When Argentina's Junta Showcased a World Cup Whitewash
It was an unusual tournament from start to finish. Iceland battled Argentina to a draw in the opening stages, and Croatia squeaked its way into the World Cup final. But one thing played out just as expected in the 2018 World Cup: With all eyes on Russia, an authoritarian state and international outlaw, all conversation focused on own goals and penalty kicks.
Critics of Moscow had hoped to use the world’s most high-profile sporting event to draw attention to Russia’s repressive government, its seizure of Crimea and its support for Syria’s bloodthirsty dictatorship. The former U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Michael McFaul, called for a collective cold shoulder by government officials from NATO members.
But as Diego Maradona says, “the ball is clean.”
He should know.
In 1978, another bullying regime, Argentina’s ruthless military junta, hosted the World Cup. Two years into its Dirty War against leftist civilians, it organized the quadrennial soccer spectacular hoping to whitewash its crimes and legitimize its regime.
It seemed like a tough sell. By then, the government’s brutality was widely known. In all, Argentina’s military rulers would disappear as many as 30,000 individuals before leaving power in 1983.
But as Vladimir Putin surely understands, the World Cup tends to crowd out all other subjects.
In Cold War Argentina, as government agents monitored foreign journalists, quashed protests, and patrolled fútbol stadiums, the international community focused on Argentina’s soccer team, not its security services.
There was some dissent. The Netherlands called for a boycott. Amnesty International demanded that the tournament find a new host.
Inside Argentina, dissidents did not share the government’s enthusiasm. In later years, political prisoners would recall hearing the sounds of cheering fans at the Monumental Stadium, just blocks from the cells where they were detained and tortured. Even today, Argentina’s 1986 World Cup triumph, by a team led by Maradona, is a far greater source of pride. (Ironically, Maradona, attending the Russia World Cup, wore a shirt with the 1978 tournament logo, drawing criticism.)
But despite President Jimmy Carter’s new approach to human rights, the United States helped assure the 1978 tournament’s success. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger attended the games, seated beside Argentine strongman Jorge Videla. (Following the 1976 coup d’état, Kissinger had infamously advised the Argentine regime, “if there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly.”)
Ultimately, no country boycotted the event; the Netherlands went on to lose in the final match to host Argentina.
History has not looked kindly on the tournament. There were allegations of referees being bribed to favor Argentina. Argentina had the advantage of playing at night, so it knew the outcomes of other matches. Finally, Argentina’s six-goal rout of Peru helped it reach the final -- and immediately gave rise to suspicions of match-fixing.
Yet the tournament was a win for more than Argentina’s national team. Following the massively successful publicity stunt, the Argentine military regime would stay in power in Buenos Aires for another five years, until its devastating war against the United Kingdom finally led to a democratic transition.
Similarly, Putin’s Russia used this year’s tournament to show off its cities and organizational wherewithal. As for its human rights abuses, well, those are apparently a subject for another day.