Argentina’s 1978 World Cup triumph: A victory for the Nation or victory for the People?

As a lifelong Albiceleste fan, the victorious story of the Argentina Football Team at the 1978 World Cup still manages to arouse in me, a feeling of euphoria and ecstasy. Throughout my adolescent days, I had grown up hearing stories from my football fanatic father about the dancing feet of Mario Kempes, the sublime finishing of Luque, and the charismatic Daniel Passarella.

To this day, the kid in me longs to watch these fabled players dawn the field before my eyes.

As a young kid, I could almost feel my eyes dazzle hearing the names of these star players, who not only brought happiness and joy to millions of Argentines, but also to a 55 year old man and a six year old boy in India.

That was when I realised, football is much more than just a game. It is a belief, an ideal, possessing several overlapping elements within the society it interacts with.

As I grew older, my skeptical and curious self tried delving deeper into the real story of the Argentine triumph, and of football in general. The realization, then, dawned upon me that football, though in itself seems like just another game, the players on the field merely appear to be pawns adhering to a larger social construct.

The 1978 World Cup – which was the 11th edition of the Jules Rimet Trophy, 50 years after  Frenchman Jules Rimet had proposed his idea of a World Cup to his FIFA colleagues, turned out to be a spectacle in itself. The idea behind organizing the event, initially, at least, was to “unite nations”, and “encourage mankind to be one due to football”.

Argentina before the 1978 World Cup final. They beat Holland 3-1. Photo: AFP

The reality, however, has turned out to be markedly different with various controversial political events often ending up marring the essence of the event, behind the glitz, glamour and confetti.

The hosting of the World Cup by Argentina, in 1978, did not come at the best of times either, as the South American country was foraging through a period of heavy political and social unrest, caused by a Coup d’état by the military, two years back.

This unrest would go on to last till 1982, as Argentina would be gripped with another devastating war, The Falklands War, four years later.

The turmoil within the Latin American country coincided with the rise of the military junta in 1976, two years prior to the World Cup. The junta headed by Jorge Rafael Videla ousted the President of the country, Isabel Peron.

Agentine soldiers manning positions in front of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires on March 24, 1976. (AFP/Getty Images)

On March 24th of that year, Jorge Videla and his military junta started the Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional (Process of National Reorganization) within Argentina. Its proclaimed objectives were the restoration of traditional Catholic values, and the creation of better conditions for a democratic rule.

The fact that the junta held base in the main cities of Argentina, and managed to run a dictatorship for close to 10 years, is evidence of the manipulative narrative that Videla and his junta propagated. Further, this narrative underlies a situation very specific to Argentina.

Argentina, unlike other South American countries has always considered itself to be more European than Latin American. Opposing left-wing guerrilla forces were always well-reckoned in Argentina, popularly due to people like Che Guevara, and Jorge Luis Borges among others.

It is worth noting that Simon Bolivar, who played a vital role in securing the independence of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama, had not liberated Argentina from the Spanish.

This crucial differentiating factor between Argentina and the other Latin American countries was one of the primary reasons why the junta had to resort to violence and cruelty in the first place.

The Junta intended to stay in power until the true values of Christian Morality, the national tradition, and the dignity of being Argentine had been reinstated. The criteria or parameters involved in establishing such a legacy is however, subject to debate.

Oath of Jorge Rafael Videla as President of Argentina.

One of the primary modes of repressing the left wing guerrilla forces was the eradication of such groups throughout the country. During the course of the Military rule, thousands of left wing activists were mysteriously “disappeared” by the junta- The catchy phrase used by the Junta to hide the various circumstances of mass murder and extortion.

These disappeared Argentines were sent to torture centres across the country, most of them based within the hustling city of Buenos Aires. If hiding in plain sight was a game, then the junta had successfully mastered it. Most of these torture centres were based in commercial, sprawling areas of the metropolitan cities within Argentina.

One such clandestine torture centre was Club Atlético, named due to its close proximity to Club Atlético Boca Juniors stadium, the La Bombonera. The use of repression, torture, kidnapping and assassination became the order of the day. More than 30,000 people were murdered between 1976 and 1983 till the end of the dictatorship reign.

This repression and torture was executed by the junta was carried out in broad daylight. By mid-1978, everybody, including the ground-staff, players, managers, and civilians alike, knew about such disappearances.

This political and social unrest within the country put an immense psychological pressure on both the players and the manager of the Albiceleste.

The then manager of Argentina, Cesar Luis Menotti, guided his confused players through their moral conundrum asking them to win not for the junta, but for the metal workers, the butchers, the bakers and the taxi drivers, who filled the stadiums with their confetti and screams.

Menotti, himself, in his younger days, was a member of the Communist party, who successfully managed to superimpose his philosophical doctrines into the way his side played football. This Communist principle was a direct attack to the long standing hegemony installed by the junta.

One could inevitably feel that the players also had the added incentive to win the Cup for the civilians locked away in the cold torture centres, where their muffled screams were drowned by the cheering and the waving confetti in the adjacent stadiums.

As far as the Tournament was concerned, it was marred with allegations of bribery and corruption both by FIFA officials and the Junta organizing the event. There is no doubt regarding the importance the World Cup had in the eyes of the Junta.

For the junta, a World Cup triumph heralded the excellence of the administration set out by them. If anything, a victory for the Junta would prove that Argentina, as a nation, managed to come together, despite their differences, and win a global event of the highest order. The irony of that statement, is however, evident for all to see.

Menotti, in contrast, dedicated the victory to the “people” rather than the “nation”. Nation relates to traditional Argentine nationalism, so vehemently propagated by the Junta. The word, “people” used by Menotti, referred to the “purist sentiment” discourse put forth by the left wing forces.

The 1978 World Cup, was not the only event to be marred with controversial political circumstances. However, it has turned out to be one of the most iconic events of world football, in the sense that it underlined the close ties that football shares with other socio-political factors.

It is therefore, important to note that football, though, in itself, is a sport, it should not be considered in isolation. If history is any evidence, it conclusively shows the various ways in which football branches out. Football, has to be considered, through its various facets and factors, the sum of which have helped tune the history of the game, as we now know it.

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