Argentina was awarded the World Cup in 1966. Say what you want about FIFA, but they had no way of knowing that the Argentinian government would stage a coup, mixing together one of the ugliest (albeit successful) blends of sports and politics in the history of either one. While the Albiceleste finally had their first title, many still argue it only could have happened on home soil. It was also the last really small-scale World Cup, as the 1980s would bring about expansion, color TV, and a global boom to the beautiful game.
(The 1978 World Cup logo. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
1978 FIFA World Cup
Runner Up: Netherlands
Third Place: Brazil
Fourth Place: Italy
Leading Scorer: Mario Kempes, Argentina (6 goals)
The logo you see above was based on Juan Peron’s symbol of pride in Argentina – both arms extended over his head. The logo was adopted in 1974, and many were content. But only two years later, Peron had died and a new military dictatorship known as the National Reorganization Process, or more simply the junta, came into power after a coup. The head of state was Jorge Rafael Videla, who kept his power alive in what became known as La Guerra Sucia – “The Dirty War. ” During the junta, four leaders were in power from 1976-83, but Videla’s reign was the longest – and probably the worst.
(Jorge Rafael Videla mixed politics and sports after seizing power in Argentina. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
In the two years before the Cup, anywhere from 15,000-30,000 people were forced to disappear for opposing the government. Many never came back. As a result, some teams – like the Netherlands – threatened to withdraw before the tournament even started. Still, the money retained by the government was put back into infrastructure, with the rallying cry to the people of “20 million Argentinians will play in the World Cup.” Many weren’t buying it, and came up with their own slogan: “20 million Argentinians will pay for the World Cup.” Amid fears of lawsuits and backlash, the junta relented and kept the logo as it was.
Johan Cruyff mysteriously didn’t accompany his teammates to Argentina. Whether it was politics, family reasons, or just plain lack of interest, he would be severely missed in that lineup. Fortunately, they kept most of the same players, like Johnny Rep and Rob Rensenbrink. They were still a strong team, with or without Cruyff. Again, Belgium was drawn in with them, but it was no contest this time, as the Oranje finished five points clear of the Red Devils.
Both Argentina as hosts and West Germany as champions qualified automatically. Hungary would beat Bolivia 9-2 in a two-game playoff to win the intercontinental playoff. Brazil and Peru qualified, and Teofilo Cubillas got another chance to play for the FPF. Despite a 4-0 win on the last day over Cyprus, Portugal missed out by two points, which instead went to Poland, the reigning third place team. Italy and England were drawn together, and both won five and lost one. Ultimately, the Azzurri advanced on goal difference (winning 3-0 in their final game to boot), and England failed to qualify for the second straight time. Austria narrowly edge out East Germany, and France won 3-1 over Bulgaria on the final game to advance. Sweden and Spain won their groups, and Scotland emerged from their group, which included rival Wales and defending Euro champions Czechoslovakia.
Fervor was higher than ever for Scotland fans; it was arguably their best team. But a lot of that came from their brash, confident (some may say cocky) manager. His introductory press conference said it all about him: “My name is Ally MacLeod and I am a winner.” MacLeod gave Scotland hope that maybe they could rise above themselves, and his upset of England gave them a sense of schadenfreude, if not necessarily outright confidence. MacLeod predicted Scotland would take at least third place, and many in Scotland thought they could win it all. This led musician Andy Cameron to release a novelty song known as “Ally’s Tartan Army.” Cameron said that Scotland would “really shake ’em up, when we win the World Cup, ’cause Scotland are the greatest football team!!” Many outside of Scotland just laughed at this prediction. Still, they had some fine players – Kenny Dalglish, Archie Gemmill, Graeme Souness, and Willie Johnston.
(The infamous rally song “Ally’s Tartan Army” led to Scotland optimism, or perhaps delusion. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
(Scotland manager Ally MacLeod. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
In North America, Mexico returned after an absence, winning all five matches in a six-team group that included Haiti, El Salvador, Canada, Guatemala, and Suriname (which is located in South America, by the way, but plays in CONCACAF in an attempt to qualify easier; Guyana is the same way).
Two newcomers qualified in 1978 – Iran qualified in Asia/Oceania, winning against Australia 1-0 in Tehran when Ghafour Jahani scored the winner in the 44th minute. One year before the Shah was overthrown, Iran would get their chance to show the world. The other first-timer was Tunisia, emerging from the African zone, who beat rivals Egypt 4-1 in their capital city of Tunis to put them in, and knock Egypt out (a draw would have been enough for them). Along the way, Tunisia (a.k.a. The Eagles of Carthage) got revenge on their archrival Morocco. FIFA instituted penalty kick shootouts in 1976, and in a head-to-head matchup earlier in qualifying, Morocco suffered the ignominy of being the first team in history eliminated from qualifying by losing that way.
For the first team, penalties would decide drawn matches in the knockout stage, if necessary. For the final time, sixteen teams would compete, with the top two advancing to a second group stage. Teams received two points for a win and one point for a draw.
The teams were as follows (listed in order of seeding): Argentina, Italy, Hungary, France in Group 1; West Germany, Mexico, Poland, and Tunisia in Group 2; Brazil, Sweden, Spain, and Austria in Group 3; and Netherlands, Peru, Scotland, and Iran in Group 4.
In the Italy-France match, things started really well for Les Bleus, as Bernard Lacombe scored within the first sixty seconds. But France wouldn’t get another one for the rest of the match, and Italy rallied back, getting the equalizer (29′) from a 21-year-old named Paolo Rossi. Let’s just say you’ll hear from him again. After that 1-1 scoreline held up through halftime, Italy won in the 54th minute through Renato Zaccarelli.
The hosts were given a scare when they went down 0-1 to Hungary after only 10 minutes. But only five minutes later, it was 1-1, and the Albiceleste won in minute 83 when Daniel Bertoni beat the keeper. Argentina had survived. For many, it was proof that they couldn’t buy a championship…at least in theory. Argentina won their second game over France, 2-1, with captain Daniel Passarella scoring a penalty right before halftime, and then Leopoldo Luque added a second, sandwiched around a French equalizer from a future star named Michel Platini. Italy beat Hungary 3-1. In the final match, Argentina were stunned, losing 0-1 to Italy to finish second in the group. Maybe it wouldn’t be enough to win on reputation alone. France managed to salvage some pride by winning 3-1 over Hungary. Italy won the group and Argentina qualified in second.
Just like Scotland, Mexico had high expectations of their own. After the opening match ended in a scoreless draw between West Germany and Poland, Mexico seemed to have a good shot to do some damage. They also had a young Hugo Sanchez, who eventually became a superstar. Right before halftime, Arturo Vazquez Ayala scored on a penalty to put El Tri up 0-1. But then the roof caved in – Ali Kaabi hit the equalizer (55′), and then two goals in the final eleven minutes led Tunisia to an upset 3-1 victory. It was the first victory by an African team in the World Cup.
(Tunisia became the first African team to win a game in the Cup, upsetting Mexico 3-1 on June 2. Photo courtesy of FIFA.)
As it turned out, Mexico’s collapse was only beginning. They were humiliated 6-0 by the West Germans in Cordoba, and lost 3-1 to Poland to complete their shocking three-loss campaign. After losing to Poland, Tunisia battled West Germany to a 0-0 draw as well. It wasn’t enough to qualify, but the Eagles of Carthage did reasonably well in their first appearance. Sadly, it would take them 20 years to get back. Poland shockingly won the group with two wins and a draw, while West Germany had a win and two draws to take second.
Many could see this as a toss-up group. Austria beat Spain 2-1, breaking the tie with just under fifteen minutes to go. Brazil and Sweden earned a 1-1 draw, with both goals coming in the final ten minutes of the first half. But the Brazilians could have won outright, if not for a controversial call from Welsh referee Clive Thomas. Towards the end of extra time, Brazil won a corner kick. The ball came in and Zico got to it. He put it in the net, and it should have been the winner – except Thomas blew his whistle to end the game while the ball was in the air. The furious Brazilians crowded around him, but he wouldn’t be persuaded. No goal. Match over. Under the laws of FIFA, the referee does have discretion, but many felt it was too impulsive on Thomas’ part. In any event, Sweden had a point, but they wouldn’t get any more for the tournament. Austria and Spain both beat them 1-0, while Brazil slogged to a scoreless draw with Spain before beating Austria 1-0. Austria still won the group in a slight upset, but it was enough to get Brazil through as well. Spain finished third, but it wasn’t enough to get them through.
Now it was time for Ally’s Army to prove their worth. They opened against Peru, and took the lead early (14′) through Joe Jordan. But two minutes before halftime, Cesar Cueto pulled a goal back for the Peruvians. Many thought that an injury to back Danny McGrain would hurt the Scottish team. Others thought that MacLeod made a tactical mistake by leaving Graeme Souness on the bench. And sure enough, it was proven true, as Teofilo Cubillas scored twice in the second half, and Scotland’s Don Masson missed a penalty with thirty minutes to go that would have put them up 2-1. The critics were proven right as Peru won 3-1. On top of that, the first Cubillas goal came off of a gorgeous free kick. Everybody had underestimated Peru, but they were the better team. Numerous excuses were given, from boredom to a pay dispute, to various reasons of vanity. In any case, MacLeod called the performance “rank bad.”
It was about to get worse. After the first game, forward Willie Johnston took a pill to aid with a cold. However, it turned out it contained Reactivan, a banned stimulant. Johnston was expelled from the World Cup, and given a one-year ban by FIFA.
(Scotland’s Willie Johnston was sent home from the Cup for taking a banned substance. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
(Teofilo Cubillas’ free kick gave Peru the lead and the win. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
The Netherlands won their match 3-0 over Iran, with Rob Rensenbrink getting a hat trick, two of them on penalty kicks. In their next match, it was 0-0 with Peru. Scotland played Iran and needed a win to get back into it. They looked to be able to do so, taking the halftime lead (43′) through an Iran own goal by Andranik Eskandarian. But seventeen minutes later, Iraj Danaeifard would earn Iran a precious equalizer. The scoreline held and finished 1-1. This was supposed to be Scotland’s easiest match, and they had choked again. Danaeifard became a hero in Iran, getting his country’s World Cup goal.
In the final matches, Peru beat Iran 4-1, with a hat trick by Cubillas making all the difference. Scotland had one last match left, against the Netherlands. They were severe underdogs. To advance, they had to not only win, but by at least three goals. If they couldn’t beat Iran, they were thought to have no chance against Netherlands.
This time, MacLeod inserted Graeme Souness into the lineup, and immediately saw a different Scotland team than in previous games. The Dutch took the lead on a Rensenbrink penalty (34′) before Kenny Dalglish hit the equalizer one minute before halftime. One minute after the break, midfielder Archie Gemmill stunningly put the Scottish team into the lead. If his first goal was unexpectedly, his second goal was spectacular.
68 minutes in, Gemmill got the ball near the Dutch end. He played a one-two with Dalglish, and sprinted past the Dutch defenders into the box. He fired a shot with his left foot…and in!! Gemmill gave the Scottish hope again. Now qualification was within their reach.
(Archie Gemmill scored for Scotland in one of the best goals of the ’78 Cup. Photo courtesy of YouTube.)
Alas, it was not to be. The Dutch pulled one back three minutes later, after Johnny Rep put one past the Scottish keeper. Now Scotland had to score at least two more times. They wouldn’t get there. Scotland held on to win 3-2, but they were eliminated on goal differential, with Netherlands sneaking in and Peru winning the group. MacLeod surprisingly survived the scrutiny from the press, but resigned after only one more match. Ally MacLeod may have been a winner, but his hubris got in the way.
For the second time, a second round-robin group was staged. Austria fell 1-5 to Netherlands, after Johnny Rep contributed two goals and Rob Rensenbrink scored one of his own. Cruyff or no Cruyff, the Dutch showed little sign of slowing down. Italy and West Germany played to a scoreless draw in their first match. In a rematch from four years earlier, Netherlands-West Germany faced off. Despite a third minute goal from Rudiger Abramczik, Arie Haan equalized before the half hour mark. Each team scored once in the second half as well, and the match ended in a 2-2 draw. It wasn’t a victory, but the Dutch still got a measure of revenge by not losing. Italy then defeated Austria 1-0 behind a goal from Paolo Rossi. At first, it didn’t seem like much, but let’s just say you’ll hear his name again.
The final matches were both spectacular. Austria and West Germany faced off in Cordoba. Austria was out but the other three teams still had a chance to play in the third place game or final. While the Netherlands-Italy game was going on, West Germany went up 1-0 in the 19th minute. The scoreline held up through halftime. But then an own goal by Berti Vogts shockingly leveled the score for Austria. Seven minutes later (66′), Hans Krankl shockingly put the Austrians ahead. But only two minutes after that, it was 2-2. It would be enough to get West Germany into the third place game if the scoreline held. But three minutes from time, Krankl broke through and scored his second goal. The scoreline held, and Austria pulled off a 3-2 upset. Depending on your perspective, it’s known alternatively as “The Miracle of Cordoba” or “The Disgrace of Cordoba.” Many German fans were furious. But for the Austrians, it still had meaning. Forty years after the Anschluss, they had their glorious revenge.
(Austria upset West Germany in the final game. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
The Netherlands-Italy match was essentially the playoff for the final. Just like in the other game, the first goal came in the 19th minute, on an own goal by Dutch defender Ernie Brandts. Just like in the other match, the scoreline stayed that way at the half. But Brandts got a measure of revenge when we scored to level the score for the Dutch. This time, he put the ball in the correct net, and became the first player in the World Cup to score for both teams. The score held up for over twenty-five minutes. Then, with less than fifteen minutes to go, the Dutch had the ball. Midfielder Arie Haan (of Belgian club RSC Anderlecht) got the ball. He dribbled a few steps. And then, from forty yards out, he fired. The ball curved right to left towards the Italian goal. Dino Zoff was out of position. The ball clanged off the post – and then curved back to the left, resulting in one of the finest goals anybody had ever seen. It also proved to be the game-winner. The Dutch advanced to the final for the second straight Cup. Italy would still make the third place match. But Haan’s goal proved to be the stuff of legend. Come on you Mauves, indeed.
(Arie Haan scored a 40-yard goal to put the Netherlands back into the finals. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
Because Argentina didn’t win their group, they were forced to play the second round in Rosario instead of Buenos Aires. But they had some help along the way, both from FIFA and from others. In the first match, Argentina won 2-0 over Poland. Legend has it that Argentina’s best player, known as El Pibe (The Kid), is given the number 10 jersey. Those who wear the jersey are said to carry the brunt of the country’s expectations. Before Messi and Maradona, there was one man. While he had a slow start, the 1978 version of El Pibe was Mario Kempes. He had a brace to jump start the Argentinians to victory. Peru fell apart in this round, losing 0-3 to Brazil, after Dirceu had a brace of his own before 30 minutes, and the legendary Zico added one of his own.
(Mario Kempes was the star for Argentina in the knockout stages. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
Poland managed to beat Peru 1-0 in the next game. Arch-rivals Argentina and Brazil played for the first time in the World Cup on June 18, and played to a scoreless draw. Then the conspiracies started. And many in Brazil are still furious today.
At the time, FIFA didn’t institute simultaneous kickoffs for the final group stage games. Therefore, if both Argentina and Brazil had the same result, it would come down to goal difference. At the time, it favored Brazil. They did their part, beating Poland 3-1 behind two goals from Roberto Dinamite, and surviving a late first-half equalizer from Grzegorz Lato, the leading scorer in 1974. Argentina had played their other two games at night in this stage. FIFA allowed them to do the same against Peru in this one. Following Brazil’s win, they looked to be in the final. To qualify ahead of them, Argentina not only had to win, but they also had to do so by at least four goals. For what it was worth, Peru goalkeeper Ramon Quiroga was born in Argentina…and before the match, Videla had a meeting with Henry Kissinger in the locker room.
The match was a disaster for Peru. Mario Kempes started the scoring (21′), and Alberto Tarantini made it 2-0 two minutes before halftime. They still needed two more goals. And in a two minute span, they got them, as Kempes scored his second (49′) and Leopoldo Luque added the fourth just one minute later. Now Argentina was in the finals if the score held. But they weren’t taking any chances. The barrage continued, with Rene Houseman making it 5-0 (67′). Five minutes later, Luque hit a diving header for his second and Argentina’s sixth. The final score was 6-0, and Argentina kept its dream alive. But rumors of match fixing were everywhere. The Peruvians weren’t great, but they weren’t that bad. Rumor had it that Argentina bribed Peru to lose by offering them grain, forgiveness on a debt, and a cache of weapons. Later, this was confirmed as absolutely true by the Peruvians. They had sold their soul to push their rival team through. Perhaps Argentina could, in fact, buy a championship.
(Argentina won 6-0 to advance to the final. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
Third place match
Brazil was furious to be relegated to the third place match. They fell behind early to Italy when Franco Causio (38′) scored. But in the second half, a great shot by Nelinho (64′) made it 1-1. Initially looking like a cross, Nelinho himself later admitted he was shooting. Nineteen minutes from time, Dirceu made it 2-1 to give Brazil third place. Manager Claudio Coutinho dubbed them “moral champions,” after not losing a game (remember Argentina had lost to Italy in the group stage).
Netherlands had lost four years earlier to the host nation. Now, they had a chance for revenge. But Argentina was pulling out all the stops. The bus driver took the long way to the stadium, and when they arrived onto the pitch, Argentina wasn’t there. They were forced to wait five minutes as the Argentina fans worked themselves into a frenzy. Finally, the home team came out to a chorus of cheers. More controversy was to come before the ball had even kicked off.
The Dutch accused the hosts of stalling. This time, they asked the referee, Italy’s Sergio Gonella, to examine the wrist of Dutch midfielder René van de Kerkhof. In earlier games, he had worn a plaster cast to heal a wrist injury. This time, Gonella made him take it off. Netherlands came close to walking off the field in protest. A compromise was reached – van de Kerkhof could wear the bandage if more padding was applied.
The match finally kicked off. Neither team really took the initiative for the first half. Finally, Mario Kempes broke through for Argentina (38′). It was 1-0 for the host. The Dutch were running out of chances, and out of time. They couldn’t find the equalizer until late in the match, when second half substitute Dick Nanninga made it 1-1. With just over a minute to go, the Netherlands had a golden chance to win. Rob Rensenbrink got the ball, and had goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol beaten. It looked like it was in…and then deflected off the post at the last second. The Dutch had never come so close.
(Rob Rensenbrink hit the post in the final minute of regulation. Photo courtesy of http://www.football-oranje.com)
Argentina was still in it. And in extra time, they made Netherlands pay for Rensenbrink’s miss. En route to winning the Golden Boot as the lead scorer, Mario Kempes hit his second (104′). Eleven minutes later, Daniel Bertoni added a clutch insurance goal. It never got that close again. The whistle blew. For many, the bad guys had won. Argentina were champions. But for many, the way in which they did it left a sour taste in their mouth.
(Mario Kempes celebrates one of his two goals in the final. Photo courtesy of http://www.uefa.com.)
(Highlights of the 1978 World Cup final. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
(As Argentina wins the World Cup, the fans celebrate. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.)
Scotland’s Joe Jordan played with false teeth, and would remove them before every match.
Although Mario Kempes wore #10 and had a great World Cup, he was given the number almost by accident. At the time, Argentina assigned their jersey numbers in alphabetical order. So, while Kempes wore the number well, it was a coincidence. As a result of this policy, midfielder Norberto Alonso wore #1 and starting goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol wore #5 (and #7 in 1982), and backup goalkeeper Hector Baley was #3. Similarly, Dutch goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed wore #8.
Argentina’s chain-smoking manager Cesar Luis Menotti was criticized for cutting a 17-year-old rising star off the roster, fearing the youngster wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure. He was Diego Armando Maradona.
As part of the fan participation side, the Argentina matches frequently saw the pitches littered in confetti (watch some of the game footage and you’ll see how much of it was there).
In 1987, Irish rock band U2 released the album The Joshua Tree. The final song, “Mothers of the Disappeared,” was a reference to the forced disappearance by the junta. In 1998, in a concert in Buenos Aires, some of the aforementioned mothers were invited on stage, with many asking for closure. The band turned to the mothers and applauded, and the audience followed suit. (They tried the same thing in Santiago, Chile as well, but the reception was more mixed.)
Rob Rensenbrink’s goal versus Scotland was the 1,000th in World Cup history.
Archie Gemmill’s goal was also mentioned in the 1996 film Trainspotting (I won’t go into the detail of the scene, but it’s a classic if you can find it).
Argentina captain Daniel Passarella later became coach in 1998, and refused to take players with long hair or earrings. Several players had to cut their hair and/or remove their jewelry in order to make the team.
Argentina finally had their coveted title. But whether they obtained it fairly was another matter. As the years went on, they became the team that most people rooted against, due to cynical fouling and cheating. With Maradona on the horizon, Argentina would wear a target on their back for the next decade.
References and Sources
World Cup Heaven and Hell (ITV documentary)
50 Greatest World Cup Moments (ITV documentary)
Trainspotting (1996 film)
The Joshua Tree (U2 album)
Soccer Men (Simon Kuper)
The Ultimate Book of Sports Lists (Andrew Postman, Larry Stone)
Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football (David Winner)
Angels with Dirty Faces: How Argentinian Soccer Defined a Nation and Changed the Game Forever (Jonathan Wilson)
Soccer’s Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Clumsy Keepers, Clever Crosses, and Outlandish Oddities (John Snyder)
Soccer’s Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves, and Fantastic Free-Kicks (Jeff Carlisle)
¡Golazo! The Beautiful Game from the Aztecs to the World Cup: The Complete History of How Soccer Shaped Latin America (Andreas Campomar)
The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet’s Biggest Sports Event (David Hirshey, Roger Bennett)
The Mammoth Book of the World Cup (Nick Holt)