June 25 – The Shame of Argentina ’78

AS the world gears up for the Beijing Olympics, it’s been impossible to ignore the old debate over sport and politics. With discussion raging over China’s human rights record and Tibet, these Olympics promise to one of the most political since the Cold War. The World Cup has generally tended to avoid these controversies, with one memorable exception.

The 1978 World Cup was held in Argentina who had two year previously been taken over by a military junta, when Lt. Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla seized power via a military coup. The final was played today in 1978, when the host nation defeat the Netherlands, albeit in predictably controversial circumstances.

When the junta was awarded the tournament they saw this it as a massive PR exercise that would unite the fractured country and give the regime prestige on the world stage. Money was pumped in, as the original budget went from $70-$100m to at least $700m, money that the country could ill-afford. The bulk of this went on building roads to connect the venues, introducing colour TV and papering over the cracks so that foreign visitors could not see the true state of the country.

Huge concrete walls were put up to cover the nation’s slums, dubbed ‘The Misery Wall’ and the junta undertook Operation El Barrido, which saw flats raided and the politically suspect ‘disappeared’ at the rate of 200 per day as the dictatorship feared that foreign journalists may go snooping around.

It’s also alleged that another wedge of cash had to go the Peruvian government, as the Argentines resorted to bribing Peru in a their final group game, where Argentina needed to win at least 4-0 to guarantee progression to the semis. Peru were no means a bad side, and when they lost 6-0 eyebrows were raised.

The Sunday Times broke this story on the eve of England’s clash with Argentina in 1986, claiming that Argentina had shipped 35,000 tons of free grain to Peru, along with free arms and unfroze $50m in credits that the Argentine national bank was holding. With Peruvian generals short of money and happy to help a fellow junta, they were happy to assist.

The final itself was no less controversial. Holland had made it to their second consecutive final, this time without their key player Johan Cruyff. At the time he claimed he was missing the tournament as a protest against the junta in Argentina, but recently gave an interview saying that the real reason was a bungled kidnap attempt in Barcelona the year before that kept him from the tournament.

The Argentine authorities played games with the Dutch from the offset, driving their team coach the wrong way to the stadium, stopping in a small village where tens of fans banged on the bus windows shouting ‘Argentina, Argentina, Argentina!’ for over 20 minutes. They also bullied FIFA into changing the referee, as the respected offical Abraham Klein was vetoed by Argentina and Italian Serio Gonella was put in charge, giving a woeful, one-sided performance in favour of the home team.

The match itself saw the crowd whipped up to the max, as the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires provided one of the most intimating atmospheres for a football match ever seen, with over 70,000 uber-psyched fans penned in by scores of threatening looking military police. If Holland had managed to upset the odds and win, lord knows how they would’ve made it out of the stadium.

Argentina took a first half lead through Mario Kempes and despite the constant gamesmanship and scandalous refereeing the Dutch managed an equaliser with 8 minutes left through Dick Nanninga.

In injury time came one of Dutch football’s most heartbreaking moments, as captain Ruud Krol’s 60-yard pass played in Rob Rensenbrink who’s shot from an angle hit the post, denying the Oranje their first major title by a matter of centimetres. See it’s not just England that have the monopoly on international heartbreak.

In extra-time Argentina scored twice through Kempes and Daniel Bertoni, meaning that the junta had their title. However, it didn’t bring them the international praise that they had naively hoped for, as the tournament brought almost universal bad publicity to the nation, with people across the globe learning about the desperate state of Latin American politics, and the atrocities committed by the various military regimes in the region.

See all the action from the most controversial World Cup in recent memory below and like another Ronaldo story we’ll be back tomorrow, but with more to say.

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