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The dark story of the murderous dictatorship behind Argentina's 1978 World Cup win

Roughly 10 blocks separate two structures in the Nunez neighbourhood of Buenos Aires that are synonymous with Argentina's 1978 World Cup win and the country that celebrated. The first is River Plate's Monumental home, which exploded in joy on June 25 of that year when Mario Kempes and Daniel Bertoni struck in extra time to seal the hosts' 3-1 final win over Netherlands and their first-ever Jules Rimet Trophy.

A short walk past the Monumental on Libertadores avenue, however, takes you to another infamous building. At the same moment that Daniel Passarella was lifting the World Cup the Navy Mechanics' School (ESMA) was a clandestine concentration camp, where countless 'disappeared' political prisoners were housed and tortured by one of the bloodiest military dictatorships in South American history. Those murderous criminals used the cup for their own ends, a 'party for everybody' to justify their illegal rule in the midst of a campaign of annihilation against those that spoke out against them.

The story of how the World Cup came to Argentina is a snapshot of the crippling instability that gripped the country in the 1960s and 70s. The decision to hand them hosting duties was taken by FIFA in July 1966, one week after a coup d'etat led by General Juan Carlos Ongania had overthrown Arturo Illia's democratic rule. Preparations for 1978 began in a context of repression and popular opposition to military dictatorship, spearheaded by an armed struggle led by the marxist ERP and peronist Montonero groups.

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Democracy eventually returned in 1973 and coincided with the return from 20-year exile of Juan Domingo Peron, who was elected president the following year. The old strongman, however, was in ill-health and passed away just a year later, handing the presidency to his vice and third wife, Isabel. Conflict continued to tear the country apart, leading to yet another coup in 1976 with General Jorge Rafael Videla as its figurehead. It was the sixth time the military had taken control in the 20th century, and would surpass all previous dictatorships in its bloodlust and resistance to opposition.

Human rights groups estimate that 30,000 people were 'disappeared' during the period that lasted from 1976-83. Some were active militants in groups like ERP and Montoneros, although the vast majority were peaceful activists: trade unionists, student activists, critical journalists and artists and other individuals active in the church or anti-poverty campaigns. And in the middle of such destruction, Videla and his military cronies took it upon themselves to host the most controversial World Cup since Benito Mussolini's Italy staged the 1938 edition.

The World Cup was seen as the perfect manner to polish the dictatorship's image in the face of accusations of torture, murder and disappearances that were beginning to appear in the world press, filtered out by exiles. “Coup leaders dressed in uniform and in civilian clothes imagined the cup as a perfect stage to wash away their guilt and reinvent themselves,” writes Gustavo Campana in his book Stands without people, which rakes over in minute detail the steps taken by the military to ensure the show would go off without a hitch.

That included the playing side, of course: in a bid to stop the exodus of talent to Europe 66 top players were forbidden from accepting an overseas transfer, a list handpicked by coach Cesar Luis Menotti; ultimately Mario Kempes of Valencia was the only foreign-based player among the 22-man Argentina squad at the World Cup. Videla also moved to clean up the streets themselves, taking a bulldozer to the shanty towns situated closest to the Monumental stadium and packing hundreds of thousands of the settlements' inhabitants on trains out of the city.

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Even famous musical talents were cowed into submission in order to collaborate. In his autobiography, musician and writer Jorge Schussheim recalls his work during 1978 at the head of one of Buenos Aires' top advertising agencies, where he was called upon to design some of the World Cup's advertising, eventually settling on a quasi-fascist production titled 'Argentina, my love'. Later, performing in a cabaret show, he ran into Emilio Massera (pictured below, left, with Videla), Navy chief and head of the ESMA concentration camp. “Great stuff, Argentina, my love,” Massera told him. “I'm glad we have got Schussheim back.

“At that,” the writer continues, “I realised the true meaning of that phrase and the fact that the capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses) knew who I was, at 5 a.m on our way back. I literally pissed myself in the car.”

“We can only ask for forgiveness,” says winning goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol. Exactly 40 years after lifting the trophy Fillol returned to the Monumental, this time in the company of Graciela Palacio de Lois and Angela Paulin de Boitano. The initiative is the brainchild of Papelitos, a project that this year compiled 78 stories on that infamous tournament. Lois' 24-year-old husband Ricardo disappeared on May 29 1976 together with Boitano's son Miguel, 22; a year later her daughter Adriana would also vanish at the hands of the dictatorship.

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“I think we still have time to make amends. We have taken stock of what happened, the joy of the triumph and the sadness at knowing that our compatriots died in that way.” Graciela Lois, meanwhile, sums up the anguish felt by those affected in the campaign of terror. “I remember that my dad would never miss a game and I couldn't even watch because the only thing I could think about was my husband's disappearance.

“We lived in sadness because we knew that a lot of things were being covered up in the World Cup. Sadly at that time our voice was not heard. My husband was kidnapped right there, in the ESMA, where you could hear the crowd's roars in games.”

Fillol later received a pointed warning of how dangerous those in charge of the country could be. In 1979 the goalkeeper was angling for a move away from River Plate, Massera's Navy right-hand man Carlos Lacoste – a Millonario fanatic – called him in for a meeting.

“Lacoste called me, he pulled out a pistol and put it on the table. He said, 'If I want I can make you disappear and nobody will ever know.' I was just a kid and I didn't understand. With time you say to yourself, 'f***, he could have killed me'. At that time I didn't register it. It was very painful.”

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Outside of Argentina, meanwhile, the brunt of opposition to the 1978 World Cup was concentrated in France. This was no coincidence: as well as local 'subversives', the dictatorship's sinister word for those targeted, more than 20 French nationals number amongst the disappeared.

One of the most notorious cases is that of Renee Leonie Duquet and Alice Domon, two nuns that in an ironic twist of fate cared for General Videla's severely disabled son prior to his rise to power. The pair were tortured in the ESMA and on December 18, 1977, drugged and loaded onto a plane and thrown into the Rio de la Plata, victims of the aptly named 'death flights' run from the concentration camp.

On May 23, 1978, France coach Michel Hidalgo set out for Bordeaux, where he was due to take a train to Paris and from there the flight that would take Les Bleus to Buenos Aires. He almost did not make it. During the trip three men blocked his car and forced him into the woods at gunpoint, although he later managed to elude his captors. The vehicle was traced back to a group called Proletariat Left, who later sent out a statement taking responsibility for the failed kidnapping.

“With this purely humanitarian action we wanted to call attention to France's hypocritical complicity, as the principal exporter of military materiel to Argentina and denounce that they are supporting Videla's massacres with their World Cup participation.” With the French political spectrum split, however, the team travelled to Buenos Aires, going out in the first round after defeats to Argentina and Italy.

Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

One famous urban myth, though, must be debunked. Netherlands legend Johan Cruyff did miss out on the World Cup, with many believing that his absence owed to humanitarian objections against the nation that would go on to beat the Oranje 3-1 in the final. But Cruyff himself has stated on numerous occasions that a failed kidnapping attempt the year before the finals convinced him not to travel. "I had a rifle at my head, I was tied up, my wife tied up, the children were in the apartment in Barcelona," he said to Radio Catalunya in 2008. With his family terrified and under police protection, he was not prepared to leave them.

"To play a World Cup you have to be 200%. There are moments when there are other values in life."

The finals themselves ended with the photo Videla, his acolytes and the Argentine public in general dreamed of: captain Daniel Passarella lifting the World Cup in front of a packed Monumental. To get to the final in the first place, however, the Albiceleste faced a daunting challenge – and created in turn one of the competition's most hotly contested controversies.

Argentina needed to beat Peru by four goals or more in their final second round group game to surpass Brazil on goal difference and join the Netherlands in the decider. Two goals from Kempes, a further brace from Leopoldo Luque and strikes from Alberto Tarantini and Rene Houseman meant they achieved that unlikely feat with ease. The manner of victory, however, has been disputed almost ever since full-time was blown in Rosario's Gigante de Arroyito stadium. And the unearthing in recent years of a photo that shows the dictator Videla in Peru's dressing room prior to kick-off can only heighten suspicions.

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“Videla threatened them. Something happened and it seems that some money changed hands,” claimed Francisco Morales Bermudez, Peru's own military dictator at the time of the World Cup in a 2014 interview with El Comercio. In 2017 Morales Bermudez was sentenced to life in prison in absentia by an Italian court for crimes against humanity, in a case that laid bare collaboration between South American military governments under the wing of the United States to eradicate political opposition, the so-called ‘Operation Condor’.

Former Peru player Juan Carlos Oblitas concurs with the effect of Videla's visit: “His presence in the dressing room was terrible. Some of the younger players stopped changing to listen to him.” His 1978 team-mate Hector Chumpitaz paints a similar story. “He stood in front of us and gave a speech on what he called Latin American brotherhood and wished us luck. Videla was frightening,” he said in a 1988 interview. "Illicit actions leave no receipts," Campana points out in his book, leaving the question of whether Peru were cowed or bribed into submission by the junta an enduring mystery even to this day.

Ultimately all Videla's machinations and the glory of the World Cup was not enough. Videla himself was ousted in an internal power struggle in 1981, while the dictatorship would collapse just two years later with the return of democracy.

The former strongman died in prison in 2013 after being convicted on multiple charges of kidnapping, murder and crimes against humanity. But the legacy of that World Cup, held in an atmosphere of death and fear, continues to divide the Argentine public four decades after Passarella lifted the trophy.