Argentina's 1978 World Cup: The Ugly Truth

Nobbled refs, amphetamine-fuelled players, tortured fans. Jon Spurling reveals the ugly truth about the 1978 World Cup in this extract from his brilliant new book 'Death or Glory, The Dark History of the World Cup'.
Publish date:
Updated on

At the opening game between holders West Germany and Poland on 1st June, Jorge Videla spoke of “harmony and friendship” amongst competing nations, a message endorsed by guest speaker, the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The junta promised a “World Cup of Peace” and Videla instructed “all patriotic Argentines to unite behind the national flag.” His people did just that, as Videla ensured that free flags were available on the streets. The confetti storms which made the tournament unique reflected the riotous, carnival-like flavour of Latin American football. Argentinian striker Luque recalls, “The fans seemed to forget the poverty and the deprivation in the big cities. Most days we’d have fans running alongside our team bus, praying for us and holding rosary beads. You could see in their eyes just how much it meant to them. We laboured under a huge responsibility to win the tournament for our people and help them to forget their suffering. How could we not win the World Cup for these people?”

"After the Hungary match, one of the military men warned me that this could easily be a ‘group of death, as far as you are concerned'."

After scraping through 2–1 against Hungary, Luque received a none-too-subtle warning from the junta about what could happen if they slipped up in their qualifying group. As well as Hungary, Argentina had been placed with France and Italy in a difficult-looking section. Luque recalled, “France and Italy were very highly rated teams, and would go on to do very well four years later at the 1982 World Cup. After the Hungary match, one of the military men warned me that this could easily be a ‘group of death, as far as you are concerned.’ He said it with a smile on his face but I had no reason to believe that he was joking. After all we knew how important the World Cup was for the junta. Uppermost in my mind was that earlier that day the brother of a close friend of mine had disappeared. His body was later found by villagers on the banks of the River Plate with concrete attached to his legs. At that time opponents of the regime were sometimes thrown out of planes into the sea.”

Argentine players were so high on amphetamines that “you could hear them screaming in their dressing room

Against France, the team struggled to stifle Michel Platini’s creativity and were pegged back in their own half. The notoriously combustible Buenos Aires crowd booed the team incessantly until shortly before half-time. Recent allegations by members of the French team have suggested that this game was rigged. After winger Didier Six was denied what appeared to be a certain penalty in the first half, an unnamed French player claimed the referee informed Daniel Passarella, who’d bundled over Six, “Don’t do that again please, or I might have to actually give it next time.” In the second half Six was bundled over by Luque in the opposition box and TV pictures appeared to show the referee winking at Luque afterwards. “That never happened – no way,” claimed Luque. Just to add to French fury, Daniel Passarella scored from the spot to put the hosts 1–0 ahead after Marius Tresor slipped over and brushed against the ball – a clear case of ball to hand.

The rumours surrounding the Argentina v France match took a strange twist in 2003. During a French radio phone-in on military dictatorships a caller – claiming to be a former French football international – deliberately muffled his voice and said he’d seen “several high profile Argentine players take a couple of blue pills” prior to kick-off. French websites later speculated that the caller was Marius Tresor, although this has never been proved. The caller then alleged that Argentine players were so high on amphetamines that “you could hear them screaming in their dressing room and they had to warm down for two hours after the match.” FIFA officials, the caller alleged, also excused Argentine players the obligatory drugs test after the game. “A very well-known Argentine player was on the list to have his test but when the FIFA guy walked in an Argentine official gave him an envelope and he just walked off,” insisted the caller. When two French players protested, the caller alleged, they were informed by the FIFA official, “Come on, you know the score around here.”

One FIFA representative was flabbergasted to discover that one of the Argentina players was pregnant.

Galván vehemently denies any wrongdoing amongst his teammates. “It’s total nonsense. FIFA officials couldn’t be placed under that kind of pressure by any member of the team, or the government.” The team’s water boy – Okambo – had a vital role to play during the World Cup, as it was his job to hand over the player’s urine samples for tests. Galván does however confirm the story that one FIFA representative was flabbergasted to discover that one of the Argentina players was pregnant. 

The game remains shrouded in doubt but there was none surrounding the quality of Luque’s scorching winner, a dipping half-volley which flew in from 30 yards. “The noise,” according to Luque, “was like a jet engine. It must have carried for miles.” It certainly travelled the kilometre or so to the detention and torture centre at the Argentine Navy Mechanical School. In a building as close to the stadium as Wembley Park tube station is to Wembley, government agents routinely castrated men, raped women and used dogs and electric batons. The depravity continued apace during the Finals. Even by the standards of Latin America in the 1970s, the junta’s actions in Argentina were virtually off the scale. Chained up inside during the match against France was Manuel Kalmes, incarcerated for spreading anti-junta literature. “I’d been there for several weeks and a bag was placed over my head because my guard was fearful that I’d talk to other prisoners about plotting an escape. My cell was on the side from which I could hear the crowd and when Luque scored the noise hit the prison like a tidal wave. You could hear the crowd chanting “Luque, Luque” and we prisoners joined in. Why not? The guard’s reaction was curious. We heard him run around the cell, yelping like a dog after the goals. But then he went quiet again, lent in close to us and whispered, ‘That’s the last goal you’ll ever cheer you sons of whores.’” Kalmes admits, “At that point, I had no reason to disbelieve what the guard told us.”

'Death or Glory, The Dark History of the World Cup' by Jon Spurling is published by Vision Sports Publishing and is available from for £11.49, click below to buy