Monday, April 29, 2013

The first match of Italy was against France and nobody expected much: a tough battle most likely, the Italians trying to kill the speedy and creative French football. The line-ups suggested precisely that – a dull, defensive Italian play, heavily focused on the French midfield. France came out with three creative playmakers and three strikers. The Italian response was clearly defensive-minded: 4-4-2. It looked like going straight back to catenaccio – Benetti, a defensive midfileder, Tardelli, just as easily playing pure defense, and the universal Causio, who was capable of playing as a winger, but also could be effective defensive midfielder. By the names, it appeared that Italy will play its usual football – waiting for the opposition to make a mistake, destroying whatever creativity the French attempted, and hoping for a counterattack in which elegant Antognoni would supply a penetrating pass to Bettega to score. Looked painfully familiar strategy, with Antognoni in the place of Mazzola and Bettega instead of Anastasi. The yet unknown Paolo Rossi seemingly was on the field just to make the numbers. The very concept proved outdated and entirely useless four years ago... and the beginning of the match supported such a view: Lacombe scored for France in the 38th second!

And with this goal thee predictions ended – Italy played surprisingly entertaining attacking football. To be sure, Italy was strong in defense and paid close attention to the skilful French midfielders, but it was not stiff defensive game at all. The Italian mind was on attack and perhaps the French made a mistake by not using a defensive midfielder. It was difficult ti stop the Italians and although France was not outplayed, Italy attacked relentlessly until scoring an equalizer and then one more goal. Paolo Rossi scored the first goal and the substitute Zaccarelli gave the lead to Italy in the 51st minute. France tried to score again, even making substitutes with precisely that in mind, but no luck – Italy won 2-1. What was most important was the Italian play – it surprised everyone.

Surprise, surprise – unknown Paolo Rossi, not even 22 years old yet, and playing for modest Vicenza scored the equalizer. True, Causio and Bettega created the opportunity, but a goalscorer is a goalscorer, and the world had to start learning a new name.

The second match against Hungary favoured Italy – the Hungarians were without their most important players, Nyilasi and Torocsik, sent off at the end of the match with Argentina. Bearzot made no changes, which made sense for more than the obvious reason (never change a winning squad): versatile Tardelli and Causio were capable of playing whatever was needed to be played – on this occasion, less defensive work and more attacking one, Tardelli influential in midfield, and Causio almost a winger. Once again Rossi scored the first goal for Italy – in the 34th minute. Bettega scored the second in the next minute and Hungary was practically beaten. Benetti made it three in the second half and then Bearzot relaxed and replaced his most dangerous striker Bettega. Hungary managed to score a goal from a penalty, but with ten minutes left it was just saving grace. Italy played highly entertaining football again.
A picture suggesting anything but traditional Italy – a formidable attack, such strength and determination not associated with Italian football at all. Hungarian defense appears to be cut like butter. From left: Csapo, Rossi, Martos, and Bettega unstoppable.

Two matches – two wins. The last group match was immaterial, for Argentina also had two wins and both teams already qualified. Given the unpredictability of the games in the other groups, calculations for 'easier' semi-final group were hardly possible, at least for the Italians. Argentina was more interested of winning the otherwise meaningless match, for the first placed team was to play in Buenos Aires, which was an advantage for the hosts. But Italy had pride, plus appetite for more by now – the team was in excellent form, no changes made. Same players, but different tactic this time – or rather the same tactic used against Hungary, but surprising for Argentina, for they expected more defensive Italian play. Instead, Italy played 4-3-3. This time Argentina played well and the result was one of the most entertaining fixtures of the whole tournament. Open, attacking football, both teams eager and strong.
Argentina tried hard, but unfortunately was unable to score. The only goal in the match was Italian – and this time it was Roberto Bettega, already the most dangerous Italian player. Bettega was great so far in every match and already considered one of the top players of the finals. Italy finished with three wins at first place. Argentina had to play in Rosario in the next round, but this was less important than the pleasant discovery of fantastic Italian team. The match with Argentina was so good, many observers called it the real final of the tournament. It may be too much to consider it the best match of the 1978 World Cup, but it was outstanding game and certainly among the top 4-5 matches played this year.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Italy arrived in Argentina with modest expectations. The team was not seen as favourite and even at home the expectations were modest. May be an unique situation, but the slump starting with the grand fiasco in 1974 was long and painful. And nothing suggested the crisis was over yet – the team was just lucky to qualify to the finals, thanks to better goal difference. Enzo Bearzot was not yet the revered master coach, but controversial choice vulnerable to criticism: after all, his record was funny one – he never coached a professional club, trained mostly youth teams and was assistant to Feruccio Valcareggi. The 1974 failure was a heavy burden, for Bearzot was part of it.

Yet, Bearzot was comfortable – Italian coaches normally exist in particularly stressful situation and near peril under the combined close scrutiny of both press and general public, both easily inflamed and merciless. This time the enemy almost gave up, deeming both coach and team hopeless, which in turn benefited Bearzot's work.

Which was not easy at all, for comfort is very relative term in Italian football and lack of expectations does not mean lack of critical interest, ready to explode. Perhaps Bearzot fooled his dangerous compatriots by not proclaiming himself a reformer. On the surface, he seemingly continued the familiar Italian approach to football: fortify the defense, use experienced players, and don't forget the beloved superstars. At least never say publicly the megastars are out. Bearzot's reforms were somewhat never announced, changes were made gradually and quietly, and what really happened was discovered much later. Bearzot had not much of a choice in the matter, though – rebuilding the national team happened in time of general crisis of Italian football and his options were limited. His own vision was based on experience, not on radical and risky gambles with youth.

This squad perhaps illustrates best Bearzot's approach: it is almost 50% lingering oldtimers and 50% his own stars. Bearzot experimented with such teams almost to the beginning of the World Cup, but at the crucial moment of announcing the definite team list the first row above was out and the second row was the core of his real team. One thing obviously clear was that he based his team on Juventus – not only the strongest Italian team at the time, but more importantly the only one embracing modern developments of the game. The only team playing total football – in its Italian version, of course. Juventus suited Bearzot perfectly – it was vastly experienced squad, a mixture of old wolves and players about 25 years old, playing together for some years already. Both press and fans had no objections to Juventus players – they dominated the Italian league and just won the UEFA Cup. An easy excuse for 'forgetting' the likes of Savoldi and legends like Facchetti (the former – overrated; the latter – too old). In contrast to Mennotti, whose team practically had no survivors from 1974, Bearzot's Italy looked like smooth continuation – keeping experienced veterans and replacing here and there those nearing retirement anyway. Risky choices were seen as mere reserves, something plausible in terms of the future of the team, but it was understood that the stars will play – and all current stars were selected.
1 GK Dino Zoff 28 Feb 1942 Juventus

2 DF Mauro Bellugi 07 Feb 1950 Bologna

3 DF Antonio Cabrini 08 Oct 1957 Juventus

4 DF Antonello Cuccureddu 04 Oct 1949 Juventus

5 DF Claudio Gentile 27 Sep 1953 Juventus

6 DF Aldo Maldera 14 Oct 1953 AC Milan

7 DF Lionello Manfredonia 27 Nov 1956 Lazio

8 DF Gaetano Scirea 25 May 1953 Juventus

9 MD Giancarlo Antognoni 01 Apr 1954 AC Fiorentina

10 MD Romeo Benetti 20 Oct 1945 Juventus

11 MD Eraldo Pecci 12 Apr 1955 AC Torino

12 GK Paolo Conti 01 Apr 1950 AS Roma

13 MD Patrizio Sala 16 Jun 1955 AC Torino

14 MD Marco Tardelli 24 Sep 1954 Juventus

15 MD Renato Zaccarelli 18 Jan 1951 AC Torino

16 MD Franco Causio 01 Feb 1949 Juventus

17 MD Claudio Sala 08 Sep 1947 AC Torino

18 FW Roberto Bettega 27 Dec 1950 Juventus

19 FW Francesco Graziani 12 Dec 1952 AC Torino

20 FW Paolino Pulici 27 Apr 1950 AC Torino

21 FW Paolo Rossi 23 Sep 1956 Vicenza

22 GK Ivano Bordon 13 Apr 1951 Internazionale

Five players remained from 1974 at the end, but they were key players. Juventus provided the bulk – 9 players, practically all of them starters. The other strong club of the time – Torino – was represented by 6. It made sense – the second best team provided capable reserves, as becoming of second-best. Since Juventus was the base team, no objections to young brooms like Cabrini were readily available. The squad appeared well balanced – plenty of experience, yet not too old, plus a bunch of young feet not really expected to play, except Antognoni. He was already becoming a superstar and with him Italy was getting influential creative playmaker, a nice and important addition to the well-oiled Juventus' machine. Since nobody saw Italy as a favourite, objections of Bearzot's choices were few. Italy went to Argentina as an underdog, perhaps capable of reaching the second stage, but no more than that.

Italy in Argentina – it must be said right now: the World Cup took place in June, which is in the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere. Hence, the heavy training gear and terrible pitches. Grass was coming off during warm ups already. The Italians did not seem to mind the conditions – they were not expected to win anyway and therefore were uncharacteristically modest.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hosts have advantage, the wisdom goes. Massive support, familiar stadiums, enthusiasm, and referees 'quietly' helpful. But in the same time playing at home is a curse – too much excitement, too much pressure to win, and heavy criticism from the press. The smallest mistake is blown out of proportion and unforgiving journalists are busy pointing out great players left out, coach's mistakes, and the list goes on and on. Argentina did not have the best of starts and, like West Germany four years ago, was criticized from the beginning almost to the end. The stakes were high – even without the desires of the Junta, Argentina simply had to win – they never did before and if not now, then when? To a point, not having official games since 1975 was a problem – long camps are just training and friendlies – just friendlies. So at the opening match Argentina did not look great at all and won over Hungary with great difficulty. 2-1 was a victory, but nobody was blind. Hungary played surprisingly well, but so what – they were not among the favourites, and if struggling against them, imagine what may come in the very near future.

Luque and Kempes celebrating a goal, but... For one thing Mario Kempes did not appear to be the top striker at first. And Luque, although playing well, exposed a problem: he was not a natural born scorer and missed many an opportunity.

Argentina struggled in their second match as well – France was strong opponent even without the boost of 'win or die' situation they faced after losing to Italy. Argentina prevailed – 2-1 again – but many were outraged. Argentina was helped by the referee.
The controversial moment, deciding the match: Marius Tresor tackled Leopoldo Luque, missed the ball and falling down unintentionally touched the ball. The Swiss referee Dubach whistled – a penalty. That was – and is – the dominant commentary of the situation. A minority argued that Tresor did not go for the ball at all, but only for legs of Luque and the penalty was fair. Sure, he did not want to touch the ball, he just landed on it, but – look at his legs and where is the ball?
Passarella scored the penalty. But soon after this penalty Dubach turned blind, not seeing a penalty against Argentina – and this made the controversial moment above a sure case of injustice. France was robbed, Argentina – helped. Did not look well, but the hosts were happy – they qualified for the next round.
Argentina scores, but the picture tells it all: it was close, just a few inches too close to not winning.

Italy qualified as well, and the last group match was mere protocol. Except for the crowds on the stands, who were unhappy – Argentina did not play well. Unimportant match, but the home team had to prove its worth. Italy, however, won 1-0. Disappointment and criticism followed – Argentina was in big trouble.
Fillol unable to stop the ball, Tarantini on his back and Bettega dominates the picture. The home team advanced, but not convincingly. It was hard to point out real weakness, though – the team played open football, a version of total football which was just a bit conservative. The Argentines were clearly eager and motivated, they were skilful, and in good physical condition. Fillol, Tarantini, Passarella, Ardiles, and Luque to some degree were impressive – clearly new stars were discovered in them. Kempes was a bit bellow expectations yet, but dangerous enough. Argentina was pleasant to watch, yet, not dominating. There was a tiny something missing, difficult to point out. This 'something' was compensated by helpful referees – the two key Hungarian players were expelled in the opening match, then suspect penalty given against France and then the French were not given a clear penalty. It was not exactly Argentina winning, but rather pushed ahead by officials, a point not missed neither abroad, nor at home. When Argentina was left without helping whistle, the gauchos lost. Painful conclusion, asking for the head of coach.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Group 1. The hosts of controversial tournament had no option, but to be controversial. Even more so Argentina – always a favourite, Argentina routinely failed. Now, at home, the expectations were very high – and so fears and criticism. Argentina had to win at last. The grand failure in 1974 called for radical change, which looked promising back then, but became increasingly problematic. Cesar Luis Menotti was appointed to coach the national team – and appointment smelling of politics: the strongman of Huracan David Bracuto and trade unions leader Paulino Niembro backed Menotti – or pulled strings and 'influenced' the Football Federation.

Menotti made strong impression – he made the successful and winning Huracan squad of early 1970s – but there were doubts as well. He was young too – 36 years old in 1974 – and his concepts differed significantly from general opinions, both professional and lay. He did not fit the conventional image of a coach – elegant, slim, long haired, intelligent, El Flaco often quoted writers and intellectuals, something foreign to the football world and therefore suspect. His ever present cigarette was not a problem in the 1970s, but everything else was – he started building a new team, introducing young and little known players and rejecting established stars. Thus, he was under fire all the time – it looked like he was stupidly avoiding the top players. He was opposed by the big clubs too – in 1975 River Plate and Boca Juniors refused to free their players for national team duty, which practically left no choice for Menotti, but to look elsewhere. Argentina did not have to qualify for the World Cup finals, but so far Menotti's squads failed to impress – especially at the 1975 South American Championship. Then the military coup d'etat made the situation surreal – Menotti was well known left winger. There was never real truce between him and the Junta, but he was tolerated to some degree. Yet, he had to keep his mouth shut – half-shut, really – and had to compromise. Political views made work difficult, for there were players not wanting to play for the Junta, or the Junta did not want them in the national team. And there were players Menotti did no want, but the Junta did. How much was football and how much politics is hard to establish – Alonso was considered the best Argentine midfielder at the time, but Menotti did not want him. He was under heavy criticism for preferring inferior players to him – but it was Admiral Lacoste, the CEO of the World Cup organization committee, 'suggesting' to Menotti to include Alonso in the World Cup squad. The Junta was not particularly interested in football, but only in PR – Lacoste's reasons may have not been those of powerful fan, but rather populists, yet, the coach had to bend. But left wing coach and right wing rulers were in one mind about foreign-based players – and against public opinion in that. Menotti wanted only home-based players – those, playing abroad were older, they represented backward habits and failure, and their current form had to be guessed. Menotti wanted to know his player and they to be available at once. Expats were unwanted by the Junta politically: some were known critics of the regime, some even went to play abroad for political reasons, and most of them, even apolitical, had to conform to public opinion in their new countries and to the vocal political exiles. But such motives were irrelevant for Argentine football specialists and fans – they asked constantly why this or that star is out and what kind of a team is a selection of second rate players. At the end, Menotti announced that he wanted only two foreign based players – Mario Kempes, who went to Spain in 1976, and was already Menotti's key player, and Osvaldo Piazza, a star with Saint Etienne at his peak and also perhaps the most modern Argentine defender. Piazza refused to join the national team for family reasons – which may have been really political reasons. Kempes did not refuse. Players left out of Menotti's team brought a lot or wrath, but who can tell what was really going on – Jorge Carrascosa (Huracan), Vicente Pernia (Boca Juniors), and Bochini (Independiente) were considered the top players at their posts, but Menotti excluded them. This affected largely the national team defense: without Piazza, Carrascoza (left back), Pernia (right back), it seemed very weak. Perhaps the absence of 'El Lobo' Carrascosa was not Menotti's fault – The Wolf was the captain of Menotti's Huracan, and the coach clearly preferred players he worked with before, but Carrascosa opposed the Junta and refused to play for her glory. Pernia seemingly was undesirable for the Junta – there was a general or admiral, who had a soft spot for little known at the time Olguin. Menotti gave weird explanation – he left Pernia out, for he was not cheerful fellow. Olguin smiled more. As for Bochini, perhaps his style did not fit Menotti's vision – and may be not only Menotti's, for in his fantastically long and successful career Bochini rarely played for Argentina, and never was really a starter. But this not all: Hugo Gatti was out.
By far the most famous Argentine goalkeeper, he was perhaps too extravagant for the national team. Menotti used him a few times, but not after 1977. The public was outraged, of course, but at least there was another equally strong choice at hand – Fillol. Gatti's style was too much of a risk for the national team, he played for Boca Juniors by 1978, and his character was difficult – Menotti had quite a few good reasons to exclude him (the problems Boca made for him, the possible clash with Fillol over who plays and who sits on the bench, and the tendency of Gatti to rush ahead and play in the field, abandoning his net).

The last player out was Diego Maradona.
17-years old and surrounded by enormous publicity, Maradona already debuted for Argentina. He was invited by Menotti to the long and grueling training camp preparing for the finals. 25 players were selected and three had to be left out – the unlucky ones were Humberto Rafael Bravo, Victor Bottaniz, and teenage Diego. Even then the contrast was sharp, but in retrospect? Bravo, Bottaniz... who were they? Placing Maradona with them was strange, mildly put.
Diego waiting for Menotti's autograph – Maradona was still a kid. Which was Menotti's reason and public explanation. The kid seemingly accepted that and did not make fuss for years – only much later he bitterly protested and blamed Menotti. But years later Menotti was no longer Diego's hero. Anyway, the exclusion of Maradona was criticized at home and even abroad. The decision even looked out of character – Menotti risked so far and suddenly backed into conservatism. Was he afraid? Why he experimented so much then? Even against better judgment? Maradona was already seen as a player with Pele's potential – and Pele was world champion when he was not much older than Diego. However, the realities of football changed a lot since the 1950s – Menotti was quite right: a teenager with only a handful of professional games was hardly ready to face the likes of Beckenbauer and Cruyff (both expected to play at the finals) in 1978. Still, many think – and Maradona most of all – that he had to play in 1978. In defense of Menotti something yet in the future has to be pointed out – Maradona was not ready to concur the world even four years later: he was a big disappointment in 1982.

And so Menotti was under heavy fire, becoming heavier and heavier as the finals were coming closer.


Norberto Alonso

4 January 1953 (aged 25)

River Plate



Osvaldo Ardiles

3 August 1952 (aged 25)




Héctor Baley

16 November 1950 (aged 27)




Daniel Bertoni

14 March 1955 (aged 23)




Ubaldo Fillol

21 July 1950 (aged 27)

River Plate



Américo Gallego

25 April 1955 (aged 23)

Newell's Old Boys



Luis Galván

24 February 1948 (aged 30)

Talleres de Córdoba



Rubén Galván

7 April 1952 (aged 26)




René Houseman

19 July 1953 (aged 24)




Mario Kempes

15 July 1954 (aged 23)




Daniel Killer

21 December 1949 (aged 28)

Racing Club



Omar Larrosa

18 November 1947 (aged 30)




Ricardo La Volpe

6 February 1952 (aged 26)

San Lorenzo



Leopoldo Luque

3 May 1949 (aged 29)

River Plate



Jorge Olguín

17 May 1952 (aged 26)

San Lorenzo



Oscar Ortiz

8 April 1953 (aged 25)

River Plate



Miguel Oviedo

12 October 1950 (aged 27)

Talleres de Córdoba



Rubén Pagnanini

31 January 1949 (aged 29)




Daniel Passarella

25 May 1953 (aged 25)

River Plate



Alberto Tarantini

3 December 1955 (aged 22)




José Daniel Valencia

3 October 1955 (aged 22)

Talleres de Córdoba



Ricardo Villa

18 August 1952 (aged 25)

Racing Club

His final selection was probably unconvincing in Argentina, but appeared very strange abroad – it was unknown. Only 4 players remained from the 1974 World Cup squad – Alonso, Kempes, Fillol, and Houseman. Back then only Houseman made some good impression, Fillol was back-up goalie, and Kempes was originally a reserve, becoming a starter because nothing else worked. So much for familiar names. Menotti's squad was young – in any case younger than 1974 one – with only two 30-years old: Larossa and Luis Galvan. Young, yet not so young... those over 25 were almost all of them controversial – if choosing experience at the end, in contrast to previously expressed view, why taking players overwhelmingly considered second rate? Luque, Daniel Killer, Oviedo, Pagnanini... certainly Argentina had bigger names than those. Not a single player from Boca Juniors, which was enjoying great success by now and was arguably the best Argentine team. Gatti out in favour of Baley and La Volpe? What if Fillol failed or injured? And if Menotti favoured Huracan, where were the Huracan players? Larossa suggested favouritism – he already played for Independiente, but he was part of Menotti's Huracan. He was in, but the rest of old Huracan were out: Miguel Brindisi, Jorge Carrascosa, Roque Avallay, Carlos Babington, Alfio Basile. Only three current Huracan players were selected: Houseman, Ardiles, and Baley. The last two – unknown. So, no Huracan-based squad, but not River Plate/Boca Juniors either. And no Independiente-based... but two players from Talleres (Cordoba). And no foreign-based player, according to Menotti – then why Mario Kempes? If going for one, why not for more? And finally – Alberto Tarantini. A player without a current club at all, whose only training was in the national team. So far, there was never a clubless player at the World Cup finals and the reason is painfully obvious: what kind of form someone not playing regularly can have? Nothing can be expected from a guy out of regular football for six months. Strange, controversial squad, which – at least to a foreigner – made sense only in one sense: Argentina had a lot of talent, constantly producing new players, so every selection would be controversial on one hand, and those unknown would be no weaklings. Then again... things can be truly desperate when clubless player is in the squad. At the end, the selection provided for fun – numbers were given in alphabetical order and thus unusual. Goalkeepers Baley and Fillol appeared with, respectively, number 3 and 5. Left winger Bertoni – number 4. Even the star Kempes did not get his usual number, but number 10. It was fun and confusing for the opposition too (since most Argentine players were unknown), but then Alonso had number 1, which looked like clear indication who was the bigger star and the most important player of the team. Something like a declaration that Argentina was determined to be number 1 this year.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

All was political – the military Junta ruling Argentina was ostracized for its bloody methods on one hand. Argentina was in something close to civil war, with quite murderous left and ultra-left organizations, fighting with the military. The Junta took power pretty much to stop leftist terror, but soon outdid the terrorists. The concerns were real: there was threat from the left, promising to kidnap players, to sabotage games, and to organize protests on the stadiums during matches. The threats were serious, but equally serious was the doubt the government would be able to provide security plus the Junta had few friends abroad. Curiously, the Communist Eastern Europe paid less attention than the West: Chile and general Pinochet were the prime object of Eastern European wrath. Argentina was never criticized to the extend Chile was and in terms of the World Cup – no Eastern European country considered boycotting the finals. It may have been for economic reasons: USSR imported lots of grain from Argentina, perhaps even more than before the Junta, for now Argentina lost many trading partners. The trade was never made official, at least not in Eastern Europe, but so the diamond trade partnership between USSR and South Africa during the apartheid was not announced either. Political line and economic ties were entirely different things – yet, it is impossible to say that Eastern Europe did not consider withdrawal because of trade. Other countries officially considered boycotting the finals, but it was clear the threats were not real. As long as Argentina gave some guarantee for security of the teams, it was enough reason to participate with token 'reservations'. Football was political in its own way: playing at the finals, advancing, winning – what a glory for nationalism, patriotism, etc., for any country.

There was another side to the mountain of objections: many players, mostly European stars, were still political on one hand and no longer considering playing for their country more important than their own well being. Politically, many raised objections to playing in Argentina, but was it the real reason? Not always – some really did not want to travel that far, some were tired from long club season and wanted a vacation, money were the reason for still others, and even players afraid of losing their places in national teams for lack of form used political excuses. Political objections were convenient excuse for all. Beckenbauer murmured political doubts, other big stars – until their real demands were satisfied, and then there was Johan Cruyff. What were his real reasons for leaving the Dutch national team is hidden for ever – as always, he said one thing in public, but another in private, and also, with time, changed his story more than once. His latest version, told to Spanish journalists circa 2010 is that he was afraid of kidnapping – he received threats in 1977 or early 1978 in Spain. True or false? It would be anybody's guess, but he was really threatened with death in 1972, when Ajax went to Buenos Aires to play against Independiente for the Intercontinental Cup. Based on that, his latest version sounds plausible... just like another version, not told by him, sounds plausible: that he left the national team because the Dutch Federation refused to use his own sports manufacturing firm as the national team supplier. Yet, another reason was that he was tired. And another – his desire to spend the summer with his family, not to travel to far away Argentina. Age was a reason too, and so on, for the hype was huge: speculations if he was to play or not took months. Finally, he was out, but... not entirely. He was a hired as a TV expert, and looks like he went to Argentina after all.

Johan Cruyff in the TV studio, along with Brian Clough. Looks cynical at the end: Cruyff refused to play, but did not refuse to make money from the World Cup.

Some players really refused to play, but most did not at the end, and who was sincere, who was using political argument for entirely different means, and who really had doubts, but changed his mind will remain forever unknown. Bloody Argentina provided vast curtain to hide behind and not only to players. The objections of the Federations were also insincere, and the very Junta wanted to use the World Cup for bettering its international image. For the generals had little interest in football and the World Cup, given to Argentina before they took power, was a big inconvenience at first. Money were short, economy in shambles – there was time Argentina came close to abandoning the World Cup. At the end the generals decided to use the finals for PR and indeed tried hard to present good image to the world. With no success at all. Even the logo of the finals was not just dull, but looking like prison bars.

The official talisman was great, but it was sharply opposed by another image:
Happy child Gauchito, so unlike reality.
General Jorge Rafael Videla opening the World Cup. Clearly civilian clothes are foreign to him, but what a crowd is surrounding him! Looks like gathering of Mafia dons and very threatening. Poor Gauchito... this picture was more commented than him. And entirely unfavourably. The Junta had no chance of improving its image and not only because of the tortures and the murders. Aging Argentine stadiums were criticized – even if the Junta was more interested in football and even they started renovations earlier, it was a lost cause: the country had no money for anything but cosmetic lift up. So with general infrastructure and then there was the overwhelming problem of security. The threats from left wing terrorists were real and in any case the country was under military rule. The Police was found insufficient and the Army was to provide security. The decision was influenced by foreign pressure as well – FIFA and individual finalists expressed great concerns and demanded guarantees – Army security seemingly satisfied the demands, but also did not. Most countries found the presence of heavily armed soldiers everywhere unpleasant and also threatening. No matter what the Junta did, it was seen in negative light.
Soldiers everywhere – this one monitoring the road to the stadium in Cordoba. The Junta did not achieve a better image, only more hostility.

And yet it was not entirely barbed wire, guns, check points, and uniforms: there was, may be curiously, another side as well – festive and peaceful. People want some fun no matter what the politcal situation, not everybody is a fighter.
This existed too, although hardly getting international coverage. Eventually, as the tournament progressed, football took more central place of importance. At the end, the 1978 World Cup remained in dual imagery:
Argentina 78 was Videla and guns, but also this concurrent image established itself. The drama and the fun of the game. At the end, football mattered more – for those who watch it anyway. For many football was everything.
Pele in brand new role – a TV commentator. Did he expressed criticism of the Argentine regime? Hard to tell, for Brazil under military rule too, and for a long time. May be he was interested only in the game?
And what about the Tunisian fans, cheering a goal against West Germany? They waive Argentine flags as well, Junta or not Junta, and do not look harassed. Strange, by the measures of 21st century – these guys look like terrorists today, thanks to paranoia and propaganda. But they look quite comfortable in 1978 and traveled half the world to watch their team in an internationally ostracized country. May be they did not find Argentina particularly hard, since they arrived from not exactly democratic country? May be they did not care for anything else than football and their team? Yet, it is strange to look at them today: people dressed like that would have tough time entering stadiums in the contemporary 'peaceful' ,'just', and 'tolerant' developed world.

Strange World Cup was the 1978 one. Even in purely sporting terms: the favourites were not so clear. Argentina was one, but with reservations. The hosts regularly failed previously and the new team was not really known. West Germany was a favourite too – the team did not play great football recently, but it was expected to be in shape for the finals. Even without Beckenbauer, West Germany already had the reputation of rising to the demands of the occasion. Holland too – without Cruyff and failing to win the European Championship in 1976, but still strong and practicing total football. And Brazil – not really impressive, still shaky after the grand failure in 1974, but it was Brazil after all. No other nation was seen as potential world cup contender, so unlike the situation in 1974, when Italy was practically proclaimed world champion months before the finals. It was caution, for predictions failed 4 years earlier, but also there was no obviously great performer recently. May be a surprise winner? But surprises were unpredictable – 1974 Poland was well remembered. The political circumstances were also considered as potentially influencing performance.

The draw was interesting – it was almost the only time when the host was not playing in the weakest group. Argentina was in Group 1, together with Italy, France, and Hungary. Group 2 was an easy one: West Germany, Poland, Mexico, and Tunisia. Group 3 was competitive, benefiting a bit Brazil – Spain, Sweden, and Austria. Tough, but beatable. And Group 4 was also clear – Holland was expected of having no trouble for the first place, Scotland and Peru fighting for second, and Iran was to provide points to everybody. Two difficult groups and two easy ones.

So, get your ticket.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Naturally, the World Cup dominated the year. Perhaps the most controversial World Cup finals ever played – their were protests for months, calls to boycott the tournament, heavy criticism, doubts about the ability of the host to organize the finals and to provide security. But the finals were played and the football was lively. Tactically, there was nothing new – total football was the measuring stick. It was observed, that countries were catching up with the demanding style, especially the South Americans. But the archpriests of total football – Cruyff and Beckenbauer - were absent, although still active players and top world stars. The young sensation Maradona was also absent, left out of the team at the last moment. Zico played, but did not shine. It was uncertain time: seemingly the big heroes of only yesterday were leaving and the new stars were not quite of the caliber of the old. Holland proved its leading position and commitment to the style they invented, but West Germany was major disappointment. The teams on the raise were somewhat unfinished and not yet real contenders – France and Italy. Nice surprises came from unexpected corners of the globe, but still far away from the top nations. The World Cup was good, may be surprisingly good, given the circumstances.

The club scene was also interesting: the English clubs established themselves as the leading force in Europe, in sharp contrast to the misery of the national team of England. German football clearly was very strong, but more and more obviously going into unpleasant to the eye physical dominance at the expense of artistry and sophistication. The stars shaping football were found a bit old-fashioned and entirely at par with the exciting generation of the first half of the 1970s. Yet, more and more clubs and countries embraced total football, which was positive development.

But the World Cup was everything in 1978. The buzz practically covered the whole year and the politics went hand in hand with football.
The general image was not a pleasant one: World Cup under siege, it was called. World Cup under guns. It was the rifle, not the ball, the symbol of the finals. And it was bizarre indeed – consider this: during matches of Argentina, torturous interrogations stopped and both torturers and victims watched together, cheering for Argentina. Match over, final smiles, cheers, and even embraces, and – back to business of 'extracting' evidence and confessions, and murder, and so on. Until the next brief togetherness at the next match. So, 1978 was shaped by both great football and gross torture, both going hand and hand. There was no way to separate the game from politics.
And politics almost buried the historic significance of this World Cup: it was the last classic one. The last with 16 finalists. The formula of 1974 was unchanged – 4 round robin preliminary groups, followed by two round robin semifinal groups.

Monday, April 15, 2013

And thus 1977 comes to a close. The best moment of the year? Any choice is arbitrary, but perhaps the retirement of Pele.

Even the skies were crying at his last match between Cosmos New York and Santos, his only clubs. It was even more than retirement of the greatest ever football player: the curtain of whole football era closed. The era of charm, improvisation, surprise, joy, artistry was going sadly into the past. Big crowd paid last tribute to the greatest perhaps unaware (well, certainly unaware, for it was American crowd ignorant of football traditions, developments, and history) of what his retirement was symbolic of. Yet, it was wonderful tribute to the King.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The last FIFA group 13 consisted of not one, but two continents – the lowest of the low, Oceania, did not have – and so far doesn't have – reserved spot at the finals. It was placed in Group 13, which was difficult and bizarre group, at par with Africa. Great distances called for geographical divisions. Politics were overwhelming problem, with countries refusing to play against others and calling for expulsions. Israel was not expelled, but Muslim states boycotted it – and because of that Israel was placed in the Far East Subgroup 2 – with Japan and both Korean states. Which was the next problem – North Korea withdraw, obviously because it had to play against South Korea, and it was either them or us: expel them, or we are not playing. China did not participate at all - most likely because Taiwan was allowed to play. Many countries did not participate – India, Pakistan, Vietnam – and almost every refusal can be traced to political tensions. At the end, politics and geography led to strangely looking preliminary subgroups: 6 countries in Subgroup 1, but only 5 actual played – Sri Lanka withdrew. Subgroup 4 was made of 4 teams, but United Arab Emirates withdrew. Subgroup 3 also had 4 teams at first, but Iraq withdrew. The remaining 2 subgroups consisted of three teams each. Major crisis was avoided thanks to the early elimination of Israel – they finished surprisingly 2nd, behind South Korea. Neither South Korea, nor Japan had more than laughable amateur football at the time – that was why the failure of Israel was surprising. Hong Kong won Subgroup 1, Kuwait – Subgroup 4, the most confident winner, not losing even a point, and Australia – Subgroup 5. Subgroup 3 displayed the usual problem in the undeveloped world: Syria decided not to play their last match, probably because they had no real chance to advance. Iran benefited immediately – the awarded victory made them winners of the group and the last match against Saudi Arabia was meaningless. Just like in Africa, it was not exactly necessary to play football to advance.

With the major obstacles gone by now, the final round proceeded just fine: five finalists playing twice against each other. The ordeal took half an year – from June to 4th of December 1977. Travel was tantamount – from Iran to Australia and from Kuwait to South Korea, which made clear that practically no fans were able to support visitors. The key match was perhaps Australia – Iran, played in Melbourne. Iran clinched important away victory – 1-0. Australia, thanks to her European emigrants and to the spirited performance in 1974, was seen as the favourite, but actually the Aussies were not good even in terms of weak Asian football. They lost half of their matches. Hong Kong was the obvious outsider, unable to get even a single point. Iran was best by far.

1.IRAN 8 6 2 0 12- 3 14

2.South Korea 8 3 4 1 12- 8 10

3.Kuwait 8 4 1 3 13- 8 9

4.Australia 8 3 1 4 11- 8 7

5.Hongkong 8 0 0 8 5-26 0

Smart looking 1977 Iranian squad: Standing from right: Mohammad Reza Adelkhani, Nasrollah Abdollahi, Ghafour Jahani, Nasser Hejazi, Hossein Kazerouni.

Sitting from right: Ebrahim Qassem-pour, Andranik Eskandarian, Mohammad Sadeqi, Ali Parvin, Hassan Roshan, Hassan Nazari.

The names meant nothing outside Iran, and Iran was thought an obvious outsider. Perhaps better than the African finalist, but points donor nevertheless.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Group 12 or Africa. After the disaster Zaire had been in 1974, African miracle was not expected. And general optimism about Africa faded away in the 1970s – the continent was poor, corrupt, ridden by political and social conflicts, corrupt and backward. Which affected football as well and if there was a miracle, it was that Africa managed to organize international tournaments at all. Not every country participated for one or another reason, withdrawals were common, as well as interrupted matches. South Africa was banned from participating. Poverty, travel, and politics shaped the fragile structure of any African tournament. World Cup qualifications went threw stages – the early ones were classic cup format and the last was was mini-championship, each team playing a home and away game against the rest. Nothing went smooth: the preliminary round was played, but in the first round the Central African Republic withdrew and Zaire progressed further without playing. Guinea and Ghana had to play a third match to produce a winner, however. Not so Tunisia and Morocco, also tied – penalty shoot-out was used in their case. Sudan and Tanzania also withdrew and Kenya and Uganda progressed without playing, but this was nothing compared to the scandal created by Cameroon and Republic of Congo. Cameroon clinched a 2-2 in Brazzaville. Playing at home the second leg, they had the obvious edge, but who knows why Congo was leading 2-1. Bad or corrupt referee? Or an excuse for poor performance? Whatever the real reason was, Cameroon left the pitch, the match was abandoned, and Congo proclaimed the winner.

The Second round benefited Nigeria – Zaire withdraw, thus making an unique and probably unmatched world record: Zaire qualified and then was eliminated without playing even a minute of football. One pair was locked in a tie and this time overtime was played – Zambia prevailed in it, finally beating Uganda 4-2.

The Third round, at least in dry statistical record, was normal. Tunisia eliminated Guinea, Nigeria – Ivory Coast, not yet called Cote d'Ivoire, and Egypt – Zambia. The last three were to produce the African representative at the World Cup finals and at least on paper the final stage appeared normal. If there was something unusual, it was the absence of the countries of more developed football – Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, and particularly Ghana, traditionally considered the strongest country in football. It may be obvious today to see Nigeria among the top, but it was not so back in the 1970s. But, to a point, playing against Nigeria was decisive factor – all matches ended with wins of the host team, except Nigeria – Tunisia. The first leg was played in Tunis and ended in a scoreless tie. The match in Lagos was won – 1-0 – by the visitors, Tunisia. At the end, the tie proved more important – home victories inevitably led to equal points, but Tunisia had a point more thanks to this tie.

1.TUNISIA 4 2 1 1 7- 4 5

2.Egypt 4 2 0 2 7-11 4

3.Nigeria 4 1 1 2 5- 4 3

And so Tunisia qualified for the first time to play at World Cup finals.

At the time, it was not very exciting news: after Zaire played so incompetently in 1974, the African representative was considered the weakest possible outsider. Clearly, African nations lacked consistency and none was able to sustain even relatively competitive team for long. Tunisia was thought just lucky – and lucky thanks to the low level of African football.

Monday, April 8, 2013

By FIFA – North and Central America was Group 11. One team going to the finals, but it was long and elaborated road to this coveted spot. First round: three zones, one further divided into two sub-groups. Six teams going to the second round. Mexico was the favourite by far, for short of miracle, there was no team nearly as good. Mexico stumbled at first, failing to beat USA at home (1-1), and losing to Canada – 0-1 in Vancouver. Perhaps USA and Canada improved, thanks to NASL and the influence of the European stars in the league; perhaps Mexico was too arrogant and did not play seriously. But that was everything in terms of surprise: Mexico got serious, won their last two matches and won the group. USA finished last. With two out three teams going to final round it was no big deal anyway, but goal-difference decided losers and winners.

North American Zone:

1.Mexico 4 1 2 1 3- 1 4

2.Canada 4 1 2 1 2- 3 4

3.USA 4 1 2 1 3- 4 4

The Central American Zone had 4 teams. Honduras did not participate. Panama was the weakest team, the other three fought between themselves and perhaps not surprisingly ties decided the outcome: Costa Rica just ended too many games in a tie to be able to qualify.

1.Guatemala 6 3 2 1 15- 6 8

2.El Salvador 6 2 3 1 10- 7 7

3.Costa Rica 6 1 4 1 8- 6 6

4.Panama 6 1 1 4 7-21 3

The Caribbean Zone was organized differently: two sub-groups, playing not round-robin, but cup-format – direct elimination, winners advance to the second round, and then the new winners – to the final play-off, the winner of which advanced to the final stage.

Subgroup A had countries worth mentioning for only one reason: geographically, they belong to South America, but never participated in South American championships: Surinam and Guyana. As a whole, the Carribean Zone was exotic – and entirely insignificant in terms of football. Surinam won the final against Trinidad and Tobago. They clinched victory in overtime – 3-2.

Subgroup B went through its own tribulations, finally won by Haiti. Haiti won the final against Cuba – 2-0. Curiously to some degree, Cuba never developed football – something very unusual for a Communist country. It was not that Cuba neglected sports – athletics, basketball, volleyball were highly developed by the state. The reason was baseball – it was traditionally the most important sport in Cuba, with Fidel Castro a big fan. Football did not survive the competition. As for Haiti – at least they played at the 1974 World Cup, so they were somewhat the football power of the Carribean.

The second round was hosted by Mexico, which practically precluded everything. Perhaps there was no other way – Mexico had the best facilities and experience in organization. It was the most interested in football country in the continent, which was important as well – attendance was guaranteed. In front of cheering home crowds Mexico won all matches.

1.MEXICO 5 5 0 0 20- 5 10

2.Haiti 5 3 1 1 6- 6 7

3.El Salvador 5 2 1 2 8- 9 5

4.Canada 5 2 1 2 7- 8 5

5.Guatemala 5 1 1 3 8-10 3

6.Surinam 5 0 0 5 6-17 0

As if explaining why they did not play in South America, Surinam finished last, losing every match they played: too weak even for weak North and Central America. Any point of playing against Brazil and Argentina?
Once again Mexico qualified for the World Cup finals. The opposition was too weak to even give some real recognition of Mexican players – Hugo Sanchez was the bright rising star, but the really great player was the midfielder Leonardo Cuellar. The Mexican team was not bad at all – just unknown to the world.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

n the grand scheme of FIFA South America was called Group 10. In reality it was competition of two stages – initial 3 groups of 3 teams each, playing twice against each other, and after that – a final group of the three winners, playing a round-robin tournament on neutral ground. Two team going directly to the finals, and a third potentially going to the finals, if winning the play-off with the European Group 9 winner. South America frequently changed qualification formats, due to the small number of participants, lack of money, and great distances to travel. This time it was decided to be two-staged competition, which benefited obvious favourites.

Group A consisted of Brazil, Paraguay, and Colombia. No doubt about the winners. What may be difficult to understand was Colombia – it was very weak, despite the fact it was the magnet for South American professional players. So money was not enough, but this is trivia. The outcome was boringly clear:

1.Brazil 4 2 2 0 8- 1 6

2.Paraguay 4 1 2 1 3- 3 4

3.Colombia 4 0 2 2 1- 8 2

Group B was clear too at first – who else, but Uruguay. Bolivia and Venezuela were not an opposition. Actually, such were the realities at the time, that Venezuela did not even count: Bolivia and Ecuador 'competed' for the dubious distinction of lowliest South American nation. But.. Uruguay was in the worst ever situation – political troubles, inevitably plunging the country in dire economic straights. The military Junta did not care for football and nobody else did either, given the circumstances. Uruguay failed miserably and in the vacuum stepped in lowly Bolivia. Which won easily the group without losing a single match.

1.Bolivia 4 3 1 0 8- 3 7

2.Uruguay 4 1 2 1 5- 4 4

3.Venezuela 4 0 1 3 2- 8 1

Group C was the only competitive group – Ecuador did not count, but Chile and Peru fought for the first place. Peru prevailed by a point, largely thanks to the 1-1 tie in Santiago. Small difference, but still important: Peru was still riding high on the shoulders of the great generation of the 1970 World Cup. To it some new highly talented players were added. Chile on the other hand was improving thanks to better economy bringing money to her football, but the stage was still early to produce results, new bunch of talented players in particular. So Peru had the edge, if not obvious supremacy.

1.Peru 4 2 2 0 8- 2 6

2.Chile 4 2 1 1 5- 3 5

3.Ecuador 4 0 1 3 1- 9 1

And the winners of the preliminary groups pretty much precluded the whole qualification – Bolivia was too weak to offer resistance, let alone to produce a surprise. In Cali, Colombia, the final stage was a formality – it did not even matter who finished 1st or 2nd – the bottom place was 'reserved', and the others qualified. Bazil won their both games, beating Bolivia 8-0. Peru settled for 5-0 against Bolivia. Important or not, the opening match between Peru and Brazil was still contested – if nothing else, at least honour demanded serious play. Brazil was not all that great – Peru lost 0-1.

1.BRAZIL 2 2 0 0 9- 0 4

2.PERU 2 1 0 1 5- 1 2

3.Bolivia 2 0 0 2 0-13 0

And so in July 1977 Brazil and Peru qualified for the World Cup finals. It was not over yet for Bolivia, which had still a chance to reach the finals too. Tiny chance... more or less in the realm of pure theory, given the strength of Bolivian football. In October and November everything settled: Hungary thrashed Bolivia 6-0 in Budapest. The second match in La Paz hardly mattered any more, but Bolivia lost it as well – 2-3. Hungary qualified; Bolivia did not make a miracle.
Same old, same old – Brazil to the finals. This is one of the often changing Brazilian formations of the time. Still unsettled, searching, and trying to find its way after the 1974 disaster, but clearly too strong in South America to be in risk of missing World Cup finals. One thing was getting clear – the new Brazil was to be based on Zico. So far Rivelino was the key figure, but his age already suggested that the team will be organized around Zico. The only question was which players were best suited for playing with the White Pele.
Peru in Cali, Colombia, 1977: a good team, which did not even have to worry about qualifying. Rather, getting more experience and confidence. Sotil, Cubillas, Chumpitaz, Velasquez – the core well remembered from the 1970 World Cup – shaped the team. Well rounded squad, with Oblitas rapidly becoming big star.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Group 9, the only one not giving direct spot at the finals. Apart from that – an easy and hardly interesting group at first. It was expected to be a Soviet walkover: Greece was an outsider and point donor, Hungary, as Soviet satellite, was to bend over. USSR was seen as the sure winner, and the only interest was reserved for the next stage – which country from South America will meet the Soviets for the real contest for World Cup spot. And everything started exactly as expected in 1976 – Hungary tied the away match with Greece – 1-1. A tie serving USSR. May the Soviets were too confident in their own expectations of easy win: they made bizarre and possibly unique in football history schedule for their games: all were to be played in one month time – from April 24 to May 18, 1977. It was like playing normal club championship – one fixed squad playing a season. A mini-season, but regular nevertheless – a match every week. The advantage was obvious: a stable group of used to each other players, getting better and better thanks to familiarity every next match. The disadvantage was not seen at all – injuries, sudden lack of form, or tactical changes left the team without options. There was no time to include new players, for there was no way to try them between official matches. And this precisely happened: the Soviets did not have the best of teams at the time. After the extreme of Lobanovsky, who played the entire Dinamo Kiev, the next coach went in the opposite direction, making a diverse team from many clubs, but not many players from Dinamo. Neither concept was wise. USSR struggled for some years anyway. They won their first match, hosting Greece, 2-0, but the team was obviously deficient and draw a lot of criticism. There were problems in midfield and consequently in attack. The second match was lost, to the surprise of everybody – Hungary won in Budapest 2-1. USSR displayed many problems – it was not that Hungary was great, but rather Soviet clueless play. Muntyan suffered from injury and was able to play only as a substitute. Soviet observers pointed out that his absence was critical. Strikers were pathetic too. But there was no time to change anything and the same squad went to face Greece in Athens. They lost 0-1. Curiously, the Soviet reports of the match were very brief and not very troubled (rather disinterested actually) – the referee was blamed in passing. Only much later a myth was built about crooked refereeing in this game – if not for the referee, USSR surely was going to reach the finals. But this is what one can hear today, not in 1977. Back than... USSR was not yet eliminated. Pulling a bit of strength, the Soviets won their last match – 2-0 against Hungary in Tbilisi. 4 points and 5-3 goal-difference would suffice and then an urgent changes of the team must start. Clearly, the current squad was a disaster and now everything was in the friendly feet of the Hungarians. Objectively, they were not very strong and little friendly tie may not even look suspicious. But the Hungarians betrayed the Soviet 'trust' – they won 3-0 and finished first. So much for Communist cooperation... it was not for the first time the Soviets were 'betrayed' by satellites.

1.Hungary 4 2 1 1 6- 4 5

2.Soviet Union 4 2 0 2 5- 3 4

3.Greece 4 1 1 2 2- 6 3

The outcome was mostly Soviet fault – their fantastic schedule turned against them. Greece was quite capable of playing an equal game against weaker opponents; Hungary was not exactly a nation loving the Soviets and orders and agreements could be sabotaged by players. Facing problems, USSR simply had no time to find solution. On the other Hungary got a moral boost and a shaky team suddenly became ambitious.
1977 Hungarian squad – it had potential and slowly was getting into shape. They still had a play-off with South American opposition, but winning the first round certainly improved moral and motivated the team.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Which paled when compared to Group 8 – Spain, Yugoslavia, and Romania. Three traditionally strong countries, very ambitious, and also with bruised egos. Old scores to be settled too. By far the toughest qualification group. Perhaps Yugoslavia was a bit weaker than the others – not because suffering decline, but because it was heavily wounded in 1976, when the country hosted the European championship finals and was expected to win. In front of home crowd, Yugoslavia lost their matches and finished 4th – that is, last among the finalists. This lead to something often done in football – it was concluded that a new team must be build from scratch. And inevitably the new team is envisioned as an young team, so to ensure the future. The old generation is no good, let see the new one. Of course, it is never radically new team – previously ignored for various reasons players are now included, as well as the younger members of the 'old' squad, plus many hopefuls. Lack of experience is one problem and another – youngsters are potential talents, who may turn out not to be up to really big things. Shaping a new team is convulsive process, needing considerable time – qualification rounds, however, leave no time for slow construction: results are required at once. A club may decide to sacrifice two-three years until getting strong squad, but national team has no such option: the pressures are too many and immediate.

Here is the squad for the future – the Yugoslavian squad used for the South American tour at the beginning of 1977. This is not the squad used for the serious matches, of course, but still shows the problems of building entirely new squad. Few of these above lasted and some clearly failed as national team players, although had otherwise impressive club careers – Svilar, Peruzovic, and Primorac are the prime examples. To a point, Vladic as well. The bulk left no trace and is hardly remembered. It was somewhat less talented generation than the one they replaced: point in case – Vladimir Petrovic. One of the best Yugoslavian wingers, a big star, and legend not only for Crvena zvezda fans, he never achieved the international recognition of his former teammate Dragan Dzajic. Somewhat lesser generation, yet, 'lesser' does not mean 'bad' – Yugoslavia was strong and if there was a weakness, it was traditional one: moody team, which may as easily play fantastic match, as give up.

Romania had rough years so far, but it was not a team to be relegated to the category of outsiders. Recent failures had to be remedied at last – it was not a team without ambition. Spain even more – too many failures and humiliations for their pride. And desire for revenge – it was Yugoslavia eliminating dramatically Spain from major competitions in the 1970s. Tough, ambitious group, driven by wounded pride. No favourite, no way of predicting the winner. A group promising high drama, if not enchanting football. And drama was delivered at once.

Spain won the opening match with Yugoslavia 1-0 in Sevilla. This was the only match played in 1976. In April 1977 Spain visited Romania and lost 0-1. There was high probability all teams to win their home fixtures by measly 1-0 and end with the same record. But the spell was broken in May, when Romania prevailed in Zagreb – 2-0. Now Romania was first and Yugoslavia had no points at all. However, the Romanian lead did not mean much – everybody had a chance to qualify. Spain elbowed Romania from first place in the next match – in Madrid Romania lost 0-2. It looked like Romania and Spain were to fight for the first place, Romania having slightly better chance for their last match was at home. In November 1977 Romania and Yugoslavia met in Bucharest and produced one of the most bizarre matches at the time. Both teams needed victory – a tie served neither, for Yugoslavia was to be eliminated and Spain had better chance of ending first, since they had to play very disinterested Yugoslavs. Perhaps the match was not all that great, but what excitement – both teams attacked from start to finish, not caring for defense – it was all or nothing. The match ended 6-4 for Yugoslavia. And what turns of fate: Romania was a favourtie before the match, the very likely winner of the group. Yugoslavia was last without a point. 90 minutes later Romania was eliminated and Yugoslavia suddenly appeared to be the most likely winner. Looked like all three teams will end with equal points and goal-difference will determine the winner. Romania had not even a theoretical chance, having negative -1 scoring record. One much left and Yugoslavia was playing at home against Spain. The 'Plavi' needed a win by two goals. Not impossible at all. But Spain had her own ambition plus desire for revenge – which they got. Spain clinched 1-0 victory, which was fantastic – Yugoslavia barred Spanish progress twice in the 1970s, so it was great to take revenge right in Belgrade.

1.SPAIN 4 3 0 1 4- 1 6

2.Romania 4 2 0 2 7- 8 4

3.Yugoslavia 4 1 0 3 6- 8 2

Mere numbers and final table hide the drama of the group – by far, the most exciting qualification group.

Spain finally ended their bad spell – for the first time since 1966 they qualified for major international tournament. Finally going to World Cup finals after so many years of disappointment. It has been so long, Spain was becoming even unfamiliar by now: the respected German magazine Kicker published wrong list of the players above – the names have to be read right to left to be correct. As for the strength, it was hard to tell – Camacho, Pirri, Asensi were big names certainly, but the rest? Juanito may be. Spain was viewed with skepticism – sturdy fighters, but it was not for nothing both Spanish clubs and national team did not win anything for a long, long time. Yet, keep in mind that Spain is not to be underestimated either. Something like that.. except in Spain, where finally everything was great. May be the World Cup next year?