In the meantime, the Argentine military government put all efforts into creating a world cup where Argentina would ultimately be victorious, diverting the people’s attention away from the military repression and give a positive image of the regime. Many dissidents were jailed, millions and millions of dollars spent on infrastructure, and shortly before the tournament, the media was even prohibited from making critical comments of the national team, which was coached by the charismatic Cesar Luis Menotti.
In spite of this odious favouritism of the Argentinean team, there is no doubt that they had a very strong side that was further energized by the nationalist euphoria of the Argentinean fans, who arguably created one of the most intimidating atmospheres for the visiting sides ever seen in a world cup. Cesar Luis Menotti had even had the luxury of leaving a 17-year old superstar, Diego Armando Maradona, out of the Argentinean side, although he was already being hailed as the best player in the world.
The Argentinean team was built around a list of skillful players: the River Plate captain Daniel Passarella was also captain of the team, the Huracán (and later Tottenham legend) Osvaldo Ardiles commandeered the midfield, and there were powerful strikers in River Plate’s Leopoldo Luque and Valencia’s Mario Kempes, who had been top-scorer of the Spanish league for the two previous seasons. Finally, on goal, Argentina had Ubaldo Fillol, from River Plate, who rose to become one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and was instrumental in Argentina’s victory.
Still, Argentina’s way to the final remains highly controversial: in the first round they defeated Hungary and France, but lost to Italy only to take second place in their group. In the second round group they started by defeating Poland 2-0, on two goals by Kempes, and tied Brazil 0-0 before their final match against Peru. Due to the previous results in the group, Argentina had to win by at least four goals to make it to the final, and their subsequent 6-0 victory was thus shrouded by controversy, as the military government in Argentina transferred significant sums of money to Peru after the victory, and the Argentinean president, Videla, visited the Peruvian team just before the match.
No matter what happened, Argentina was euphoric as the team made it to the final, where they were to face the Netherlands, who were making it to their second world cup final in a row.
Even without Johan Cruyff, the Dutch team was excellent, with many experienced players from the 1974 World Cup, such as Johnny Rep, Rene van der Kerkhof, Johan Neeskens, Rob Rensenbrink and captained by Ajax Amsterdam’s Ruud Krol. At the same time the team had been complemented by some new talents from the Dutch school such as Ajax Amsterdam’s Arie Haan, Roda’s Dick Nanninga, and PSV Eindhoven’s Ernie Brandt (who previously in the tournament, against Italy, had been the first player in a world cup to score a goal for each team in the same match).
In spite of the players, the Dutch team had not been as awesome as in 1974, and had only qualified from the first round behind Peru, after defeating Iran, tying with Peru and losing to Scotland. In the second round they had played 2-2 with their arch-rivals from West Germany, destroyed Austria 5-1, and made it to the final by defeating Italy 2-1.
The final in Buenos Aires Estadio Monumental was played in an extraordinary and intimidating atmosphere for the visiting Dutch team, that even before the match experienced a war of nerves as the Argentinean team delayed their entrance onto the pitch, and then protested about a plaster on Rene van der Kerkhof’s hand.
As the match started, the Dutch dominated, and Johnny Rep had a close header. However, after the first fifteen minutes the Argentineans got more into the match and had a couple of good chances, before Johnny Rep had another excellent shot that was extraordinarily saved by Fillol.
In the 38th minute Argentina went ahead 1-0 by Mario Kempes, who, receiving the ball from Leopoldo Luque had made a quick rush between two Dutch defenders and just pushed the ball under the Dutch goalkeeper Jongbloed.
In the last minutes of the first half, Fillol again saved Argentina on a close Dutch try, and first half ended with a lead for the home team. The match had not been pretty – there were many dirty free kicks from both sides, something that continued throughout the match and which the weak referee Sergio Gonella was unable to entirely bring under control.
Argentina came out to the second half with a well-organised defense, knowing that the Netherlands had to attack, and waiting for the counter-attack chances for their quick strikers – something that in fact brought them closer to scoring than the Dutch when Jongbloed made an excellent save alone with Luque.
Unable to break the deadlock, the Dutch coach Ernst Happel substituted Johnny Rep with Dick Nanninga. Only ten minutes from the end of the match, as it looked like Argentina would carry the day, Dick Nanninga silenced the entire stadium when he rose to a perfect header on a cross from Rene Van der Kerkhof and scored a beautiful goal.
1-1, and in the last ten minutes the Netherlands went for the victory against the stunned hosts: in the very last seconds the Dutch came very close to crowning themselves as world champions when Rob Rensenbrink hit the post.
The match now had to go into an extra time, where Argentina’s best player, Mario Kempes proved to be unstoppable for the tired Dutch defenders; his long rushes down the center had been difficult for the Netherlands the entire match, and fifteen minutes into the extra time another rush down the Dutch central defense got him through somehow luckily, and he made it 2-1. With fifteen minutes left against an exhausted Dutch side, Argentina had all the advantages, and it was not surprising when Sevilla’s Daniel Bertoni fortuitously received the ball during another Kempes raid, and made it 3-1 for Argentina.
Argentina was in ecstasy at their victory, forgetting the pains of the dictatorship. The later Nobel Peace Prize winner, Adolfo Lopez Esquivel, who was imprisoned at the time, told how guards and prisoners alike became united for some moments, in spite of the triumph being a huge propaganda victory for the military dictatorship.
Although the Argentinean title was shrouded in controversy about the role of the military junta, fixed matches and intimidation, as well as regrets from many players about how they had been used by the repressive regime, it was perhaps Leopoldo Luque who was most correct when he said that “Menotti and the players won the world cup, not the military. I was playing with Kempes and Bertoni, not with the Junta.”
However, Argentina’s first world cup title will always be shrouded by the political controversy surrounding it.
- 25th June, 1978, Estadio Monumental, Buenos Aires
- Attendance: 77,260
- Referee: Sergio Gonella (Italy)
Goals: 1-0 Kempes (38), 1-1 Nanninga (80), 2-1 Kempes (105), 3-1 Bertoni (115)
Argentina: Fillol, Olguin, L. Galvan, Passarella (c), Tarantini, Ardiles (Larrosa), Gallego, Kempes, Bertoni, Luque, Ortiz (Houseman)
Netherlands: Jongbloed, Jansen (Suurbier), Brandts, Krol, Poortvliet, Haan, W. Van der Kerkhof, Neeskens, R. Van der Kerkhof, Rep (Nanninga), Rensenbrink