Argentina’s shameful World Cup 40 years on
Four decades ago, military junta welcomed tournament in time of torture and murder
Argentina’s national soccer team captain Daniel Passarella holds the World Cup trophy on June 25th, 1978, in Buenos Aires. Photograph: Staff/AFP/Getty Images
The kick-off of the World Cup in Russia not only marks the end of a run of several decades in which democracies have hosted the tournament, but also the 40th anniversary of the darkest edition in the event’s history.
In 1978 it was the military junta in Argentina that welcomed the global football family even as officers under its command were busily implementing the so-called Process of National Reorganisation, the code name for the campaign of extrajudicial torture and murder of thousands of left-wing guerrillas and dissidents.
For Argentina’s de facto president, Gen Jorge Rafael Videla, the carefully stage-managed event was an opportunity to legitimise his dictatorial regime at home and burnish its brutish image abroad. With the help of Fifa’s own dictator, its Brazilian president João Havelange, and a wonderful Argentine side, he achieved his aim in what was a sinister mix of sport and nefarious politics to rank with Mussolini’s hosting of the tournament in 1934 and Hitler’s Olympic Games two years later.
In a football-mad nation that every four years obsesses about the World Cup, victory in 1978 remains deeply polemical in Argentina and still churns up difficult emotions. For many the image of a beaming Videla handing over the trophy to captain Daniel Passarella stains the victory, and attempts to commemorate it inevitably draw protests from human rights groups.
Thrown into sea
On the very day Argentina defeated the Netherlands 3-1 in the final, Guillermo Marcelo Möller was disappeared, the last of 50 people picked up by the regime during the 25-day event. The match itself took place in the Monumental stadium, just 2km away from the notorious ESMA Navy Mechanics School, the busiest of the regime’s secret torture camps through which an estimated 5,000 people passed, many on their way to being drugged and thrown from military aircraft into the South Atlantic.
Graciela Daleo, who survived detention there, later testified how detainees could hear the celebrations at the stadium: “So close, and light years away from ESMA.” Her captors even took her out in a car to see the euphoric celebrations. Crying, she realised: “If I had attempted to shout out that I was a desaparcida, nobody would have given a damn.”
“When they were shouting ‘Goal!’, they were smothering the shouts of the tortured and killed,” was how Estela Carlotto, president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, put it in a 2003 documentary The Parallel History, which relates how the regime manipulated Argentines’ passion for football for its own ends.
The success the junta had in using the euphoria sparked by Argentina’s victorious progress through the tournament weighed heavily with the team’s manager César Luis Menotti, ironically himself a former communist militant with no love for the regime.
“I knew what the military were about, but this cruelty with the disappeared I never imagined,” he told an interviewer last year, recognising that after the tournament’s start “Videla began to feel as if he was an elected president”.
But the huge propaganda coup that was hosting the 1978 tournament was short-lived for the junta. The narcotic effect victory produced among the population quickly wore off, less because of the junta’s atrocious human rights record than its mismanagement of the economy.
Videla eventually stepped down in 1981 and the next year his successor Gen Leopoldo Galtieri tried to revive the euphoria of 1978 by invading the Falkland Islands. This time the impact was even shorter-lived. Ignominious defeat at the hands of the British did for the military who quit power in 1983.
Videla would eventually die in prison in 2013 while serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity. On his death the country’s secretary for sport said: “There are images, like the one of him handing over the trophy at the 1978 World Cup, which sadden history.”
Argentina’s World Cup-winning winger René Houseman would later recall: “We didn’t know what was going on in the country. Now I know and it disgusts me. I shook hands with Videla, now I’d prefer to cut it off.”