Seventy million dollars. That was the first budget that the dictators were working with in regards to the 78 World Cup’s expenses. The Military Junta retook the World Cup project a couple days after they orchestrated the coup d’État, “as a political decision”, as Antonio Merlo, the president of the 1978 World Cup Autarchic Entity (Ente Autárquico Mundial 78, EAM), would declare. The political decision of continuing with the organisation of the FIFA tournament, agreed in 1964 and officially given in 1966, was to utilise it as a propaganda tool at any cost and without control, which unravelled an internal dispute among the military and civil members of the dictatorship because of the costs, which went well over ten times that first budget. To this day, and in spite of some attempt at judicial investigation, the money invested by the State remains a mystery. Only in November 2017 the Government handed documents for the affair to be investigated over to the National Archive of Remembrance.
The military Junta advanced with the creation of the EAM 78 through Act Nº 21,349 which also declared the realisation of the XI Football Championship of national interest. A year after, the 1261/77 decree would be signed. It granted free disposal funds to the organism presided by Merlo, but controlled from the vice presidency by admiral Carlos Lacoste, after the assassination of the first president of the organism, Omar Actis. The “urgent reasons” and the “reserve in the broadcasting of their acts” with which the decree endowed Merlo and Lacoste opened up the doors for that 70 million budget —designed by Lacoste himself— to be quickly abandoned. “Even if it costs a hundred million, there’s no problem”, held the perpetrator Rafael Videla in a ministry reunion, as would reveal Juan Alemann, secretary of Treasury of the Economy minister, José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz.
That amount would also be too optimistic. In its propagandistic crusade, the dictatorship was determined to arrange a wide work scheme. In Córdoba, Mendoza and Mar del Plata, World Cup stadiums were built from the ground, in Buenos Aires the River Plate and Vélez Sarsfield stadiums were remodelled and in Santa Fe, the same thing went on with the Gigante de Arroyito, Rosario Central’s stadium. The new Argentina 78 Televisora (A78TV)’s building was built and equipped, Télex communication systems were renovated, credits at very profitable rates were offered to rise the range of hotels and routes and airports were renovated. “What’s built for the ‘78 remains for after the ‘78”, cheered the dictatorship in one of the many official propaganda spots.
Political costs of the propaganda
“How much money does it cost to prove that Buenos Aires is the capital city of Argentina to 1500 million people in the world and how much does it cost for five thousand journalists to inform the world about the Argentine reality, after having seen it?”, undressed the intentions of the dictatorship Lacoste, the man in charge of the secret wallet, in an interview with Somos magazine in February 1978. The estimative numbers of the millions of viewers are hard to confirm, the number of journalists who visited the country was a third below what was expected.
Lacoste’s declaration made evident the scandal of the expenses in the moments previous to the tournament, and the infighting in the regime: “A problem of this kind cannot be measured, because it is a political decision, and the economy is a politics´ variable ”, sentenced Lacoste in a first page article in dictatorship-friendly Editorial Atlántida’s magazine, titled: “Is the World Cup bad business?”
The controversy had been opened at the civil heart of the dictatorship by the Secretary of Treasury. “The Military Junta made the decision of carrying out the World Cup relying on information that assured that the cost of the works would be between 70 and 100 million dollars. And I doubt that the Junta would’ve made the same decision if it had known that all this would amount to 700 million dollars in expenses”, Alemann remarked months before the World Cup.
700 million, ten times over the budget projected after the coup. Alemann’s allegations put in dimension the secret wallet controlled by Lacoste, a man close to Emilio Massera, the perpetrator member of the Military Junta who most insisted on the realisation of the 78 World Cup. A millionaire wallet in a country with an inflation close to 20%, frozen wages and economic recession.
Alemann’s denounces cost him a bomb attack in his house on June 21st, the day in which Argentina qualified for the Cup's final, with a 6-0 against Peru. Massera and Lacoste were the ones identified by various investigations on the resolution of the “political” internal dispute. The economical equation didn't add up. "The World Cup was inflated”, held Alemann. Proof of that was a report that the Argentine Football Association (Asociación de Fútbol Argentino, AFA) had prepared during the months previous to the World Cup, which foresaw a profit of 25 million dollars, but would later only recognize 10.
Because of that, besides of the answer for Alemann, the EAM designed one for the public opinion. It recognised expenses of 500 million. “With more time we would’ve done cheaper works, but not more works”, defended Merlo at the end of the tournament and added: “Germany did everything that was necessary for the 1974 World Cup six years beforehand. Spain is already working on it, even though their turn is in 1982, and they’re starting with a more advanced infrastructure. Here we had to do everything in two years, without disobeying the schedule because, if not, we wouldn't have made it”, Merlo pointed out.
The EAM’s accounts went as far as talking about a surplus assessment of between 36 to 38 million, with the criteria of considering that “the infrastructure works made by the country for the purpose of the Football World Championship represent an investment and not an expenditure”, as said by Somos magazine in their number of June 30th. Besides the dictatorial arguments, the official number was of 521,494,931 dollars, that is, a 350% more than the 150 million dollars that the organisation of Spain 82 demanded. The championship that was played in Spanish terrain, with much lower costs, had on its Organiser Committée the very Lacoste himself, by order of FIFA’s president, João Havelange.
Another comparison to put the expenses into dimension was published on the same Somos magazine article from February 1978: the total represented the fifth part of the free disposal external reserves with which the country counted at the time; the money that was needed to build 98 thousand economic houses, at the cost of five million each, as estimated by the Secretary of Urban Development of the Nation, Máximo Vázquez Llona; or 17 times the budget of the Santa Cruz province, which was around 30 billion.
Four years after the 78 World Cup, the dictatorship still occupied the Casa Rosada and Lacoste had managed to sit on the presidential chair for 11 days towards the end of 1981, in the transition between the mandates of Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri. In September 1982, in an article published by El País newspaper, Alemann once again publicly and in detail complained about the 700 millions spent on the World Cup:
- 400 million in organisation and stadiums.
- 100 millions in the construction and equipping of the new A78TV.
- 200 million in the remodelling of airports and the renovation of the communication system.
24 years after the World Cup played in Argentina, the former staff member of the dictatorship raised his voice again for the documentary 78 World Cup, a parallel history and provided his own view on how the expenditure schedule of which Merlo spoke of came true: “When the funds didn’t get to them, the political pressure came from everywhere so that they did, ‘because if they don’t then we're not gonna make it’. Imagine, if we didn’t make it to the World Cup, I would’ve been hanged in the Plaza de Mayo".
A fortune invisible to the Justice
With democracy’s return, the public complaints against Lacoste became legal complaints. On February 13th 1984, the Congress enacted the 23,049 Act, which reformed the Military Justice Code and established that military justice would only attend to offences of the military kind. Ricardo Molinas, a former lawyer of political prisoners who was had exiled in Lima, Peru, in 1974, after receiving threats from the Triple A, was named National Prosecutor for the Public Administration and began a series of investigations on the dictatorship's business, from Papel Prensa to the 78 World Cup expenses.
“Excessive and exorbitant expenses, like buying TVs at a price 280% higher than the market rate”, Molina sentenced the criminal charge. Lacoste was processed for illicit enrichment in a case that never reached its end. In 1990 the Buenos Aires Federal Court considered that he hadn’t given “enough explanations” as for why his economic asset was able to grow in a 443% between 1977 and 1979, as alleged by the National Prosecutor in 1984. Molina didn’t only investigate Lacoste for those excessive expenses, but Merlo and Videla as well, the later systemically refusing to be investigated by civil justice.
The World Cup’s expenditures ran the same luck as Lacoste’s fortune. If in 1982, still under the dictatorship, it was officially announced that “the problems related to the 78 World Cup are centralised on the General Secretariat of the Presidency” so as to not give any more explanations, the documents put aside remained there for years, even after the return of democracy, and after the trials for crimes against humanity were resumed as well.
It was only in September 2017 that the Secretary of Presidency handed over to the National Archive of Remembrance boxes full of documents that had remained in the patrimonial deposit of the Casa Rosada, in a building located on Perón Street, between Leandro Alem avenue and 25 de Mayo. They concerned two thousand lineal metres of EAM 78 material (recruited personnel files, administrative files, plans for the works performed, dossiers of purchases and recruitments) which will be able to confirm or reveal the finances that have been being carried out for 40 years.