The Dirty World Cup: Looking Back At Argentina ’78

Joel Harvey

The FIFA World Cup is a tournament that now produces contradictory emotions. Every four years, us football fans eagerly await it, ready to drink in the festival of football. Yet, we’re also starting to dread its arrival too, and that’s not just because of the inevitable England collapse either. You see, the tournament doesn’t feel all that pure these days, it’s been tainted. It feels dirty.

The recent scandal at FIFA has no doubt helped a growing ennui surrounding the World Cup. It was clearly questionable to award Russia and Qatar (two countries with horrible human rights records) the staging of the 2018 and 2022 tournaments. But it all made sense when we learned that bribes and bungs played a part in the selection process. And yet, here we still are: heading to Russia and Qatar, whilst the bodies continue to pile up…

But this isn’t anything new. Ethics can often be forgotten about when the global football circus comes to town. And none more so than in 1978, when Argentina hosted the World Cup.

The Dirty War in Argentina

In order to understand why the ’78 World Cup was clouded in controversy from the start, we must first understand the condition of Argentina as a country at the time, and it was not in a good shape. The nation had been under the rule of a military dictatorship since a coup d’état in 1976. A right-wing government was formed and fronted by the leader of the Argentine army, General Jorge Rafael Videla.

Videla’s un-elected government was known as the National Reorganization Process; which proved to be exactly as Orwellian as it sounded. Fighting what they called the “Dirty War” against an up-rising of guerrilla leftists, the NRP would systematically make their political enemies disappear. It has been estimated that up to 30,000 Argentine citizens vanished during the authoritarian reign of Videla. He was a man with no qualms about crushing under his boot anyone that got in his way.

So, immediate questions have to be asked about why FIFA would let the World Cup take place in a country under such barbaric rule. It may have been because the president of FIFA at the time was João Havelange.

Havelange and Videla

When Havelange was elected as FIFA president in 1974, he did so with a promise to expand the governing body like never before. He negotiated huge commercial deals for FIFA and for World Cup sponsorship rights. This transformed the competition into the worldwide money-spinner that we know today. In essence, Havelange was the root of all the business that would grow through FIFA. And this meant he became heavily implicated in the scandals there too, as he repeatedly faced allegations of accepting large-scale bribes.

Havelange would form plenty of powerful friendships during his tenure at the top of FIFA, including one with El Presidente himself, Videla. The awarding of the World Cup to Argentina came in 1966, long before either men’s reigns began. But they were both determined to put their own stamps on the tournament in 1978. For Havelange, he wanted this World Cup to reflect his new, global FIFA and secure more money for the tournament. Videla though, wanted this World Cup to promote Argentina, and help paper over the cracks of his dictatorial rule.

Together, the two would create an infamous World Cup in Argentina.

Concentration Camps

The start of the 1978 World Cup was marred by the public knowledge of continual Argentine “disappearances”. A year prior, Interior Minister General Albano Harguindeguy had confirmed that 5,618 individuals had vanished into thin air. It later transpired that there was a concentration camp of political prisoners, located only a mile away from River Plate’s El Monumental stadium; a place where all of Argentina’s group games were held.

Inside the walls of this notorious ESMA (Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics) building, thousands of state enemies would be held prisoner against their will. Executions and tortures would take place here and yet, Argentina were playing football in front of the world just a few minutes up the road. It was an uneasy juxtaposition.

The insidious politics wasn’t confined to ESMA though. On the pitch, there were allegations and rumours of wrong-doing taking place in Argentina’s games too. They would give themselves group games at night, after all other games had finished. Which meant they always had an advantage of knowing exactly the result they needed.

Further accusations would grow towards the end of the tournament, when Argentina played a crucial tie against Peru. They needed at least a four-goal advantage to qualify for the final. But Peru were tough opposition having only conceded six goals in the whole tournament (three of those were against Brazil). Yet, the Argentine team would achieve what was required of them, winning by a healthy 6-0 in the end.

Eyebrows were raised by some though; had Videla (who was present at the game) ordered state intervention to create a favourable result? It certainly didn’t seem like a tactic that was beyond a man who was capable of mass executions. And despite these suspicions, it was never proven that this win was a tainted one.

Controversial Champions

Argentina would go on and win the World Cup final. It was a victory not only for the team, but also for the regime of Videla. Amidst the violence and disruptive nature of his fascistic regime, the nation was united in glory. It seemed that Videla had understood the power of football. He knew that the popularity of the game among the masses, could act as a useful form of distraction and propaganda. Even if he played no part in helping Argentina win the tournament, he would no doubt use their triumph to his advantage.

He would eventually lose his grip on power in 1983 though, and Argentina would return to a democratic government soon after. Videla was later convicted (twice) of crimes against humanity and numerous human rights abuses, and spent his final days in prison before his death in 2013.

The amoral and abusive shadow of Videla will forever loom large over the 1978 World Cup though. And worryingly, if FIFA continue to allow corruption in the game, there could be a repeat of this dirty World Cup in the future.

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