June 21, 2008 3:00 am

But Was This The Beautiful Game's Ugliest Moment?

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Thirty years ago, Argentina won the World Cup in Buenos Aires amid wild scenes of exaltation.

The more one knows about the 1978 world cup in argentina, the more obvious it becomes: the tournament should never have been played. Part of the reason lies in a pleasant-looking complex at the northern end of Avenida del Libertador in Buenos Aires. close to the River Plate Stadium where World Cup matches were staged, including the final.

Inside the stadium, stars such as Mario Kempes, Osvaldo Ardiles and Leopoldo Luque performed their magic. Hysterical home fans hurled confetti and screamed with joy as the goals went in. When Argentina triumphed in the final against Holland, the fans poured into the streets to celebrate with a nationalistic fervour probably unmatched in the history of the game.

In the complex on the Avenida del Libertador it was another story. Belatedly, the place has been turned into a memorial, but the original name survives on the front of the building: Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada - the ESMA. There's a wrought-iron fence, adorned as a child's bedroom might be with cheerful images of boats, a broad driveway, big trees and white neo-classical pillars. Off to the side, down a small road, is a jumble of lesser structures. What happened here in the late 1970s is still the source of nightmares.

Diego Maradona was too young to play in 1978, but long after the event he used a memorable phrase to argue for the integrity of the sport. Maradona admitted that he had made mistakes but insisted football itself was pure. "The ball is clean," he declared. The 1978 tournament proved the contrary: the ball can be anything but clean.

In March 1976, the Argentine military seized power in a coup widely welcomed at the time. Having lived through two years of murderous anarchy under president Isabel Peron, most Argentines believed things could only get better. A rising tide of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations from the revolutionary left had spawned vicious counter-terror from the right. Burned, bullet-riddled bodies turned up on the streets of Buenos Aires almost daily. There had been 1,500 political murders in 1975, but things were about to get much worse.

Argentina had plenty of experience of military dictatorships. In the past, "subversives" were locked up. The new regime had a different plan: physical annihilation of everyone they didn't like. In June 1978, junta leader General Jorge Rafael Videla presided over the World Cup opening ceremony, and presented the trophy after the final. Three years earlier, he had explained his philosophy of government: "As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure." Or as the military governor of the province of Buenos Aires put it in 1977: "First, we must kill all subversives; then their sympathisers; then those who are indifferent; and finally, we must kill all those who are timid."

No one knows for sure the true number of people the regime had slaughtered by the time it fell in 1983 after starting and losing the Falklands war. The usual figure given is 30,000.

The ESMA was the busiest of the junta's 340 detention centres. Dragged from their homes, victims were brought there in unmarked police cars. Under torture, they revealed names of friends who would in turn be kidnapped and tortured. Soon almost all the 2,000 members of the two main leftist groups, the Montoneros and the Marxist ERP, were dead. Yet the clandestine terror rolled on, devouring an ever-lengthening list of targets: trade unionists, students, lawyers, artists, writers, priests, Jews, psychoanalysts, schoolchildren. Sometimes, entire families were butchered. Of the 4,700 men, women and teenagers who entered ESMA only a handful survived.

After being tortured, prisoners were murdered, their bodies cut up and buried or burned on the sports field. By World Cup time, however, a new disposal method had been devised: death flights. Drugged victims were flown out of the city and thrown alive into the South Atlantic. When relatives tried to obtain information about missing loved ones, the military authorities denied all knowledge. The missing became known as desaparecidos: neither alive nor dead, said Videla, but "disappeared".

During the World Cup, the sounds of the cheering crowd mixed with the screams inside the ESMA. In a bizarre twist, inmates were sometimes invited to watch matches with their tormentors. On the night of the final, torturer-in-chief Jorge "The Tiger" Acosta entered the room. Survivor Graciela Daleo recalled: "[He] embraced us one by one and said 'We won! We won!' I remember feeling if he's won, we've lost. If this is a victory for him, it is a defeat for us." The guards then ordered a few prisoners to get into a Peugeot 504 and Acosta drove them among the crowds celebrating Argentina's victory. Daleo asked if she could stand up and put her head through the car roof. "I stood up and looked out. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Rivers and rivers of people singing, dancing, shouting. I began to cry, because I remember thinking if I start shouting 'I'm disappeared', no one's going to give a damn. This was the most concrete proof I ever had that I had ceased to exist."

In the words of Argentine journalist Ezequiel Fernandez Moores: "The 1978 World Cup was the most obvious political manipulation suffered by sport since the Olympic Games of 1936 in Nazi Germany." Simply put, the men who organised mass murder also organised the World Cup. They manipulated the tournament to get the result they wanted - Argentina crowned as world champions. Some believe that Argentine euphoria following this triumph extended the life of the dictatorship by several years.

The degree to which ordinary Argentines knew about the regime's atrocities and how far they were complicit is still disputed. There was also a good deal of wilful denial. Andrew Graham-Yooll, former news editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, who fled to Britain months after the coup, was shaken to receive a letter from a family member in Buenos Aires scolding him for writing "horrible things about Argentina" in his "awful new leftwing paper" (The Guardian). The relative assured him no one was being killed in Argentina and "everybody should come and enjoy a nice asadito [barbecue]".

In the outside world, detailed information about the horror was supplied by human rights groups, especially Amnesty International. Despite the brave Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and campaigns by small leftist groups in Europe, no competing nation boycotted the World Cup, and only one well-known player pulled out on moral grounds (West Germany's Paul Breitner).

When human rights groups urged that the World Cup be played elsewhere the generals portrayed this as a European ploy to avoid playing in South America, where they had never won. The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was virtually alone - and totally ignored - when he said: "Certainly I am against the World Cup. It is a national calamity."

When the football kicked off, British journalist Brian Glanville wrote that referees appeared to be favouring Argentina, and found himself subjected to abuse from Argentine friends and colleagues. Fernandez Moores believes the junta's objective changed during the tournament: at first it simply wanted to show it could organise a global event. As their team progressed, however, and as street celebrations became ever wilder and expectations rose, the generals decided Argentina would have to win the tournament.

In Argentina's first match, two Hungarian players were sent off, but numerous bad Argentine fouls went unpunished. Argentina won 2-1. Against Michel Platini's France, Argentina were outplayed but won again, thanks to a penalty for a non-existent French foul, and the denial of a French penalty for a clear foul on Didier Six. The first and only time Argentina faced a strong-minded independent referee (the Israeli Abraham Klein) they lost 1-0 to Italy.

In the second round, another dirty, badly refereed match, against Brazil, ended 0-0. Argentina then overcame Poland 2-0, thanks in part to Kempes diving full length like a goalkeeper to palm away a certain Poland equaliser. Thus the stage was set for Argentina's crucial game against Peru, probably the most scandalous in the history of the World Cup.

The Argentine committee in charge of World Cup organisation was headed by the ruthless Carlos Lacoste, protege of Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera, the navy's top man in the junta. Massera had set up the torture centre at ESMA and helped run it in its early days. Lacoste's committee had decided Brazil - Argentina's rivals for a place in the final - must play their last group match in the afternoon. Argentina would play a few hours later with the huge advantage of knowing they had to beat Peru by at least four goals to reach the final.

In the event, Argentina won 6-0, which was surprising because in the first round Peru had thrashed Scotland and Iran and drawn with Holland. On the evidence of watching the game again (highlights currently available on YouTube) one can understand why Glanville claimed that the Peruvians were "obviously bought".

For the first 15 minutes Peru, playing vigorously, are the better team. Then their running, passing and tackling falls away to near zero and they begin giving the ball away - and Argentina start rattling in goals.

Most Argentines still insist the match was fair. Raul Fain Binda waves away reports of match-fixing: "That is just gossip. Is there any proof? You want it to be true! In Argentina it wasn't an issue then and it isn't an issue now. Nobody cares about it and nobody remembers about it." He says there was nothing suspicious about the many odd refereeing decisions in other matches in Argentina's favour. "I don't think there was anything particularly wrong. In any tournament you have decisions that are not quite clear. In England in 1966, when Rattin was sent off... in Argentina they would say 'it was such an injustice, it was not normal'. I watch football now and some refereeing decisions are quite strange."

The more interesting question about the Peru game is: if it was fixed, then how? The Argentine investigative journalist Maria Laura Avignolo published a plausible account in The Sunday Times in 1986 - and received death threats as a result. Later her work received added support from David Yallop in his book How They Stole the Game. According to Yallop, General Videla ordered Captain Lacoste to fix the result, and Lacoste negotiated the details with three senior officials travelling with the Peruvian squad. They agreed the price: 35,000 tonnes of grain to be shipped from Argentina to Peru, $50m of credits to be unfrozen and substantial bribes paid directly to Peruvian officials from accounts held by the Argentine navy.

Three members of the Peru squad were offered money to ensure the "correct result" by a senior member of the ruling junta. The players received just $20,000 each. When Carlos Ares, a journalist from a pro-junta paper who had close access to the Argentine squad, voiced suspicions that the game was fixed, Lacoste threatened to have him killed. Ares fled into exile in Spain.

Before the game, General Videla (accompanied by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger) visited the Peruvian dressing room and lectured them on the need for Latin American solidarity. The players had never seen a dictator up close and were terrified.

In the subsequent final against Holland, many of Argentina's misdeeds - coming on to the field late, objecting to the Dutch player Rene van de Kerkhof's bandage, Passarella laying out Neeskens with a blow to the face, blatant handling, time-wasting, and so forth - were the stuff of normal gamesmanship. The Dutch themselves committed dozens of fouls and Italian referee Sergio Gonella was ineffective.

Brian Glanville says there is still a mystery about the game. "Argentina were dead at the end of 90 minutes. Then suddenly they came out for extra time recharged. How that happened I just don't know. It seems physically quite unfeasible. They were by far the more vigorous team in extra time. Far more pace and running than Holland. But if they took any kind of stimulants, I would have thought it was very difficult for them to take it before the beginning of extra time. And if they had taken them earlier, why hadn't they shown earlier? I can't answer that. But I did find it extremely odd and I still do."

Amid the "collective delirium" of victory even victims of repression were confused. Left or right, torturer or victim, Argentines love football. Watching on TV from his exile in Madrid, the writer Pacho O'Donnell didn't know if he was crying with grief or joy when Kempes and Bertoni scored the winning goals in extra time.

Before and during the final some Dutch players thought they might not be allowed to leave the city alive if they won. Fernandez Moores thinks the Dutchmen were safe but the regime itself was in danger. "During the dictatorship, it was forbidden to be in the streets but during the World Cup, people were in the streets, dancing, shouting, celebrating. The streets were again for the people. When Argentina lost to Italy the people still went to the streets anyway. I think if Argentina had lost that final, the military would have fallen."

As it was, the generals soared on the wave of ecstasy. They invaded the Falklands in 1982 in large part to rekindle the feelings of nationalism and unity generated by the 1978 World Cup. Jimmy Burns, a Financial Times journalist who has published books on Argentina and Maradona, was in Buenos Aires at the time. "In 1982, the Argentines defended the title in the middle of the Falklands war and I saw the same collective denial [as in 1978]. On state TV, coverage of the war was almost in terms of its being like a football match. At the same time, everyone was saying, 'we're going to win the World Cup'. Then you had this extraordinary coincidence: the moment the bubble bursts on the football pitch - Argentina lose to Brazil and Maradona gets the red card - is the very moment British troops enter Port Stanley and the whole military defence of the Malvinas collapses like a pack of cards. Then the whole edifice falls."

Argentina has never had a process comparable to Germany's post-war de-nazification or South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There is still no accepted history of what happened. Trials were at first restricted to nine principal junta leaders and a series of blanket amnesties were granted which were only reversed fairly recently. As a result, the "dirty war" still casts a long shadow.

In relation to the 1978 World Cup, most Argentines preferred to deny there was a dark side to the tournament. Instead, they remembered it as a joyous moment of relief during a dark time, something distinct from the generals, even an act of defiance of them.

Some also chose to see the street parties as an expression of relief from oppression rather than patriotic fervour. Raul Fain Binda says: "The common people at the time started to know what was happening. I don't think they knew the extent of the situation, but they could smell something and they were against the junta." As for the football: "The political situation was on one side and the sporting situation was on the other. The people have many ways of coping during a brutal dictatorship. It would have been different if Menotti and the players had been puppets of the junta. But they were not. So people were happy on the one side and they repudiated the other things. I don't see why you insist on putting the two things together. The people were happy independently from the military. I think the cup was clean - because of the people."

Attitudes may now be changing. Young film-maker Gaston Biraben's 2003 movie Cautiva (Prisoner), for example, opens with remarkable footage of the final. Bertoni scores, Videla, Massera and the hysterical flag-waving crowd celebrate. Only later in the film do we understand the nightmarish undertow. It turns out that in a torture centre the same night a female political prisoner, soon to be murdered, gave birth to a baby girl who was then given to a military family. The rest of the film follows the girl as a teenager confronting and trying to come to terms with this horror.

The tournament also looms hideously in Martin Kohan's novel June Twice. The first June is World Cup month. During the Argentina-Italy match a young soldier is confronted with a peculiar technical question: at what age is it permissible to torture a child? The second June is years later as ripples of old horrors disturb the surface of a newly democratic Argentina.

In 2003, Fernandez Moores made a TV film revealing the dark side of 1978 which aired on a popular Argentine channel in prime time and received generally favourable reviews. While his views are still in a small minority, he suggests that attitudes to 1978 have changed, though few Argentines would want to discuss the subject with outsiders.

"This country loves football and we are very nationalistic. Nobody likes to talk in public about his dirty clothes, but I think the people in general feel some guilt about 1978. It is very difficult for people to talk about this in public but inside, many people believe that it was not an honest World Cup. It was not honest that we were all celebrating when many other people were suffering. We say: what were we doing at that moment? How could we be so... I don't know if stupid is the word... selfish maybe. So we can't be so happy. We prefer to remember the Mexico World Cup in 1986. It was in another country and we finally showed we were the best not because of Videla, but because we had good players and because we had good football."

David Winner is author of "Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football" (Bloomsbury).

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