Soccer fans around the world may think of the World Cup as a quadrennial sports even akin to the World Series or Super Bowl. But for the Argentine military junta, the World Cup is a political event of major proportions.
By the time of opening game on June 1 - between West Germany and Poland - Argentine will have spent at least $400 million and possibly as much as $700 million to host the 1978 world soccer championship.
It is not clear whether the exact figure is a state secret or not, but it hardly seems to matter. Despite the view held by many Argentines that the World Cup is hardly worth the price, nothing, but nothing is as important right now to Argentina's military government as the World Cup matches.
The Argentine state telephone company is spending at least $100 million on new telephone lines and equipment. The airport here is being entirely reubilt. And there is a new color television transmission studio - all part of Argentina's preparations for the World Cup.
The Argentine government hopes that the 60,000 soccer fans and 4,500 journalists who are expected here for the World Cup - and the estimated 1.5 billion people who will watch the matches on television - will be left with the impression that Argentina is not the violence-ridden police state that human rights groups and foreign journalists have said it is.
Some observers here point out that soccer fans and sports journalists are not likely to notice much more than soccer fans and sports journalists are not likely to notice much more than the stadiums and quality of play during the World Cup matches - unless local or international terrorists decide to disrupt the games. Or unless security is so tight that machine guntoting soldiers have more of an impression on the tourists than the currently peaceful streets of Buenos Aires and the hospitable and friendly people of Argentina.
As for the vast television audience, the only glimpses of Argentina it will get are two-minute commercials prepared by the government that will appear during broadcasts of each of the games. Argentina is an incredibly varied and beautiful country so, if the TV spots stick to the scenery and are not too heavy on obvious propaganda, Argentina should win some friends among the television audience.
However, human rights groups in Europe - principally in Holland, France and Sweden - have urged both their national soccer teams and fans thinking of coming to Argentina for the matches to boycott the World Cup because of the political situation here.
So far, the boycott proponents do not seem to have scored many points: none of the teams has pulled out. The real cause for worry seems to be the threat of terrorism.
To counter these possibilities - as well as the general exuberance of soccer fans who often riot when their teams win or lose - the Argentine government is putting together a specially trained, 5000-man security force to guard the teams, the players and the tourists who will be here between the opening game and th final World Cup championship match on June 25. The security forces will also guard the stadums, the communication systems, the color television studios and airports in the cities where the matches are to be held.
In all 16 countries will be represented in the World Cup matches: Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Sweden, France, Italy, West Germany, Poland, Scotland, Iran, Tunisia, Hungary, Austria, Spain and the Netherlands. At the moment, West Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands and Argentina are the favorites.