Not everything was going as planned or hoped for – Argentina was in Group B, thus not playing Buenos Aires. Not in Mendoza either, although the group matches were shared between this city and Rosario. Deliberate or not, stadiums and crowds do not win games – the struggling so far team had to win. Which it did in their first match against Poland. Menotti stuck to his original team – unlike other coaches, he expected the starters finally to find their tango. Which they more or less did – Kempes scored in the 15th minute. The team was attacking and shaping at last – Passarella was solid in defense, adding strength in the attacks as well. Kempes became the centre of the team, taking the ball and the responsibility – no longer a left-winger, but wide striker-playmaker, starting from deep midfield and operating on the whole width of the pitch, left, right, and centre. With strong leadership, Argentina was slowly becoming dominant and more efficient team. But it was not the early goal boosting their confidence – arguably, the key moment was in the 37th minute, when the referee called a penalty against the hosts. Deyna stepped in, a formidable foe.
Meantime Brazil and Peru met in Mendoza. Peru did not make changes, except for benched Sotil. There was no need really – who would change well-playing winning squad? Brazil, just like in 1974, was still searching for a winning combination. Rivelino and Zico was out – the biggest stars of the original Brazil, which was clear indication of the troubles. Since the team strategy was originally based on them, it was much more than just leaving out disappointing stars. The new concept brought Dirceu as main motor of the team – and it worked. Changes were made among the strikers too – Mendonca, practically unknown outside Brazil, was fielded. Rodriguez Netto was chosen too – another defender with vicious kick, able to add power to the strikers and score from long distance too. Like Nelinho really, but apparently hungrier player. And not well known to the opposition, thus bringing an element of surprise. Brazil was still adjusting and searching, but at least against South American team they were able to prevail. Peru was not playing badly at all, but Brazil was scoring.
Mendonca and Velasquez watching runaway ball – of may be not a runaway ball? It stopped three times in the Peruvian net. Dirceu scored twice in the first half, firmly taking the reigns of the team. The Brazilian defense worked well, destroying Peruvian attacks. Leao, the team captain by now, blocked whatever needed blocking. Still, the attack needed further fiddling – Chicao, another unknown, replaced Toninho Cerezo in the second half. The midfielder was not to become famous in 1978... so far, a shaky player. Zico also came in, replacing Gil in the 70th minute – two minutes later the 'White Pele' finally scored a goal. From a penalty... Zico continued to be unconvincing, but Brazil won 3-0.
Peru – Poland. More was expected from Peru – Poland was tough, experienced, fit, but bland. There was no way they were to become better: whatever they displayed so far was the best this team would do. Difficult opponent, but beatable. Peru, judged a bit unlucky against Brazil, was the likelier winner. It was pretty equal match.
Quiroga, once again having strong day, clears the ball after Polish free kick. But Poland eventually scored a goal – Szarmach in the 65th minute. And the result stayed to the end. Peru was out. Poland was back in the game – by points – but hardly anybody seriously thought of them reaching any of the finals.
Brazil and Argentina clashed – the most important match for both teams, which was more or less expected to end in a tie. Too high stakes... the winner was going directly to the final. The loser was perhaps to be out even from the match for the third place. Not acceptable for either team. Local derby, long history, much to prove and improve, and revenge, and rub, and so on... Which explains the 4 yellow cards. Since three were given to Brazilian players, including Zico – a gentle and well mannered player, never rough, never dirty, hardly ever committing a foul – once again suspicions of referees 'gently' pushing the hosts to the final were voiced. But it was equal game, nobody scored – as predicted, goalless tie.
Ardiles, already one of the best Argentinian players, was getting even better – here he escapes from Batista, but... nothing. The opponents battled, survived, and... decided nothing.
Which was great for fans – the last two group matches were exciting. Both Brazil and Argentina were expected to win and goal-difference was decisive. So far Brazil had the edge. Argentina had the easier opponent, for Peru – on paper – had nothing to play for. Theoretically, Poland had a chance to play at the final too – if beating Brazil, and Argentina lost to Peru. Strictly theoretical chance – nobody thought such thing possible. Least of all Brazil.
A triumph of total football or of defenders? Heavy battle, which could be anywhere – in front of any net, in midfield... but the strikers are sandwiched in secondary roles - Szarmach on the far left and Roberto Dinamite crushed between Gorgon and Nawalka (5). Amaral (4) is watching carefully from behind and Oscar reaches the ball first – to clear or strike a deadly header? 4 defenders and only 2 strikers... but most likely Oscar is aiming at the Polish net. Zico and Nelinho were back among the starters, and Rivelino came in the second half. A win was a must... the first half ended in a tie. Nelinho scored early, but Lato equalized at the last minute. Brazil scored two more goals in the second half – Roberto was not called 'Dynamite' for nothing: finally he exploded with two goals. Brazil won 3-1.
And had to wait for the outcome of Argentina – Peru. Wait and watch, for the hosts were starting later. They knew the result of Brazil-Poland. Knew what they needed – a win by 4 goals. Any other result was death... except the half-death of 4-1 win, making the records of Brazil and Argentina the same and... what next? An extra match between them or the whim of flipped coin? But given the pressure, given the Argentine play so far, was it possible to score so many goals? Unlikely... hardly possible... coming close, but not close enough... Brazil was the likelier finalist.
And with the start of the match Brazil was getting more than 'likelier finalist'. Peru appeared invigorated, may be driven by local pride. More or less, Peru was equal to Argentina. The hosts struggled again, but eventually started scoring goals. Kempes, as a real leader, opened the result almost at the middle of the first half. Two minutes before half-time Tarantini made it 2-0. Argentina already made if half the way, yet, it looked doubtful they will make a 4-goal win. Peru did not appear just going through the motions, was not defensive team at all, and Argentina was not really dominating. So far Brazil was the favourite – it was very likely Peru would score a goal against increasingly frustrated Argentinians, concentrated on desperate attacks and vulnerable to counter-strikes. The host would may be score a goal, may be two... there was no doubt of their final victory, but it was most likely to be 3-0, 3-1, or 4-1. Not enough...
Argentina scored 4 unanswered goals in the second-half. Kempes again, Luque twice, and the substitute Houseman once. The match stays as one of most discussed and most suspicious matches in the World Cup history. It is tainted victory. Even before the match ended debates and accusations started. The advantage of late start, thus knowing the result of the other game and how many goals were needed. The Argentinian goalkeeper of Peru. The strange fact of balls going one after another into the Peruvian net. Quiroga was so far among the most impressive keepers of the tournament, Peru had effective and tough defense. Argentina had great difficulties scoring goals. Were the Peruvians bribed? With time, practically all outsiders were convinced the match was 'arranged'. Of course, nobody in Argentina and Peru subscribes to that – the match was fair, is the opinion there. Quiroga denied and denies accusations. The problem is, there was nothing really suspect on field – Peru appeared to be fighting to the end, even receiving two yellow cards for rough play. Quiroga still saved quite a lot and did not allow really 'funny' goal. May be Argentina was just lucky? May be finally the team found its true play, and with strong desire to reach the finals, managed to score what was needed. A day when everything clicked rightly? After all, it was not a boring game. But unreal nevertheless. Going against the grain... and achieving precisely the result beneficial to the hosts. Others may debate – Brazil was and is convinced their team was robbed. There was no evidence; there is no evidence; the result stays. Why blaming others, some say for years – if you recall Brazil – Peru, the Brazilian team kind of stopped playing in the second half, satisfied with 2-0 win. If they scored more goals against Peru nothing would have helped Argentina. Then again, look at the record of Peru... the best team of the first round ending with zero points, zero goals, and allowing 10! Very suspect change of form...0-6 in the last match... hm...
The picture does not tell enough: Kempes' shot unstoppable or Quiroga not really trying to stop the ball? It looked like that only who did not want to score didn't score... No end to opinions, but Argentina finished first.
1. Argentina 2 1 0 8-0 5
2. Brazil 2 1 0 6-1 5
3. Poland 1 0 2 2-5 2
4. Peru 0 0 3 0-10 0
Argentina playing for the title, Brazil – for bronze, Poland – true to expectation, Peru – a nasty surprise, possibly corrupt. Shame! On the other hand Argentina played better football than Brazil so far and seemingly was peaking. Who can really tell which one deserves to play for the title – the match between Argentina and Brazil ended 0-0. The last touch to the controversy was not in Argentina, but in Rio de Janeiro – angry Brazilians attacked and destroyed the Peruvian embassy.