When it comes to the World Cup tournament, host nations have long used the event as a giant diversionary tool. Whether the economy is sagging (South Africa), corruption scandals are raging (Brazil) or world bodies have levied sanctions in response to illegal interventions (Russia), the festivities can serve as a handy public-relations veil to mask unpalatable geopolitical truths. And it’s hardly a recent phenomenon: The World Cup has been a favorite plaything of politicians for decades, and perhaps never so much as the 1978 version, held in Argentina.
When that tournament kicked off in June 1978, Argentina was in the thick of its bloody military dictatorship, often referred to as the Dirty War. It began just over two years earlier when the country’s military leaders arrested the democratically elected president, Isabel Perón, and installed General Jorge Rafael Videla.
A severe authoritarian with cold staring eyes, Videla was not a fan of soccer, which he found dull and pedestrian and interesting only as a “symbol of popular transcendence.” He rarely, if ever, watched the sport. But he also understood how immensely popular it was, a source of passion for millions of Argentines and for countless more around the world. Just hours after taking power—with the South American nation under martial law and a curfew, its Congress closed and all unions suspended—Videla and the other military leaders who planned the coup found time to discuss the World Cup.
Hosting rights to the tournament had been awarded to Argentina more than a decade earlier, but Videla and his closest confidants recognized it as a key instrument for maintaining their power and putting down dissent. With a deeply troubled economy suffering under inflation rates topping 300% and armed opposition from leftist guerrillas known as Montoneros, winning popular support at home and abroad was seen as critical for ensuring stability.
Beating back international critics
“Holding the tournament will show the world that Argentina is a trustworthy country, capable of carrying out huge projects,” advised Admiral Emilio Massera. “And it will help push back against the criticism that is raining on us from around the world.”
Within weeks, the military junta, ignoring concerns that the costs of the tournament could bankrupt the country, officially designated the World Cup a matter of “national interest.” And despite rules from FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, mandating that national governments not be directly involved in organizing the tournament, the Junta created a new entity run by high-ranking officers that would manage the task under military supervision. Videla, intent on holding the power he had stolen, was not going to leave anything to chance.
In the wake of the coup, international condemnation of the junta had been growing more strident; in Europe in particular, critical voices grew increasingly louder.
Disappearances in Argentina were increasingly common, with a growing number of intellectuals, artists, teachers and even professional athletes being picked up by government agents, never to be heard from again. Over several years, an astonishing 18 members of the La Plata Rugby Club, some of whom were known to hold left-wing political beliefs, were disappeared and never seen alive again. And all the while, a heavily censored press blamed everything on vaguely defined “terrorists,” who were the alleged enemies of the Argentine public and had to be stopped at all costs.
Calls for a boycott
In late 1977, a group of French journalists and intellectuals formed the Organizing Committee for the Boycott of the Argentina World Cup, known for its French acronym, C.O.B.A. They planned an organized campaign designed to persuade the French national team, led by the curly-haired goal scorer Michel Platini, to skip the tournament altogether.
“We should not play soccer amid the concentration camps and torture chambers,” the organization’s manifesto proclaimed, urging not only France but also Spain, Italy, Sweden, Holland and Scotland to stay away. Flyers papered on walls around Paris took the official logo of the World Cup, a pair of stylized upraised arms framing a soccer ball, and added grim-looking barbed wire.
Amnesty International, which kept a running count of the disappeared and murdered by the regime, published an impassioned statement of its own, noting that “sports is not separate from politics: the stadiums of Argentina might appear if not neutral, at least clean, respectable, civilized, protected (all possible measures will be put into action to achieve that effect). The true Argentina, one of prisons, torture, repression of political opposition, will be carefully hidden and denied.”
In anticipation of that kind of coverage, the Junta had previously hired American public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller on a million-dollar retainer to “assist in promoting confidence in and goodwill toward the country and its government” outside Argentina. Account executives in New York put together a detailed plan focused on developing a “new image” built around “stability,” with the centerpiece being the World Cup and the need to counter any negative publicity developing overseas. Videla repudiated the negative coverage abroad, calling it a coordinated strategy of lies and disinformation that he dubbed “anti-Argentine.”
The Junta cracks down
Thanks to an iron grip on the domestic press, the Junta was able to convince the majority of Argentines that they were victims of this campaign, and actively encouraged them to push back. One memorable effort had a weekly women’s publication, Para Ti, encouraging readers to send postcards, conveniently included in the pages of the magazine, to friends overseas. “Defend Your Argentina,” the promotion read. “Show the world the truth.”
In the months leading up to the tournament, Argentine military police, many of them not yet 20 years old, roamed city streets, stopping people seemingly at random, demanding identity documents and, often, bribes. Checkpoints littered roads around the country, and vehicles were routinely stopped and searched. Impoverished neighborhoods located near stadiums and airports were forcibly cleared to keep them away from foreign eyes. By the time FIFA president João Havelange, a Brazilian, arrived on May 23, 1978, Argentina had put its best face to the world.
“I am among those that most depended on the hard work that your country undertook and I haven’t been disappointed,” Havelange told the local press corps. “It fills me with pride, first from knowing that Argentina responded to the challenge and second because I am also South American. We have achieved everything we proposed.”
The games begin, less than a mile from the torture
The opening match, on June 1, was preceded by an opening ceremony, held before 67,000 spectators in Buenos Aires’ Estadio Monumental, which had been completely overhauled for the occasion.
A military band announced General Videla’s entrance in the stadium, followed by a blessing from the Pope delivered by the Catholic Cardinal of Argentina, Juan Carlos Aramburu, who had publicly disputed the growing evidence of mass murder by the Junta, making the astonishing claim that the nation’s disappeared were in fact happily living in Europe and couldn’t be bothered to write home. Before Videla and Havelange could make their speeches, handlers on the pitch released hundreds of white doves.
It was a cold but sunny day, and as the doves flapped up and out of the stadium, they could be seen from the infamous Navy Superior Mechanics School, or ESMA, a cluster of buildings less than a mile away where thousands of people were being tortured, interrogated, imprisoned and finally murdered by the Argentine Junta.
Many of the victims, violently kidnapped in front of their own families, were pregnant women whose babies were stolen shortly after birth, then packed into military airplanes and hurled into the broad Rio de la Plata to drown and sink into the icy waters.
“The thousands of men and women from the most diverse regions of the Earth honor us with their visit here, under the condition that it be in a climate of affection and mutual respect,” Videla intoned to the crowd. “It is the competition on the playing field and the bonds in the field of human relations that permit us to affirm that it is possible to harmonize unity and diversity, even today.”
Henry Kissinger validates the dictator
On June 20, Henry Kissinger, a huge soccer fan, arrived in Buenos Aires, accompanied by his wife and son. The bespectacled diplomat was greeted warmly, photographed drinking the traditional Argentine hot beverage mate and whisked around town to meet with the cream of local society, chased by a flock of fawning press who detailed his every movement on the front pages of the national papers.
“I believe Argentina will be champion,” Kissinger told local reporters before being driven to a forced 40-minute encounter with writer Jorge Luis Borges, who afterward refused to confirm questions from reporters wondering if the former Secretary of State was “brilliant.”
The timing of the visit was, to say the least, awkward. Kissinger was no longer representing the U.S. government, and President Jimmy Carter, in office since January, had been increasingly critical of the Argentine Junta and its human-rights record. The very public appearance of the leading foreign-policy voice of the prior U.S. administration was bound to sow confusion and undercut Washington’s interests.
Diplomatic cables released years later showed that Kissinger missed no opportunity to laud the Argentine dictator. “His praise for the Argentine government in its campaign against terrorism was the music the Argentine government was longing to hear,” one such cable remarked.
On June 21, President Carter opened the General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C., with a speech reaffirming his commitment to human rights—even as Kissinger, in Buenos Aires, seemed to spend nearly every free moment in the company of General Videla, pausing to smile broadly for the cameras.
Indeed, Kissinger lunched with Videla that very same day, which happened to coincide with a critical semifinal match that would determine whether the host country would play in the World Cup final. Argentina was playing Peru, and under the rules of the tournament at the time, had to win by at least four goals to advance to the championship match.
After lunch, Kissinger and Videla flew together to Rosario to watch Argentina play. Peru, the surprise team of the tournament, had smoked through its first-round games, scoring seven goals while giving up only two, with its star striker, Teófilo Cubillas, netting five of those.
The general’s ‘friendly’ chat with the opposing team
It was only Peru’s third World Cup appearance in history, and the team had never before, or since, come so close to the final match. The prior night Peru’s players slept poorly as, without warning, the security guards and military police protecting their hotel disappeared, and Argentina fans circled the building blasting car horns and shouting soccer chants well past midnight.
The following afternoon, the bus taking the Peruvian team to Rosario Central stadium got mysteriously lost several times en route; a trip that should have taken no more than 30 minutes cost more than two hours, leaving the players in their dressing room just an hour before kickoff. Then, 20 minutes before game time, the locker room doors opened and in walked General Videla, in a double-breasted suit, accompanied by Kissinger.
Although the general attended eight matches during the 25-day tournament, including most of Argentina’s appearances, Peru’s was the only locker room the general visited.
“Gentlemen,” Videla ominously began said through his thick black mustache. “I just wanted to tell you this game tonight is one between brothers, and in the name of Latin American brotherhood, I am here to share my hopes that things turn out well. Latin America is watching you.”
Videla finished by reading a letter from the dictator of Peru, General Francisco Morales-Bermúdez, that spoke of cooperation between the two nations. Then he and Kissinger, along with a heavily armed military escort, turned and left.
The match that ensued is one of the most commented-on, analyzed, scrutinized and criticized in soccer history. Much has been made about the overall quality of play, the lack of energy exhibited by Peru’s side and the questionable refereeing.
Over the years,numerousallegations have emerged: among them, that one of Peru’s defenders, Rodolfo Manzo, received an anonymous phone call offering him $50,000 to throw the game and was put in the starting lineup despite an injury; that a group of Peruvians players were offered $250,000 to let in goals; and that Videla brokered a secret deal with Peru’s leader, General Morales-Bermúdez, to arrest and imprison more than a dozen Peruvian dissidents in Argentina, disburse $50 million to high officials in Peru and finally deliver a massive grain shipment to the Andean nation, all in exchange for a victory.
Just as vigorous have been the repeated denials that anything untoward happened on the pitch, coming from players on both teams, coaches and numerous soccer officials. The match, they claim, was fair. Some reports even suggested that the Peruvian players were offered cash and even beachfront real estate in exchange for a victory over Argentina.
Regardless, the result was highly favorable to Argentina: a 6-0 shellacking highlighted by two goals from Mario Kempes, the long-haired striker known as the Matador.
Prisoners driven around during post-game hysteria
Four days later, Argentina faced the Netherlands for the World Cup championship in the Monumental Stadium and came away with a 3-1 overtime victory behind two goals from Kempes and a heart-stopping shot off the post from Dutch forward Rob Rensenbrink. The final whistle blew and, at last, Argentina was the world champion.
The Dutch side, despondent at the loss, left the field and did not return to collect their second-place medals; some later said they didn’t want to shake a dictator’s hand. Havelange descended to the field and handed the World Cup trophy to Videla, who in turn gave it to Argentine captain Daniel Passarella.
The celebrations could finally begin.
Scarcely a mile away, guards at the ESMA escorted some of their prisoners to waiting cars and drove them around the city to witness the mass euphoria, ordering them to put their heads out the windows and watch. One car stopped at a local pizzeria and the prisoners, many who hadn’t been outside the compound’s walls for years, stood there, pale, trembling and terrified as patrons jumped on tables and sang triumphant soccer songs. Nobody seemed to notice when they were put back in the cars and taken back to their torture chambers.
For Videla, and for the men who had worked behind the scenes to put together the World Cup, it was now their moment of glory, the culmination of a grand plan. That night, in the ornate ballroom of Buenos Aires’ Plaza Hotel, Videla gave a final speech.
“I want to thank those who permitted Argentina to be the host of this event and gave the Argentine people a chance to show what it is capable of,” Videla said.
The World Cup, the strongman added, was “the symbol of peace.”
Ken Bensinger, an award-winning investigative reporter at BuzzFeed News, is the author of Red Card, the definitive chronicle of the global FIFA corruption scandal. Follow him on Twitter @kenbensinger.