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How the 1978 Argentina World Cup was ‘sportswashed’

FIFA are no strangers to selecting controversial hosts for the sport’s biggest tournaments.

Brazil and Russia were more recently both embroiled with countless issues, and the upcoming 2022 Qatar World Cup is a whole other story.

However, perhaps no host has ever been as outright despicable as the Military Junta, who used the 1978 World Cup in Argentina to legitimise themselves on the world stage.

Argentinian military coup d’état after the wife of previous president Juan Perón fell out of favour. Perón himself was an awful person, harbouring Nazi War Criminals, commenting on the Nuremberg trials that:

“I became certain that the Argentine people also considered the Nuremberg process a disgrace, unworthy of the victors, who behaved as if they hadn’t been victorious. Now we realise that they (the Allies) deserved to lose the war.”

Despite despicable actions, in 1966, during England’s only global success, Argentina was awarded the 1978 World Cup after Mexico dropped out.

The 12 years between the host date witnessed one of the most turbulent times in Argentinian history.

Perón died in 1974. His wife, Martínez de Perón, became de facto leader, grew immensely unpopular and divided the nation in five rebel forces, leaving an American backed Argentinian Military Junta to take charge in 1976.

Those two years before The World Cup, witnessed horrendous atrocities committed by the Military Junta. They operated with extreme suppression and censorship over anyone who spoke out. Ruthless leader Jorge Rafael Videla told his military leaders that ‘as many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure.’ An estimated 5,618 people ‘disappeared’ in that timeframe. To understand why they were categorised as disappeared, the regime’s enemies were drugged up, flown over the Atlantic and then thrown out alive. Not murdered. Disappeared.

You’re probably thinking, ‘maybe this isn’t the place to kick a ball around and determine who’s the best at it.’

Well, FIFA would disagree.

Despite reservations and potential boycotts, the tournament went ahead as originally planned, even using the Perón inspired logo designed before the opposed Military Regime took over. With this, the Military Junta had the opportunity to use this sporting event for their own political gain, similar to what Perón’s beloved Nazi Regime did to the 1936 Olympics.

The Tournament

From the opening game, the opposition were dubious on the legitimacy of the tournament. Highly respected Hungarian coach Lajos Baróti suggested “everything, even the air, is in favour of Argentina” before the cup even began.

It quickly became clear that the referees’ decisions heavily leaned towards the host nation throughout the tournament. Two Hungarian red cards and an incredibly questionable French handball came in the first two games.

Many years later, France still cried foul at the legitimacy of the tournament. An anonymous French player claimed in 2003 that the Argentinian players were completely amped up on amphetamines

alongside questionable decisions, screaming in their changing rooms two hours after the match to calm down.

All of this pales in comparison to the infamous drubbing Argentina dished out to surprise package of the tournament Peru. Only a win by four goals or more could get Argentina into the final, pipping arch-rivals Brazil also. They won 6-0, after a second-half Peruvian capitulation.

Obviously, Brazil wasn’t too pleased with Peru’s effort, pinning the blame on Argentinian-born goalkeeper Ramon Quiroga, who even had to pen a letter defending the team’s honour post-game. Most of the Peruvian side denies match-fixing allegations and simply suggests that winning the previous group was their moral victory, somewhat collapsing psychically come the 2nd stage. Although some Peruvian players have been quoted saying Junta leader Jorge Rafael Videla entered the dressing room, some even go as far to suggest that avid football fan Henry Kissinger was also in attendance with Videla.

Perhaps more concrete evidence of match-fixing came with Peruvian senator Genaro Ledesma, who claimed the match was fixed, for the safe return of 13 Peruvian dissidents who opposed the regime. Ledesma is quoted saying:

“Videla needed to win the World Cup to cleanse Argentina’s bad image around the world, so he only accepted the group if Peru allowed the Argentine national team to triumph.”

Was Argentina ’78 Fixed?

However, these notions of match-fixing somewhat fall apart when you actually watch the games. Peru was already out of the tournament and hit the post twice before that utter capitulation. In which, they are still clearly trying, albeit poorly.

In addition, in the World Cup Final itself, Dutch left-winger Rob Rensenbrink hit the post in the 90th minute. It’s difficult to argue in favour of match-fixing, when the Cruyff-less Netherlands were inches away from that trophy, which still today they are yet to win. Dubious refereeing aside for the host nation – which seems to be a common occurrence anyway (South Korea in 2002) – allegations of fixing have little factual evidence around them.

Furthermore, amidst these allegations and controversy, it’s easy to forget that this Argentine team was genuinely great. Mario Kempes is one of the best players to play the game, a precursor to that no. 10 role which a then 17-year-old Maradona – who was left behind for this tournament – would make his own. The team had credible talent elsewhere, Luque, Passarella, Betroni; all had respectable careers. The orchestrator of it all, Cesar Luis Menotti, was the real star of the show however. The attacking minded chain-smoking communist who definitely had opposing views to the Junta, here quoted saying:

“There’s a right-wing football and a left-wing football. Right-wing football wants to suggest that life is a struggle. It demands sacrifices. We have to become of steel and win by any method… obey and function, that’s what those with power want from the players. That’s how they create retards, useful idiots that go with the system.”

That’s a real quote, from a real person, during a right-wing extremist Military Junta, using a football analogy to lambast capitalism. Evoking his maverick persona, his tactics were effectively an altered version of total football; a 4-3-3 with extremely hard-working players, inverted wingers with the full-backs providing the width. Luque and Kempes would thrive in the system, with Ardiles and Gallego doing all the leg work in the middle.

Most Argentinian players didn’t go out thinking they had the game in the bag. Menotti reportedly told his players to win it for the butchers and teachers of Argentina, not for the generals in the presidential palace, heading into extra-time.

After the tournament, many Argentinian players regretted the role they unknowingly played in the political landscape. Leopoldo Luque said, “With what I know now, I can’t say I’m proud of my victory. But I didn’t realise; most of us didn’t. We just played football.” While Ricky Villa believed, “There is no doubt that we were used politically.”

Unquestionably, the Military Junta of Argentina desperately wanted to win this tournament to showcase their stability towards other countries. Despite favourable refereeing – a fate which every single host nation gets anyway – the Argentinian side was excellent in its own right. Furthermore, these allegations of match-fixing stray away from the actual consequence of this World Cup. In that, it gave a tyrannical regime an extended stay in Argentinian politics. With the upcoming 2022 Winter World Cup in Qatar, it appears FIFA has no issues with being used as a political pawn.

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