The 1978 World Cup: Blood on the Crossbar | @RhysWRichards

Rhys Richards investigates the 1978 World Cup for The Football History Boys. A tournament hosted and won by Argentina amidst a military junta and much political unrest in the country. With threats of boycott and international condemnation, the greatest competition in sport turned up in South America. Have a read of this fascinating story...

June 25th 1978 - Estadio Monumental, Buenos Aires. General Jorge Videla hands Daniel Passarella the FIFA World Cup Trophy. Argentina are champions of the world. A defining night in the lives of both men, as they realise their conflicting dreams.

Daniel Passarella lift the World Cup

For Videla, a victory for the regime. The legitimization of a much-maligned military junta, with the eyes of the world upon them. For Passarella, a victory for the people. For those in the stands, who could have easily found themselves in the concentration camps; the most notorious of which stood within earshot of the sounds of jubilation emanating from the home of Club Atlético River Plate.

The tournament takes place in the midst of a dirty war. Where kidnap, torture and murder are practiced on an industrial scale. But this isn’t exclusively the story of politicians or footballers. This is the story of the people; Argentinean exiles, Parisian students, two Dutch comedians and the mothers of Plaza Mayor, who every Thursday, march in front of Casa Rosada (residence of Argentina’s president), desperate to discover the fate of their missing children.

The euphoric cheers of 1978 are a jarring contrast to the sounds two years prior. The sound of military vehicles churning up the roads of Buenos Aires, precede years of chilling silence as General Jorge Videla’s military junta seize power from Isabel Perón, third wife and widow of Juan Perón. Videla’s right wing authoritarian government would be responsible for the deaths and disappearance of between 15,000-30,000 Argentinean nationals, political activists, left-wing sympathisers and dissenters. Prisoners are tortured in detention centres, children are abducted from their parents and given to families of the military, and political enemies are taken on ‘death flights’ - thrown from aeroplanes into the Rio de la Plata.

As time has passed, many of the 1978 squad have since come to terms with the fact that they aren’t as revered in Argentine society as the enigmatic Diego Maradona and his 1986 world cup winning squad. World cup final goalscorer, Mario Kempes, has stated that they accept being champions during a dark period of their country’s history, but they are aggrieved to be associated with the dictatorship, ‘We wore the Albiceleste, not the green uniform of the military’. Leopoldo Luque, scorer of the all-important fourh goal versus Peru in the group stage, also states that the team had no relationship with the military. Proven by the regime’s indifference towards his brother’s death during the tournament.

General Jorge Videla, leader of Argentina in 1978

In Videla’s Argentina kidnap, torture and murder of dissenters was commonplace, but blood on the streets of Buenos Aires predated the 1976 coup. It’s said that a political assassination took place every 5 hours prior to the coup, with some commentators alleging the country was on the precipice of civil war. The ability to stage a football world cup in Argentina was an opportunity for the junta to promote the stability and progress of Argentina on the world stage. Videla himself, though not a football fan, was an arch pragmatist and saw the enormous opportunities to unite the country by staging the World Cup.

Football – the game of the refined, the gift of middle-class Europeans to South America, symbolised Argentina’s arrival at the top table of global powers. Even supporters of the regime were expected to give full, unwavering support to the campaign to host the World Cup. To raise questions about the morality of investing so much public money in the venture could prove fatal, as it very nearly proved for Juan Aleman, the former minister of finance. 

Although fiercely loyal to the junta (he still disputes the figure of 30,000 disappeared and states 7000 ‘terrorists’ were killed), Aleman was a critic of the World Cup. He found his enjoyment of the notorious Argentina v Peru game disrupted by a bomb explosion at his residence. As Argentina scored their 4th of 6 goals that night, a bomb was detonated at his home, sending a message that the World Cup was not to be criticized, ‘A present from the general, because I had criticized the enormous expenses of the World Cup.’, according to Aleman.

In truth, at least domestically, the World Cup was almost unanimously popular. Videla’s vision of a united Argentina was an open goal – provided the Albiceleste could be successful. In lifting the trophy, they would be not only the champions of the world, but the people’s champions. Even the Montoneros, the guerilla opposition to the government, threw their support behind the national team. During a battle of Cold War ideologies - the left-wing guerilla groups vs. the authoritarian government - to make an enemy of the beloved national team would be ideological suicide. 

Claudio Tamburrini, a former goalkeeper for Almagro imprisoned for being a political activist, speaks of the perverse cease fire during the world cup when he states, ‘sport makes torturers and tortured embrace after the goals scored. During the World Cup Argentinians replaced critical political judgement with sporting euphoria’. However, the unity provided by these moments of sporting ecstasy was short lived, as Adolfo Pérez Ezquivel laments, ‘they went back to torturing us afterwards’. 

It’s impossible to unweave the intertwined experiences of prisoners and torturers during the 1978 World Cup. Perhaps it speaks of the success of the government’s strategy that for 90 minutes, while Argentina took the field, the whole country was united. Videla used the platform of the opening ceremony to speak of ‘the peace we all wish for. As people with dignity and freedom’.

A disturbing example of prisoner and captor relationships, told almost anecdotally is of infamous Captain Jorge Eduardo Acosta. Nicknamed ‘El Tigre’ who is said to have taken a female prisoner on a tour of Buenos Aires during the celebrations of Argentina’s final victory over The Netherlands. Cruelly juxtaposing her misery with the, albeit temporary, jubilations of her countrymen.

The opportunity provided by the world’s microscope was not lost on the opposition either. While the government maintained a wall of silence domestically, Argentinean exiles in Europe were gaining traction in raising awareness of the junta’s atrocities. Osvaldo Bayer fled to Germany and was successful in assisting the publication of the first surveys on human rights violations in Argentina. Internationally, the cat was out of the bag.

COBA (The Committee for the Boycott of the World Cup in Argentina), a Paris based organization supported by Amnesty International, had chapters all across France. So worried were the Argentine junta, that they set up a counter propaganda office in Paris to combat COBA in order to infiltrate and intimidate their members.

Former Argentine finance minister, Juan Aleman, bemoans the sophisticated PR skills of Argentinean exiles in garnering sympathy for dissenters of the regime - ‘The Guerillas got a lot of support from Europe. The generals were not used to dealing with their public relations’.

As we know, the campaign to boycott the World Cup was unsuccessful. FIFA were characteristically ambivalent towards removing the tournament from its hosts. In fact, FIFA were keen to distance the competitors from the political situation in Argentina. Players were banned from going to places of political activity such as Plaza Mayor, and players were banned from speaking to Las Madres de Plaza Mayor.

A poster encouraging the boycott of the competition

This justified the unease of some of the football associations whose teams travelled to Argentina. The cold war backdrop made for an uncomfortable climate for some of the teams taking part. West Germany in particular were recovering from the ‘German autumn’ of 1977, where far-left militant organization The Red Army Faction engaged in a campaign of kidnappings, murder and bombings.

Unquestionably, the team that faced the most pressure to boycott was The Netherlands. The Dutch campaign to boycott the world cup was spearheaded by Freek De Jonge and Bram Vermeulen, two stand-up comedians who toured the country with a Cabaret show titled ‘Blood on the Crossbar’. De Jonge and Vermeulen, with the support of Amnesty International sought to ‘stir the pot’ of those unlikely bedfellows - sport and politics.

Amnesty International's campaign against the World Cup

Initially, their objective was for The Netherlands to boycott the world cup. But in truth, this was highly unlikely and not a genuine solution to the crimes taking place in Argentina. Their ultimate goal was by ‘stirring the pot’ to put the Argentinean government under international spotlight. Vermeulen saw the world cup as the ‘perfect catalyst to explain the situation there’. Although sympathetic to their cause, the Dutch government were reluctant to sanction a boycott or to supersede the Dutch FA, who despite representing the country, they considered an independent organization. The Dutch FA were hostile towards the boycott campaign, Vermeulen accusing them of being ‘afraid we would snatch their favourite toy’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly The Netherlands fancied themselves as tournament favourites. And even without the talismanic Johan Cruyff, their confidence was justified as they would take to a ticker tape scattered field to face Argentina in the final.

The Netherlands was famously within the width of a post from winning the world cup. We can only speculate what this would have meant for the dictatorship in Argentina, although it is alleged that they would have refused to receive the trophy from Videla.

However, the moral dilemma of shaking hands with the dictator never came to pass. Two goals from Mario Kempes and one from Daniel Bertoni ensured that the cup would remain in Argentina. The sight of Kempes, hips swerving, hair flowing and sending the Dutch defence in the wrong direction, before going back to collect the ball and score, is one of the world cup’s true iconic moments. Countless posters and paintings exist of the iconic Estadio Monumental turf, littered with ticket tape. But perhaps what is less well-remembered is the black tape at the base of the goalposts. This was said to be placed there in tribute to the disappeared people of Argentina. Like discovering a hidden meaning in a piece of art, once you know it’s there, you cannot unsee it. A symbolic reminder that as politics is embedded into sport, in the same way the tape is stuck to the goalposts.

Mario Kempes celebrates scoring v Netherlands

Written by Rhys Richards, for The Football History Boys (@TFHBs), Rhys is currently researching the events surrounding the 1978 World Cup, for his debut non-fiction book, ‘Blood on the Crossbar’. He is looking to speak to anyone involved in the boycott, people involved in or with knowledge of COBA, and families of those who lived under the military junta. Find Rhys on Twitter: @RhysWRichards.

©The Football History Boys, 2021
(All pictures are borrowed kindly and not owned by TFHB)


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