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.