Friday, April 20, 2012

Was the 1978 World Cup in Argentina fixed?

Daniel Passarella lifts the cup
On 25 June 1978 Argentines sang their lungs out in celebration of their national team’s victory over the Netherlands at the World Cup final in Buenos Aires. There was a controversial start to the final. The Dutch side was forced to stand around on the pitch waiting for Argentina, who used stalling tactics, to emerge from the dressing room five minutes late. But after the typically unpunctual Argentine arrival, the home side won the match 3-1 after goals from Mario Kempes and Daniel Bertoni took the game away from the Netherlands in extra time.

The tournament, and especially the victory, sparked nationalist pride. The euphoria engulfed Argentina and helped its military dictator, General Jorge Videla, draw attention away from the atrocities which his government was committing at the time of what is known as Argentina’s Dirty War.

The tournament is also mired in controversy. The military coup which brought General Videla to power two years earlier had caused some countries to consider pulling out of the World Cup in protest before it even began. Videla promised there would be no bloodshed during the competition and it went ahead.

Videla with Kissinger
At the opening match between Poland and West Germany in River Plate’s stadium El Monumental, the brutal Argentine dictator stood proudly beside his personal guest, the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and promised a ‘World Cup of peace’.

He went on to instruct all Argentines to stand behind their nation. They did so and it was all enough to temporarily disguise the fact that the country was in the midst of a murderous campaign which eventually saw at least 30,000 people disappeared.

But just how far would the junta go to ensure victory? Would it threaten opponents with death? Would it rig a match?

Although the Argentine team was at the time unaware of any foul play involved, some players knew just how much winning meant to the military junta. The centre forward Leopoldo Luque has stated that he was given a ‘speaking to’ by one of the regime’s military men about the importance of making it through to the second round. ‘This group could easily be the group of death, as far as you are concerned,’ he was told. Luque took the threat seriously. Earlier that day one of his best friend’s brothers had disappeared and was later found at the bottom of the River Plate with concrete strapped to his legs.

The format of  the 1978 World Cup was different to that of the knockout stages at today’s tournaments. Sixteen teams were divided into four groups of four. The top two teams of each group qualified for the second round where they were split into two groups. The winners of each of these groups would meet in the final.

In the second round, Group B was made up of Brazil, Poland, Peru and Argentina. In their first matches Brazil beat Peru 3-0 and Argentina beat Poland 2-0. Brazil and Argentina then drew their match 0-0.

On the final day of round two Brazil beat Poland 3-1. There is more controversy here as Argentina didn’t play their final game until the evening and had the advantage of knowing by what margin they had to win. They knew they had to beat Peru by four goals to get to the final. At halftime it was 2-0 but in the second half Peru totally collapsed and Argentina won with ease by six goals to nil.

Many believe the game was fixed. Peruvian player Jose Velasquez claims the team and the management were pressured to lose by the Peruvian government. Despite being a pivotal player in the Peru team, Velasquez was substituted ten minutes into the second half.  The Peruvian captain Hector Chumpitaz and other players tell of an even more unbelievable incident. Moments before the game General Videla went waltzing into the Peruvian dressing room with none other than Henry Kissinger on his arm. The two buddies explained how much anticipation of victory there was amongst the Argentine public and the Peruvian team was left feeling shocked. Kissinger doesn’t deny this but says he has ‘no recollection of ever being in that dressing room.’

After Peru collapsed to the 6-0 defeat so dramatically, allegations spread that Videla had agreed a large shipment of grain to Peru and the unfreezing of a Peruvian bank account in Argentina in return for victory. But now a former Peruvian senator has come forward claiming he has proof that there was a definite fix in play and it involved the torture and abduction of thirteen Peruvian left-wing dissidents.

Genaro Ledesma was a trades union organiser in Peru at the time of the World Cup and claims that he and other left-wingers opposed to the government of Peru’s Military President Bermudez were abducted by the Argentine junta. He says that a deal was struck between Videla and Bermudez and that the former agreed to receive, imprison and torture the dissidents in exchange for Peru losing the match by more than four goals. This far more reprehensible possibility fits in with the scandalous Condor Plan, the agreement between South American dictatorships whereby political opponents were shipped between nations to help cover up the repression that was taking place.

Former Peruvian President Bermudez denies these claims, and Argentine player Osvaldo Ardiles doesn't understand how the fix could have been carried out. But former midfielder Ricky Villa accepts that ‘there is no doubt we were used politically,’ and Leopoldo Luque has stated that ‘with what I know now, I can’t say I’m proud of my victory. But I didn’t realise; most of us didn’t. We just played football.’


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