting success.

Unfortunately in non-democratic nations, the links between ruling regimes and sportspeople are far more nefarious, and often hazardous for the athletes.

When the subject of a dictator's interest in sport surfaces, the name Francisco Franco is often  brought up. Spain's former ruler was a centrist in the sense that regional feeling in the Iberian nation was to be stamped out, hence the repression of Catalan and Basque culture, with the Catalan case often being tied in with FC Barcelona.

But back in the 1950s and '60s, it was the preeminent Real Madrid who dominated at home and in Europe. The stereotype is that they were Franco's club, but that is ignoring many facets.

Francisco Franco (AP Photo/AP Photo)

The man who came to power off the back of the brutal Spanish Civil War was not a Real Madrid fan, at least to begin with. Indeed, the former general is said to have supported city rivals Atlético at one time - they were once known as  Athletic Aviación de Madrid after merging with the air force, hence the military connection - before attaching himself to the bright lights of a hugely successful Real Madrid when they started collecting trophy after trophy.

But as football clubs represented the country abroad and he intended to underpin a centrist Spanish nationalist policy, he also decreed that teams with non-Castilian names, like Athletic Club de Bilbao, were forced to change them. Thus Athletic became known as Atlético.

Meanwhile, Franco's Romanian contemporary Nicolae Ceausescu put much store in sport. You might have noticed that the nation situated on the shores of the Black Sea is a perennial presence at Rugby World Cups, even if they never reach the latter stages.

That is because Ceausecu used sport - soccer and rugby particularly - as a propaganda tool during the Communist Era when Romanian rugby was much stronger than it is now.

In The Guardian back in 2007, Andy Bull wrote a fascinating piece about the rise and fall of Romanian rugby and the interest the regime had in it, to the point that they were the sixth strongest side in the Northern Hemisphere.

Bull noted that "sport was one means of global interaction, of demonstrating Romanian culture, and as Ceausescu would have it, strength and prosperity, to the outside world.

"Gymnastics benefited, football benefited, and so did rugby. Ceausescu poured resources into his national teams. It is almost forgotten now, but in the 1970s and 1980s Romania were one of the best teams in the world."

A man stands with a lit candle, next to the grave of late communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, in Bucharest, Romania, Friday, Dec. 25, 2009, to commemorate 20 years since his execution. This week Romanians commemorate 20 years since communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fled Bucharest during a popular uprising on Dec. 22, 1989, after ruling Romania for 25 years. Ceausescu was executed together with his wife Elena on Dec. 25, 1989. More than a thousand people are reported to have lost their lives during the Romanian revolution. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Ceausecu's patronage may have benefited Romanian rugby, but once the Iron Curtain fell down and he was shot by a firing squad in 1989, the sport never recovered its prestige there, with only a latent aura from the old era wafting from the mists of time.

The problem is, of course, not simply a European one, as demonstrated in the West African nation of Guinea for instance. 

The country, where both sides of my own family originally hail from, enjoyed a golden period in football during the late '60s and the late '70s, culminating in their participation in the 1968 Olympic tournaments and a runner-up spot at the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations. 

But more remarkably at club level, a team from the capital Conakry, called Hafia FC, wrote itself into the record books by winning the African Cup of Champions Clubs (a Champions League essentially) three times in the '70s.

They enjoyed preeminence under the country's first president - or more accurately dictator - Sekou Toure, whose regime had a penchant for throwing its opponents into a prison camp called Camp Boiro where the more "fortunate" were killed via firing squad. Others were starved to death in a method known as La Diete Noir or Black Diet.

President of Guinea Ahmed Sekou Toure speaks during the closing session of the 19th Organization of the African Unity Summit meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 12, 1983. (Picture by: ARISTOTLE SARIS / AP/Press Association Images)

Indeed, some players from Hafia FC were reportedly booked in for a stay at Camp Boiro briefly after the club lost the African Champions League final in 1976 on penalties as a form of "motivation", for want of a better word.

They did regain the trophy again in 1977 for one final time.

Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq was even more brutal towards athletes, where his son Uday was head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, and is held responsible for the torture and imprisonment of sportspeople.

Former Iraq referee Furat Ahmed Kadoim, at his Winson Green, Birmingham home. The Iraqi football referee who was tortured on the orders of Saddam Hussein's son Uday has expressed delight and relief at news of the psychopathic killer's death. Furat Ahmed Kadoim, who is living in Winson Green, Birmingham, after fleeing to England, said he had been contacted by numerous friends who were overjoyed that Uday and Qusay were dead. The 37-year-old Fifa-registered official - who was jailed three times after refusing to obey Uday's demands to cheat and let his favourite soccer team win - said: "Of course I am very happy - he was a killer (Picture by: Rui Vieira / PA Archive/Press Association Images)

One particularly troubling allegation (that's saying something when the caning of feet was already a torture practice) was reported by a defector who said that Iraqi footballers were forced to kick a "concrete ball" after failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

In Eastern Europe, the systematic doping of athletes by regimes was another facet of the messy relationship between politics, propaganda and sports, with dire consequences to the health of the athletes.

A couple of months ago,  Professor Werner Franke, who uncovered East Germany's former state-sponsored doping programme to the world, spoke to Off The Ball about what he deemed an "abuse of science" in a now defunct country, which tried to make its influence felt in the domain of sport.

Unfortunately, these are but small sample size of examples of sadistic regimes' sporting fantasies. 

But there will be more next week on Team 33, when we will be finding out a bit about ex-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's son, who spent some time playing football in the Italian leagues.