The world cup of Argentina 78 has left a Proustian imprint on my memory. It was the first tournament I had watched in color. My mother had managed to scrape up the deposit on a color TV to replace the archaic black & white set and a whole new world was opened up to me. The color TV was rented to us by a company called Telebank. The TV ran on a meter that you fed with fifty pence pieces and at the end of the month the collector would call and take out the hire fee. Any amount over the hire fee was refunded to you, so in a strange way, you were actually rewarded by the amount of hours of television you watched.
My Dad was forever working away “on the roads” as a “navvy” (from Navigator=road digger) and we were essentially a one parent family. Mum worked in a print factory where she was also a trade union representative. After politics (Mum) and music (Dad) the trinity of our house was completed by football (all of us)
Football was the glue that bound us together as a family. Mum went into labor with me whilst watching Man United on the terraces of Old Trafford and Dad was a keen amateur player who had once scored a flukey goal to win the then prestigious West Riding Amateur Cup for the team my Grandad managed. My Mum’s brothers were all trialists at professional clubs and her eldest brother, George, had turned down a contract at Burnley because he was making more money in a factory! Pro football at the time had yet to become infested with parasitic financiers.
In our house The World Cup was a reason to celebrate. It was surrounded by a holiday atmosphere. During the 1974 tournament I found my first hero. Johan Cruyff was the star of the Dutch team and his skills were mesmerizing. He rendered midfielders and defenders impotent in his wake, and his “intelligent” matchplaying was like watching a stylish scientist at work. Cruyff was a joy to watch and I idolized him. When it was revealed that he wouldn’t be traveling to Argentina to play in the finals my disappointment was palpable.
Mum explained that Cruyff (and also Breitner of West Germany) had refused to attend on “political grounds”. She told me that Cruyff had asked, “How can you play soccer a thousand meters from a torture center?” To a twelve year old this sounded like gobbledegook. Torture center? I felt betrayed by Cruyff. How could he not want to go to Argentina and dazzle us with his exciting science? Why was he depriving me of watching him in Technicolor?
The tournament came around and I was allowed to skive off of school to watch all the games. Argentina 78 was a visual masterpiece. The fireworks on the pitch was more than matched by the fireworks on the terraces. Whenever Argentina took the stage a rain of light blue and white tickertape fell amidst a choreographed display of smoke bombs and huge banners. The atmosphere - even watching from thousands of miles away-was intoxicating. Having only experienced Fourth Division football, the occasional visit to Old Trafford and FA Cup Finals in B&W up to that point, I was truly overwhelmed. Having recently watched the tournament again on DVD, the near thirty years that have passed have not dimmed the pure unadulterated passion of that spectacle.
In time I’ve learned that Argentina 78 was much more than a World Cup Finals, and I’ve come to respect Cruyff even more for sticking to his principles. Nowadays it’s unimaginable that a player of Cruyff’s caliber would boycott a World Cup Finals for political reasons. Could you imagine Beckham refusing to play in the USA in objection to the torture of the Abhu Graib prisoners in Iraq?
Football has come a long way since Argentina 78. It is now a cynically globalized cash harvester that is held to account only by marketeers and corporate bureaucrats. The truly passionate supporters of the game are still in abundance but they are being gradually phased out and marginalized by the mercenary agents of mammon, who’s aim is to sanitize the sport and make it more accessible to wealthier – less passionate - audiences. What was once the sport of the commoners is now the sport of commerce.
The reasoning behind Cruyff’s boycott was that Argentina in 1978 was a ruled by a totalitarian military junta that resorted to torture as a pre-emptive means of repression. The “torture center” that Cruyff referred to was indeed only yards from the River Plate Football Stadium. The military coup’s first dictator, Jorge Rafael Videla, was essentially hosting a World Cup Finals that put on a smiling face whilst a minority of the country’s citizens were being systematically murdered by The State because they had dared to speak out against the rampant fascism taking hold.
The notorious US/CIA funded Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) was where opponents (active or perceived) to the dictatorship were raped, tortured, murdered and scientifically experimented on. The sport of choice for the trainee torturers wasn’t football, rather the practice of burying people alive or throwing them from aeroplanes.
To understand the terrible political climate in the Argentina of 1978 it’s important to realize that the CIA were running amok in the region. The South America’s were a hive of black-op activity for the goons in Washington. In their irrational fear of socialism taking root in Latin America, the US power elite were fanatically pumping millions of dollars into clandestine terrorist campaigns. Their “de-stabilization” methods used against democratically elected leaders stretched across the globe, but it was in Argentina that they found experienced torturers willing to do their dirty work.
The Butcher of Lyon, Klaus Barbie, famous for his torture techniques during Hitler’s reign of terror, was undoubtedly called upon in an “advisory capacity” at ESMA. Barbie was a CIA asset and was linked to a whole raft of campaigns that spread “false flag” terror throughout the world at the time. In Italy during the 1970s, the "strategy of tension" implemented by CIA "assets" within Italian state security services and the military, employed neofascists and condemned war criminals with Mafia links in order to create widespread social chaos, and plant "false flags" which blamed terrorist violence on the left.
One such operative, Stefano Delle Chiaie, the leader of the neofascist terrorist gang, Avanguardia Nazionale, a protege of convicted war criminal, Junio Valerio "Black Prince" Borghese, was forced to flee Italy after the 1980 bombing of the Bologna railway station. With connections to Pinochet's DINA, the neo-Nazi Argentine generals, the CIA and the World Anti-Communist League, DelleChiaie surfaced in Bolivia at the time of the "cocaine coup" of General Luis Garcia Meza, a close associate of narco-king Roberto Suarez. One of Delle Chiaie's henchmen was a German pimp and neo-nazi, Joachim Fiebelkorn, a key lieutenant of escaped Nazi warcriminal (and CIA "asset") Klaus Barbie.
When the legally-constituted Bolivian government was overthrown in 1980, Barbie, Fiebelkorn and Delle Chiaie operated an international brigade of killers, torturers and dope dealers controlled by DINA and the Argentine military. They called themselves the "Fiances of Death." According to Fiebelkorn's account, it was Delle Chiaie who served as a middle man between the Sicilian Mafia and Latin American drug lords. And as history also teaches, it was the Argentine military and drug traffickers (with a "nod and a wink"from the CIA) who helped organize another group of "freedom fighters," the Nicaraguan Contras.
With so much clandestine political activity in the region at the time, it’s amazing that the World Cup actually took place in Argentina. By 1978, the international community had heard the accounts of the dictatorship’s human right’s violations. An international campaign gained steam thanks to the determination of groups like the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo who were raising awareness of the thousands of sons and daughters that had been “disappeared” by the state. In the midst of criticism, the dictatorship decided to host the World Cup. The dictatorship justified the tortures, kidnapping and executions as a “dirty war” against anti-nationalist, communist opponents. The mothers of Plaza de Mayo suffered the most aggression leading up to the World Cup. Three of the founding members were “disappeared” in 1977.
The ESMA torture center was within earshot of the River Plate stadium. Many ex-detainees said they could hear the cheers as Argentina won the world cup while being tortured. To understand this seemingly irrational passion of the prisoners, one has to look at the roots of football in Argentina.
At the turn of the 20th century, Anarchists and Socialists founded many of Argentina’s first football clubs. They sought the need to use soccer as a social and political tool for organizing. Anarchist historian Osvaldo Bayer has written extensively on anarchism and football. Argentina’s large Anarchist movements in the 20th century, influenced by the influx of European immigrants, were alarmed by the working class drive to go to the football stadium on weekends rather than ideological picnics or other cultural events. The movement’s daily anarchist newspaper La Protesta compared the effects of soccer with religion, writing “church and soccer balls: the worst drug for the people.”
One of the first teams in Argentina, Chacarita Juniors, was founded on May 1, 1906 in an Anarchist library in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Chacarita. Anarchists had a clear vision. “Soccer is a socialist game. Everyone plays together with the objective of making it to the goal line, that is the triumph, that is the revolution. In soccer you learn how to act in solidarity. You can’t play alone, when someone is in a better position you have to pass them the ball.” They even discussed what would happen when the sport would become professionalized. When the anarchists would win a championship, all the prizes would go toward forming schools for children to learn the sport.
Other clubs followed including the “Martyrs of Chicago,” a homage to the American workers who were hung for fighting for a 8 hour workday. In the 30's the clubs became appropriated by capitalist interests. The “Martyrs of Chicago” later became Argentinos Juniors: “We are Argentines, not anarchists” became the new nationalist slogan erasing the team’s proletariat history. Chacarita still sports red and black uniforms even though the club is run as a commercial team.
Stripped of all vestiges of ideology, Argentina is still passionate about its football. One has only to witness the life affirming tableaux that is a Boca Juniors versus River Plate game to see that. The country is still highly susceptible to political turmoil and in 1998, an international commission investigating Nazi activities in Argentina after the Second World War, says its uncovered evidence that several suspected war criminals were able to find refuge in the country without hiding their identity. One of the researchers said they discovered the men's real names which were on a list of war crimes fugitives drawn up by German justice officials in Argentine police files. These included Eduard Roschmann, head of the Riga concentration camp and Gerhard Bohne, accused of killing handicapped and elderly people in Berlin. The commission was set up by President Carlos Menem as part of attempts to discover what happened to gold stolen from Jewish victims of the holocaust. There was no mention of finding out what happened to the thousands of young men and women who had been “disappeared” by the junta.
I watched the 1978 final hoping that Holland would beat Argentina. Argentina beat the Dutch 3-1. I knew why they lost. My hero Cruyff wasn’t playing. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Dutch team had publicly stated that – were they to win - they would not accept the cup from the dictator Videla. Johan Cruyff may not have been there in body, but he was there in spirit. Cruyff remains a hero of my mine to this day. More so because of his unwillingness to tacitly accept fascism than his football skills...although they were a joy to behold.