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Ticker-tape torture: World Cup 1978 ~ Argentina v Holland

June 3, 2010

Super Mario bother: Argentina main man Mario Kempes scores in the ’78 final against Holland, memorably played on a ticker-tape littered pitch – but darkness lurks elsewhere in Buenos Aires

All right, a word of warning before this, my fourth World Cup special, properly kicks-off. If you’ve been enjoying these ramblings from me about fantastic football tournaments past – I know someone out there must have been, surely? – then you may feel short-changed by this one. Yes, the fourth in this series of articles isn’t as celebratory in tone as the others so far. Why? Well, because the 1978 tournament wasn’t exactly one you’d call a classic. In fact, you might even say it was the nadir, the dark moment, certainly the black sheep among the modern-age Cups (and not only because it was the first to feature Coca-Cola as a sponsor). Still, as a culmination to the tale of ‘Total Football’ and being, as it was, the third and final episode in the trilogy of 1970s World Cups, it plays a role that, like it or not, can’t be ignored.

However, at the time, many English people may have preferred to have ignored it. For all the trials and tribulations going on in the UK at the time (strikes by dustmen and gravediggers; PM Jim Callaghan going to the IMF for a loan to bolster the ecomony; and the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ that would follow at the end of the year), there was a damn good reason why few looked forward to this World Cup. Yup, for the second time in a row, England had failed to reach the finals themselves – quite some disappointment, especially given both Liverpool and Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest were dominant in the European Cup around this time. Unlike four years before though, what with a poor qualifying campaign and the falling at the final hurdle thanks to the Wembley draw against Poland, this time the English could probably count themselves unlucky. They had played six games in their qualifying campaign, won five of them and lost only one against Italy. They had won the return home match against the Italians, but the latter had the exact same record and boasted a better goal difference – they were through; England weren’t.

Dot matrix and street wastage: the fun World Cup ’78 poster, logo and mascot, Gauchito; the ‘Winter of Disconent’, with rubbish seen everywhere – a bit like watching England then

Still, those of a more  tartan persuasion had reason to be positive. Just like in ’74, Scotland had succeeded where England could not and were there in Argentina to represent the home nations (actually, thanks to a very controversial penalty awarded against Wales that saw them qualify instead of the latter). And, on paper, they had quite a decent looking team too, featuring the likes of Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness of Liverpool, Joe Jordan of Leeds United and Archie Gemmill of Nottingham Forest. Their manager Ally MacLeod wasn’t shy of talking up his side’s chances either, declaring before they flew out that they were so good they would return ‘at least with a medal’. His optimism proved mis-placed, though; in fact, Scotland’s overall performance made his pre-tournament confidence and bluster look rather ridiculous.

They opened their ’78 account by scoring first against Peru, but by the end had conspired to lose 3-1, and they then could only manage a 1-1 draw against Iran (their own goal being an, er, own-goal). Then one of their players, Willie Johnston, was embarassingly sent home for taking a banned stimulant. The third match seemed to promise little then, given it was against the ’74 runners-up Holland. Surely it would be an exercise of damage limitation? However, the Dutch – without the talismanic Cruyff, but otherwise blessed with sheer quality – had started the tournament sluggishly this time and, pulling themselves together, the Scots managed to neutralise striker Rob Resenbrink’s 34th minute penalty when Dalglish grabbed an equaliser ten minutes later. What happened next – just two minutes later, in fact –  has gone down not just in the folklore of Scottish football, but also in the folkore of the entire country itself.

As Scotland pressed forward again, Gemmill latched on to a free-ball on the right and  jinking past two Dutch players and playing a one-two with Dalglish, then deftly dinked the Dutch keeper Jan Jongbloed to put his side 2-1 up with a sensational goal. To this day, it remains one of the greatest goals scored in a World Cup and arguably one of the competition’s all-time golden moments (and plays a pivotal role in the iconic 1996 Britflick Trainspotting). Gemmill then tucked away a penalty to stretch the lead, but his next major moment wasn’t so clever – on 71 minutes Johnny Rep struck in the Scottish penalty area and, thanks to it deflecting off Germmill’s outstretched leg, the ball flew past goalkeeper Alan Rough. What the football gods gaveth Gemmill then, they tooketh away – as so often sadly seems to have been the case with Scotland down through the decades. This, the match’s final goal, pretty much ensured that this rare Scottish victory over the Dutch would be a pyrrhic win – on goal difference, again, they failed to make it through to the second group stage.

“I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978!”: For Renton – and many Scots – Archie’s golden moment is even better than Trainspotting

Unlike the Scots, Peru – who started their tournament so brightly against the former – went through from their group and, impressively, ahead of the Dutch. Elsewhere, Austria shocked everyone by qualifying from their group ahead of Brazil. Poland, so good in ’74 and still packing Grzegorz Lato up front, managed to top their group ahead of holders West Germany, and Italy went through along with hosts Argentina, whom surely owed a real debt to their fanatical fans’ electric support in every match they played.

On to the second round groups then and, amazingly, Austria went one better than they already had – yes, they somehow defeated their big-time neighbours West Germany 3-2, the hero being forward Hans Krankl whose efforts and those of his teammates are still today lauded as Austrian football’s greatest ever achievement. Indeed, this match, in some ways an echo of the West Germans’ group stage defeat to East Germany in the previous World Cup, dented the Germans’ hopes of making the final, and draws against Italy and Holland (the latter an entertaining, if haphazard, replay of the previous tournament’s final) saw to it their title defence was over.

Conversely, it was in this same group that the Dutch discovered their form and, thanks to a 5-1 demolition of Austria and a 2-1 defeat of Italy, they topped the group. Indeed, although they weren’t exactly playing the brilliantly fluid ‘Total Football’ system they did in ’74 – and were missing Cruyff owing to kidnap threats against him and his family (his absence only being honestly explained in recent years) – they looked the real deal once again, playing fine football and scoring memorable goals. And now, once again, they were through to the World Cup final. What an opportunity, indeed.

The other second round group was, ultimately, struck by controversy; proper controversy. And in a very South American World Cup it involved the group’s three South American sides. Two of them, Brazil and Argentina, dominated proceedings, having both despatched Poland and rather disappointingly drawn 0-0 against each other. The table topper, of course, would go through to the final, so it came down to who could beat Peru by the most number of goals. Where was the controversy here then? Well, if one of the two sides kicked-off their final match – against the Peruvians – after the other’s final match, then they’d know how many goals they’d need to score to go through on goal difference, wouldn’t they? And that’s exactly what happened. And, suspiciously, it happened in favour of the hosts, Argentina – Brazil beat Peru 3-0; their rivals put six past them without reply. The Argentines were therefore through. That wasn’t all that was dodgy, though, given that it emerged the six-time-beaten Peruvian goalkeeper in that match, Ramón Quiroga, had in fact been born in Argentina. Both teams denied collusion in this regard and the tournament’s organisers couldn’t exactly be held culpable for ‘rigging’ Argentina’s progress to the final thanks to their matches’ scheduling, but the coincidences were, nonetheless, undeniable.

And that fact was disappointing because Argentina had a very good side. Coached by the chain-smoking César Luis Menotti (known as El Flaco – ‘The Slim One’) and driven by the centre-back who loved to attack, captain Daniel Passarella (who would go on to manage his nation in the 1998 World Cup), it also featured cultured, diminutive midfielder Osvaldo Ardilles and lanky play-maker Ricky Villa (who would both join English club Tottenham Hotspur the following season) and was spearheaded by moustachioed frontman Leopoldo Luque and major goal threat Mario Kempes. Yes, they were stylish, exciting and easy on the eye – even if, inexplicably, their squad was numbered alphabetically. Yet, as if willed on by the unfair advantage they’d received in match scheduling thanks to their compatriots who organised the whole shebang, they also didn’t mind playing dirty. And, frankly, that mired what should been a fine final.

It all started with the hosts keeping the Dutch waiting ready to start proceedings in Buenos Aires’ Estadio Monumental for five minutes, until they finally emerged from the tunnel to a gigantic tumult from the home fans packing the rafters. And that wasn’t all. In a concerted – and surely pre-arranged – effort, the Argentine players then complained to the referee about Dutch midfielder René van de Kerkhof wearing a plaster cast, even though he’d worn the cast on his wrist without previous complaint since his side’s opening match. Further minutes were wasted over the issue; indeed, the Dutch were so cheesed off they looked like they were about to walk off at one point. Eventually, the game kicked-off and in spite of the unsporting behaviour designed to rattle and unsettle the Dutch, the Argentines appeared to have gained no advantage as a balanced first-half proceeded, complete with a great deal of fouling and rule-breaking – mostly from Argentina – which scandalously, perhaps owing to the overpowering presence of fans with blue and white striped flags, went unpunished.

Winning ugly, losing fair: General Jorge Videla hands winning captain Daniel Passarella the World Cup; Dick Nanninga consoles a teammate after Holland come so close – again

Then, in the 37th minute, the deadlock was broken, as the long-haired Kempes expertly struck, putting his side in front. Unsurprisingly, the crowd went beserk, yet the men in orange didn’t wilt and – the second-half following much the same the pattern as the first – just eight minutes from time, conjured up a nice move topped off with Dick Nanninga heading in an equaliser. 1-1. Extra-time. Having led for some time and seeing victory snatched out of their hands so near the end, it wouldn’t have been surprising had Argentina deflated and run out of juice. Yet, they didn’t. Come the end of the first period of extra-time, up popped that man Kempes again and he just got enough on the ball in the penalty area to see it home and put his nation back in front. It was his sixth goal, giving him the Golden Boot and surely ensuring he was the player of the tournament too. Exhausted after a hard, physical match, the Dutch had gone for good now and, five minutes from the very end, right-winger Daniel Bertoni scored (despite a very strong suggestion of hand-ball), wrapping up the result and sparking delirious celebrations.

For the second World Cup in a row then, the Dutch had fallen at the final hurdle. Would they have managed to win the thing had Cruyff been in the side? Who knows, one can only speculate. Losing twice in a row in the final is a very painful reality, yet with the commendable magic and wonder of ‘Total Football’ which was so much the story of these two tournaments for Holland, theirs are nowadays looked upon as two truly glorious failures – and, because of that, the two sides are probably more fondly remembered than if either one of them had actually triumphed. And there’s something nice but also sort of enigmatically cool about that. After all, ‘Total Football’ was a wonderful dream – and don’t all the best dreams fail in the end?

In contrast, Argentina had won their first World Cup – the congatulations were theirs. Yet, aforementioned controversies aside, there’s more to why I’m not fond of this particular tournament; much more. And it concerns the man who handed Daniel Passerella the trophy after the final whistle: General Jorge Rafael Videla. The country’s leader thanks to his position as head of a miliary junta that had seized control just one year before, Videla was a tyrant of the worst sort. In truth, Argentina’s leadership had been unstable ever since the legendary Juan Perón was deposed by a coup in 1955, in which case one has to question FIFA’s decision to give this country hosting duties in the first place. Especially as, leading up to the tournament, there had been great doubts raised as to the viability and ethics behind it and offers had come from other countries, such as Holland, to host instead. FIFA’s reluctance to step in and do anything would come back to bite it royally on the arse, though, as the chairman of the organising committee General Omar Actis was bumped off – apparently because he spoke out about escalating costs.

Don’t cry for those Argentinians? Buenos Aires’ Naval Mechanics School today – the artwork on the railings speaks a thousand words

The reality was that Videla’s junta was sponsoring forced disappearances and assassinations within Argentina, ostensibly against left-wing figures, yet to to this day nobody knows how many people were affected or killed – the number is thought to be in the thousands, however. This campaign – effectively a campaign of terror – became known as the ‘Dirty War’ and was the backdrop then to the ’78 World Cup. To placate participating nations who were concerned about their teams’ safety if they went to the World Cup, Videla said that there would be no bloodshed during the tournament – apparently, this was good enough for FIFA. Perhaps rightly so, Holland had called for a boycott before they, obviously, relented. Meanwhile, German Paul Breitner (who had scored a penalty in the ’74 final) wouldn’t take part and for many years it was assumed this too was the reason for Cruyff’s absence.

In perhaps the most stark summation of the situation, it has been said that inmates in Buenos Aires’ infamous Naval Mechanics School, which was used as a concentation camp at this time and is located only about a mile away from the Estadio Monumental, could hear the roars of the crowd during the final. While the football was generally good and the tournament entertaining, the off-field reality of this World Cup was simply monstrous, to my mind.

Indeed, years later ’78 World Cup winner Leopoldo Luque admitted: “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.”  He has also said: “In hindsight, we should never have played that World Cup. I strongly believe that.”

Not since Mussolini’s grandstanding of fascism when Italy hosted the competition in 1934 had the ugliness and evil the real world can create impinged on and blighted a World Cup – let’s hope it never does so again.

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