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Qatar World Cup soon to be added to Fifa’s dismal and shameless history

Echoes of 1978 tournament could be heard clearly during 2018 World Cup in Russia

On June 21st, 1978, a bomb exploded in the home of Juan Alemann, Argentina's finance minister. Nobody paid much attention: the nation was gripped by the World Cup football match taking place some 300 kilometres north in Rosario.

The host team was playing against Peru and needed to win by four clear goals in order to advance to the final. Television cameras were there to capture the moment: the exuberant 6-0 thrashing; the overcast filmic light, the ticker tape and the strangely ominous atmosphere which was the soundtrack to the tournament.

That day could be defined as the moment that the World Cup flipped from its original vision into the commercial juggernaut it would become. Alemann's mistake that summer had been to publicly criticise the millions spent on staging the event. He later stated he said the bomb had been placed on the instruction of vice-admiral Carlos Lacoste, the chief organising officer of the World Cup.

In the two years since the military junta had seized power from Isabel Peron, they had identified the World Cup as an opportunity to consolidate their regime. The volatility within Argentina coincided with a period of radical change within Fifa, football's governing body.

"I have come to change entirely the way Fifa works," declared João Havelange when he was elected president in 1974, after ousting England's Stanley Rous. "I have come to sell a product called football."

It was a blindingly simple ploy: to market arguably the only human pursuit that transcends political and ideological boundaries. Over his 24 years in charge, Havelange expanded the World Cup from the 16 teams in Argentina to 24 (for Spain 1982) and on to 32.

He expanded Fifa memberships, created the Confederations Cup, chased major sponsors like Adidas and Coca-Cola and hand-picked his preferred successor, Sepp Blatter. He negotiated, ahead of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the first of a series of lucrative broadcast rights deals with ISL, culminating in the £1.45 billion paid for the 2002 and 2006 tournaments, before the company collapsed in 2001 leaving debts of £150 million.

His future

In 2013, Havelange resigned as honorary president of Fifa after being found culpable in a bribery investigation and he died in 2016 at the age of 100.

But all of this was in his future. In 1978, he was only beginning to manipulate the mechanisms of Fifa and so the running of that tournament was left to his military hosts. The hallucinogenic nightmare for Argentinian people, particularly those in Buenos Aires, has since been documented in film, theatre, book and documentary. Thousands of families are still dealing with the grief and trauma of those seasons.

The backdrop to the 1978 World Cup was the junta’s policy of the sweeping arrests, interrogation, torture and disappearance of those with dissenting voices - or thoughts. Of the 30,000 estimated people disposed of by the junta during its five-year reign, about 4,500 passed through the notorious Naval Mechanics building.

Those detained were close enough to hear the cheers from the River Plate stadium. Sometimes, they were allowed to listen to the games with their captors. It was a surreal environment for a sports tournament.

"We knew perfectly well what was happening," said Brian Glanville, the distinguished Sunday Times football writer, in an interview years later. "It was a shocking time but the show went on, just like the Nazis were able to put on the Olympic Games in 1936. We had to travel past this building to go to some games in Buenos Aires knowing it was where the military regime had tortured dissidents. It was truly shocking."

Even if the information age was comparatively slow then, the murderous nature of the junta had been publicised across Europe. Calls to boycott the World Cup grew louder in the months before, from the French newspaper Le Monde to protest groups in the Netherlands. In the end, all 16 qualifying teams attended.

Objections

The lone conscientious objector was Paul Breitner, the German star with counter-cultural leanings. The Netherlands also travelled without its golden star, Johann Cryuff: it emerged decades later that Cryuff had stayed away for personal reasons.

The junta, for their part, hired the services of Burson and Marsteller, a New York public relations firm to sell the idea of a harmonious nation. The more visible slum dwellings of Buenos Aires were razed and a wall, painted with pretty house fronts disguised the unflattering landscape of the main arteries into the city.

Henry Kissinger, the heavily influential US diplomat, visited Gen Jorge Videla, the de facto president of Argentina, during the tournament and was in his company on the day of the Peru match. Years later, Peru players were adamant Kissinger had in fact accompanied Videla into their dressingroom before the crucial game with Argentina. All were baffled by the visit but it clarified their sense this was no ordinary game.

Allegations that the match was fixed will outlive the protagonists. It is enshrined as one of the most controversial games in World Cup history. It has been established a huge shipment of grain and a $50 million credit line was unfrozen in the days before the game. Over 30 years later, Genaro Ledusuma, a Peruvian senator, told Channel 4 news investigation reporter he believed the tournament to be a sham.

“I want to propose the annulment of the 1978 World Cup. Argentina should give it back. They should be investigated by Fifa and the judiciary.”

The likelihood of Fifa turning the spotlight on an old World Cup was less than zero. As a football event, the 1978 World Cup had been a fabulous success for the organisers. It was the last truly elitist tournament: admittance only to the top 16 teams in the world. The structure was different: eight teams emerged from four groups of four. Argentina were placed in a first round group with Italy, France and Hungary.

“This could turn out to be the group of death as far as you are concerned,” one of the generals told striker Leopald Luque after Argentina’s game with Hungary.

“Uppermost in my mind was that earlier that day the brother of a close friend of mine had disappeared,” Luque would recall in an interview. “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.”

Luque died of Covid complications in the summer of 2021, by which time world football existed on a different landscape. But the echoes of the 1978 tournament could be heard clearly during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The parallels were obvious and it was clear Fifa, as football's governing body, was unwilling to learn anything from the political and civil realities in Argentina during that period.

"All of the ulcers of Putinism that plague the modern Russian state – thievery, incompetence and corruption – affect Russian football too," said Boris Nemstov, the figurehead of Russia's political opposition to Putin in 2010 after Fifa announced Russia's bid had been successful.

While the Sochi Winter Olympics were more closely aligned with Putin's sporting interests – the $55 billion cost was, aside from the military budget, the biggest state undertaking of the century – the World Cup generated more headlines. Nemstov did not live to see the tournament he lamented: he was gunned down close to the Kremlin in 2015.

Meanwhile, the Russian state worked to present to the outside world a tolerant, more liberal front. The grim, advance warnings of Russian football hooliganism did not materialise. As an event, the tournament ran smoothly, with state military repressing their training and instincts as visiting fans indulged in the usual exhibitions of high jinks and street drinking.

Vladimir Putin could declare the tournament had erased a lot of western stereotypes about Russia. It was a chimera but it worked and a year later, Fifa president Gianni Infantino returned to Moscow to accept from Putin the order of friendship medal in the Kremlin.

The ethical complexities of Fifa endorsing the Russia World Cup is one for individual nations and the future generations to decide

The election of Infantino, in 2016, was trumpeted as a new dawn from Fifa: a decisive break with the clubby, corruptible decades under Havelange and Blatter. Just as there had been calls for a boycott in 1978, the years before the Russian World Cup heard similar demands.

In 2015, the then Ukrainian president Petro Poreshenko (who was due to defend charges of treason levelled at him by the Zelensky government in January but is now in Kyiv, in military fatigues) told Bild that after the invasion of Crimea, it was "unthinkable" the tournament could go ahead.

Zbignew Boniek, the chairman of the Polish FA went further. "It's a country engaged in war, who invaded another country. In 2010, when Fifa chose Russia to host, the situation was totally different."

Boycott

There were renewed calls after the UK government found that it was highly probable the poisoning in Salisbury of Sergei Skripal in March 2018 had been sanctioned by the Russian state. But nobody took it seriously, least of all Fifa.

Even now, with the world's attention transfixed by the appalling events in Ukraine, there are active calls to boycott the 2024 World Cup in Qatar after the litany of mistreatments suffered by migrant workers on its tournament infrastructure.

The peoples of shattered countries like Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan must be wondering what they must do to provoke such a unified global response to horrors inflicted on innocent civilians there. But the Russian invasion and the collective courage and spirit within Ukraine has prompted a unified political and humanitarian reaction. Sport has followed. Over the past week, there has been a rush by sports governing bodies to break ties with Russia.

Uefa pulled the Champions League final from St Petersburg; Schalke 04 ended its sponsorship ties with Gazprom, followed by Uefa itself – no great sacrifice as the energy company's stock price has taken a staggering hit over the past week.

The announcement by the Polish FA that it would refuse to play Russia in a scheduled World Cup play-off game forced Fifa’s hand in its belated decision to step up and announce a ban on Russia’s participation in international football for the foreseeable future.

That is the least of Mr Putin’s concerns this weekend. After all, the 2018 tournament has been played: Fifa has served its uses. The ethical complexities of Fifa endorsing the Russia World Cup is one for individual nations and the future generations to decide. But what is clear is Fifa and the IOC, the behemoth’s of world sport’s governance, can add their dealings with Russia to their dismal and shameless attitude of indifference to political realities.

The convenient separation of sport from the corrupt states who successfully lobbied to host their prestige events has in itself long past the point of moral bankruptcy. It will be left to Fifa’s member nations to demand its executive take steps to break with its bleak history of wilfully pragmatic naivety.

The Qatar World Cup, which has already cost an estimated 6,500 migrant workers their lives over the past decade, is little over eight months away. The country’s abysmal human rights record is a quick google click away. But Fifa’s blithe indifference to the moral compass of its World Cup host nations will continue.

Just last November, Gianni Infantino told a crowd in Doha he had never seen a nation as prepared to host the World Cup. He said: "It will not only be the best World Cup but also truly a unique one."

Vladimir Putin is not alone in having heard those words before.