World soccer cups come every four years, with increasing impact and furor. The finals, played always in a different country, by turns South American and European, involve 16 teams, and last three weeks. The Cyclops eye of television has swollen them, as it has swollen the Olympic games, into something wildly disproportionate. Chauvinism can run riot. Passions of ludicrous depth and intensity are evoked, as they are now being evoked in Buenos Aires and in Rio. In Rio, people have committed suicide or been shot to death. In Argentina, you would think a war was being fought and won. Soccer sometimes appears to be the next religion, the new opium of the people - except that opium would calm them down.
In the cool, quiet refuge of his apartment on Maipu, Jorge Luis Borges, the most distinguished living South American writer, casts on it all a cold eye - an eye, alas, which is all but blind. Seventy-nine years old, he is formal, charming and pugent. He dictates a statement to me of his views, saying, precisely:
"The fact that a game, and a commercial one at that, should be promoted to the rank of a holy war, passes my understanding. I am a fervent patriot and, I hope, a good citizen, but I emphatically do not hold the uncanonical belief, now voiced by the press, and by the radio, of salvation through football . . . I abhor or hate Communists, Nationalists and Fascists impartially, and I think the cult of football is hardly a remedy for these ailments. Before the First World War, Kipling warned Englishmen against contenting their souls with a flanneled fool at the wicket and the muddied oaf at the goals, and this is precisely what we are trying to do in Buenos Aires."
Usually, when you vist him, Borges asks you to read him poetry by Kipling. This time, it is poetry by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. One leads him across the room to the bookself, past the fine silver and the paintings of his ancestors. He knows unerringly where each book is.
In one room of the apartment, where whitewash flakes off the walls, Borges' beloved mother died. There are photographs of her as a beautiful young girl. President Juan Peron imprisoned her, and made Borges, briefly, an inspector of poultry. Borges despised him, and says Peron's cronies all regarded him as a coward, laughed at him once when, in a crisis, he took a revolver out of a drawer. Gen. Jorge Videla, the reigning president, he considers "a gentleman." Uninterested in personal glory, Borges dresses, always, formally, in good gray suits, and is given to deprecating an English which is seldom less than perfect, and which he emphatically prefers to Spanish. "'I laugh myself awake.' You can't say that in Spanish. In fact, you can't say anything in Spanish."
Buenos Aires is a pullulating city of broken pavements, charging buses and strangely anachronistic fashions. One is very much reminded of some northern Italian provincial city, 20 years ago. It is still the mode to slick the hair down close to the scalp with cream, though some of the dashing young footballers of the Argentinian soccer team wear their hair as long as an Apache's.
In the huge, rebuilt River Plate Stadium of Buenos Aires, the crowd greets the team ritually and passionately with a shower of torn up paper which flutters in the floodlights like a snowstorm.
Some Argentinians are sure there will be an atrocity before the games are over, but for all the horrifying tales of torture and sequestration which have come out of the country, the mood of Buenos Aires seems vigorous, confident and unconcerned. Doctors, one is told, have been especially persecuted, yet when one meets a young doctor, who complains of how bad things are, it turns out that she is talking of the low salaries. Every young doctor, she says, is moving perpetually around the city from job to job, making ends meet.
Amiable, middle-class people tell you that things under Videla's government may not be ideal, but they are infinitely better. Life had become dangerous and impossible. Now, at least, it can carry on. Lifting the iron pressure little by little, the government celebrated Journalists's Day by repealing a decree which banned the dissemination of local news inside Argentina by foreign agencies. The repeal is accompanied by a long and learned preamble about the history of freedom of the press in Argentina.
Security is ubiquitous but erratic. Before the opening game, the West German footballers come into Buenos Aires and lodge at the Hotel President. I go into the foyer with a colleague. The players are eating dinner, cut off from us only by a glass door. We have been there 15 minutes before a little man with a mustache and the inevitably greased-down hair comes up to us, bows, smiles, shakes hands, and asks us who we are. "Journalists," we say, and show our passes. He thanks us, smiles, stands to attention, shakes hands, and goes away. But what if we'd been terrorists?
Out at the Italians' training camp at the Hindu Club, a few miles from Buenos Aires, it's another story. You produce your official press card, complete with photograph, at the door, and are told by the security people no, only a passport will do. Why a passport, when the press card is accepted even in banks? A shrug. Orders are orders. Appeals, walkie-talkie calls to headquarters, further refusals, finally permission. It's the worst World Cup I've ever had to cover and the sixth. Once, you simply walked into the teams' dressing rooms.
There are times when the mask slips. A moment in downtown Buenos Aires; a narrow street in which happy schoolboys spontaneously start demonstrating. "Argentina, Argentina!" they shout.In less than a minute two motorcycle policemen are weaving in and out among them, scattering them, threatening them. One policeman pins a boy against a wall and grabs him by the collar. The demonstration dies: And it was patriotic.
Later, crossing the huge expanse of the July 9 Street, the traffic lights in our favor, a colleague and I are taken aback by other, speeding motorcyclists, who miss us by a touch - policemen, again - curse us for getting in the way, then roar off, escorting what appears to be the bus of a completing soccer team. Motorcycle cops here evidently make their own laws.
The Italians are accessible to journalists almost every morning, each blue-tracksuited player gathering round him a little group of acolytes as he discourses with the astonishing fluency of the Italian soccer player, effortlessly in charge. Roberto Bettega, that Mastroinni figure, who struck the crossbar three times in the game against Hungary, says "It's a little utopian to say we'll win the title. "How unlike the home life of one's own, dear Scottish team. The Scottish fans, who were expected, if one may misquote Milton, to be flown with insolence and whisky, have been little trouble. A bunch of them was arrested in Cordoba the other day, when it was mistakenly believed they were demonstrating against the Argentinian government. It is much more likely that they were demonstrating against their team's commercially minded manager. Before the World Cup game opened, London newspapers ran articles warning Scottish fans that while traditional soccer hooliganism might earn them indulgent fines at home, such activity might be punishable by the death penalty in Argentina.
At River Plate, Argentina play's France, and wins through a couple of monstrous decisions by the referee. "You've been abused on the radio," Italian colleagues tell me. A Uruguayan radio reporter - how they swarm, in South America - smiles wryly and plays some of it back to me on his recorder.
My sin has been to write that the Argentinian crowd intimidates referees, who favor their team and its rough tactics in consequence, all of which has just been abundantly proved out on the field. A plump, bald Argentinian journalist, who has taken me out to lunch a few days before, peevishly struts away from me.
"You're treated us very badly," he says.
Out at Mar del Plata, the sun shines , for once this winter, on the sea and the multiplicity of hotels. At the stadium, the field is abominable. It looks as though a regiment of cavalry has been riding on it all morning. As the Brazilian team goes through their muted gyrations, uncharacteristically limp and dull, I think how strange it is that these events on a soggy field in a little stadium, so tedious to the eye, will lead to such furor in Brazil - to anticarnivals, the burning of effigies, suicide, murders. "I am sure that our national honor is not at stake," Borges says. The still, small voice of calm - what hope has it of being heard?
Style: Ah, yes, there is a little style, the style of the Brazilians, not on the field, in play, but just beside it, in calisthenics. Gil and Mendonca, two substitutes, are called off the bench to play - agile, thick-thighed men who perform in perfect unison, as though it were a ritual dance: right legs rotating, left legs rotating, a pivot, a step or two more, another exercise in unison.
When they get on the field, how can it be anything but anticlimax, and anticlimax indeed it is, They contribute nothing. But at least they've entertained us on the touchline. No one has done so on the field.
What, then, will the World Cup do for Argentina and that "image" which Borges properly deprecates? It's hard to say. Before it began, it very existence, the knowledge that the generals meant to use it for propaganda, worked against them. A deluge of bitter criticism of the regime and its excesses poured out all over the West. Much of it was sincere, some of it was palpably disingenuous, the work of the trendy left, the Marxist apologists. Now, thee's a slightly pathetic tinge to the government's attitude. They've even invited a group of American journalists to see the fiercely hostile film made about their methods by Panorama of the BBC imploring. "Do you see argentina like this?"
Well, yes and no. I still like Buenos Aires. I still sympathize with the Uruguayans when they deplore the dishonesty and self-delusion of its citizens, the portenos, though that's only one side of the coin. But when George Orwell wrote that sport is an unfailing cause of ill will, he was scarcely wrong. The flag waving, the showers of torn-up paper, don't disprove him.