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The Political Pitch

The talents of Ronaldhino and his supporting cast of Brazilian stars notwithstanding, it's risky to predict results in a World Cup.

But it's easy to foretell that whichever team wins will be expected to lend its celebrity and popularity to the ruler of the country it represents.

Pele, who became the youngest player on a World Cup-winning team when he was seventeen, is the most celebrated soccer player to have been accused of enhancing the prestige of a corrupt regime. He replied that by winning the World Cup, he and his teammates had only tried to bring a little happiness to people who would, inevitably, wake up the next morning as poor as they had been the previous day.

That humble hope is perhaps the best result even the most accomplished athletes can expect to manage, though sometimes events have argued otherwise. Pele was responsible for a brief truce in a war between Nigeria and what used to be Biafra. The two sides agreed to the cessation of hostilities. People in both camps wanted to see Pele play.

Pele entered politics after his retirement, and was regarded by some as a symbol of hope, especially for Brazilians who were as poor as Pele had been. Eventually he was himself accused of theft and corruption.

Much more recently, George Weah, celebrated as the world's best soccer player in 1995 and the African player of the century in 1998, ran for president of Liberia. A high school dropout who, like Pele, came from poverty, Weah said of his more sophisticated opponents, "with all their education and experience...they have never done anything for the nation."

Critics derided Weah as a "babe in the woods" whose associates were warlords and manipulators. He lost the election.

The current soccer-and-politics controversy involves the potential presence of the soccer-loving president of Iran in Germany, where his denial of the holocaust would be regarded as not only stupid and vile, but illegal.

Presidents, generals, and dictators all over the world have often tried to benefit from the bright, fleeting spotlight earned by victorious athletes and teams. Happily, fans — even those with painted faces and voices hoarse with roaring — usually recognize such attempts as irrelevant to the joy we can find on our best days, in our best games.

This program aired on June 8, 2006. The audio for this program is not available.

Bill Littlefield Twitter Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield has been the host of Only A Game since the program began in 1993.

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