The World Cup is the pinnacle of international football, and while the tournament has showcased the greatest of athletic competence over the years, the significance of the event means controversy has never been too far away.

Exploited by regimes as a propaganda tool and courageously utilised by activists to draw attention to greater causes, the World Cup and protests have gone hand in hand over the years.

Here are some of the biggest World Cup protests since the competition’s inception in 1930, ranging from bitter internal disputes to global issues.

Jules Rimet, Paul Jude

The first winners of the World Cup, Uruguay, boycotted the 1934 tournament / Keystone/GettyImages

World Cup controversy can be tracked as far back to the second iteration of the tournament in 1934 when holders Uruguay opted to boycott the tournament held in Italy.

The champions weren’t best pleased with the lack of European competitors in 1930 and in a tit-for-tat move, they refused to travel to Europe to defend their crown.

They remain the only World Cup winners to not defend their title.


The blackshirted Italians / -/GettyImages

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had seen ideological companion Adolf Hitler utilise the 1936 Berlin Olympics to great effect so he opted to use the 1938 World Cup in France for similar political means.

Dressed in all-black (a direct representation of Mussolini’s regime) and coached by the militaristic Vittorio Pozzo, the saluting Italians were subject to widespread anti-fascist protests wherever they travelled.

However, the holders defied the hostility to win back-to-back World Cups.

1966 wasn’t all about Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst, you know. The tournament was also a significant one for Africa as 31 African nations boycotted the tournament.

FIFA ruled in 1964 that the three second-round winners from the African zone in qualifying must enter a play-off round against the winners of the Asian zone in order to qualify for the World Cup, as they felt winning their zone wasn’t enough in itself to merit automatic qualification.

The Confederation of African Football felt unfairly represented and they refused to compete at the World Cup until at least one African team had a place assured at the tournament – which would be the case in 1970.

Jorge Rafael Videla

Jorge Rafael Videla was Argentina’s dictator at the time of the 1978 World Cup / Ricardo Ceppi/GettyImages

The 1978 World Cup is hugely significant as it’s the first distinct example of FIFA involving itself with ‘sportswashing’.

At the time of hosting the tournament, Argentina were ruled by a murderous military junta led by dictator Jorge Rafael Videla. Thus, there were calls to boycott the competition led by Argentinian exiles.

While there was no boycott, the exiles did a stellar job in denouncing the dictatorship ahead of the tournament.

Frederico and Sousa of Portugal

Portugal’s 1986 campaign was overshadowed by the Saltillo Affair / Getty Images/GettyImages

Named after the headquarters for Portugal’s 1986 World Cup campaign in Mexico, the Saltillo Affair was a string of controversies that totally undermined their tournament.

The campaign was nothing short of disastrous as the Portuguese players eventually threatened to strike. There were a number of issues, including the facilities at their Saltillo base and players not being paid for advertisements, which saw a war of press releases between the players and the federation ensue.

Unsurprisingly, Portugal exited in the group stage and were subsequently chastised in the press. It would take almost a decade for Portuguese football to recover.


Talk about a pedantic dispute… / KIM JAE-HWAN/GettyImages

The first-ever World Cup held in Asia was shared by Japan and South Korea in 2002, but the two co-hosts were embroiled in a pedantic dispute in early 2001.

Korean fans staged protests outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul with demonstrators calling for Japan to be stripped of the right for Yokohama to host the final unless they agreed to use the word “Korea” ahead of “Japan” on ticket application forms.

It was a minor protest, but it did threaten to cause a diplomatic rift ahead of the 2002 tournament.

Group D Iran v Angola - World Cup 2006

There were calls for Iran to be banned from the 2006 World Cup / Shaun Botterill/GettyImages

The Iran team faced huge protests in 2006 as Germany hosted the World Cup.

There were calls for Iran to be expelled from the tournament following comments from then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said Israel should be moved to Europe and suggested the Holocaust might never have happened.

Former German Chancellor Angel Merkel opted against a ban which saw 1,200 people take to the street in Nuremberg ahead of Iran’s group game with Mexico to protest against Ahmadinejad’s regime.

Nicolas Anelka

An infamous campaign / Laurence Griffiths/GettyImages

The French revolt of 2010 may well pale in historical significance compared to 1789, but France’s World Cup capitulation was humorous nonetheless.

Beaten finalists in 2006, France entered the tournament in South Africa full of promise before their campaign quickly unravelled.

A nasty argument between Nicolas Anelka and manager Raymond Domenech set the tone as captain Patrice Evra slammed a ‘traitor’ in the French ranks who spilt the story.

The players then refused to train following the decision by the French Football Federation to expel Anelka before Les Blues were dumped out of the competition in the group stages.

A protester holds a Brasilian flag during a protest against...

Protests were rife ahead and during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil / Pacific Press/GettyImages

Protests in Brazil were ubiquitous in the build-up and throughout the 2014 World Cup.

The protests, often called ‘There won’t be a Cup’ or ‘FIFA go home’ focused upon the government’s spending of billions to host the tournament.

There were clashes between demonstrators and police in almost every host city and by the time the World Cup had departed Brazil, 234 arrests had been made.

Olga Kurachyova

High tens, Kylian! / Ian MacNicol/GettyImages

While there were discussions of a potential boycott of the 2018 World Cup in Russia following the Salisbury poisonings, no drastic action was taken.

However, Vladimir Putin didn’t escape completely scot-free as ‘Pussy Riot’ – a feminist punk group opposed to President Putin – stormed the final between France and Croatia.

Their 25-second pitch invasion was described as “performance art” by the group as they attempted to draw attention to human rights abuses in Russia.

The four protestors each received short prison sentences.

Extinction Rebellion Protest Against Qatar World Cup

Protests have been widespread against the 2022 Qatari World Cup / Sean Gallup/GettyImages

Where do we start? The controversy surrounding the Qatari World Cup is well-known, with the country’s human rights abuses being the primary focus for protests across the world.

In European cities such as Paris, matches at the tournament won’t be screened in public areas.

Movements against the Iranian government have also been on display, with the Iranian side opting against singing the national anthem ahead of their first group game with England.


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