“Security”, “normality” and “tranquillity” were the adjectives with which the civic-military dictatorship, through their speeches and their answers to the international press that had arrived in the country to cover the 78 World Cup, tried to construct an image of another Argentina: one hiding the human rights violations and the lack of freedom. The local newspapers and magazines tried to find those words as well, those chronicles of a “normal country”, and whitewash the criminal and economic plan to answer the campaigns of counter-information sustained from the exile by the political persecuted, the family of the detained-disappeared, and artists and intellectuals both Argentine and foreign. That particular Argentina was the one carrying out the boycott to the football championship, while the dictatorship and its civic partners qualified it as an “anti-Argentine campaign”, concerned like they were for how it resonated in France, Federal Germany, the Netherlands and Mexico.
The 16th of May, 15 days before the beginning of the World Cup, German and French papers warned that their national teams might arrive in Argentina accompanied by custodial staff. The Military Junta reacted quickly and irritably, because of the damage that represented for their communicational plan. The dictatorship called the ambassadors of both countries in Argentina and sent a formal note through the Argentine ambassadors in Bonn, the capital city of Federal Germany, and Paris.
The letter addressed to the Foreign Ministries was published by the national papers. It warned that the entry of foreign armed staff would not be permitted, it demanded for the “dispelling of the intense discrediting campaigns against Argentina, which have lately taken place in your countries” and accused: “They don’t coincide with the proven disposition of the Argentine government”.
Twenty days before that, the Argentine ambassador in France, Tomás de Anchorena, had arrived in Paris with the military order to “ensure that the image of Argentina conforms to reality”. The same mission had been tasked to the ambassador in Bonn. The offer of the Military Junta was to “declare the chief of State and the Ministers who aimed to attend the World Championship as official guests”.
But the relationship with Paris was tense no matter how much “disposition” the dictators had. Since December 1977, France was demanding explanations of Argentina for the French nuns Alice Domon and Leonié Duquet, and since the end of March 1978, it had reiterated the demand because of the apparition of bodies on the Argentine Atlantic coast. In Paris, an association of family of French disappeared in Argentina had already taken shape, and protests and actions against the World Cup were going on continuously. One of them would be the frustrated attempt at kidnapping the French coach Michel Hidalgo.
In May, the French embassy would once again present a formal complaint against the Military Junta. This time because of the detention of the Le Monde newspaper’s emissary, Jean-Pierre Clerc, who was randomly stopped for five hours in the Ezeiza airport, his baggage looked through and his documents photocopied. Thus, the rejection of the invitation as “official guests” was evidenced in the refusal of French Sports Minister, Jean Pierre Soisson, to even attend the World Cup.
By then, both the questioning of security the European national teams had and the country’s situation were latent. The repudiation to the repression in Argentina had reached the European Parliament, and the president of the French federation, Fernand Sastre, who was in fact attending the world championship, spoke of the “French disappeared” on the front page of the Buenos Aires Herald.
However, the chief of security of the 1978 World Cup Autarchic Entity (Ente Autárquico Mundial 78, EAM), commander Ángel Barbieri, confirmed the position of the Military Junta of prohibiting the entering of foreign security and defended the systematic plan of detentions and forced disappearances: “Our country is part of the roster of those attacked by subversive terrorism, but the healthy reaction of the population and the appropriate actions of their Armed and Security Forces have allowed this cancer to be eradicated”. And continued with the welcome message: “The most dangerous and conspicuous elements of such gangs are, as of right now, staying as ‘political refugees’ in countries whose sporting representatives considered that they had to come here with their own special protection”.
In spite of the accusations, the dictatorship would receive the support of the president of the FIFA, João Havelange: “Argentina’s Government already offered all the guarantees necessary, and there is nothing to fear. Attacks occur in all countries of the world (...). Those who don’t wish to attend, don’t”, he challenged, days before arriving in Argentina, from where he would leave having been re-elected as president of the FIFA, and with a profit of ten million dollars over what had been made with the 1974 World Cup.
In the end, no national team was absent from the World Cup call, but the fear was present. “A couple of us were shitting our pants”, confessed a Peru National Team player in the book Fuimos Campeones, by Ricardo Gotta, speaking about the day the dictator Rafael Videla entered the visiting changing rooms in the moment previous to the victory of Argentina 6 to 0.
In spite of the de facto government’s efforts, the lack of confidence inspired by the repressive situation and the climate of rights’ violations was a constant among international journalists. The accredited press correspondents who got to cover the World Cup were one third fewer than the 3624 officially announced. During the pre-game, the Journalists’ Syndicate of the French Workers General Confederation had demanded that the Bauen hotel, where the French journalists were staying, benefited from extraterritorial statute for better protection.
“No one will be censured as long as they’re objective and don’t violate any laws” the vice-president of the EAM 78, Carlos Lacoste had warned a journalist during a tour of Spain two months prior to the beginning of the cup. In spite of the simulation of normalcy, news like the expulsion of another French writer, Bernard-Henri Lévy, were published in Spain by the newspaper El País.
The Military’s version of the expulsion of the special envoy for the french magazine Le Nouvel Observateur was that a Chilean tourist had made an official complaint about him when he saw him carrying “subversive documents”, which refers to reports by Amnesty International and publications by the League for the Rights of Men's journal. Lévy was interrogated for four hours and remained under police custody in a hotel until a flight took him back to France a day before the start of the World Cup.
Precisely, the dictatorship had prohibited the circulation and commercialization of the La Liga journal during that month because of the supposed “systematic spread of inexact and false affirmations that simultaneously pretend to smear the Armed and Security Forces’ reputation, accusing them indirectly of violating human rights”.
In Argentina, during those days, content censorship was the rule rather than the exception, as was the suspension of press media and the detention and forced disappearance of journalists, but the Military Junta kept up its script of lies. “There is no security problem. You can safely walk down the street, and hopefully we’ll find each other at some football game”, the perpetrator Emilio Massera, part of the Military Junta, noted to a Brazilian journalist a few days before the start of the World Cup, when crossing paths with international journalists.
The executives of the Warner label didn’t share the sensation of security described by the perpetrator. The biggest international celebrity that showed up for the world cup, the Scottish musician Rod Stewart, a declared fanatic of his national team, with which he’d edited an exclusive single for the World Cup, remained for little over 24 hours in the country. After suffering a violent assault at a centric bar, the record label sent him back to Europe.
The climate of tension because of the journalistic coverage and the military warnings was disguised by the chronicles replicated by Argentine papers and magazines. “They can’t all be undercover cops, the taxi drivers who understand you’re a foreigner who came to see the world championship and don’t let you pay for the journey by saying: ‘It’s on me’. They can’t all be undercover cops, those people in that restaurant who, noticing you’re italian, go look for a pianist to play ‘O sole mío’”, the journalist Paolo Bugalli painted the dictatorial Buenos Aires, and his chronicle was highlighted by the Argentine media.
“Certainly, the prisons are full of political prisoners, but two years from now we’ll have the Moscow Olympics and let’s see who’s gonna boycott them”, he provoked, omitting the accusations of disappeared people. The day in which the media reproduced that chronicle by the Corriere Della Sera —a newspaper controlled by the Italian logia P-2, to which Massera used to belong, as pointed out in the book Cuentas Pendientes, by Horacio Verbitsky and Pablo Bohoslavsky—, the Chief of the Commando for the Capital Federal subarea, Andrés Aníbal Ferrero, presented the security operative for the stadiums and insisted: “The better or worse image of the country that we give internationally depends on the success reached by this world championship”.
In 2012, a year before his death, in the Marcos Paz prison where he was doing time for the human rights violations he committed, perpetrator Rafael Videla said, in his last interview, to the Spanish magazine Cambio 16, that, in 1978, the dictatorship “had reached its objectives” and he insisted that the international press had formed “a false association of the facts”.
“Le Monde even published a report by a journalist who imagined that some shots that were heard around the stadium, coming from the Federal Argentine Shooting Range close by, were actually the bullets directed at a platoon of people executed by firing squad. The stadium was two blocks away from the shooting range and the journalist, obviously, wanted to denigrate us at whatever cost”, exemplified the dictator, without mentioning that some blocks from there, in a straight line, you could find the ESMA, the civic military dictatorship’s biggest clandestine centre of detention and extermination, by where 5000 detained-disappeared passed.