The 1978 football World Cup was an extraordinary event, marked by the victory of the Argentina national football team at Buenos Aires. Their iconic blue and white attire, the loud cheer of more than 70,000 fans and the glory of winning at the Monumental— was an absolute sight to behold— for their nation and those times. But not everyone saw it that way. Why? You are soon to find out. Today we look back at one of the most controversial events in FIFA history.
The World Cup returned to South America in 1978, but political instability in Argentina almost derailed the tournament from taking place before a ball was even kicked. Whereas FIFA was concerned in 1974 about the possibility of Arab terrorism in West Germany in the aftermath of the Munich Massacre, in 1978 it was the threat of violence from within Argentina that worried soccer’s world governing body the most. Argentina had fallen under the brutal military dictatorship of General Jorge Rafael Videla, who came to power in a 1976 coup d’état that deposed Argentina’s president, Isabel Martinez de Peron. For two years, thousands of people had been killed by Videla’s ruling military junta, including Omar Actis, president of the World Cup Organizing Committee, who was assassinated by guerrillas. Led by the Netherlands, several nations talked of boycotting the World Cup in protest against Videla’s totalitarian regime and its violation of human rights. Eventually, the dictator exercised some diplomacy and guaranteed there would be no bloodshed during the competition, and the boycott never happened.
The tournament was marred with controversies, with the likes of corrupt officiating and death threats that gave the Albiceleste some advantage. It was reported that Videla himself threatened Argentine striker Leopoldo Luque after a poor performance against Hungary. A French player even overheard the referee warning Argentine defender Daniel Passarella to stop the rash tackling for him to not give a card to any Argentine player. The most controversial match, however, was the second round face-off against Peru where Argentina had to win by 4 goals to qualify for the finals. The government was in full form with rumours of bribery being offered to the Peruvian national team; unfreezing of Peruvian bank accounts in the Argentine central bank, and most hauntingly, the release of 13 Peruvian outlaws exiled in Argentina to the Peruvian government. Peru entered the game with a special visit from President Videla wishing them “best of luck” for the game. The match became more and more absurd by the minute with the referee making dubious calls and the Peruvian Coach substituting his best player off the pitch. The match ended with Argentina winning 6-0 and qualifying for the World Cup Final.
The stage was set and it was the moment the whole country was eagerly waiting for. It was the World Cup Final at the Monumental with 70,000 fans cheering for the Albiceleste. Argentina were facing the Netherlands who were the finalists during the 1974 World Cup and were undoubtedly the best team of the ’70s, revolutionizing the beautiful game with their possession-based football which was way ahead of its time. The Dutch though dealt with the shorthand of the straw with their captain and talisman Johan Cruyff who many believed was opting out by taking a political stance against Videla’s regime. But it was later declared by Cruyff himself that his family suffered a kidnap threat and had to skip the World Cup due to security reasons. The final itself started late with the Albiceleste taking their time to come on to the pitch. The match was further delayed when the Argentine players had a problem with René Van de Kerkhof and the cast which protected his injured wrist. The match started only when De Kerhoff’s cast was replaced with additional bandages. The match itself was not the best, as there were a ton of fouls accompanied by a very hostile environment. The match went through extra time with Mario Kempes scoring a brace for Argentina winning the World Cup for the first time in its history. The country celebrated like never before, and it all ended with President Videla handing the world cup trophy to the Albiceleste Captain Daniel Passarella. A World Cup campaign surrounded by controversy came to an end. “In hindsight, we should never have played that World Cup,” Luque was quoted as saying. “I strongly believe that.”