War, scandal and ticker tape – Ossie Ardiles and the 1978 World Cup

by Flav

Flav, Mundial Magazine and Ossie Ardiles revisit one of the most memorable World Cup tournaments in living memory.

The 1978 World Cup produced one of football’s defining images. The host nation Argentina walked onto the pitch of the Estadio Monumental to play in a final that they would go on to win, 3-1, against tournament favourites Netherlands. An avalanche of sky-blue and white ticker tape reigned down and the fans roared a cacophony of passion. TV cameras would capture images like none other seen before at a football match. While the fan culture back in Blighty was having a Stanley knife put through its reputation by journalist and politician alike, the world quite rightly fawned over the carnival atmosphere taking place in South America.

The irony though is that the ’78 World Cup had a backdrop bloodier than any terrace of the 70s English game. Two years before the first ball was kicked there had been a military coup in Argentina. In the seven years that followed almost 30,000 people lost their lives.

It’s an oft-written theory that the World Cup in ’78 was exploited by the military junta as a way to distract the people of Argentina, and the dissenting voices of other nations, from the ‘dirty war’ that was raging. Squad member and Tottenham Hotspur legend Ricky Villa later admitted, “There is no doubt that we were used politically.”

In hindsight it’s easy to pick apart the motives of a government who had come to power through bloodshed. It stands to reason that they would use an occasion such a World Cup to give a distorted view of what was actually happening in the country at the time. You would excuse the players if their minds were elsewhere.

Ossie Ardiles is stoical, “Not really. No. It wasn’t difficult to play. We were aware of what was happening with the dictatorship obviously. But people don’t talk about Brazil in 1970 – one of the best teams I have ever seen play. They win the World Cup in Mexico at a time when their own country was ruled by dictatorship. No one said anything and that is quite right. We [Argentine players] weren’t interested in politics; we were there to play football. Imagine trying to win a World Cup and thinking about political statements, you couldn’t do it.”

Providing escapism for the swaying masses is what football is supposed to be about. So you can understand that for the four weeks during the summer of 1978 all most Argentines probably wanted to think about was the prospect of seeing their nation lift the World Cup. If there was pressure Ossie Ardiles didn’t feel it.

“It wasn’t that different than any other country before the World Cup. As professional footballers you always feel pressure, it’s normal, perhaps a little more as it’s in your own country, but not much. In the months leading up to the competition you’re just hoping you don’t get injured. It comes across once every four years, and if it’s in your own country you really don’t want to miss it. That was all.”

For my team and me it was amazing to win the World Cup. I am very proud of my team and of myself of what we did. But it was hard, and very difficult for us. Politics and sport should remain separate. Always.

The host population knew something about the quality within the squad that the rest of the world did not. Football was different then, indeed this World Cup was a watershed moment, especially in England, for the investment in overseas players. The Argentina squad was largely made up of players that few in England had seen before, the reputation perhaps of one or two preceding their manifestation on the television in the living rooms and pubs of Great Britain for the first time.

Unlike Argentina’s talisman Mario Kempes who had established himself with Valencia the year before the 1978 World Cup, Ardiles and the rest of La Albiceleste squad plied their trade as professionals in the domestic league of their home country. Their manager, César Luis Menotti, made it a rule that only players playing in the homeland would be available for selection, which wasn’t as outlandish at the time as is might sound now. Kempes was the only exception for no other reason than he was one of the best forwards on the planet. He and Ardiles formed an understanding around which Argentina’s success was built.

“I knew Kempes for a long time. We were from a similar area in Argentina so we played together, and I knew him so well. But like with any player you have to play together to understand the way they play. There is a lot of work that goes into a match and players get to know each other by playing in games.

“It was Menotti though who was of paramount importance, without a shadow of a doubt. Argentina had been nowhere near close to winning the World Cup, apart from 38 years prior in 1930 [where they were beaten in the final by Uruguay in the inaugural tournament.] We weren’t favourites, there was Holland and West Germany, and to win it… well that was all Menotti really. He convinced us that we were really good, and he meant what he said.”

The First Round went relatively smoothly for Menotti’s men; they qualified after beating Hungry and France 2-1 in both games. However they lost their final group game to the Italians, and a team lacking self-belief might have suffered from the defeat.

“We were positive.” Remembers Ardiles. “The game was very close. They were playing the typical Italian counter attacking style, and they beat us in that way. It was a good result for them, but we were already through so we were not worried. It was a strange game. The stadium [Estadio Monumental] was very big but the pressure from the supporters was not there in this game. We needed more pressure to perform.”

It’s a phenomenon that affects all football around the world, whether it’s the Premier League or the World Cup. A stadium that is electric one game can become insipid in the next. Atmosphere is often created by occasion, and a game that has no consequences can be played out in a subdued atmosphere. There would be no more dead rubbers in this tournament for Argentina.

The format in 1978 meant teams they qualified from the first group stage entered a second group stage. The two teams that finished top of their respective groups reached the final. For Argentina this threw up a scenario that meant that they had to beat Peru in the final game by four clear goals. While Peru had only beaten the hosts three times in 18 previous meetings – none of which had occurred in Argentina – they had only conceded five goals in their last six world cup fixtures.

Having beat Poland 2-0, and managing a goalless draw against the forever dangerous Brazil, La Albiceleste were faced with this magnificent challenge and Surely would provide Ossie and his men with all the pressure they’d need to perform.

We [Argentine players] weren’t interested in politics; we were there to play football. Imagine trying to win a World Cup and thinking about political statements, you couldn’t do it.

“We knew we had to score four goals. We had played Peru twice before the World Cup. Once in Peru and once in Buenos Aires, and we beat them both times comfortably. So we were very confident going into the game. Peru started well, they hit the post twice during two counter attacks, but we managed to score two before halftime and they just capitulated.”

Argentina went on to win the game 6-0. And would meet the Netherlands in the final. And while Johan Cruyff had remained at home after a kidnap attempt a few months before the tournament affected him so badly that he felt unable to play, Argentina had Kempes.

“He was an outstanding, outstanding player. Obviously Maradona arrived shortly after the World Cup, and it was all about Maradona. But Kempes is among the very best players to ever play for Argentina. He was brilliant in the 78, he was the top scorer and you cannot ask for more than that.”

Ardiles is pragmatic about his own contribution.

“I didn’t really think about it, I was just doing my job. I knew that I would have to deal with some heavy challenges, and I would draw attention from the opposition when I was on the ball because they had to close me down. But this was my job, and if I kept the ball they couldn’t have it. And by running with the ball it would create space for Kempes and [Leopoldo] Luque.”

It was Ardiles’ snake like dribble in the centre of the pitch that started the move that saw Kempes put Argentina 1-0 up in the final. It would have been enough to lift the World Cup, but through Dirk Nanninga the Netherlands pulled a goal back in the 82nd minute. In his players Menotti had established an unshakable mindset and in extra time Argentina scored twice, once through Bertoni and Kempes grabbed his second.

So for a country gripped in bloody tussle, unbridled tears of freedom and jubilation were shed for a day at least. It must have been something to behold, especially for the players who were responsible for the World Cup glory.

“For my team and me it was amazing to win the World Cup. I am very proud of my team and of myself of what we did. But it was hard, and very difficult for us. Politics and sport should remain separate. Always.”

“But it just isn’t that way.”

This article was originally published in Mundial’s brilliant World Cup special in the Summer of 2014 – you can still buy it here

Author

Flav

Host of The Fighting Cock podcast. King of men. Gully.

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