The Extra Word on … the 1978 World Cup finals

Updated: May 15, 2014

Welcome to this regular TIW column, highlighting some of the stories and results that have caught the punting eye of editor-in-chief Sean Callander.

It’s hard to believe that the first game of the 2014 World Cup finals are just four weeks away – probably hard to believe too for the slave-waged crews working 24/7 to complete the half-finished stadia. FIFA’s marquee tournament is the biggest sporting event on the face of the planet, and returns to South America for the first time since 1978. It’s worth recalling that tournament as it marks the darkest chapter in FIFA history and arguably the most blatant example of match-fixing ever perpetrated.



General Jorge Rafael Videla celebrates a goal during the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina

The backdrop to the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina was volatile. President Juan Domingo Perón died on July 1, 1974. Bizarrely, he was succeeded by his wife, María Estela Martínez de Perón, but she was deposed on March 24, 1976 in a coup d’état. At the time teams started to fly into Buenos Aires for Argentina ’78, the country was controlled by Lt. Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla and his military junta. As David Yallop described in his superb book How They Stole The Game, “civil war was raging. All political activity and trade union rights were suspended. Press censorship banning the reporting of ‘political violence’ was imposed. Right-wing paramilitary groups had embarked on their own version of ethnic cleansing, which included murdering priests, Jews and left-wing refugees from Chile and Uruguay”. But the generals in control of the country were nothing if not pragmatic. They saw the World Cup finals as a massive PR exercise that would unite the fractured country, excuse the excesses of the regime and provide the nation prestige on the world stage.

Plans for the tournament were initially controlled by the respected General Carlos Omar Actis, who managed the budget meticulously despite spiralling inflation, demands from major sponsors for domestic TV transmission in colour (this was the first World Cup tournament broadcast internationally in colour but was to be shown in black and white to Argentine residents) and exorbitant requests for new stadia. The pressure on Actis boiled over, and he called for an international press conference on August 19, 1976 to express his concerns. En route to that conference, 15 men dressed as construction workers carrying machine pistols surrounded his car and fired hundreds of bullets into General Actis. So ended any further budget discussions ahead of the 1978 World Cup finals.

Under his replacement, naval officer Carlos Lacoste, the original budget skyrocketed from $USD 70 million to at least $USD 700 million. The bulk of this went on building roads to connect the venues, introducing that colour TV transmission and papering over the cracks so that foreign visitors could not see the true state of the country.  Huge concrete walls were put up to cover the nation’s slums, which were dubbed ‘The Misery Wall’. The atmosphere of intimidation and international consternation continued up to the opening kick-off. A policeman was killed while removing a bomb from the international press centre. Amnesty International campaigned vigorously for the tournament to be transferred to another country. Not surprisingly, Argentina’s fierce rivals to the north, Brazil, were the biggest supporters of this proposal.

On June 2, 1978, reigning champion West Germany and Poland played out a boring 0-0 draw to open the tournament. Later that day, the tone of the event was set when two Hungarian players were red-carded as the host nation kicked-off its campaign with a 2-1 win. In their second group game, the Argentinean captain Leopoldo Luque was awarded a controversial penalty late in the second half despite the referee being positioned well behind the play. Their opponents France then had a certain penalty waved off after Didier Six had been hauled down in the area. Argentina 2, France 1. The hosts lost their final group game 1-0 to Italy but had already qualified for the next stage.


Striker Mario Kempes celebrates a goal for the host nation during Argentina's successful 1978 World Cup final campaign

Striker Mario Kempes celebrates a goal for the host nation during Argentina’s successful 1978 World Cup final campaign

The gifts continued to be rained upon the hosts in the second round. Mario Kempes punched the ball off the goal-line denying Poland an equaliser in their first round two game. Hungarian referee Károly Palotai then allowed the Argentineans to engage in a glorified form of assault in a scoreless draw with Brazil. Argentina was now presented with a major problem. Only one side would progress from Group B to the final, and the host nation was level with Brazil on points but trailed on goal difference. They immediately played their trump card – Lacoste and the organising committee. Brazil was promptly scheduled to play Poland in the afternoon with Argentina’s clash against Peru to follow in the evening. Brazil duly dispatched the Poles 3-1 meaning Argentina needed to defeat Peru by four clear goals to progress.

It would take almost a decade for the truth to emerge amid the ridiculous commentary of the day. The order for the fix came directly from the head of military junta, General Jorge Videla. Lacoste negotiated the package with three Peruvian team officials. To this day, no-one knows the exact details of the bribes, but they were believed to include grain shipments to Peru, the unfreezing of a $USD 50 million credit line and direct payments via the Argentinean Navy through Lacoste’s contacts. Lastly, the Peruvian players were approached. The figures are widely disputed but the generally accepted figure is $USD 20,000 per man. The Peruvians actually showed some endeavour in the opening 15 minutes but missed some of the most gilt-edged chances in World Cup history. Then Argentina scored. And scored. And scored. The final score was 6-0. Appropriately, Peru manager Marcos Calderón requested his side play in an all-white strip rather than their national colours. How appropriate.

Argentina duly defeated Holland in the final 3-1. Johan Cruyff, the world’s best player at the time, had boycotted the tournament after a bungled kidnap attempt in Barcelona the year before the tournament. The Argentine authorities bullied FIFA into changing the referee – the respected Abraham Klein was vetoed by Argentina for the Italian Sergio Gonella who duly gave the home team every advantage. Incredibly, given the scale of fixing involved, the final went to extra-time. Indeed, the Dutch could have pinched it after captain Ruud Krol’s stunning 60-yard pass played in Rob Rensenbrink whose shot hit the post. In extra-time Argentina scored twice through Kempes and Daniel Bertoni.

Final word: So could the same thing happen in Brazil? Well, yes and no. There is no doubt that Brazil will be provided every advantage to ensure victory on home soil but the tournament has grown to such a size that blatant match-fixing on the scale of Argentina ’78 would be difficult to hide. But in a final ode to controversial former FIFA president, the 98-year-old Brazilian João Havelange who oversaw that tournament 36 years ago, we’re expecting to see every trick in the book to ensure the home nation triumphs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *