There have been, over the last eighty years or so, several questionable decisions made regarding the hosting of World Cup tournaments. None, however, have been met with quite the fury that met the hosting of the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina. The decision made to award the 1978 finals to Argentina was made in July of 1966, but after a military coup in March 1976 left the country in the hands of a military dictatorship, there were calls for the tournament to be moved elsewhere in a clash of ideologies that pitted the liberal left of popular opinion in Western Europe against the more right-wing politics of FIFA.
The previous few years had not been particularly kind to Argentinian football. Following the debacle of their defeat at Wembley in 1966 and, two years prior to that, their failed bid to host the 1970 tournament (ironically, primarily on account of concerns over altitude, they had the support of the Football Association), they had failed to qualify for the 1970 tournament altogether and four years later squeezed through the first group stage in West Germany at the expense of Italy, only to finish bottom in the second group stage of the tournament. The main prize, however, had already been won in the form of hosting the 1978 World Cup, although even this was thrown into turmoil after the events of March 1976.
The “Dirty War”, in which the military justified rape, torture and widespread murder in the name of protecting the state, had begun prior to the coup d’état of 1976, but international tension against the tournament being held in the country intensified when General Jorge Rafael Videla seized control of the country. The exact numbers remain unknown, but it is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 people were “disappeared” by the military between 1976 and 1983. The protests were led by Amnesty International, and also by a centre of solidarity with the victims of the Dirty War in Paris (although the Argentinian government also set up an “information” office in Paris) called COBA (the French acronym for ‘Committee for the Boycott of the World Cup in Argentina’).
The organisation received widespread support throughout Europe, most notably in West Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, but a fracturing of opinion on the political left, with many on the far left of the political spectrum taking the viewpoint that because – with more concern for teir continuing economic relationship with one of the biggest economies in South America rather than human rights – the Communist government of the USSR tacitly approved of the government, they should support the hosting of the competition, the human rights debate was quashed by political and ideological considerations. In addition to this, the Argentinian Communist party, PCA, stated that the tournament would offer the vision of a prosperous, peaceful society, and that no boycott was necessary. This influenced many left-leaning political organisations in Europe to temper or drop their support for the boycott.
Yet the doubts persisted, and the issue of the disappeared wasn’t the only one that was troubling. Left-wing terrorist groups in Argentina had killed thousands of people over the last decade or so, and the threat of bombings or assassinations during the tournament was a very real one, at least until the end of 1977. The left-wing group, Los Marconeros, however, seemed against the boycott (in April 1978 in an interview with the French weekly new magazine L’Express, the Montonero leader Rodolfo Galimberti stated that the boycott ‘is not a realistic policy’). It is widely believed that Johann Cruyff’s retirement from international football in October 1977 was caused by objections to the Argentinian government, and it wasn’t until 2008 that he made public that the reason for his retirement was a kidnap attempt against his family rather than any political considerations.
Meanwhile, back in Argentina, the amount of money being spent on the tournament was going through the roof. It is estimated that US$700m – 10% of the national debt at a time that the country’s finances were close to being in ruins – was spent on infrastructure for it. The cost of stadium renovation for the next tournament in Spain four years later was just one-fifth the cost of this one. When General Omar Actis, the chair of the organising committee planned to speak out against an expensive new stadium in the city of Mar Del Plata, he was assassinated en route to the meeting at which the speech was due to take place. Some of the costs incurred bordered upon the bizarre. The government built one of the most modern television bradcasting centres in the world in Bueno Aires, but viewers in Argentina itself had to watch in black & white. Other non-World Cup related projects were postponed, and the total spending on the tournament amounted to 40% of the government’s annual spending on education at that time.
The preparations made by the organising committee and the government ranged from the unpleasant to the farcical. To give an impression of affluence in the country, slum areas were bulldozed and the residents were forced to move to areas that weren’t staging matches or into the desert. In Rosario, the main road into the city was walled with a mural, behind which were the slums. The slum-dwellers, however, dismantled the wall block by block for their own houses. In Buenos Aires, the decision was made to water the pitch of the River Plate Stadium with sea water, a decision that killed all of the grass on the pitch. A new one was laid, but it was uneven and bumpy. For all of this, the press was hardly silent about the political state of the nation. The German television commentators spent the opening ceremony discussing the “disappeared”, while a French journalist was beaten up by Argentinian journalists for suggesting that shooting noises coming from near the River Plate Stadium (which was next to a shooting range) was the sound of people being shot outside the stadium.
Argentina started the tournament less than convincingly, with 2-1 wins against Hungary and France followed by a defeat at the hands of Italy in their third match. This loss cost them first place in the group and lined them up against Brazil, Poland and Peru in the second round of the competition. Brazil themselves had started the tournament weakly, with draws against Sweden and Spain, before a less than convincing 1-0 win against an Austria team that had itself already qualified for the second group stage of the tournament. In the second group phase, however, Brazil started to come to life. They won 3-0 and 3-1 against Peru and Poland and managed a goalless draw against Argentina, while Argentina beat Poland 2-0 in their opening match. All of this left Argentina requiring a four goal win against Peru in their final group match in Rosario to get through to the final. Any less than this, and Brazil would go through on goal difference or (unless Argentina won 6-2) goals scored.
We all know what happened next. Argentina won 6-0, a ridiculously easy win against a Peruvian side that seemed to give up the ghost every time the ball went anywhere near their own penalty area. It is said that the Argentinian team had a pre-match team talk behind locked doors into which the substitutes and goalkeepers weren’t allowed, and that afterwards Argentina shipped 35,000 tons of free grain to Peru, and that the Argentinian central bank unfroze $50m in credits for Peru. None of this has ever been proved, however, and it is worth pointing out that Peru did actually even hit the Argentine post in the early stages of the match with the scores still goalless. Still, though, the rumours have persisted, and it would certainly be overall timbre of the rest of the tournament for something of this nature (it has also been persistently rumoured that Peru were bribed by gambling cartels and, at the wider end of the rumours spectrum, some believe that the fact that the Peruvian goalkeeper Ramon Quiroga was born in Argentina may have a lot to do with the margin of Argentina’s win in Rosario that evening.
The final, against the Netherlands, proved to be as contentious as anything that had preceded it in the tournament. The referee was due to be the Israeli, Abraham Klein, who had refereed the 1970 match between England and Brazil. Klein had taken charge of the first round match between Argentina and Italy in a match during which he had the temerity to not award Argentina a penalty that they felt they should have been awarded. The AFA now opposed his appointment, claiming political links between Israel and the Netherlands and, amazingly, FIFA acceded to their demands and awarded the match to the Italian Sergio Gonella, apparently unaware of the long-standing cultural links between Argentina and Italy.
The gamesmanship continued as the teams took the pitch for the final. The Dutch took to the field alone, and the Argentinian team left them waiting in front of a hostile 71,000 crowd at the River Plate Stadium for five minutes before taking to the field beneath a blizzard of tickertape. As things started to settle, though, Argentina’s complaints continued. This time, the target of their ire was Rene Van De Kerkhof, who was wearing a lightweight plastercast on his arm. Never mind that the cast had been approved by FIFA and worn in previous matches. Now, it had to be changed and, after a lengthy delay, Van De Kerkhof had return to the changing rooms to add an extra layer to it before the match could take place.
Unsurprisingly, the match itself was a bad-tempered one, weakly refereed by Gonella to the extent that the only question mark over his performance was whether he was insipidly weak or had been bought by the home team. Both sides had chances to take the lead, but excellent goalkeeping from the two goalkeepers, Jongbloed and Fillol kept the scores goalless until seven minutes from half-time, when Mario Kempes suddenly found some space in the middle and rolled the ball under Jongbloed to give Argentina the lead. Both teams continued to fire pot-shots at each other, but with eight minutes to play the Netherlands equalised when Dick Nanninga headed in a cross from the right hand side. As the match ticked over into stoppage time, the Dutch had a golden chance to win the match when the ball bounced into the path of their top scorer, Rob Rensenbrink. He managed to get the ball past Fillol, but it bobbled slightly and hit the outside of the post.
With that moment, the Dutch chance had passed, and Argentina won the match in extra time through goals from Mario Kempes and Daniel Bertoni. The Dutch team were so incensed by their treatment that they refused the attend the post-match function and instead returned straight home. The Argentinian government had got the result that it wanted, but were Argentina worthy champions? The tragedy of the 1978 World Cup is that we will never truly know. It was said at the time that Argentina wouldn’t have won the World Cup outside of their own country, and there is perhaps an element of truth to this. There were many questions left unanswered by the tournament, a series of “what ifs” that taint their win to this day. What if they did fix the match with Peru? What if Abraham Klein had refereed the final rather than Sergio Gonella?
The likes of Cesar Luis Menotti, the Argentinian coach who stated publicly that he wanted to win the trophy in style and break Argentinian football out of the cycle of cynicism and violence that had marred its reputation throughout the 1960s and the early part of the 1970s, certainly deserved better, as did Mario Kempes, whose performance in the tournament was outstanding. Of course, the issue of the Peru match may have been avoided had FIFA played the final group matches simultaneously (although it might not) and, had they not caved in over the issue of who would referee the final, things might also different. Ultimately, though, both Argentina and the world deserved better than the soiled World Cup of 1978.