The dirty game

In 1978, in Ar­gentina, a bru­tally re­pres­sive regime staged the World Cup, foot­ball’s most glam­orous com­pe­ti­tion. On the pitch, it was as if nothing was wrong. Else­where, po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents were be­ing mur­dered by the state. Does this sound at all fa­mil­iar

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - By Will Hersey

How the 1978 World Cup fes­tiv­i­ties masked a reign of ter­ror in host na­tion Ar­gentina

on a clear af­ter­noon on 1 June 1978 at the re­vamped El Mon­u­men­tal sta­dium in Buenos Aires’ Bel­grano bar­rio, sev­eral hun­dred chil­dren in white uni­forms moved into their pre­pared po­si­tions, on an un­even pitch, newly turfed since the orig­i­nal grass had with­ered af­ter be­ing ir­ri­gated with sea wa­ter. From the blimp cam­era, the chore­ographed chil­dren first spelled out “Ar­gentina 78” be­fore the words “Mundial Fifa”. A flock of what looked more like pi­geons than doves was re­leased into the sky. The World Cup was un­der­way.

Min­utes ear­lier, Gen­eral Jorge Rafaél Videla, the bird-like, mous­ta­chioed leader of Ar­gentina’s rul­ing mil­i­tary junta, an­nounced to the nearly 80,000-strong crowd that the tour­na­ment would be played un­der a sign of peace. The ITV com­men­ta­tor Ger­ald Sin­stadt, through crack­ling audio which added to the at­mos­phere of this dis­tant live broad­cast, fum­bled for fillers as the some­what pon­der­ous spec­ta­cle un­folded, re­mark­ing on how the open­ing cer­e­mony’s “em­pha­sis is firmly on the in­no­cence of youth, free from any sug­ges­tion of po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment”.

Back in the ITV stu­dio, against a beige back­drop, guest pun­dit Kevin Kee­gan, in an ex­trav­a­gantly lapelled check shirt even by Seven­ties’ stan­dards, be­moaned England’s fail­ure to qual­ify and de­clared his ex­cite­ment at the “soc­cer fes­ti­val” ahead.

In earshot of the sta­dium drums, just a few streets away, inside the tree-lined cam­pus of the Navy Petty-Of­fi­cers School of Me­chan­ics, the junta’s flag­ship tor­ture cen­tre con­tin­ued to op­er­ate. The largest and most no­to­ri­ous of sev­eral hun­dred such con­cen­tra­tion camps, this was one place where “Los De­sa­pare­ci­dos” were taken. The Dis­ap­peared. An evoca­tive term more ac­cu­rately de­scrib­ing the victims of state-spon­sored mur­der. The junta wasn’t go­ing to let the World Cup stop its work. In fact, quite the op­po­site.

if sports and pol­i­tics shouldn’t mix, no one ever told Fifa. Where the foot­ball World Cup is con­cerned, it’s harder to keep them apart. The his­tory of the tour­na­ment is lit­tered with agen­das, deals and power plays. From the petty — as when Uruguay boy­cotted the 1934 tour­na­ment in Italy in protest at how few Euro­pean teams both­ered turn­ing up for the one it had hosted four years prior — to the prin­ci­pled; take the Soviet Union’s re­fusal to play away at Chile in a 1973 qual­i­fi­ca­tion play-off in the same Es­ta­dio Na­cional sta­dium where Augusto Pinochet had left-wing pris­on­ers ex­e­cuted. Host­ing, of course, raises the stakes fur­ther. Foot­ball his­to­rian David Gold­blatt de­scribed it as “a node in the global net­works of power”.

When Russia was an­nounced as 2018 hosts back in De­cem­ber 2010, it’s not hard to imag­ine that Vladimir Putin, no foot­ball fan him­self, might have had re­stored su­per­power sta­tus fairly high on his list of rea­sons. But in the years since, that like­li­hood has evap­o­rated in the wake of a lengthy charge sheet: mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in the Ukraine and Syria, chem­i­cal weapons at­tacks, links to plane bombs, ex­e­cu­tions of jour­nal­ists and po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents, cy­ber­war and elec­tion med­dling.

Of more di­rect rel­e­vance to the tour­na­ment, you can also add the use of North Korean forced labour in sta­dium-build­ing, the legacy of state-ap­proved Olympic dop­ing, and ques­tions over the safety of for­eign fans in light of Russia’s “para­mil­i­tary” foot­ball hooligans, gangs of whom were un­leashed at the 2016 Eu­ros in France. “I don’t see any­thing wrong with the fans fight­ing. Quite the op­po­site, well done lads, keep it up!” tweeted Rus­sian politi­cian Igor Lebe­dev, a mem­ber of the ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee of the Rus­sian Foot­ball Union. On his own patch, of course, it’s highly un­likely Putin will al­low any such scenes this sum­mer.

In the ac­ri­mo­nious fall­out from the poi­son­ing in Sal­is­bury of for­mer spy Sergei Skri­pal back in March, a group of Labour MPs called for a post­pone­ment or re­lo­ca­tion of the 2018 World Cup. “I am very con­cerned that Putin will use the World Cup in the same way that Hitler used the 1936 Mu­nich Olympics, as a pub­lic re­la­tions ex­er­cise for a bru­tal dic­ta­tor­ship,” said MP Ian Austin. For­eign sec­re­tary Boris John­son made the same anal­ogy.

This isn’t the first time such a com­par­i­son has been made. In the 40 years since, the same has been said of Ar­gentina 1978. And with hind­sight, that com­par­i­son is starkly ob­vi­ous. Never be­fore or since has suc­cess on the pitch been so in­ter­twined with such bru­tal­ity off it.

if the boy­cotts against russia in 2018 felt a lit­tle half-hearted, in 1978 against Ar­gentina they came early, with con­vic­tion, and very nearly worked.

The edi­tion of the tour­na­ment now as­so­ci­ated with ticker tape-filled sta­dia, silky hair and no short­age of silky goals — from Archie Gem­mill’s still-widely re­played shimmy against Hol­land to Hans Krankl’s out­ra­geous two-touch volley for Aus­tria against West Ger­many — was close to be­ing re­lo­cated to Hol­land and Bel­gium. Brazil was also placed on standby.

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional led the protests un­der the slo­gan, “Yes to Foot­ball, No to Tor­ture!”, along­side a pres­sure group set up in France. The West Ger­man gov­ern­ment also threat­ened to with­draw. Paul Bre­it­ner and Jo­han Cruyff, then the world’s best player, ac­tu­ally did. Although 30 years later, Cruyff told Catalunya Rà­dio that the real rea­son was

not in protest, but be­cause that year he and his wife had been tied up at gun­point in front of their chil­dren at their Barcelona apart­ment dur­ing a kid­nap at­tempt: “It was the mo­ment to leave foot­ball and I couldn’t play in the World Cup af­ter this.”

The po­lit­i­cal mood in Europe at the time was cer­tainly at odds with Gen­eral Videla’s. The army had taken con­trol of Ar­gentina in spring 1976 af­ter two years of ma­jor un­rest bor­der­ing on civil war, as right-wing paramil­i­taries and com­mu­nist guer­ril­las en­tered the power vac­uum left be­hind af­ter the death of Ar­gentina’s pres­i­dent Juan Perón. The ma­jor­ity of peo­ple wel­comed the re­turn of or­der in the face of such vi­o­lence.

The clean-up of “state en­e­mies” be­gan im­me­di­ately. But it didn’t stop there. Men and women who did not con­form to the regime’s ideals were “dis­ap­pear­ing” in in­creas­ingly large num­bers. And rel­a­tives were ad­vised not to cause a stir. Peo­ple could be taken off the street, from their home or ar­rested on the bus in broad day­light. “They must have done some­thing”, was the un­spo­ken con­sen­sus.

But Fifa re­mained un­moved. Ul­ti­mately, the hu­man rights stance was over­looked in favour of pre­serv­ing the po­lit­i­cal sta­tus quo. By June 1978, the junta was at its strong­est and it now had a World Cup to dis­tract at­ten­tion do­mes­ti­cally and project an al­ter­na­tive mes­sage in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Videla, like many world lead­ers, had lit­tle in­ter­est in foot­ball. But he saw an op­por­tu­nity, and he was pre­pared to spend huge sums on in­fras­truc­ture to get it right. In 1976, the chair­man of Ar­gentina’s World Cup or­gan­is­ing com­mit­tee, Gen­eral Omar Ac­tis, was as­sas­si­nated while trav­el­ling to his first press con­fer­ence, where he was ex­pected to crit­i­cise pub­licly the rapidly es­ca­lat­ing sums be­ing spent on host­ing the tour­na­ment.

on the pitch, there was much work for the Ar­gen­tinian team to do if they were to achieve any­thing re­sem­bling suc­cess. In this con­text of con­trol and para­noia, it seems odd that a young, in­tel­lec­tual left-winger, a for­mer com­mu­nist no less, was in charge. The rak­ish, chain-smok­ing 39-year-old was the em­bod­i­ment of ev­ery­thing the junta op­posed. César Luis Menotti, nick­named “El Flaco”, “the thin one” (yes, most Ar­gen­tinian foot­ballers seem to have a nick­name) was a tac­ti­cian and foot­ball philoso­pher, who even talked overtly in terms of re­plac­ing what he saw as “rightwing” foot­ball — the turgid, phys­i­cal and cyn­i­cal anti-fút­bol on show for most of the Seven­ties — with a more nat­u­ral, free-flow­ing style.

His Hu­racán side won the 1973 Ar­gen­tine Primera Di­visión with flicks, flair and at­tack­ing pur­pose, while Menotti was also prone to

the kind of quote at which Eric Can­tona might raise an eye­brow: “A foot­ball team is above all an idea,” for ex­am­ple. To­day, of course, he is beloved by the mod­ern breed of tac­ti­cal anoraks. Per­haps Menotti’s sav­ing grace was that his rhetoric played on the restora­tion of past glo­ries of Ar­gen­tine foot­balling style in a way that over­lapped, how­ever ten­u­ously, to the junta’s own tra­di­tion­al­ist pro­pa­ganda.

El Flaco picked the pre­vi­ously un­fan­cied Os­valdo Ardiles to up his team’s rhythm in a man­ner that at­tempted to mimic the Dutch “To­tal Foot­ball” style that saw The Oranje ar­rive as tour­na­ment favourites. But for all his ideals, that Ar­gen­tine’s prag­ma­tism re­mained. There was no place in the fi­nal squad for the coun­try’s most nat­u­ral tal­ent, the 17-yearold Diego Maradona. And the team’s fa­mil­iar games­man­ship and phys­i­cal­ity was un­likely to dis­ap­pear overnight. As Menotti once said: “Ef­fi­cacy is not di­vorced from beauty.”

If it was needed, Gen­eral Videla’s con­stant vis­i­bil­ity as the tour­na­ment kicked off was a fur­ther re­minder that results clearly mat­tered. In Ar­gentina’s open­ing game, their op­po­nents Hun­gary took the lead af­ter just nine min­utes. Menotti’s at­tack­ing ap­proach was ev­i­dent, though, and a front two of Leopoldo Luque and Mario Kem­pes showed pace, power and a close un­der­stand­ing. Luque equalised min­utes later be­fore sub­sti­tute Daniel Ber­toni scored an 83rd-minute win­ner. By full time, the match had de­gen­er­ated from the merely cyn­i­cal to the out­right nasty, with two Hun­gar­ian play­ers be­ing sent off in the clos­ing min­utes.

At a friendly against England at Wem­b­ley 10 days be­fore that game, Hun­gary’s man­ager La­jos Baróti told jour­nal­ist Brian Glanville that “ev­ery­thing, even the air, is in favour of Ar­gentina” ahead of the World Cup. Off the record, Baróti also feared that the ref­er­ees would favour the hosts in their de­ci­sion-mak­ing: “The suc­cess of Ar­gentina is fi­nan­cially so im­por­tant to the tour­na­ment.”

The other teams in Ar­gentina and Hun­gary’s group were the much-fan­cied France and Italy, es­tab­lish­ing the tour­na­ment’s tough­est qual­i­fy­ing sec­tion. Af­ter the vic­tory against Hun­gary, one junta of­fi­cial re­marked to Luque, that “this could turn out to be the group of death as far as you are con­cerned”. It was de­liv­ered with a smile.

“Up­per­most in my mind was that ear­lier that day, the brother of a close friend of mine had dis­ap­peared,” re­called Luque. “His body was later found by vil­lagers on the banks of the River Plate with concrete at­tached to his legs. At that time, op­po­nents of the regime were some­times thrown out of aero­planes into the sea.”

Af­ter Italy had beaten France 2-1 in their open­ing match-up, Ar­gentina next faced the tal­ented, Michel Pla­tini-led French side that now had to win to stay in the tour­na­ment. In a game that still raises the blood pres­sure of the French who re­mem­ber it, Ar­gentina were gifted a penalty for a harsh hand­ball against Mar­ius Tré­sor, while France’s Di­dier Six had a much stronger penalty ap­peal turned down. A Luque 25-yarder set­tled the game at 2-1, but years later the fire was restoked when a caller on a ra­dio phone-in — claim­ing to be a for­mer French in­ter­na­tional foot­baller — made un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims that Fifa of­fi­cials were turn­ing a blind eye to Ar­gen­tine am­phetamine use. “You could hear them scream­ing in their dress­ing room,” he said, “and they had to warm down for two hours af­ter the match.” It was also al­leged that af­ter urine sam­ples were taken, a Fifa of­fi­cial dis­cov­ered one of the Ar­gentina play­ers was preg­nant.

with the world’s eyes on the tour­na­ment, one group within Ar­gentina knew it had to take ad­van­tage of this brief win­dow of at­ten­tion. “Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo”, “The Moth­ers of the Plaza de Mayo”, was founded in 1977 by women who had lost chil­dren to the junta’s “Dirty War”. Ev­ery Thurs­day, they marched to the Casa Rosada presidential palace, all wear­ing white head­scarves, hold­ing pho­to­graphs of their “dis­ap­peared” chil­dren. As their num­bers grew, and vis­i­bil­ity in­creased, the junta be­gan call­ing them “las lo­cas” — the mad­women. In fact, they were the clos­est thing the junta had to a pres­sure group.

This also made them a tar­get. In De­cem­ber 1977, on Hu­man Rights Day, the moth­ers took out an ad­ver­tise­ment in a news­pa­per pub­lish­ing the names of the miss­ing chil­dren. That same evening, one of the found­ing women, Azu­cena Vil­laflor, was kid­napped by half a dozen armed men and taken to the Navy Petty-Of­fi­cers School of Me­chan­ics. It wasn’t un­til 2005 that Vil­laflor’s re­mains were iden­ti­fied. She, and two other orig­i­nal madres, had been buried in an un­marked grave af­ter their bod­ies had washed up on a Santa Tere­sita beach, some 200 miles from Buenos Aires. Like their chil­dren, they died in the wa­ters of the River Plate.

If, like Vil­laflor, you were un­for­tu­nate enough to be taken to the naval school, the rou­tine for new re­cruits was fairly con­sis­tent. Ar­rested and held with­out trial or ques­tions, typ­i­cally for left-lean­ing po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions and be­liefs, which were de­fined more and more loosely as the junta’s grip on power tight­ened.

Cat­tle prods pro­vided the im­me­di­ate wel­come re­cep­tion to the prison. Of­ten as a tool for rape, what­ever your gen­der. Record­ings of Hitler’s speeches would rou­tinely be played through speak­ers. The smell of urine and fae­ces was over­pow­er­ing. Tiny boxed cells con­tained ex­ist­ing pris­on­ers, many hooded, semi-con­scious and weak­ened from in­fected tor­ture wounds.

The guards wanted names. The tech­niques used to get them were al­ways ex­cru­ci­at­ing and of­ten de­praved. When your time was up, you got the nod, were stripped naked, given a dose of sodium pen­tothal to keep you pli­able, put on a plane to where the River Plate meets the At­lantic and thrown into the ocean. For­mer naval cap­tain Emir Sisul Hess, al­legedly told rel­a­tives of the dead how sleeping victims fell from his plane “like lit­tle ants”.

On the second floor was a ma­ter­nity ward, where hun­dreds of ba­bies were stolen from their soon-to-be-mur­dered moth­ers, many of

Af­ter the Hun­gary vic­tory, a junta of­fi­cial re­marked to Leopoldo

Luque, ‘this could be the group of death for you’, with a smile. ‘Up­per­most in my mind,’ re­called Luque, ‘was that ear­lier that day, the brother of a close friend had dis­ap­peared. His body was later found on

the banks of the River Plate with concrete at­tached to his legs’

whom were il­le­gally adopted by mil­i­tary fam­i­lies and “friends” of the junta.

Dur­ing 1978’s World Cup, guards would play match com­men­taries on the ra­dio, some forc­ing the pris­on­ers to cheer and sing along. For some victims, the foot­ball was at least a tem­po­rary dis­trac­tion from their plight. For oth­ers, the cheers from the nearby sta­dium clearly au­di­ble through the walls, it was a dev­as­tat­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that the world was go­ing on with­out them. They knew that with ev­ery goal, the dic­ta­tor­ship that brought them here was get­ting stronger.

af­ter the groups, the knock-out phase is when the World Cup is said to prop­erly be­gin. Ex­cept in 1978 there was no such phase. The favoured for­mat saw the top two teams of each group di­vided into two fur­ther groups, with the win­ners of each then meet­ing in the fi­nal. Hol­land, Italy, West Ger­many and in-form Aus­tria made up Group A, while Ar­gentina, Peru, Poland and Brazil had the eas­ier task of Group B.

As Hol­land took con­trol of Group A, with Italy and West Ger­many tir­ing, it was be­tween Ar­gentina and Brazil for the other berth. The two teams had al­ready played out a goal­less draw, and the fi­nal round of games saw Brazil take on Poland in the af­ter­noon and Ar­gentina play Peru in the much cooler evening. Was it just a happy ac­ci­dent that the hosts knew ex­actly what they needed to do fol­low­ing Brazil’s 3-1 win? A 4-0 win and they were in the fi­nal. Peru had no hope of qual­i­fy­ing so were play­ing for pride, though only in name as it turned out.

Peru started strongly enough, even hit­ting the post, but a rapid and, to many ob­servers, ab­ject ca­pit­u­la­tion fol­lowed. Ar­gentina scored six to no re­ply by the fi­nal whis­tle, against the same Peru that had thrashed Scot­land and Iran, and held the Dutch to a nil-nil draw, in their open­ing group games.

Brazil’s man­ager called it a dis­grace. Peru’s goal­keeper, Ramón Quiroga, born in Ar­gentina, wrote an open let­ter de­fend­ing his team’s hon­our. Years later, a Peru­vian se­na­tor would claim that the match re­sult was fixed thanks to a deal be­tween the two South Amer­i­can dic­ta­tor­ships in­volv­ing po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, money and grain.

The murky pic­ture was mud­died fur­ther when it was re­vealed for­mer US sec­re­tary of state Henry Kissinger, both a foot­ball fan and tacit sup­porter of the junta regime, joined Gen­eral Videla on a pre-match pa­rade that is said to have in­cluded a visit to the Peru dress­ing room. It has been claimed that Videla im­pressed on the Peru­vian play­ers just how im­por­tant this tour­na­ment was to Ar­gentina, while stress­ing the value of “Latin Amer­i­can sol­i­dar­ity”.

If the pre­vi­ous game’s con­tro­ver­sies would take some beat­ing, the fi­nal some­how man­aged to up the ante. While Hol­land were many peo­ple’s on-pa­per favourites, the ab­sence of Cruyff or a truly cre­ative al­ter­na­tive re­mained a def­i­nite plus for an Ar­gentina side that had the tal­is­manic Kem­pes in the form of his life, and had shown just how ef­fec­tive the com­bi­na­tion of home ad­van­tage and weak ref­er­ee­ing could be.

First, the Ar­gen­tine FA suc­cess­fully lob­bied for a late ref­eree switch, ar­gu­ing that des­ig­nated Is­raeli of­fi­cial Abra­ham Klein was an in­ap­pro­pri­ate choice due to the po­lit­i­cal links be­tween Hol­land and Is­rael. A ref­eree from Italy, a na­tion with tight links to Ar­gentina, got the nod in­stead. Klein had ref­er­eed Ar­gentina’s only defeat of the tour­na­ment ahead of the fi­nal; a 1–0 loss against Italy.

A bizarre sub-plot then emerged when the Dutch team bus was taken on the scenic route through Buenos Aires’ back­streets prior to the game be­fore be­ing made to wait again on the pitch in front of a hos­tile crowd af­ter the Ar­gentina play­ers ar­rived five min­utes late. When they did turn up, the Ar­gen­tines be­gan a pas­sion­ate protest against René van de Kerkhof’s fore­arm plas­ter cast — some­thing the Dutch de­fender had been wear­ing all tour­na­ment with­out any ob­jec­tions. The Ital­ian ref­eree Ser­gio Gonella gave in and forced van de Kerkhof to ap­ply an ex­tra ban­dage.

with the at­mos­phere set, the tack­les flew in. A spite­ful but sur­pris­ingly open first half saw chances and im­por­tant saves at both ends. It was Kem­pes who fi­nally broke the dead­lock seven min­utes be­fore half-time from a now trade­mark ghost­ing run into the box.

The Dutch re­sponded well and con­trolled the second half, forc­ing a string of saves from Ubaldo Fil­lol, un­til Dick Nan­ninga’s well-di­rected header lev­elled the game with eight min­utes to go. In the last minute of the 90, Hol­land’s Rob Rensen­brink was put through on goal only for his shot to come back off the post. An al­ready tense, dra­matic game was head­ing to ex­tra time.

Menotti, who had re­port­edly told his play­ers to win it for the butch­ers and teach­ers of Ar­gentina, not for the gen­er­als in the presidential palace, man­aged to rouse his wilt­ing play­ers for a fi­nal push. Their pass­ing game re­turned with panache and the pres­sure told just be­fore the second pe­riod of ex­tra time when, fol­low­ing a mazy run, Kem­pes again found him­self one-on-one, his shot bob­bling up and even­tu­ally in off flail­ing Dutch legs.

The Dutch pushed for an equaliser leav­ing gaps at the back which Kem­pes again ex­ploited, set­ting up Ber­toni to seal the deal and see the Dutch crushed in a second suc­ces­sive World Cup fi­nal. The scenes in the

sta­dium were eu­phoric, but were nothing to the party al­ready un­fold­ing on the crowded streets out­side.

in a world where al­most ev­ery na­tion claims to have the most pas­sion­ate fans, Ar­gentina had a stronger case than most. With a his­tory of un­der­per­form­ing in ma­jor com­pe­ti­tions de­spite their sta­tus, from their very first fi­nal in 1930 to their fee­ble elim­i­na­tion in West Ger­many in 1974, for their fans, the 1978 vic­tory had been a long time com­ing and they were not go­ing to let the op­por­tu­nity to cel­e­brate pass.

The horns, fire­works and songs could be heard on the throng­ing streets out­side the Navy Petty-Of­fi­cers School of Me­chan­ics. The guards were in cel­e­bra­tion mode, too. Around 20 pris­on­ers had watched the game with them, less than a hand­ful of whom would sur­vive to tell the tale. They had seen, on a tiny black-and-white tele­vi­sion, the tri­umphant Gen­eral Jorge Rafaél Videla and his deputy Emilio Ed­uardo Massera hand­ing over the fa­mous tro­phy to the Ar­gen­tine cap­tain Daniel Pas­sarella.

Some of th­ese pris­on­ers were taken on a macabre field trip by their guards, es­corted into a Peu­geot 504 in which they were driven among the ju­bi­lant masses, be­fore din­ing at a raucous pizza restau­rant. Gra­ciela Da­leo was one of them. She asked if she could put her head through the sun­roof of the car. “I stood up on the seat and looked at that mul­ti­tude,” she re­called decades later. “That was another mo­ment of ter­ri­ble soli­tude. I was cry­ing. I was cer­tain that if I be­gan to shout that I was a ‘dis­ap­peared’, then no one would even no­tice.”

the junta stayed in power for five more years. It’s es­ti­mated that a to­tal of 30,000 peo­ple were killed in its seven-year reign, with 5,000 ab­ducted and held cap­tive at the Navy Petty-Of­fi­cers School of Me­chan­ics and an un­known num­ber go­ing “miss­ing” even as the tour­na­ment was played out.

Many Ar­gen­tini­ans, the play­ers in­cluded, would say that they hadn’t re­alised the scale un­til much later. Ardiles for one ad­mit­ted to be­liev­ing the junta’s pro­pa­ganda, with its care­fully worded slo­gan to counter in­ter­na­tional crit­ics and play on foot­ball's in­nate pa­tri­o­tism, “We Ar­gen­tines are right and hu­man”.

“There is no doubt that we were used po­lit­i­cally,” said Ricky Villa, who would be­come the player most vo­cal in his re­gret. Leopoldo Luque now be­lieves the tour­na­ment should never have been played. Al­berto Taran­tini made his own state­ment by shak­ing Videla’s hand with the one he’d just used to wash his gen­i­tals. “I have nothing to re­gret,” man­ager César Luis Menotti later said in an Ar­gen­tinian doc­u­men­tary. “I was very loyal to my team and to the peo­ple.”

For the foot­ball team, it was a turn­ing point. They would go on to win again in 1986 and have re­tained foot­balling su­per­power sta­tus to this day, with Lionel Messi con­tin­u­ing to in­spire hope of a third tro­phy in Russia.

The regimes in Russia to­day and Ar­gentina all those years ago are too dif­fer­ent for di­rect com­par­isons, but it is cer­tainly per­ti­nent to re­mem­ber the spell World Cups can cast; di­vert­ing at­ten­tion from where it might oth­er­wise be fo­cused, strength­en­ing con­trol do­mes­ti­cally and if not pre­sent­ing a cud­dly side, then at least soft­en­ing op­po­si­tion to the watch­ing world. It’s a power foot­ball still has, and may in­deed be greater now than it was back in 1978. The ef­fects can also last for years.

For the “dis­ap­peared”, it took nearly 30 years be­fore the per­pe­tra­tors be­gan to face proper re­crim­i­na­tion and trial. Slowly it be­came one of the largest mass tri­als of crimes against hu­man­ity, be­fore or since. Wit­nesses, older and with fad­ing mem­o­ries, re­counted their tes­ti­monies of lost hus­bands, wives, brothers, sis­ters and chil­dren. The madres had be­come abue­las (grand­moth­ers), still march­ing ev­ery Thurs­day.

Even then, in­tim­i­da­tion of victims and cor­rup­tion still loomed. In De­cem­ber 2007, Ar­gen­tine coast­guard of­fi­cer Héc­tor Fe­bres, nick­named “The Sav­age” for his vi­cious tor­tur­ing of dis­si­dents at the naval school, was found dead from cyanide poi­son­ing in his cell just four days be­fore he was due to tes­tify against for­mer col­leagues.

On 29 June 2008, Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo ar­ranged a com­mem­o­ra­tive match at the El Mon­u­men­tal sta­dium for play­ers and sur­vivors of Ar­gentina’s Dirty War. An at­tempt to pro­vide at least some cathar­sis for the role foot­ball had played in en­abling the hor­ror, it was called “The Other Fi­nal Match — for Life and Hu­man Rights”.

For one of the event’s or­gan­is­ers, Ma­bel Gu­tiér­rez, “the 1978 World Cup was a gold brooch for re­pres­sion, a mundial [cup] that was made to wash the faces of the mur­der­ers in front of the world.” While many Ar­gen­tini­ans agree, oth­ers share Menotti’s view that the two are sep­a­rate, that it was the peo­ple’s vic­tory, in spite of the regime; it re­mains a sub­ject many don’t want to con­front.

At The Other Fi­nal Match, the day be­gan out­side the naval school, now a memorial to the victims. In the sta­dium, where 80,000 had cel­e­brated their coun­try’s first World Cup win three decades ear­lier, a gi­ant flag cov­ered with the names of 30,000 Los De­sa­pare­ci­dos was placed where Videla and his cronies had sat through­out the tour­na­ment. Only three play­ers from the orig­i­nal squad showed up. The sta­dium itself was half-full.

Top: school­child­ren form a ‘World Cup’ at the tour­na­ment’s open­ing cer­e­mony in the El Mon­u­men­tal Sta­dium

Left: Ar­gentina coach César Luis Menotti’s own pol­i­tics were at odds with the junta’s Above right: Jorge Rafaél Videla, Ar­gentina’s dic­ta­tor, cen­tre, watches Scot­land play Peru in Cor­doba, 3 June 1978

Top: army troops loyal to the coun­try’s hard­line mil­i­tary junta were con­stantly on pa­trol at all pub­lic gath­er­ings in Ar­gentina Cen­tre: the Navy Petty-Of­fi­cers School of Me­chan­ics, a se­cret de­ten­tion cen­tre in Buenos Aires, where more than 4,850 died Bot­tom: Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, aka ‘Moth­ers of the Dis­ap­peared’, have sought jus­tice for kid­napped chil­dren since 1977

Top left: the score­board at the 1978 World Cup fi­nal tells the story of the game — won by the Ar­gen­tine squad in ex­tra time Top right: host na­tion striker Mario Kem­pes scored twice against The Nether­lands to fin­ish as the tour­na­ment’s top-scorer Above: it was a vic­tory for the peo­ple of Ar­gentina — but also for the dic­ta­tor­ship

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