The 1978 World Cup: The Most Controversial Competition in History?

In a recent poll on our Twitter feed, we asked our followers, "Which World Cup shall we write about next?" - the response was unanimous - the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Admittedly, before starting this blog, this tournament was probably the one we knew least about - perhaps due to the general negativity which surrounds it. The second World Cup in succession without English involvement, Scotland would be the sole British representative. Taking place in Argentina, the South American nation had seen a ruthless military coup just two years before. As the opening game approached, the 1978 World Cup was to be about far more than just football.

Taking place during the Cold War, the tournament's preparations were overshadowed by the removal of President Isabel Peron by the right-wing Argentine military. Supported by the US, the 'junta' would ruthlessly imprison and even kill thousands of left-wing activists which were seen as a threat to the new government. Global reaction to the conflict was negative and some of qualified, competing nations at the World Cup would publicly consider their involvement. What was sure, was that if this tournament would be remembered for anything - it would be controversy.

So who managed to qualify in 1978? The last World Cup to feature 16 teams, UEFA would dominate participation. Ten sides from Europe travelled to South America where six other sides from various confederations would meet them. Only two nations would make their competitive debuts in Argentina - Iran and Tunisia. Perhaps the most notable absentees also came from Europe. 1976 Euro champions Czechoslovakia, the USSR, Belgium and 1966 World Champions England failed to make the cut.

England's absence meant that British involvement revolved around the Scots. Entering the competition with an impressive squad, expectations were high. Scotland were genuine contenders for the crown according to the pre-tournament media, not just in the UK, but across the world. Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Joe Jordan were all among the 22-strong squad. Meeting South Americans Peru in the first round of games, the Scots were expected to win - but a sublime free-kick goal by Teofilo Cubillas helped to condemn them to a 3-1 defeat in Cordoba. A 1-1 draw with debutants Iran followed and a wave of uncertainty was to be felt as the final group fixture with the Netherlands began.

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The Netherlands were without their talisman Johan Cruyff, but still boasted a strong side with the likes of Arie Haan, Johan Neeskens and Ruud Krol all in the team. Despite falling behind to a Rob Rensenbrink penalty, a Kenny Dalglish equaliser followed by two goals from Archie Gemmill gave the Scots hope of a remarkable turnaround. Gemmill's second goal is still regarded as one of the greatest World Cup strikes - weaving past three Dutch defenders before lifting the ball into the net. One more goal was need to secure qualification through goal difference, and indeed one more was scored. Unfortunately by the mercurial Dutch forward - Johnny Rep.

Scotland - one of the pre-tournament favourites, were out. Reasons as for why the side failed to deliver have been debated by journalists and sports historians ever since. A recent BBC article by Tom English seems to have centered the blame on manager Ally Macleod. Macleod's bravado and over-confidence was to set his side up for a fall. That, mixed with ill-preparation was to end Scottish hopes. English cites an ignorance towards the game-plans of lesser-known Peru and Iran as the reason for gaining only 1 point from the opening two goals. The victory over 1974 finalists Holland only helped millions across Scotland to ask, "What if?".

The rest of the group stage was relatively unsurprising. Going through to the second round of group stages alongside Peru and the Netherlands was Argentina, Italy, Brazil, Poland, West Germany and Austria. Perhaps the strangest story from the opening round of groups was in the fixture between France and Hungary. Following a mix-up with the kits - both sides had arrived at the Estadio Jose Maria Minella with white jerseys. This would lead to the French team donning the green stripes of local side Kimberley de Mar del Plata. The 1978 World Cup was only to get stranger as the second group stage began...

Group A was an all-European affair. The Netherlands, who had grown into the tournament, saw off the Austrian challenge comfortably, before locking horns with old enemies, West Germany. A draw in Cordoba meant a win over Italy would see them reach the final. Step up Arie Haan. Haan had already fired a long-range screamer past Sepp Maier in the previous match and even Juventus legend Dino Zoff was not enough to stop lightning striking twice. Picking the ball up 35-yards out, his shot would hit the back of the net and give the Dutch the chance of redemption in Buenos Aires.

The other group saw the hosts Argentina within four games of international glory and nothing was going to stand in their way. After a comfortable win over Poland, a goalless draw with arch-rivals Brazil meant the two South American nations were tied at the top of the group - Brazil with a superior goal difference. For the hosts, a win over the impressive Peru would be needed after Brazil had played their final fixture against Poland. With the Selecao winning 3-1 - a convenient late kick off and four goal victory would be enough for Argentina to reach the final. This was to be unlikely against such strong opposition.

Argentina vs Peru is perhaps the tournament's most infamous and controversial moment. In a competition already overshadowed by the civil unrest on the streets on Buenos Aires, the premature whistle blowing of Clive Thomas and the drug misuse of Scot Willie Johnston - this would transcend all. The Albiceleste would eventually defeat their South American neighbours 6-0 in order to meet the Netherlands at the Estadio Momumental. Ever since the final whistle was blown in Mendoza, reports and rumours of match-fixing and military intimidation have been rife.

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The tournament and the success of the Argentine squad had helped to promote a wave of nationalism across the country. For those in power, football had managed to do what their corrupt policies and brutal repression couldn't do - unite. With the final and victory in touching distance, the opportunity for global triumph was too good to miss. Jonathan Stevenson's excellent article from 2010 quotes Argentine forwards Ricky Villa and Leopoldo Luque with regards to the win over Peru -
"There is no doubt that we were used politically..." 
Ricky Villa 
"I don't know, honestly [If the match was fixed], but Videla did many bad things, much worse than bribing, so... But, we did play a tremendous game against Peru."
Leopoldo Luque

The final itself was a genuinely good game. Mario Kempes opening the scoring before Dick Nanninga equalised with a powerful header 8 minutes from time. With the score locked at 1-1, extra time would be needed to separate the sides. A trademark solo run by Kempes, just before half-time in extra-time, was finished after a slice of good fortune. Roberto Bertoni completed the victory ten minutes later. The final score: Argentina 3-1 Netherlands. For the Dutch, it would prove to be a second World Cup final defeat in succession, but without Johan Cruyff the squad could at least take some solace in their achievements.

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Kempes celebrates in a sea of ticker-tape
Presenting the trophy to captain Daniel Passarella was militant leader General Videla. The World Cup had achieved national euphoria and a cover for the atrocities which would reconvene following the final. To this day, many commentators, including players from the Argentine squad believe the 1978 World Cup should never have been played. By participating in the finals, FIFA had turned its back on the thousands of 'disappeared' individuals and political prisoners in the South American state. But have we really learned anything from this?

After all, the tournament in Russia last year drew stark similarities due to the repressive policies of Vladimir Putin. The problem was expertly covered by Esquire during the run-up to the 2018 World Cup. The awarding of the greatest competition on Earth to Qatar in 2022 has also raised many eyebrows. With abhorrent human-rights records and evidence of corruption becoming more and more apparent - the old saying is true - "We learn nothing from history".

Written by Ben Jones for @TFHBs - follow me on Twitter @Benny_J

The Football History Boys, 2019


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