Football v. Politics

David Runciman

The last time Argentina met Holland at the World Cup, in 2006, the match ended in a forgettable goalless draw. The time before that, in 1998, a meeting between the two countries produced a moment that never grows old: the exquisite winner scored in the 90th minute by Dennis Bergkamp, a seventy-yard pass that he controlled with one touch, redirected with another and flicked home with a third, a sequence that’s about as close as football ever gets to ballet. But the time before that, in 1978, Argentina v. Holland has some of the worst associations of any World Cup match. They don’t relate to what happened on the field, but to what was happening off it, in the prisons and torture chambers of Buenos Aires.

As Argentina won the tournament by defeating the Dutch 3-1 in the final, political prisoners could hear the roars of the stadium crowd from their cells, and then the even wilder celebrations of the hordes who flooded the squares of the city afterwards to celebrate their triumph. The brutal Junta, which was engaged in a war of disappearance against its own people, had seen the World Cup as an opportunity to drown out dissent with a tide of patriotic enthusiasm. Here was its reward.

Two kinds of story get told about the match. In one, the prisoners have the victory rammed down their throats, as evidence that they are completely isolated, forgotten by the football-mad masses. Guards force them to listen to the radio, compel them to cheer each goal and taunt them with the screams still coming from the torture blocks. The Mothers of the Disappeared had hoped that the arrival of the international media to Argentina in 1978 might draw attention to their plight. But the football was the story. Nothing else mattered. In The Ball is Round, his 2006 history of the global game, David Goldblatt wrote:

People flooded on to the streets of Buenos Aires, of Rosario, Córdoba, of every tiny town and dusty barrio. Ar-gen-tina, Ar-gen-tina, Campeón Mundial! Ar-gen-tina, Ar-gen-tina, Campeón Mundial! On Avenida Corrientes a car with darkened windows moved slowly, gingerly through the pressing, uncontrollable crowds. Inside military officers sat quietly with one of their few remaining living prisoners, a leading figure in the Montoneros: ‘You see we have won.’ They let her soak up the reality of the situation through the sun roof and treated her to a meal at a restaurant brimming with patriotic reverie. Asado never tasted so much of ash.

The other stories also have the prisoners cheering along; but in this telling, they are doing it of their own choice. They too are football fans and they can’t help it: they want Argentina to win. In some ways, this is even sadder: the victims of the regime taking genuine pleasure from a victory that had been contrived by the regime to maintain its grip on power. How can something as trivial as football transcend the hard fact of political oppression? But there is also something wonderfully defiant about it. Who were the Junta to claim this victory as their own? It was Argentina that had won. When football trumps politics, it doesn’t always follow that politics has been trivialised. In some circumstances, letting football trump politics is the only way of fighting back.

There has long been a suspicion that Argentina’s victory was itself a fix. To get to the final ahead of Brazil the team needed to beat Peru by more than four goals in their penultimate match; they ended up winning 6-0. Dark rumours abound about the pressure put on the Peruvians by the Argentine military and by their own government; talk of collusion between the dictatorships in Buenos Aires and Lima was fuelled by the presence of Henry Kissinger at the match in question.

In the final, everything possible was done to upset the Dutch team, who were less amenable to overt threats. Their bus was misdirected to the stadium via a long and tedious route. They were kept waiting on the pitch for ten minutes before the Argentine team made an appearance. The protective arm cast worn by one of their players, Rene van der Kerkhof, was the subject of a furious protest by Argentine officials, even though he had been wearing it without comment in the five previous matches. It worked, to the extent that Holland started the match slowly and were soon behind. But with eight minutes to go they equalised. Then, in the final minute, the Dutch player Rob Rensenbrink had a glorious chance to win it but only managed to hit the post. Argentina scored twice more to seal the victory in extra time. Rensenbrink’s miss meant the Junta got their way. But that couldn’t have been fixed. That the Dutch came within inches of spoiling the party shows that sport always retains the power to trump politics.


  • 9 July 2014 at 6:35pm
    Dave Boyle says:
    I do wonder whether the goal would have ruled out had it gone in for a non-existent foul on Filliol.

  • 9 July 2014 at 10:55pm
    ejh says:
    Then, in the final minute, the Dutch player Rob Rensenbrink had a glorious chance to win it but only managed to hit the post.

    I don't know about glorious chance. Have another look: it's a very fine piece of poaching, of the sort very much not on offer tonight, as opposed to a great opportunity thrown away.

    I read somewhere that Ardiles, who'd been taken off shortly past the hour, has that sitting on the bench, he had a good view of the shot and felt it was going in until it hit a divot, or something, and was diverted enough to hit the post. He also says that the fault for the van der Kerkhof controversy was his, for drawing attention to it in the first place.

    The 1978 Chess Olympiad also took place in Argentina. There was talk in Dutch chess circles of a boycott, which never happened. Interested parties are referred to JH Donner's The King, in which the leftist Donner discusses his reasons for not boycotting the event.