Football, politics and guilt through the lens of the 1978 World Cup | @MatthewJBowen7

"Keep politics out of football" is often a phrase you hear from some corners of football. However, you can't. Football is inextricably tied to politics throughout the history of the beautiful game. One notable example of this is the 1978 World Cup, hosted and won by Argentina during a time of domestic turmoil. @MatthewJBowen7 has investigated the tournament for us:


Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano once wrote ‘How is football like God? Each inspires devotion among believers and distrust among intellectuals.’ Substitute religion or God for politics or a specific political figure and the quote still resonates. 

On the 25th of June 1978, Argentinian striker Mario Kempes slotted the ball past Dutch goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed to score the winning goal of the FIFA World Cup. The full-time whistle blew and with a score line of 3-1, Argentina was crowned champions of the world. However, despite hosting, and winning, the most prestigious sporting competition on the planet, Argentina was in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

In 1976, General Jorge Videla seized power via a military coup, removing Isabelita Peron, the widow of Juan Peron, from leadership. In an attempt to correct the chaotic and weak leadership of Isabelita Peron, Videla sought to rule the country with an iron fist. However, Videla’s hunger for power soon saw the Argentinian junta run rampant. Any voice of dissent of the government was soon removed from public life. It is estimated that between 15,000 to 30,000 Argentinians went missing under Videla’s rule. These people became known as the disappeared.

With the world focused on Argentina in 1978, the Videla regime attempted to combat its totalitarian image. As well as adopting his slogan for the tournament, los Argetines somos derechos y humanos (we Argentinians are honest and humane), Videla coined the competition ‘the World Cup of Peace’. However, despite the attempts to combat the regime’s image, forces such as the madres, a collection of mothers of the disappeared who protested the regime publicly, and Amnesty International’s strong condemnation of the tournament dented the government’s image.

Jorge Rafael Videla

The connection between football and politics in Argentina during the Dirty War is best exemplified by the location of the La Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada (Navy School of Mechanics) building being only a ten-minute walk from El Monumental. The Navy School of Mechanics was said to be ‘the busiest and most notorious detention centre of the dirty war.’ It is said that the prisoners of the junta could hear the cheers of the spectators as Kempes wheeled away to celebrate in the final. Moreover, Argentinian anthropologist Eduardo Archetti tells of Captain Jorge Acosta forcing prisoners to travel through the streets of the city, observing their countrymen celebrate. The prisoners did not plead or scream for their freedom, but just solemnly watched the commemorations.

Outside of the historiography and inside the stadium, the perspectives of the players are important to note. Argentina’s goalkeeper in the tournament, Ubaldo Fillol, thought it was unfair that some people conflate the team’s success with the support of the junta.

‘We suffered from the fact that the military junta was involved… To many people, the World Cup in 1978 means 30,000 people disappeared. But none of us tortured or killed anyone. We just helped our country to have a bit of joy and we defended the Argentinian colours with bravery. I cannot be ashamed of that.’

Furthermore, defender Ruben Pagnanini believed ‘Critics aligned us to the dictatorship and we did not have anything to do with it… I believe the journalists never gave our team the credit we deserved. And common people are very much influenced by what the press says.’ However, Claudio Tamburrini, an Argentinian goalkeeper who did not play for the national side believed that ‘During the World Cup, the Argentinians – including myself – replaced critical political judgement with sporting euphoria… To support the national side of a country that is subjected to a dictatorship is an example of costly irrationality.’

Here you have two differing opinions from two players with different experiences. Filol was unashamedly proud of his accomplishment and resented that many people related the national team to the government. Likewise, Pagnanini. Whereas Tamburrini, who was a student activist as well as a player, described cheering the World Cup victory as a ‘costly irrationality’. As we begin to analyse the thoughts of sports historians, writers, journalists and academics, it is important to understand and note the lived experiences and opinions of players who represented their country and made that difficult choice between playing for their nation and supporting their corrupt government.

Sports historian Tony Mason analyses the Argentinian Dirty War in a sporting context in his book Passion of the People? Football in South America. Mason first begins with a description of the events in Argentina during the time of the World Cup and the Dirty War before offering his thoughts on the connection between football and politics within Argentina. Mason argues that the World Cup being in Argentina during this time was inevitably going to pull into focus people’s senses of identity, writing:

‘It is clear that the military dictatorship of Argentina hoped to use the staging of the World Cup in 1978 to enhance the legitimacy of the regime both at home and abroad. In a country where football was so popular a World Cup, and at home, was bound to test some people’s hopes and feelings of identity.’

Mason goes on to emphasise that you should not underestimate ‘the difficulty of the choice of those who did not support the regime but wanted Argentina to win.’

Sports journalist and football historian Jonathan Wilson echoes Mason’s sentiment in his seminal text on the history of Argentinian football Angles with Dirty Faces. Throughout Wilson’s work, the author integrates the history of the political, the social and the economic as well as the football and how each theme intertwines. Concerning Argentinian politics’ relationship to football, Wilson writes:

‘The dilemma is perhaps insoluble: to what extent is a nation its government? What responsibility do the people have for that and to what extent is a national sporting team the manifestation of the country? After all, not only would it be illogical to blame the players for playing to their maximum, but many who were opposed to the junta actively supported la seleccion’.

C├ęsar Luis Menotti

Wilson writes that Menotti, the manager of the Argentinian national team was at the ‘centre’ of this ideological conflict. Inside of the realm of Tony Mason and Jonathan Wilson’s writing, particularly Wilson, lies the discourse surrounding a football team’s style of play reflecting their nation.  For example, Wilson draws attention to the fact that Menotti’s Argentina side played attractive, passionate, possession-based football filled with flair. It is easy to see how Menotti’s side reflects the traditional values of a romanticised view of Argentina.

This raises the idea of a national football team reflecting the form of government in power. For example, during Benito Mussolini’s reign in Italy, the Italian national team was built upon physical power and organisation, with little tolerance for expression or flair. If you apply this idea to Menotti’s Argentina in 1978, you can make the argument that Menotti’s side, in its victory, was an incredible sign of protest in response to the Videla regime.

This adds a further layer to the conversation surrounding the celebration of the victory. Menotti’s Argentina succeeded by playing an expressive style of football that harkened back to the Argentina of old. Wilson wrote that Menotti believed that his ‘football, being free and creative, offered a reminder of the free, creative Argentina that had existed before the junta.’ Thus, it is possible to have the belief that by celebrating this football team, you were rejecting the authoritarian, conservative values of Videla and his government. 

With a focus more on the human element of the World Cup and less on the football, in their text Memory and Modernity: Popular Culture in Latin America, William Rowe and Vivian Schelling examine the instant human reaction to Argentina’s victory over the Netherlands.

Mario Kempes scores twice in the 1978 World Cup Final

‘All the population without exception offered its happiness, its legitimate fervour, showing itself to be hospitable friends of visitors and these people will be the witnesses of our true reality in their own countries without the defamation of this international campaign of falsehoods. The sport was an opportunity, the way to express, as never before, the feeling of national unity and the common hope of peace, unity and fraternity.’

This observation goes one step further than Mason or Wilson's, using an abundance of emotive, romantic, descriptive language to illustrate the joy felt amongst the Argentinian populace. For many of the Argentinian working class, football was an escape, thus it would be incredibly difficult, as well as unfair, to criticise these people for taking a moment to enjoy the experience. Moreover, for many in Argentina, living under the regime would come with complications. You may not find severe condemnation of the state from the Argentinian people or writers. Those people are implicated because they have in some capacity worked for the state, failed to criticise the state or have friends or family members either directly or indirectly involved with the state. Argentinian writer Bartolome de Vedia wrote in La Nacion in 2003:

‘This period was definitively the Argentinian tragedy: a nation parted down the middle, a nation cut in two by a tragicomic dichotomy in which football and death competed in the most absurd contests… In 1978 there was pain and death but also football and joy. Life always flows in this way, with light and shadow… and in this way, nations write their histories, with the soul full of jubilation and, at the same time, with the soul in tatters… Let’s play football without the shadow of death slipping into the stadiums through some crack. And let’s mourn the lives lost without anything to distract us from our pain.’

De Vedia’s view, while not non-sympathetic is slightly more apathetic. Echoing Rowe and Schelling, De Vedia uses incredibly emotive, potent and descriptive language to express his thoughts on the dichotomy between celebrating the Argentinian team’s triumph and the nation’s government. De Vedia argues that we should allow the Argentinian people to have their cake and eat it too; people should be able to take part in the joy of the occasion while being able to be upset about the state of their country at the same time. While incredibly moving, De Vedia’s view does have an apathetic angle; ‘Life always flows in this way’ let us play football and let us mourn. This is how it is to De Vedia. 

Nasser al-Khater has been a prominent voice in Qatar 2022

De Vedia’s rhetoric conjures the comments of World Cup chief Nasser al-Khater regarding the death of a migrant worker during the 2022 World Cup. In response to a worker falling to his death while working on a World Cup site, al-Khater said ‘death is a natural part of life – whether it’s at work, whether it’s in your sleep’ It is not a direct comparison to the somewhat poetic sentiment De Vedia puts forward, but the lack of emphasis on the unjust deaths of society’s most vulnerable is present nonetheless.

One of the central concepts of Argentinian football is this notion of the pibe (child). The pibe is a mythic figure in Argentinian football used to symbolise the purity of the game and represent the ideals of the Argentinian way of playing with flair and lots of dribbling. In 1928, the publication El Grafico wrote the seminal definition of the pibe.

‘A pibe with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb… His trousers are a few roughly sewn patches… His knees covered with the scabs of wounds disinfected by fate… His stance must be characteristic; it must seem as if he is dribbling with a rag ball… If this monument is raised one day, there will be many of us who will take off our hat to it, as we do in church.’

In the words of Argentinian historian, Eduardo P. Archetti, ‘Football allows a man to go on playing and remain a pibe. One could say that the imaginary world of football reflects the power of freedom and creativity in the face of discipline, order and hierarchy.’ This idea is charged with the notion that football can be more than just a sport. However, if we do as De Vedia writes, and separate the two, there is a danger that you will remove any political agency that is generated through football, which is fundamentally a working-class vocation.

La Nacion, the paper De Vedia wrote for, is the largest conservative paper in Argentina. Thus, it would make sense for De Vedia to adopt a more laissez-faire attitude towards Videla’s brutal regime and separate sport and politics in search of a version of football that purely belongs to entertainment rather than a version of the sport that is a vessel for working-class solidarity.

These interpretations of the Videla regime in the context of the FIFA World Cup open the conversation to ideas of memory and place. With a cultural milestone as significant as a World Cup victory, the impact of memory and the various connections that arise in the mind of a person looking back on this period is influential in how they remember the Videla government, and, thus, how they felt and how they feel now about the Videla government. Sarah De Nardi et al. wrote in their introduction to The Routledge Handbook of Memory and Place.

‘Whether positive or negative, then, memories are powerful and complex forces linking experiences, emotions, places and things. In terms of memory’s temporalities, a focus on the link between place, experience and memory challenges the assumption that encounter(s) allow a focus on the embodied nature of social distinctions and the unpredictable ways in which similarity and difference are negotiated in the moment.’

The 'World Cup of Peace'...

De Nardi’s writing here is highly applicable to what we observed in Argentina during the Dirty War. As Mario Kempes scored to win the World Cup, we saw this moral tug-of-war between the Argentinian people take place. Furthermore, whether it was conscious or not, the linking between the memories of the Videla regime and the Menotti-coached national team become interlinked. After the fact, it will become a case-by-case basis to whether individuals wished to link the two events. Moreover, De Nardi writes that memory is fundamental in building nationhood and ‘forced forgetting’ can be weaponised by governments to combat the legacies of genocide, war, ethnic cleansing, and nationalism. There are visible examples of Videla attempting this exact manoeuvre during the World Cup with his slogans such as ‘we Argentinians are honest and humane’ and calling the tournament the ‘World Cup of Peace’.

The World Cup victory of the Argentinian national side in 1978 presents the perfect arena to investigate the human heart in conflict with itself. The Dirty War was a horrific place in time for the people of Argentina. Life was incredibly difficult for the people of Argentina. It would be inappropriate and perhaps maybe even cruel for historians, journalists, and academics who are detached from the event to criticise those taking part in Argentina’s victory (such as the players) and those celebrating Argentina’s victory.  

There are some parallels between the tournament in 1978 and the one in 2022. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is the most blatant example of sports washing in football history, but it is not the first. Perhaps there is some solace in the fact that coaches, players, fans and spectators have had to grapple with these feelings in the past. And there is some distress in the fact that coaches, players, fans and spectators will have to grapple with these feelings in the future. 



By Matthew Bowen, written for @TFHB.

©The Football History Boys, 2022 
(All pictures kindly borrowed and NOT owned in any form by TFHB)

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