The Saturday Movie Club: Argentina 78 – The Opening Ceremony

by | Jun 2, 2018

It’s now less than two weeks until the 2018 World Cup finals begin in Russia, and even for those of us who have considerable cynicism towards the competition being held in this country, it’s difficult to deny that it is at least interesting, with perhaps the most interesting question at hand being that of how the country will seek to portray itself to the outside world. Russia remains as enigmatic as it ever has to outsiders, but which version of the country will the organisers try to persuade us is the actual Russia?

The first – and probably most noticeable – signs of this will come with the opening ceremony. This is being held at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow (which is also hosting the final) at 2PM BST on the 14th July. It will feature, according to the blurb, 500 dancers, gymnasts and trampolinists in an opening extravaganza that will pay homage to all things Russian that will also feature Placido Domingo alongside Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez. Will they have an effigy of Donald Trump that they will simultaneous exalt and set on fire? Will there be a passage dedicated to dissident journalists who’ve been assassinated? Mascots dressed as vials of nerve agent?

Of course, this summer isn’t the first time that the World Cup finals have been held in a country that might have been seeking to utilise the competition for their own political goals. The second finals, held in 1934, took place in Benito Mussolini’s Italy, and Il Duce was fully aware of the propaganda of a successful tournament, even in an era when only those in his own country would see it all. But how does a military dictatorship present itself to the world through the World Cup finals? This morning, we’re going take a peek at this, with a look at the opening ceremony for the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina.

After several failed bids, Argentina were confirmed as hosts for the 1978 World Cup finals in 1970. What happened next might be considered somewhat bad luck, both for FIFA and the people of Argentina. President Juan Peron died in July 1974 nominating his wife Isabel to succeed him, but in March 1976 a military coup – officially at the time named the “National Reorganisation Process” – deposed her, placing a hard right military general, Jorge Videla, in charge of the country. A state of siege and martial law were swiftly put into place, and over the coming months and years political and press freedom were heavily curtailed.

Rumours of gross human rights violations were already starting to emerge from Argentina before the 1978 World Cup began. West Germany’s Paul Breitner and the Netherlands’ Johan Cruyff both refused to travel, and such was the state of instability that other nations were on standby to take over from Argentina in the event that the country was unable to do itself. Most shaming of all, of course, was the Dirty War, which led to the disappearance of more than 30,000 political dissidents, both of which had been supported by the American government and which continue to haunt the country to this day.

So, how does a military dictatorship present itself to the world to say that “Everything Is Alright”? Well, the opening ceremony to the 1978 World Cup finals offers us a window into its id. Today’s video is a recording of that ceremony along with all of Argentina’s goals in the tournament, and it starts with a slightly discordant fanfare, redolent of something from the film version of 1984, bunches of balloons being released into the air, and some rousing military music accompanied by a large number of synchronised dancers, eventually forming the “Argentina 78” on the pitch of the Estadio Monumentale in Bueno Aires before a large number of doves get released to fly in a highly confused manner around the stadium for a while.

The twin motifs of the ceremony are heavy-handed references to peace, twinned with a lot of flag-waving and militarism. It feels as though the competition organisers are trying a little too hard to remind us of peace as an abstract, apparently either not caring or having momentarily forgotten about the grotesque human rights violations going on nearby. In addition to this, there is a hyperreal quality to all of this. Argentina had only just begun broadcasting a colour television signal in 1978 and the over-saturated colours on display here hint at a production team that weren’t completely familiar with the equipment that they were using.

In addition to this, the sunlight is not quite what we’d normally expect from a World Cup finals because this one is being held in the southern hemisphere, meaning that although it’s the start of June, it’s winter in Argentina. The shadows are long, the sunshine feels sterile, and the light is clearly starting to fade even during afternoon matches. This was the first southern hemisphere World Cup of the colour television era, and there has only been one winter tournament since then, in South Africa eight years ago. If rumours are correct, there’s a strong possibility that the next winter World Cup could be back in Argentina, as they’ve submitted a joint bid alongside Paraguay and Uruguay to host that competition.

With its heavy handed references to peace, flag-waving and synchronicity, coupled of with the stylings of the concrete bowls built for the tournament – very much in keeping with the fashion of the time – it doesn’t feel too much of a stretch to consider 1978 to have been the Brutalist World Cup. We’ll see in a couple of weeks which version of itself Russia wants the modern world to see, and we can be certain that their opening ceremony will be picked to pieces by people keen to try and find a way into the mindset of this occasionally unfathomable country. No matter what they may or may not do, though, it seems unlikely they will come anywhere the strange other worldness of the 1978 World Cup finals.