BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina’s first World Cup victory in 1978 was a catharsis for fans desperate for a title to go with the belief their team had often been the best on the planet without being able to show it.
It was not what FIFA president Sepp Blatter claimed on Wednesday, “a kind of reconciliation of the public, of the people of Argentina, with the system, the political system, the military system at the time”.
The military dictatorship milked the 1978 World Cup finals at the height of their power for all it was worth, like they tried later with the Falklands invasion four years later when their authority was waning.
For Argentine soccer fans, Cesar Luis Menotti’s team represented a victory for the people despite the military, ending 50 years of watching neighbors Uruguay and Brazil lift trophies, from the 1928 Olympic gold medal to the 1970 World Cup.
The outpouring of passion on the streets of Buenos Aires and around the country might have been a feelgood factor for President Jorge Videla and his cronies but the average citizen did not share his or her joy at the victory with them.
Success let loose the demons buried deep in the Argentine soccer follower’s psyche as tournament after tournament went by with their team underperforming in the final in 1930 or being prevented from going to Brazil because of politics in 1950 or eliminated by Peru in the qualifiers for Mexico 1970.
It was a national necessity as much as throwing off the burden of military rule was five years later, but the players in Menotti’s squad had no idea what really lay beneath the surface in Argentina then.
Osvaldo Ardiles only became aware of the truth when he moved to England later that year to join Tottenham Hotspur, according to La Nacion columnist Ezequiel Fernandez Moores.
In a conversation with Reuters, he said Ardiles had told him that despite being the most educated member of the squad with university studies behind him, he had believed government propaganda that “We Argentines are right and human”, a military slogan playing on the term human rights in the face of criticism from abroad.
“I realized one of our goals gave wind to the dictatorship,” was something Ardiles later told Fernandez Moores.
Menotti, in his team talk before kickoff against the Dutch in the final at the Monumental, told the players to look at the stands and terraces to see who they were representing.
The 1978 tournament was the first under the FIFA presidency of Brazilian Joao Havelange, Blatter’s predecessor, who enjoyed a marriage of convenience with the Argentine dictatorship which gave FIFA whatever it needed, including new stadiums.
FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke, speaking on Wednesday at the same symposium as Blatter, said too much democracy could be a hindrance when organizing a World Cup tournament.
Paradoxically, the 1978 World Cup marked a before and after for the Argentine national team with Menotti, appointed in 1974, improving conditions for the players and giving the team the first proper preparation for the tournament.
The previous years had been a dark period for the team with their failure to qualify for the 1970 tournament in Mexico where Brazil won their third title.
Argentina had to make an unsettling change of coach in the build-up to the 1974 finals in West Germany and went out of the tournament after a crushing 4-0 defeat by Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands.
Menotti’s team sparked a golden age with two titles from three finals in four tournaments and Diego Maradona as the standard bearer.
Editing by Greg Stutchbury