The ´78 World Cup was, especially because of the hostile context offered by the dictatorship, a time with contradictions and obscurities: in the stadiums, passion, rains of little papers and a shared shouting; outside, the horror, the pain and the forced silences. The party became a mask. Eleven blocks from the River stadium, from the euphoria, The School of the Mechanics of the Navy (ESMA) hid the main site of torture.
Within that environment World Cup took place. It fed myths like almost no other before or after. Truths, lies, rumors, and improvable findings around that competition that continue to resonate in our memory have been said and are still said today.
1) Why did Johan Cruyff not play in the ´78 World Cup?
The Dutch football player Johan Cruyff, leader of the national team and a celebrity in Barcelona, didn´t participate in the ´78 World Cup. For that reason, he couldn´t play his second consecutive final. Various reasons were told. The most widespread version indicated that he had given up on traveling to Buenos Aires as a way to express his distaste of the military dictatorship. Other version said that there were internal difficulties within the team and even a fight with the Royal Dutch Football Association due to a conflict of sponsors. There were even more versions. Another one was addressed by the magazines of the rich and famous: that his wife had not allowed him to travel during that summer.
In 2010, in a long interview with Catalunya Radio, Cruyff ended the myth. He explained the details: “You should know that I had problems at the end of my football career in Barcelona but I don´t know if you know that someone put a rifle to my head and tied me up. And that they tied my wife (Danny Coster) up in front of my children in our apartment. Then I managed to get out and that ended the kidnapping attempt. But that changed our lives. The boys went to school with police escorts. The police slept in our house for three or four months. I had a bodyguard to go to the matches”. This episode was never associated with the Argentine dictatorship.
Johan's explanation continued: “All that makes you change your point of view about many things. There are times in life where you value other things. We wanted to stop and be a little more sensible. It was time to put football aside. I couldn´t play the World Cup after that”.
2) Grains for Peru
Among many versions that refer to various arrangements linked to Argentina 6 Peru 0 there is one that involves an agreement between the military dictatorships of both countries. The suspicion was linked to the donation of hundreds or thousands of tons of wheat as food aid. Juan Alemann, Secretary of the Treasury at the time of the dictatorship, recognized that these kind of donations only happened “in the event of an earthquake or catastrophe”. Nothing had happened in Peru during those days. Ships were sent anyway.
However, such “collaborations” between the dictatorial governments in the region weren´t uncommon in the context of the Opertation Condor, the operation promoted by the CIA to coordinate joint tasks among the de facto authorities of the Latin American countries.
That, in any case, was not the only shadow on that game, one of the most controversial –in terms of its context– in the history of the most popular sport.
3) Hellström and the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo
The news went around the world. The goalkeeper of the Swedish national team Ronnie Hellström, in a gesture of solidarity, had walked alongside the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo on their Thursday rounds to claim for their disappeared children. But the truth is that, in 2008, three decades after that World Cup, the big man who had successfully defended for ten seasons the goal of the German Kaiserslautern said what really happened to Terra Magazine: “It wasn´t me. No. I remember the Mothers but I didn´t go to the Plaza. Some players were there, two or three, but I'm not sure who”.
His name actually appears in the collective imagination walking through the Plaza de Mayo. Perhaps, because Sweden was one of the countries that with more intensity sought that the World Cup wouldn´t be held in Argentina as a result of the dictatorial regime that had taken lives and caused deaths.
4) Tarantini's handshake with Videla
For a long time it was said that the left defender had grabbed his testicles before greeting the president Jorge Videla in the dressing room after an Argentine triumph. Alberto Tarantini portrayed that scene in 2012, in an interview with the El Gráfico Magazine: “That was a bet I made to the “Gaucho” (Passarella). I said: 'Now I grab my balls and then I give him a handshake'. It was a thousand dollars bet, He didn´t pay me yet. Videla saw me when I rubbed my balls, but have to put on a big smile and shake my hand because there were photographers there. Are you going to publish the picture with that son of a bitch? Will you? If you do, look at my face when I greet him”.
That was the version Tarantini told. Although curiously, or not so much, many of his colleagues deny it and warn that “El Conejo” chose to add seasonings to that picture that were not true.
On the other hand, in that World Cup, Tarantini scored his only goal in the National Team. It was in the 6-0 to Peru. He scored the second. And in the celebration he yelled insults to the four winds.
Who were these insults for? He told the journalist Diego Borinsky: “To the Military Junta, to the three of them. I shouted 'Go fuck yourselves, you can all die, sons of bitches!’ I scored the goal, I turned around and faced them”.
5) Scotland, the national team of the excesses
They arrived, played, almost made a fool of themselves but said goodbye with a dazzling performance, a great 3-2 against Holland, in Mendoza. And everything happened at a dizzying pace, with lots of alcohol and even a case of doping.
After their debut with a defeat against Peru, Willie Johnston tested positive in one of the anti-doping controls. He had used Reactivan, a stimulant that contained fencamfamine. It was the first and last game for the striker. The Scottish Federation decided to ban him for life.
In Alta Gracia, where the team was staying in the first stage of the World Cup, the hotel authorities found hundreds of empty bottles in the rooms. There was whiskey and liquor. To be fair, they weren´t the only ones who brought alcoholic beverages: the Polish national team –it’s said– entered Argentina with about 400 bottles of vodka.
6) The Argentine team was favored with the schedules
For a long time the idea circulated that César Menotti had been favored by FIFA in the second round (qualifying to the final) with the schedules. But that wasn´t true. For reasons of logistics and because the schedule was intended to allow as many people as possible in the stadiums, Argentina played all their games at 19.15. Even though this brought up suspicions and sports injustices. Another detail: the team didn´t even win their group in the initial phase. When Argentina lost to Italy, the team had to change his plans and move his location to Rosario.
For the last match of the group phase, Argentina played knowing Brazil´s result, their direct rival to the qualification. They knew that they needed four goals against the already eliminated Peru to gain access to the final. They made six. And the win put them in the decisive game.
This practice of not scheduling the matches of the teams involved in qualification phases at the same time and day continued until the next World Cup. As a result of the obvious arrangement between Austria and Germany, in Spain 1982, the rule was modified. That time, in El Molinón de Gijón, Germany won 1-0 against their European neighbor. With that result they both guaranteed the classification and left out Algeria, who had also won two matches in that group. The entire stadium shouted: “Rigged, rigged, rigged!”
7) Netherlands refusal to accept the medals
The Dutch team didn´t attend to the award ceremony, after the victory of Argentina 3-1 in the final. It was said, in the corners of the world, that it had been in rejection of the dictatorship.
That was not true though. The real reason was linked to the annoyance that had generated some Argentine attitudes before the final. César Menotti complained about the cast that René Van der Kerkhof, a Dutch team member, was wearing. Menotti wanted Kerkhof to have the cast removed because he could hurt other players with it. Eventually, padding was found and the game could proceed. The Dutch understood that the delay was on purpose, they understood it as a ruse. And they then refused to receive the medals.
8) How much did the players know about the dictatorship?
One of the most frequent sayings among the participants of the World Cup is that it was unknown what was happening in Videla's Argentina while the ball rolled. Was the truth so hidden?
There are testimonies to the contrary. In 2011, in an interview with the journalist Marcos González Cezer, published by Télam News Agency, the Dutch goalkeeper Jan Jonbloed confessed that he and his teammates knew what happened during that dictatorship.
He explained: “We knew there was a dictatorship. We were normal people, we listened to the radio, we watched television and at that moment there was a protest, a campaign in Holland, on this subject. My father was a communist. I was and am aware of what was going on. I knew something was happening, that it wasn´t right, that I didn´t like it”.
–What was the campaign in Holland? Was your participation in the World Cup questioned?
–Yes. There were debates, for example. I was invited to an interview on a radio before the World Cup in which I said: “I think it's terrible what is happening but the thing is that I have a woman, I have children and this is my way of life. If I don´t go there, I can´t respond to that, which is also a priority of mine. The people who are there are the ones who have to change the Videla regime. I understand that it is terrible for the people who are in there, I understand that, but I won´t stop going because I also have my things to tend to”.
9) The black posts
Late mythology: the color of the posts. Nearly four decades after the 1978 World Cup, on 2018, the British newspaper, The Guardian, published the story of an alleged silent protest in full view of everyone: the black marks at the base of the goal posts.
The journalist David Forrest tells how he unveiled a mystery that, as he wrote, had caught his attention as a child. He accounts that in the restaurant Don Julio, in the neighborhood Palermo, a waiter (it quotes the name, Ezequiel Valentini) that had worked for the Organizing Committee told the truth to him. Valentini said he had chosen the color black to honor the disappeared.
According to Forrest, Valentini told him: “They asked why we did it and we told him them it was tradition. It was able to happen because they had no idea about football. The Junta placed its secret torture centers in public view. We remember our dead in the sight of the whole world. Like those centers, our act of remembrance was hidden in plain sight”.
But did the waiter of the late confession exist? At the restaurant, they say that Valentini doesn´t and has never worked there.
In the seventies, the posts used to be painted the color of the local team or, if not, black. “It was a custom prior to the World Cup. There are even photos of Amadeo Carrizo in the sixties with the base of the posts painted black” recalls the journalist and historian Oscar Barnade.
The world's media echoed the story. The testimony of the supposed Valentini traveled the world.
The mystery was not what it appeared to be.