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.
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.
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.
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.