The Many Faces of Argentina '78

Knowledge bank: One hand, the military dictatorship used the soccer World Cup 1978 to gain political prestige at home and abroad. On the other, the Argentinians celebrated football because they regarded it as something of their own. Indeed, this World Cup had many faces...

Did you know that just a thousand meters from the River Plate stadium, during the nineteen seventy eight World Cup, was the largest torture and detention center of the Argentine dictatorship?

The celebration and the horror were so close that the prisoners at the ESMA (Navy Mechanics School) say they heard the shouts at the River stadium at the same time that they heard the screaming of their tortured mates. It was the horror imposed by the bloodiest dictatorship in the history of my country, which between nineteen seventy-six and nineteen eighty-three murdered thirty thousand people.

The ESMA was the most popular of the three hundred and forty concentration camps that existed in Argentina. Around four thousand seven hundred people passed through their gates. They were seized from their homes in clandestine operations performed by civil policemen in unidentified cars. They were physically and psychologically tortured. They were submitted to electric shocks and were victims of rape. And, in many cases, they were thrown while still alive from planes to the waters of the River Plate, weights tied to their bodies.

How could the FIFA allow the World Cup to be played under such circumstances? How was it that fifteen foreign national teams agreed to participate? Why didnt their countries stop them? And what did the United Nations do? And one more question that hasnt been answered in my country, maybe because the answer is embarrassing: How was it that millions of Argentinians cheered like crazy the goals made by Kempes amidst such a horror?

While analyzing these questions I find that the seventy-eight World Cup is a perfect subject to debate if sports hinders or encourages political progress, as is asked this year in the program Play the Game. Because, on the one hand, I believe the seventy-eight World Cup was the most obvious political manipulation suffered by the sport since the Olympic Games of nineteen thirty-six in nazi Germany. Through football, the dictatorship tried to legitimize its power and show the Western world that Argentina was its moral reserve. That Argentinians were right and human. It was a popular phrase of the day cynically played with the words human and rights, that the dictatorship used in reply to those who accused them of violating human rights.

On the other hand, we could also say that the Argentine people, who were uninformed or paralyzed by terror, celebrated because they felt that football belonged to them, not to the military. And that their happiness allowed them to once again go out into the streets and other public areas where they hadnt been able to go since the military coup of the twenty fourth of March, nineteen seventy- six. There were even people like a former goalie, Claudio Tamburrini, who today is a sports philosophy professor in Gottemburg, who took advantage of the celebrations during the World Cup to come out of hiding for the first time. Tamburrini had managed to escape from his prison some months before, but he had never dared to come out to the streets. Besides, as it was later acknowledged by the courageous Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, we could also say that the World Cup was the perfect sounding board for the world to hear their accusations against the atrocities committed by the dictatorship.

I wonder: what is the point of being successful in sports if the people suffer? Is it a distraction or a relief? Horacio Gonzlez is an Argentine sociologist exiled in Brazil during the dictatorship. He hated the military. But he celebrated the victory in the World Cup in the streets of Sao Paulo. Football, Gonzlez says, has an irredeemable and fatal quality to it. When it says it brings relief to shared anxieties, it also hides illegible feelings. But when it is suspected of hiding huge questions, it discovers the intimate complexities of a culture.

Perhaps this contradiction was made clear to the Argentine society: at the ESMA, torturers and tortured cheered the goals together. And in her house, Hebe de Bonafini, president of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, cried in her kitchen while her husband cheered the goals by Kempes in front of the TV set.

Adolfo Prez Esquivel, Nobel Peace Prize winner in nineteen eighty, gained his freedom just two days before the World Cups final match. The dictatorship had to free him because of international pressure. Nobody was more aware than he was of the repression and the political use of the World Cup. Two weeks ago he told me in Buenos Aires that in the jails, prisoners cheered the Argentine goals. In any mass process, Prez Esquivel told me, the critical awareness is suspended and people act submissively. However, he admitted that he himself had also celebrated the goals of the final match against Holland. A prisoner at the ESMA even told me he cheered the goals with a hood covering his head.

General Jorge Videlas dictatorship was fully aware of the importance of football for the Argentinians. This is why he did not hesitate to organize the World Cup at a record cost of over seven hundred million dollars. And once he got it started, he realized that it was no longer enough to organize the World Cup. They also had to win it. Thus, even though there are several official documents missing, different sources assure me that the dictatorship was not unaware of the controversial 6-0 slaughter against Peru which gave the Argentine team the points it needed to eliminate Brazil -because of a difference in goals- and advance to the final match against Holland.

Before the match, General Videla went down to the Peruvian teams locker room (Peru was also ruled by a military dictatorship). During that visit, Videla was accompanied by former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, a football fan, but also a fan of all Latin American dictatorships.

There is also another fact that cast a doubt on the legitimacy of that controversial win: Juan Alemann, an official from the Economy Ministry during the dictatorship, was one of the few who opposed the World Cup because he said it was a waste of money. This specially annoyed Vice Admiral Carlos Lacoste, the heavy man who the Junta assigned to organize the World Cup. The moment Argentina scored its fourth goal against Peru, a bomb exploded in Alemanns house. Alemann suggested, many years later, that the author of that attack was Lacoste himself. And Alemann also said that if anybody ordered that bomb to explode simultaneously with the fourth goal it was because he really knew that in that match there would be a fourth goal.

Can we say everything was arranged so that Argentina could win the World Cup? I dont think so. If so, Holland wouldnt have missed a goal which would have allowed it to win the tournament. Do you remenber? A shot by Robbie Rensenbrink hit the post in the last minute of the game. The match was tied one to one, the regulatory ninety minutes were about to finish and Argentina would not have had enough time to recover.

Finally, in the complementary playing time, Argentina won three to one. Before the final match, I remember the Dutch forward Johnny Rep told me he was afraid of winning. That phrase remained engraved in my memory and I even used it in that moment in the introduction of my article, but only later did I understand its true meaning. Did you know that the dictatorship was so cynical that it sent prisoners from the ESMA, monitored by their repressors, so that they acted like journalists at Menottis press conferences? One of these prisoners today still has the obsession, the pending assignment, of meeting Menotti and ask him the same questions he would have liked to ask him that day in nineteen seventy-eight: what he thought of the way the military used the World Cup for political means. And that prisoner today wonders what attitude Menotti would have adopted had he told him at that moment that he was not a journalist, that he was a missing person, kidnapped by the dictatorship, and that the person next to him was his kidnapper. The dictatorship played its own World Cup. But that missed goal by Rensenbrink that left the military with their mouths open reminded me of an old phrase that Americans apply to their American football: football, they say, is too large a business to be just a sport. But it is also too large a sport to be just business.

Is there any passion which is not subjected to manipulation? The Argentine military did not discover anything new. Manipulation of sport has existed for a long time. It was popular in Ancient Greece. Mussolini did it with the nineteen thirty four World Cup; Hitler, with the thirty six Olympic Games; Videla, in seventy eight, and even Chung this year with the two thousand and two World Cup. South Korea was a semifinalist at the Cup and Mr Chung, one of FIFAS vicepresidents, now wants to take advantage of that victory in order to be elected President of his country.

The FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, as we all know, have always had allies in power, be they Hitler, Stalin or Videla. We are not interested in politics, we are football people, the German Herman Neuberger, FIFAs vice-president, said when he arrived in Buenos Aires two days after the military coup and was asked if Argentina would still be the host of the World Cup. Two days after the World Cup finished, while the military were euphorically celebrating, FIFAs president, Joao Havelange, dared to say the world has now seen the true face of Argentina.

Once democracy was reestablished, an Argentine judge wanted to investigate how Vice Admiral Lacoste increased his personal wealth by more than four hundred percent. Havelange gave him a friendly hand: he told the courts that he himself had loaned Lacoste ninety thousand dollars so that the officer could buy himself an apartment in the luxurious coastal town of Punta del Este, in Uruguay. Havelange rewarded Lacoste naming him FIFAs vice-president and invited him to other World Cups.

Those in power tend to say that sports should be apolitical. But we know that, in reality, sports, historically, has been as conservative as power. In this way, it has never been considered that making a nazi salute from an olympic podium was a political gesture. For this reason, it was always permitted. On the other hand, the rebellious gesture of black power in the Mexican Games of sixty-eight was punished with a lifetime ban. Videlas dictatorship and Havelanges FIFA, therefore, were not original in nineteen seventy-eight.

Fortunately, we must recognize that some things have changed today. The times of the Cold War are over and in sports it is no longer the Russians versus the Americans. Now the only dominating ideology is money. It is Nike versus Reebok. In this new time of global businesses, the third world dictatorships are not well looked upon. And the FIFA has acted accordingly. The same FIFA which never lifted a finger for the disappeared during the World Cup of seventy-eight seemed to be moved, however, along with Brigitte Bardot, because during the last World Cup the people from South Korea did not stop its traditional slaughtering of dogs for food.

Videlas dictatorship and the FIFA played their game with the World Cup of seventy-eight. And what did the rest of the world do? In Europe, human rights organizations that were already protesting against the dictatorship as soon as the coup occurred, also took advantage of the sounding board the World Cup created to amplify its accusations. They immediately demanded a boycott against Videlas dictatorship as was being done against South Africas apartheid. You cant play football a thousand meters from a torture center, they said with simple logic.

In Germany, for example, there were protest movements. But the German government was interested in the World Cup: Mercedes Benz, Siemens, Telefunken and other German companies did good business during the World Cup without even having to bid for the work. In France, there was a stronger protest. The activists even published a paper called LEpique, a parody of the well-known LEquipe. LEpique told why the World Cup should not be played in Argentina. But a survey showed that the French wanted their team to play anyway. Business and passion defeated political commitment.

Only one group of Swedish players, amongst them the goalkeeper Ronnie Hellstrom, during the World Cup accompanied the solitary Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who demanded the appearance of their children. At least, thats what you and me red during the World Cup in the French paper Le Monde. But, unfortunately, Ronnie Hellstrom himself, two weeks ago, told a colleague of mine that he hadnt been there. His presence with the Mothers in Plaza de Mayo is a myth. The rol of the footballs protagonists was not good. In fact, the trainer of the Swedish team, Aby Erikson, said during the World Cup that he had not seen any corpses in the streets of Buenos Aires and that Argentina was a safest place than Sweden. Ragnar Hagelin, father of Dagmar Hagelin, a 17 years old swedish girl kidnapped and murdered by  argentinian dictatorship in january 1977, said recently he was disappointed with the attitude the Swedish team shown.

And did you know many german players denied to put his signature in a demand made by Amnesty International asking for the kidnapped people of german origin in Argentina, while Neuberger, the president of the German Federation, gave his congratulations to the dictatorship?

Before going to the World Cup, dutch players received one by one detailed and complete information about the atrocities that were shaking Argentina. They could never say again we dont know. The players will go as heroes, and will come as colaboracionists, said Freek de Jonge, member of the dutch humanitarian organization SKAN. As an answer, Wim Van Hanegen, a player that finally was not in the national team, said: if the people of SKAN call me, I will pass the phone to my dog.

But, sirs, what kind of compromise are we expected to demand from these players when their own country gave the argentinian dictatorship tons of money in credits via ABN Bank and sold guns that may be killed argentine people in the hands of the dictatorship as the dutch Signaal company did? Holland sold many Fokker planes to Argentina that probably served to throw alive people in the River Plate to kill them. Sirs, what kind of compromise are we expected to demand from these players when Holland, in the times of the World Cup, was the second investor in Argentina and his own ambassador in Buenos Aires, Mr Van den Brandeler, dared to say that General Videla is a honorable man?

I must say that I got these informations in a recent book wrote by the professor Michiel Baud, from Netherlands. Paradoxically, he also wrote that the best solidarity Mothers of Plaza de Mayo received after the World Cup came from dutch organizations. But in the battle of business or solidarity, football, its clear, choosed the business.

The Mothers today say that the World Cup allowed their claims to be heard. But they also say that during the World Cup was when they suffered the most aggression. Because the dictatorship was very smart and said that the European request for a boycott was an anti-Argentine campaign. Not an accusation against the military, but against the whole country. Do you know the lyrics of the World Cup official theme song? Twenty five million Argentines will play in the World Cup. In other words, all Argentines, without exception. With this logic, the Mothers with their accusations were traitors. They were anti-Argentine.

Can we say that that triumphant Argentine team of seventy-eight was an accomplice to the dictatorship? As occurred with most of the people, all its players alleged that they didnt really know what was going on in the country during that time. They were misinformed. One who did know what was going on was the coach, Csar Menotti, a man from the left, a former member of the Argentine communist party. He always says that in the final match he asked his players not to look at the official box in the River stadium where Videla was, but to look the other way where the people were.

Prez Esquivel does not forgive Menotti: In the prisons, he says, we waited for at least a word, a gesture, from Menotti. But Menotti says he was not the only one who got on with his job during the dictatorship. Illustrious citizens such as Astor Piazzolla and the writer Jorge Luis Borges even praised the military. They all carried on with their work, including the media, Menotti defends himself. Two months before the World Cup, state radio stations and television channels received written orders prohibiting criticism of the national team.

The Argentine captain, Daniel Passarella, who received the trophy from the hands of General Videla, assures today that if he had known what was going on during that time, he would have refused to play in the World Cup. Why does Menotti talk about the press? Why do Passarella and millions of Argentines say today that they didnt really know what was happening then? What did the press do in those years? A recent book by Robert Cox, current director of the IAPA (Inter American Press Association), is highly critical on this subject. The author says that prominent Argentine press accompanied the politics of the dictatorship and is responsible for not having stopped the massacre.

I remember that in nineteen eighty-two, when the dictatorship was still in power, though weakened, I made a political investigation about the World Cup for a radio program. I interviewed all those who had not had a chance to talk during that time, because they were either imprisoned or threatened. To the victims of the repression. They criticized the military, the economic establishment and the Catholic church for their complicity. The radio, even with the censorship of the time, placed no objections. They only cared when those interviewed criticized the press.

Why? Because there were some embarrassing events: for example, El Grfico, one of the most traditional football magazines in the entire world, published an interview with Videla as if he and not Kempes had been the key figure of the World Cup. One of its journalists even made up a letter that the captain of the Dutch team, Ruud Krol, had sent to his daughter: Dont worry, my daughter, about what they say about Argentina, said the invented letter. Its all a lie. Argentina is the land of love. Everything here is tranquil and beautiful and the soldiers fire flowers from their guns.

Even worse was the role played by the most popular radio commentator in Argentina, Jos Mara Muoz. Almost the Goebbels of Videla. A Citizen Kane of the Third World. Of course I included Muoz in that research I did on the World Cup in eighty-two. The program finally came out in its entirety. However, I was left without a job. For this reason, when we ask ourselves if sports hinders or encourages political progress, we can reply it depends. And it depends, in good part, on the role that is played by the press. It is true that the Argentine dictatorship assassinated more than eighty journalists. The press was the sector that was most punished in proportional terms. But I invite you to look at the headlines and the role of the Argentine media during those years. Its embarrassing.

Argentina, ladies and gentlemen, is not a country that is easy to understand. As soon as the World Cup ended, Tigre Acosta, a famous torturer of the ESMA, entered a room where his victims were, screaming We won, we won!. He hugged them euphorically. He even took a group of them in a car so they could see with their own eyes that the people did not care about human rights. They just cared about the World Cup. One of the victims told me that she asked permission to open the roof of the car to have a better view. And when she did, she felt like screaming she was one of the disappeared being held at the ESMA. But she realized that is was useless. That they would just think she was a crazy woman in the middle of the carnival.

How ironic. A few hours after winning the World Cup, near the ESMA, Guido Carlotto was born. His mother, a political militant, was first kidnapped and then murdered after giving birth to her child. The military took the baby and changed his identity. As they did with another five hundred babies born in the concentration camps. His grandmother, Estela de Carlotto, is today the president of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. Videla and his comrades, it is known, were condemned to life imprisonment and later pardoned by former President Carlos Menem. But since the crimes against minors still hold true, the cause for the kidnapping of children did not prescribe and Mrs. Carlotto managed to have Videla detained and returned to prison.

The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo have succeeded in recuperating seventy- three of those five hundred children. Mrs. Carlotto continues the fight to find her grandson, Guido. She makes it clear that she has nothing against football, because she knows that Mario Kempes was called el Matador (the killer) for his relentless goals. Mrs. Carlotto knows well where the enemy is. She knows that Kempes was nicknamed el Matador, but she knows even better that the murderer was Videla.

Use of cookies

The website uses cookies to provide a user-friendly and relevant website. Cookies provide information about how the website is being used or support special functions such as Twitter feeds. 

By continuing to use this site, you consent to the use of cookies. You can find out more about our use of cookies and personal data in our privacy policy.