On the cold crisp night of 25th June 1978, Daniel Passarella fulfilled the dreams of a nation and hoisted the FIFA World Cup above his head amidst a sea of tickertape in front of an exultant crowd of 80,000 in Buenos Aires’ Monumental Stadium.
Thirty years on, Argentina’s first ever football World Cup triumph remains largely forgotten in the Argentine psyche, whilst the side led by the incomparable Diego Maradona, which won the trophy in México eight years later, is idolised as can be seen by the multitude of posters and DVDs featuring a beaming Maradona, World Cup in hand offered for sale at virtually every news-stand in Argentina. So what has caused this collective amnesia?
Although the decision to award the 1978 World Cup staging rights to Argentina had been made at FIFA’s 1966 Congress in London, by the time the tournament came around the judgement had become highly contentious.
Alarm bells had started ringing as early as 1975 with none of the proposed new stadiums in Mendoza, Mar del Plata and Córdoba showing any signs of being built, let alone being ready for the off, whilst the administration was a shambles, already on its fifth organising committee. Others questioned whether it was viable for Argentina to spend US$700m on hosting the tournament in the midst of a world recession which touched the country just as hard as anywhere else.
Ironically it was the military coup of 1976, which brought General Jorge Videla’s junta to power, that put preparations back on track. His regime, which at the time was undertaking its infamous ‘Process of National Reorganisation’ – the ‘Dirty War’ against alleged subversives which saw as many as 30,000 Argentines murdered or disappeared by state forces, viewed the World Cup as the perfect opportunity to present both the government and country in a more favourable light internationally.
The government took charge of the organisation of the tournament, known locally as the Mundial, under the auspices of the Ente Autárquico Mundial (EAM), although its first director – General Omar Actis – was assassinated by Montonero guerrillas on the way to his first press conference. However, millions of dollars were spent on upgrading two stadiums in Buenos Aires and finally building the missing stadia in the provinces. Transport networks were upgraded and colour television technology was brought in for the benefit of foreign broadcasters as Argentina tried to portray itself at the vanguard of modernity (local audiences still had to watch the tournament in black and white).
The man charged with leading Argentina to World Cup glory was a chain-smoking coach with left-wing sympathies, César Luis Menotti. The very antithesis of the military regime, he came to prominence when his Huracán side won the National Championship in 1973 playing a slick passing game known as ‘La Nuestra’ for which Argentine football had became renowned in the 1920s and 1930s, and he vowed to repeat the trick with the national side. His philosophy was: “OK, I will go into the honour of collective values…River Plate football makes more use of dribbling and generous personal effort, and is more agile and attractive.”
He eschewed the physical and uncomplicated playing style that had been in vogue in Argentina since Estudiantes de la Plata achieved so much success with it in the late 1960s. Controversially, he refused to pick any player from Boca Juniors, South American club champions in both 1977 and 1978, because of their negative and combative style of play.
Preferring locally-based players, stars of the 1974 World Cup team, Roberto Perfumo and Enrique Wolff were discarded in favour of the likes of Osvaldo Ardiles and Leopoldo Luque. In fact the only player to make the squad from abroad was forward, Mario Kempes of Valencia. There were also rumours of interference in selection by the ruling junta, many commentators felt that midfielder, Norberto Alonso, owed his place in the squad due to the favouritism of Admiral Lacoste.
The omission that caused most furore was that of the 17-year-old wonder-kid, Diego Maradona, the Argentinos Juniors playmaker who had electrified Argentine crowds since making his league debut as a 15 year old. When Menotti gave Maradona his international bow aged just 16 against Hungary in 1977, most observers thought he was certain to make the finals, but his place in the squad went to Oscar Ortiz.
Tickertape and Torture
After an opening ceremony in which General Videla announced to a largely impassive crowd that the World Cup would be ‘played under the sign of peace’, Argentina got their tournament underway against Hungary at the impressively revamped Estadio Monumental in the Nuñez barrio of Buenos Aires. They were welcomed by their adoring fans in a shower of sky-blue and white tickertape which covered much of the pitch for the entire game.
Their opponents failed to read the script, taking a shock lead on 12 minutes, but Argentina responded quickly through Luque as they displayed the attacking flair promised by Menotti. Daniel Bertoni put Argentina ahead after Luque was felled by Hungarian goalkeeper, Sandor Gujdar. The game was all but sealed when Andras Torosczik was sent off late on for lashing out at Américo Gallego, who had been fouling him all game without reproach, fuelling whispers that would grow louder as the tournament progressed that Argentina were prospering from some outrageously favourable refereeing decisions.
In a cruel juxtaposition, just ten blocks away from the stadium was the Naval Mechanical School (ESMA), where opponents of the dictatorship were routinely tortured. The cries of ‘Goal!’ from the ground contrasting directly with the cries of those being tortured in ESMA. For some prisoners the noise from the World Cup brought a sense of respite from the horrors they were enduring, inwardly celebrating Argentina’s goals despite being hooded and shackled.
In their next game against France, a penalty conceded by French defender Marius Tresor further fuelled the debate, but TV replays conclusively show that he handled the ball inside the penalty area. Skipper, Passarella converted the spot-kick and after Michel Platini equalised for France, Luque scored a decisive winner to set the hosts on course for the second phase.
Argentina’s final first-round game saw them taste defeat for the first time against an impressive Italian side including stars Paolo Rossi, Giacinto Facchetti and Roberto Bettega. Bettega’s winner meant that Argentina would have to leave Buenos Aires for the first time and play their second phase group matches in Rosario.
Roared on by a partisan crowd, Argentina soon adjusted to their second home, defeating Poland 2-0 with Kempes’ first goals of the competition. A dull but abrasive 0-0 draw with Brazil in the next game meant that their fierce local rivals were in the box seat to reach the final due to their superior goal difference as the final round of matches approached.
An anomaly in the scheduling to maximise television coverage led to Brazil playing first, their 3-1 win over Poland meant that Argentina had the knowledge that a victory by four clear goals over Perú would put them in the final. For half an hour the Peruvians manfully kept Argentina at bay, even hitting the post, but by half-time the Argentines had eased into a 2-0 lead. Within ten minutes of the restart the hosts were virtually home and hosed as the Peruvian defence did its best impression of the Red Sea parting in front of Kempes, Argentina’s very own Moses. Two late goals gave the final 6-0 scoreline a farcical complexion, as conspiracy theories immediately started to abound.
Perú’s goalkeeper, Ramón Quiroga, who had been born in the Argentine city of Rosario refuted all allegations of impropriety, and footage of his equally inept performance against Brazil lends some credibility to his protestations of innocence. Allegations of a more sinister nature insist that the military junta bribed the Peruvians with the promise of millions of dollars of grain in return for ‘the right result’, but to this day nothing has been conclusively proved.
Champions of the World
Thus Argentina returned to Buenos Aires and a date with destiny against Holland in the final. Before the game Menotti made it clear to the players that they were playing for the people of Argentina, not the military regime.
As he says: “Each of us had an order when we entered the field of play the day of the final: to look at the stands. We are not going to look at the stage-box of the authorities people…I said to the players, we are going to look at the terraces, to all the people, where perhaps sits the father of each of us, because there we will find the metalworkers, the butchers, the bakers and the taxi drivers.”
The crowd responded noisily in support of their heroes, the hypnotic chant: “¡El que no stampa es holandes!” (He that doesn’t jump is a Dutchman!) reverberated as 80,000 fans jumping up and down in unison shook El Monumental to its foundations.
The game itself was much delayed as the result of gamesmanship on the part of the Argentines. After keeping the Dutch waiting for several minutes before coming out on the pitch, they then caused a further distraction by complaining about the lightweight plaster cast worn by the Dutch player, Rene Van de Kerkhof.
When the game did finally get underway it was the thrusting play of the Argentines that was in the ascendancy, their endeavours rewarded when Kempes, living up to his nickname of the Matador, broke through the Dutch defence to prod the ball home and put Argentina in front. As the match progressed, a war of attrition ensued, referee, Sergio Gonella blowing up for a foul every 90 seconds, with the Argentine enforcer, Gallego as guilty as any Dutchman.
Holland came more into the game after the break, prompted forward by Johnny Rep and Rob Rensenbrink as Argentine keeper, Ubaldo Fillol, produced the game of his life to keep them at bay. With time running out the Dutch threw caution to the wind, sending Ernie Brandts forward to support the strikers. They were rewarded with just eight minutes to go when substitute, Dirk Nanninga rose to head an equaliser, and then Rensenbrink almost broke Argentine hearts when he hit the post with the last kick of normal time.
In extra-time Argentina were revitalised, Kempes burst through the Dutch rearguard to put them in front and then after another fine run set Bertoni free to clinch victory and the World Cup.
After the final whistle sounded, the entire country took to the streets in a spontaneous expression of national joy, momentarily putting aside their fears and antipathy towards the military regime to celebrate their football team being champions of the world.
The dictatorship tried to bask in the reflected glory with mixed results. When General Videla went into the dressing room after the game to congratulate the players, Alberto Tarantini made his own highly individual form of protest at the regime by shaking his hand using the one that had just been soaping his genitals.
In a gruesome show of strength, the military took some of the prisoners from ESMA to see the celebration of ‘their’ victory. As one prisoner, Graciela Daleo, recalled to The Guardian about being taken out into the streets of Buenos Aires after the final: “I remember thinking if I were to shout out, ‘Help me! I’m one of the disappeared! Who would hear me?” As her military guards boasted: “We won!” her unequivocal thought was: “If they’ve won, I haven’t!”
The dichotomy was not lost on the players either. Ardiles was to say later: “It didn’t occur to me at the time, but, as time started to go by, I have this dilemma. We were playing the final in the River Plate stadium, and three, four hundred yards from there was the ESMA. Later, we learnt it was the main torture centre of the navy. And I think when we score, everybody there could hear, you know. The guards would tell the prisoners: ‘We are winning’, it was probably how they put it. They would not say Argentina is winning, they would say ‘We’. One is the torturer, the other is the victim.”
Another prisoner, Claudio Tamburrini, himself a former professional footballer who managed to escape from another torture camp outside Buenos Aires just months before the finals, recalls to Idrottsforum joining the throngs in the capital but later felt compelled to ask himself: “Did I do the right thing? Was it right to support ‘our’ (even the military’s!) team, as I and thousands of football supporters did?”
This would appear to be the crux of the matter: the champions of 78 have seen their efforts and achievements tarnished by association – real or imagined – with the military dictatorship that so destroyed Argentine society between 1976 and 1983. Hopefully history will eventually treat the players who won Argentina’s first World Cup more kindly, as Kempes told the Observer: “Within the camp we were playing for our ourselves, and then for the people and then for Argentine football as a whole – that was our perspective.”