You Can't Play A World Cup In A Hospital: Brazil 2014, Argentina 1978

On June 30, Brazil dismantled Spain before a rapturous home crowd in the final of the Confederations Cup, the test run for next year's World Cup. The hosts' surprise win—and what it augurs for 2014—temporarily displaced massive protests as the story of the tournament. June saw hundreds of thousands of Brazilians take to the streets to decry corruption, poor public services, and the vast sums being lavished on next year's tournament. All of this brought out clashing variations on an old theme: soccer and politics.

FIFA, the tournament's organizer, stuck to its deluded line that the two do not mix. Sepp Blatter, its president, said on Brazilian television that demonstrators "should not use soccer to make their demands heard." A FIFA spokesman reminded fans that fine print on match tickets bars political protest in the stands. Pelé embarrassed himself by asking his compatriots to "forget all this confusion" and back the national side.

The team itself seems more at ease with the truth: It lives and plays in a world where soccer and politics inevitably shape one another. Several players endorsed the protests. They had the green light from coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who made clear that athletes can no longer hold politics at arms' length, as if they ever could.

None of this was supposed to happen. Next year's World Cup was meant to be Brazil's moment. The global spectacle would cap a decade of strong, broadly equitable growth. The country's mania for soccer and its storied past—it has won five World Cups—made it a natural host. There would be order and progress and ardor for the beautiful game. Instead, in ex-superstar Ronaldo's shorthand, Brazilians are angry that the money for hospitals went to stadiums.

Brazil will probably be fine, though. Its president was generally correct when she said that the protests show the strength of Brazil's democracy. She has moved to appease some protesters and critics (though without much luck). No protest organizer will be jailed for vague public-order offenses. And no one seems to think that victory for Brazil would make the world a worse place.

Contrast all this with another host-country win at the fraught intersection of politics and world soccer. Thirty-five years ago, Argentina's dictatorship put on the last South American World Cup against a half-obscured backdrop of bloody repression. In some ways, the country and the sport have never healed.

One hundred thousand disparus

Brazil in 2013 is mostly stable, reliably democratic, and measurably richer than it was just a few years ago. Argentina in the mid 1970s was a reeling, violent mess. The armed left, which had struck at the last military government and at foreign capital with bombs and kidnappings, hung around after the return of democracy in 1973. The restoration that year of Perónism, Argentina's main political movement, pitted its leftist "youth" wing against its union spine. When the youth lost out they went guerrilla.

Things became acute when the president, Juan Perón, died in office in mid-1974. On days she showed up for work, his third wife and notional successor, Isabel, looked inept. Her tenure saw a slide from bad to worse. Bodies piled up. Stadiums did not.

In March 1976, to no one's surprise and to the relief of many, the military seized power. The generals took over in part to stem the chaos sown by corrupt, driftless Perónist rule, in part because they believed that the left had started World War III in Argentina, and in part because there was a World Cup to put on. The tournament was on the agenda at the junta's first meeting after the coup.


Argentina's guerrillas were not an imagined threat. They had guns, cash, and the odd ally in government. They tried a Cuban-style rural campaign in sleepy Tucumán province. They killed police and soldiers and took foreign executives hostage.

By early 1976, though, they were in retreat. Well before the coup, the Perónist government had given the army free rein to stamp out the guerrillas. Right-wing death squads added to the lethal pressure.

Had the chaos that led up to March 1976 continued, the guerrillas might have re-armed and rebuilt. Or maybe they were all but beaten. We don't know.

We do know that under military rule total war against "subversion" intensified and spread. One need not have picked up a gun or built a bomb to be a terrorist, the generals proclaimed. Leftist sympathies sufficed. So did having the wrong parents. One brute cop who ran a string of torture posts around Buenos Aires admitted he handed captives' newborns over to police and military families "because subversive parents will raise subversive children."

The dictatorship's project was avowedly lawless—thousands "disappeared" into secret jails, where they were tortured before being executed. It was ineffably brutal—the tormentors favored electrified cattle prods, but could rape or maim if the power went out. It was venal—kidnappers typically took their cut by looting victims' homes. And it was idiotic, coarse, bigoted. A Jewish-sounding surname, a psychiatry credential, or (worse) both could get you swept up by the defenders of "Western, Christian civilization." Nazi emblems and Hitler portraits hung on the walls of some torture rooms.


You Can't Play A World Cup In A Hospital: Brazil 2014, Argentina 1978

Jorge Rafael Videla, head of the junta from 1976 to 1981, told a journalist in 2012 that the guerrillas were all but eliminated "in time for the World Cup." This was no coincidence. The tournament was all-important to the junta. The world would look in on a peripheral, declining country known for bloody politics and hyperinflation. Here was a chance to show a house in order.

Human rights groups in Europe campaigned unsuccessfully for a boycott; no country heeded the call to drop out of Argentina '78, though. Sweden's goalkeeper made a gesture once he reached Buenos Aires, marching with mothers demanding to know the fate of their "disappeared" children, and the Dutch team voted before the final to skip the trophy ceremony to avoid sharing a stage with the generals. But most people argued it was better not to mix politics and sports.


On the domestic stage, all sides took pains to associate themselves with the Argentine national team and to urge it on to patriotic victory. In a public ceremony, Videla exhorted the players and coach Cesar Luis Menotti to be "real winners." Montoneros, the main guerrilla outfit, signaled a truce around the tournament. Its communiqué neatly rhymed a revolutionary death sentence for Videla with a call for Menotti's men to win everything.


Menotti's men did win everything, reaching the final via a 6-0 demolition of a Peruvian team that many believe was paid off. The final was played a half-mile from an especially hellish torture center; prisoners held there heard the stadium crowd's roar after each of Argentina's three goals. Afterward, their captors gave a few detainees a night's reprieve from electro-torture, driving them through the streets to mix with the rest of euphoric Buenos Aires.

The sad politics of Asesina '78

The thumbnail story of Argentina '78 is deceptively simple: global sports' marquee event was exploited by the military rulers of a soccer-obsessed country to cloak an appalling experiment in state terrorism.

But what exactly, and how much, did the World Cup do for the generals' political program? And how did the bloodletting affect the meaning of the tournament, then and now?


Throw out the idea that soccer at this level is apolitical. This is the official line of FIFA, then as now. It was also the logic of those who declined to boycott Argentina '78: Let them play the game, don't drag politics into it.

Here are three true things about soccer and politics:

1. England's surprise loss to West Germany in the 1970 World Cup quarterfinals may have cost Harold Wilson's Labour government a general election.

2. Qualifying play for the same World Cup was the immediate excuse for—though not, as the myth goes, the cause of—a war between El Salvador and Honduras.

3. Soccer-driven politics need not cost votes or lives. It might even save some of the latter on occasion. When Côte D'Ivoire qualified for the 2006 World Cup, a first, the players appealed on their knees for an end to the country's civil war. It eventually sort of worked.

This list could be much longer, as each of several books on the subject is. You get the idea, though. Politics shapes the meaning of World Cup soccer, and what happens on the pitch can affect who wins and who loses in the political arena.


Politics hung darkly over Argentina '78. The generals aimed to prove that the country had traded a decade of violence for order and calm. Their critics hoped to show what the cost had been, in human rights and human lives.

The balance at first blush seems to favor the generals. Ezequiel Fernández Moores, an Argentine journalist, has argued that the tournament was "an act of manipulation" by the junta. Menotti said in 2008 that he was "used, clearly."

But to what end? The tournament did not make and could not have broken military rule. The generals' grip on power was secure in 1978. They would not have welcomed, say, a bomb at the opening ceremony or an early collapse by the national team. But neither thing would have cost the generals their jobs.

Conversely, while Argentina '78 may have marked the political high point of military rule, it was not a pure win for the junta. The boycott made human rights a part of World Cup coverage in Europe. The foreign press first met the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the group Sweden's goalie marched alongside, that June. Footage of one mother pleading with a Dutch TV crew may be the defining off-the-field image of Argentina '78. The tournament gave the generals' critics a stage.

Did the World Cup help the generals at all? Simon Kuper has argued that Argentines "made no mental connection between the national team and the junta." One could root for Menotti's side and exult in their win without endorsing the dictatorship. (Montoneros' truce message—death to Videla, let's go Argentina—is the extreme version of this idea.)

Even if Argentines did not credit the generals with victory, though, the regime likely profited in the short term. The wide outpouring of patriotic joy squared with the junta's nationalist message. The dictatorship may also have won credit for pulling the event off and for broadcasting it in color, a first for TV in Argentina. (Argentines rightly suspected a skim off the pre-tournament spending binge, however.) And a nation drunk on soccer glory is less likely to demand regime change while the buzz lasts.

None of this was vital for the generals' program, to which there was then no serious challenge. Other facts over time inevitably did far more to shape the fate of the junta's "reorganization process." A country cannot host and win its first World Cup every month. Life and politics fall back to earth. Secular trends plod on.

And so six years in, and four after Argentina '78, the untamed economic mess belonged squarely to the generals. Political and labor groups, banned since the coup, pressed back. Night and fog lifted. More and more Argentines saw that thousands had been killed according to a deliberate plan and had not simply vanished.

Under pressure, the generals bet on a short, popular war over the remote and meaningless Falkland Islands. They lost. Military surrender came on the second day of Spain '82, as Menotti's squad began an ill-fated title defense. Political surrender at home—a return to the barracks, elections—came the next year.

Set piece, nil-nil

The political charge that ran through Argentina '78 is still live. It may well be more powerful now than it was 35 years ago. The violent, complex 1970s are an unresolved problem for Argentina's politics, society and historiography. June 1978 is a special instance of that problem.


The importance to Argentines of World Cup success is hard to overstate. The country often takes a dim view of itself. The joke runs that God gave the place an embarrassment of natural resources—fertile plains, ports and rivers, oil—and then fucked it all up by populating it with Argentines. Some see the national team as the one institution that occasionally excels. A magazine cover I saw in Buenos Aires in 1998 called the team's fixtures "the days it's okay to be Argentine." Twenty years earlier, another proclaimed "We Beat the World."

It is just as hard to overstate the contempt in which some Argentines—including, since 2003, those in government—now hold the dictatorship. For them, any credible account of the 1970s must start from the premise that the generals were vile, inhuman, beyond evil. Arguments about the guerillas' violence risk being shouted down for ignoring the enormity and depth of state terror.

Argentina '78 is best read as the sad confluence of a gloriously good thing—winning at international soccer—and an unpardonably evil one. The soccer glory comes out debased. For Ricardo Gotta, the Argentine author of a book about the tournament and its politics, "having celebrated the title in 1978 still generates guilt in Argentine society." In that bleak southern winter, Argentines pulsed with national pride. Many recognize now that the country was killing itself and so had nothing to celebrate.

Nil-nil, then. Argentina '78 did the generals no lasting good. Their power ebbed. When they had to answer for their lethal experiment, no one cared that they had presided over the country's first World Cup win.

Luque the Obscure

Americans have begun to care about the World Cup. Many more will watch the matches from Brazil on TV next summer than could have been imagined a generation ago. Spain's defeat of the Netherlands in the 2010 final drew a U.S. television audience of 24 million. Few people in this country seem to know the story of Argentina '78, though. (TV Guide for the week of June 23, 1978, had no listing for the tournament final.)

Before Leo Messi’s apotheosis, if an American knew one thing about Argentine soccer, it was Maradona. Argentina's World Cup win in 1986 is known everywhere for the vivid, flawed Diego and his metonymic pair of goals—one brazenly stolen, the other incomparably great—against hated England, hated even more then for the humbling of Argentine conscripts in that brief, idiot war.

As for spectacle in the service of ugly politics, the model is the Berlin Olympics. Menotti has argued that "power exploiting sport is as old as mankind." It is at least as old as 1936. And the fascism showcased at Hitler's games plunged the world's great armies into war. The Argentine junta's reactionary violence was reserved for Argentines.

For their part, Argentines understandably prefer to recall 1986 first. There was no suspect 6-0, no whiff of bribes. More important, there was no Henry Kissinger lurking in the VIP box, no ghoulish Videla fondling the Jules Rimmet trophy. Political theater that year was notably restrained. Raúl Alfonsín, elected president after the junta ceded power, opted not to join Diego and supporting cast on the presidential balcony. Videla would no sooner have missed that chance than he would have read aloud from Das Kapital on state TV. But by then he had already been convicted in the first of his trials for the dictatorship's crimes.

Nunca más, one hopes

Politics colors any event the size and gravity of a World Cup. In most years the tournament's political current is broadly hopeful, confident, even assertive. Post-Franco Spain signaled its integration into Europe's liberal democratic core in 1982. Brazil's leaders may yet aim to announce their country's arrival in the first rank of economic powers next year, as South Korea did in 2002.

In other years the picture is blurrier. Mussolini used the 1934 World Cup as an advertisement for fascism in a precursor to the Third Reich's Olympiad. South Africa in 2010 took justifiable pride in being the first African host, but its moment was also a reminder that the promise of post-apartheid majority rule has been frustrated. Brazil's protesters seem certain to show up again next year. Illiberal Qatar will be tested in 2022, and not just because it may air-condition stadiums.

Every World Cup is played somewhere and sometime. Every place and every moment have their politics. But the World Cup's political context and import may never again be as fucked up, enduringly divisive, and just plain sad as they were in Argentina in June 1978. God willing.

Matt Vanek reads a lot of Latin American history and is a lawyer for low-income NYC tenants.

Art by Sam Woolley.