The first Argentine populism

As analysed in Fútbol y Patria (Football and Fatherland (Alabarces, 2002)), the relationship between the Argentine State and football has been ever changing, but took off during Peronism: sporting accounts, in which plebeian heroes obtained international glory representing the “people”, were meticulously aligned with the narratives proposed by the administration of Juan Domingo Perón between 1945 and 1955. This can be observed in journalistic and cinematographic accounts. The state edited a weekly massive sporting publication, Mundo Deportivo (Sporting World), which presented the “Pero-nist interpretation” of sporting events not in the State’s name, but organised by the purported “climate of the times”. However, Peronism also acted on a more concrete and pedestrian level, not just in narratives. In a recent book on the period, Israeli historian Raanan Rein (2015) indicates that Peronism represented itself simultaneously as many things: government propaganda, of course, and attempts of social control under the cloak of “class reconciliation” that populism tried, and tries, to achieve; at the same time, Peronism proposed, as we said, the production of democratic narratives in which popular sporting heroes could represent patriotism. It also established massive athletic programmes. In the cases analysed by Rein and his collaborators, it can be clearly seen that State intervention in sport was complex. For example, during the football players’ strike in 1948, the negotiation between various actors can be seen: civil servants, key government figures - Eva Perón herself - sporting directors, labour unionists, with postures that even contradicted the official administration and were not stifled or suffocated in an authoritarian manner. Conflict resolution was far from following official expectations.

Likewise, Rein’s research stems from the base that sport clubs, civil associations in Argentina, were key mediators in the organisation of the phenomenon: the analysis of different cases shows the different relationships in which the popular clubs engage with the national or provincial government, meticulously negotiating honour and benefits from the moderate to the excessive, generally in the form of loans for athletic facilities, or simply to get out of tough situations. Although a certain mythology focuses on the case of Racing Club, favoured by state credits for the building of its new stadium, named President Perón. Historical research reveals two things. On the one hand, the principal actor involved was Minister Ramón Cereijo, fanatic of Racing Club, not Perón directly. Nobody knew with complete certainty if the president was a supporter of Racing Club or Boca Juniors or if he didn’t even care for football. On the other hand, a 1947 law enabling the concession of loans to athletic institutions imitated a similar one dictated by the conservative Presidency of General Justo ten years earlier.

In 1951 at Wembley stadium (London), Argentina and England played their first football match in history: the English team won 2-1, a result which the Argentines judged as a dignified defeat in which goalkeeper Miguel Rugilo was the indispensable hero (nicknamed “the Lion of Wembley”). The rematch was played two years later in Buenos Aires, and Argentina defeated the “perfidious Albion” for the first time, 3-1. This time, the hero was Ernesto Grillo who converted a goal which would be called “rioplatense” (from the River Plate region) by the euphoric sports press of the era - the characterisation alluded to the goal’s combination of surprise, dribbling, and quality, traits typical of the “estilo criollo” (“creole style”). Argentine author Osvaldo Bayer, in his script for the documentary film Fútbol Argentino (Argentine Football), asserts that he found a newspaper of the time which said: “First we nationalised the trains [Perón had done so in 1949], today we nationalise football.”

This match was played on 14 May 1953: in its memory, the Day of the Argentine (Male) Footballer is celebrated, a new wrinkle in the nation’s unwavering local narcissism.

Military times

A few years later, already into the 1960s, almost the entire subcontinent was living under military regimes, which would consolidate their power in the following decade. In 1978, only Mexico, Costa Rica, and Venezuela enjoyed democratic administrations, while Colombia was amidst a civil war. The ways in which football felt the consequences of Latin American totalitarianism were very different, but the climax can be found in the organisation of the 1978 football World Cup in Argentina.

Argentina was chosen in 1966 as host of the 1978 football World Cup, twelve years earlier when there was a democratic President. When the administrators returned to Argentina, the dictator Juan Carlos Ongania was in power. The first serious steps of the organisation were taken during the democratic government of 1973, but the definitive organisation was carried out by the most infamous dictatorship in Argentine history, which began in 1976 and lasted until 1983.

Argentina won its own World Cup; it was the last country-host to do so until France 1998, and since then it has not happened again. Both the organisation and the elaboration of the tournament took place in an ominous and repressive climate, which included the explicit prohibition of criticism of the national football team in the press. The stadium where the inauguration and the final were played, River Plate’s Monumental, was located 200 metres from the worst concentration camp and extermination facility of the dictatorship, the sinister Mechanical School of the Navy (ESMA). The costs of the tournament were extremely high; it was more expensive than the following tournament in Spain, even though eight fewer teams participated. The groups of political exiles in Europe moved in favour of a boycott by the European teams, accusing the military government of the disappearance and torture of dissenters, but no government or football association adhered. Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was even less inclined to boycott; at that time the governing body was led by the only Latin American to reach the presidency, Brazilian Joào Havelange, who explicitly supported the Argentine dictatorship; he was, after all, a recognised party member of the Brazilian dictatorship of the time. Unconvinced by the support at FIFA, in the following years, Havelange named the Argentine Carlos Lacoste, a high-ranking navy officer, as Vice President with responsibility for the organisation of the tournament. Lacoste was widely and repeatedly accused of much of the uncontrolled corruption surrounding the competition.

At any rate, football was also played, with the presence of a still strong Peruvian team which would win its group, and a Brazilian squad which finished far short of the post-Pelé legacy, barely making it through to the second round. However, in the next round, the three Latin American teams ended up in the same group along with Poland. Peru lost to Brazil and Poland to Argentina in the first match. The second fixture saw Peru lose once again but this time against Poland, while Brazil and Argentina ended in a goalless draw. In the third match, Brazil defeated Poland 3-1 two hours before the match between Argentina and Peru, obligating the home team to win by at least four goals in order to make it to the final against Holland.

As the world now knows, Argentina would go on to win 6-0.

The controversy surrounding the match with Peru began significantly after the tournament. In Argentina, nobody doubted the legitimacy and legality of the triumph, though in the rest of the world, principally in the Brazilian press, the game was quickly and repeatedly classified as the product of an act of corruption, of negotiations between governments, of massive bribes. In 1979, Peruvian player Rodulfo Manzo, who had recently joined Argentine club Vélez Sarsfield, confirmed in a conversation with his new teammates that all the Peruvian players were paid bribes, except Juan José Múñante. Argentine journalist Pablo Llonto managed to obtain the testimony of Peruvian player Juan Carlos Oblitas who, in 1986, affirmed that: “Four or five Peruvian players received money” (Llonto, 2005).

At the same time, Ricardo Gotta, the Argentine journalist who worked the most thoroughly on that fateful fixture, lists Manzo’s confession, suspicious calls between Argentine and Peruvian government officials, the donation of wheat (estimated at $2 million), the fluid contact between both dictatorships, and the fact that the son of Peruvian dictator Morales Bermúdez presided over the delegation (Gotta, 2008).

The best interpretation of this scandal was offered by the 2003 documentary film Mundial 78: la historia paralela (World Cup 78: the parallel story), scripted by Argentine journalist Ezequiel Fernández Moores. The film was the first to affirm that the dictator Videla visited the Peruvian changing room, accompanied by none less than former US Secretary of State, Henry' Kissinger, to speak about Latin American unity and wish the athletes luck. In the documentary, Juan Carlos Oblitas does not hesitate to label the action as a kind of pressure, though he claims to be unaware of any bribes or other explicit suggestions, despite his 1986 statement to the contrary. It seems that the presence of the dictator was enough to pressure the Peruvians. It is unknown whether Videla violated the intimacy of the Argentine changing room before any of the matches, though he routinely visited the players afterwards; it seems nevertheless that his presence with the Peruvians that night functioned as a successful and suggestive manoeuvre. With or without bribes and/or grain shipments, the presence of Videla must have sufficed.

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