Something bewitching in the murk: Argentina v Hungary World Cup 1978


Many of you will be familiar with the anticipation of opening weeks of international tournaments on even years throughout your life. It always comes to mind in early June. Building anticipation over the previous months around your team can be finally let loose. The world is a smaller place these days and, with the internet, you can have a fair idea about the nature and character of the host nation. Forty years ago there was no Eurovision type pan around the boulevards and fountains before the business in hand with ‘delightful’ muzak as a handrail. Buenos Aires and Argentina in 1978 was to be discovered for nearly all of us.

The business in hand would be the defence of the nation’s colours against Johnny or perhaps, in this case, Juan Foreigner. Most folk in the British Isles tended to get behind whichever of the home teams were knocking about in these tournaments. In those times this invariably was Scotland and they indeed became one of the features of that particular World Cup. But for me as a wide-eyed teenager, the very country and particular nature of Argentina at that time became as fascinating as any Dutch squealing rocket into the top corner. Dutch goals were another major facet of those weeks in June.

Of course, it was not the first World Cup to be closeted in South America. I remembered Mexico eight years earlier very well as you tend to with only sixteen teams fighting it out. Most of my geographical general knowledge came from football in my formative years. But Mexico wasn’t really proper South America was it and I wasn’t around for those before. My other point here as a forerunner to this article is that Mexico was by and large sunny, bright and cheerful. Argentina….well it was dark and sinister and it wasn’t due to it being winter further down the continent. It had a presence and a threat which seemed to ooze black liquid onto the carpet from the TV screen at times but enough Amityville imagery.

As I recall this all these years later I am of course a bit wiser about juntas and far-right politics. Much has been written about all sorts of nefarious activities and conspiracies through that tournament to ensure a host nation victory. Whether it be dubious penalty calls given or not given v France or suspicious minds active against Peru it rages unabated. The political pressure put on the home team to win the World Cup clearly was intense. For many observers back in the UK it was only finally doused not when they won the World Cup, but when the Union Jack flew over Port Stanley four years later.

As mentioned, none of this touched me as early June heralded ‘O’ levels and the World Cup. What a combination! Whilst Top of the Pops had not been shown the night before due to the start of the tournament, I was still recovering from the shock of seeing country singer Olivia Newton-John in some bombshell black leather outfit in a promo for the upcoming film ‘Grease’. That would have been the equivalent of seeing Theresa May getting a ‘Downing Street chapter’ tattoo on her back. There was a lot happening!

But that first Friday in June heralded the Argentines playing their first match v Hungary and it was clear levity was not part of any agenda. In those days the winners of the previous World Cup played the opening game to start the defence of the trophy. West Germany and Poland had started with a goalless first half. My main takeaways so far had been the opening music to the BBC matches which seemingly was called ‘Argentine Melody’. Having been written by Andrew Lloyd Webber it had a pretty uninspiring name but it grew into your head.

The other thing that had me hooked was the ‘Tango’ football. Up to now, footballs were white. Boring dull ‘Hovis’ white. End of! These funky black and white orbs just screamed diagrammatic genius and Latin sophistication as they whirred around the pitch. The phrase repeated over and over amongst us was “Class balls”. I was well up for Argentina’s first match that Friday night. There were quite a few things to take in.

The first thing that struck me was the poor light of the stadium. Even in those days, well before the metaphorical and actual illumination of today’s live evening games it was very badly lit. You could see the game alright, but everything else was in shadow. This was a feature of the River Plate stadium all the way through to the final. It of course never struck me at the time that the oppressive murky gloom would be such a metaphor for the country in those times.

The players arrived onto the running track from underneath the stadium as if they had come up from Hades itself. That itself was still a bit of a new fad that accompanied this journey to a new world. Brooding, dark Latino faces walked in a loose sort of a fashion onto the running track. As they lined up the eyes were stony and cold but there was also tension. Perhaps they had been told they would end up with concrete feet in the actual River Plate if they lost or had even been given a team talk by the junta itself. They looked around at their surroundings as the ticker tape and blue and white flume displaced everything within.

Yet, when the cameras lit on the crowd it was just like staring into a black puddle. The frantic dark presence was everywhere, but you felt it rather than saw it. The ‘Sun of May’ in the centre of the Argentinian flag was not going to shine in the cavernous beast of the Estadio Monumental. No wonder the team felt as if they were alone in an ocean. The crowd were laying down ferocious support but were the team absorbing it or being cowered by it. As the anthems tried their best, the Hungarians hardly looked any more comfortable.

South American football is not as strong a beast today as it was then. Brazil would have been the footballing glitterati of the world stage. But Argentina would have been the streetwise older brother. British football angles to Argentina at the time would have been influenced by the infamous ‘sending-off’ of Antonio Rattin and Alf Ramsay’s ‘Animals’ quote 12 years earlier as well as Manchester United’s encounter with Estudiantes. A violent enough friendly against England in 1977 had been added to this crime list. If Brazil were the artists, Argentina were the warriors was a thought that frequented some UK minds on a certain gut reaction. A slightly inaccurate perception but it pervaded.

Captain Daniel Passarella was a man of stone. In the tackle and in outlook if there was any weakness in his side he would have its source stripped, smoked and sliced. His team took up their positions and the blue, white and black looked as if it had been ironed on such was the kit’s unifying tightness. The black shorts were the shortest and tightest ever seen. The blades of the barrios were unsheathed and it was clear no-one was going to ultimately walk through these hombres cheaply. If Lee Van Cleef had turned out to be the referee it wouldn’t have surprised me.

To complete this Latino miasma up stepped their manager – one Cesar Luis Menotti. What a name and how appropriate to have a form of ‘Caesar’ anchoring it. Looking like a cross between Paul Raymond and Peter Stringfellow, he had a more urbane and debonair look about him than his band of gauchos in front of him. A huge kipper tie and jacket competed with a curtain of long greying hair, permanently encased in cigarette smoke finalised the look. A top hat and cane would not have looked out of place and you wondered was he auditioning for the next baddie in a Bond movie. He slithered under the low dug-out to plot and conspire. But he was proper showbiz. You felt that there was probably a shelf for a whip in that dugout.

This all hit you before the match started. You felt you had woken up in a back alley in Buenos Aires with some grisly mural screaming street Spanish graffiti at you such was the impact. That cultural trip to the Tropic of Capricorn has never or will ever be more colourful. Against this backdrop, the match started as one’s senses tried to reorganise. Immediately various things came to notice. The apparent casuality of the Argentinians flecked national macho character at you. It wasn’t as if they were taking risks or being sloppy with the ball. It was more a ‘play as we feel’ at the moment and time rather than some pre-planned pattern of play. The feeling was that Cesar Luis wasn’t too worried either way.

The Hungarians risked all by taking the lead in the eighth minute. Six minutes later Argentina were level as a poorly handled free kick fell free to that famous forward Leopoldo Luque to lash home. I have little doubt the Argentinian navy have a battleship named after him. Before a quarter of the match had gone the front two of Luque and Mario Kempes had caught the eye. Luque had a habit of coming short for the ball and Kempes once in stride was a devil to stop. Black hair aflame behind them they led Argentina like the horns of a bull.

Midfielder Ardiles was noticeable as well. A tip-toe prance seemed to characterise his movement but he prised open Magyar crevasses subtly and repeatedly. His elfin features and manicured haircut signified precision against the fiercer fury of his teammates. His legal mind, searching for weakness was evident in his head and his feet. The winning goal by Daniel Bertoni was in character similar to the ones that would win the final just over three weeks later. Direct running at the heart of the goal leading to a loose ball breaking free to be dispatched.

There was time for Hungarians Andreas Toroscik and Tibor Nyilasi to be sent off. One felt that the oppressive spell of the place had unhinged them rather than match frustration. I knew I could not miss any more Argentinian matches such was the siren-like pull of these events.

All Argentinian matches were controversially played in the evening enabling them to know where they stood to a degree from matches played earlier in the day. This was repeated four years later for Spain. Argentina were to lose at home to Italy banishing them to Rosario for the knockout rounds. The smaller stadium only increased the frenzy and the only inlet of light was the team wearing white shorts for the Polish game.

Footage of  Argentinian fans still somehow touched on a pain amidst the hysteria of that June. In 1982, a familiarity of that month was reprised as the unique greyness of the wintery South Atlantic film footage took me back to June 1978. The grey fug hovered in the sky and the streets and in many of the smiling faces of the fans. A strange thing to say amidst the happiness of the team’s run to their first World Cup. But it was there and as the years unfolded and I learned more about those grim years from 1976 to 1982 a lot became clear.

It was the last World Cup to host 16 teams but that has little to do with my recall of that tournament. It was just unique in ways I haven’t really seen since though 2002 had a certain something. I was to see some of that team the following year in Dublin in a friendly match against the Republic of Ireland with a certain Diego Maradona coming on as a second-half substitute. It wasn’t quite the same in daylight. Little did I know that the final outplay of it all would be on the Falkland Islands four years later to the month – June 1982. The names then would be Longdon, Harriet, San Carlos etc… and I would be attending a World Cup in Spain just to close this article and that memory.

Asi es la vida.