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The World Cup that left human rights behind

Thousands demonstrated in Paris in May of 1978 before Argentina's World Cup. (MICHEL CLEMENT/AFP via Getty Images)
12 min

The 2022 World Cup, nearing its conclusion after four weeks of thrilling soccer and off-field controversies, has a familiar place in the history of the sport’s biggest showcase. The human rights concerns, drumbeat of criticism and resulting defiance from government and sports officials carry distinct echoes of FIFA’s past.

The second World Cup was hosted in 1934 by the fascist government of Italian leader Benito Mussolini. FIFA staged the 2018 World Cup in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But most striking, perhaps, was the 1978 tournament, staged in Argentina at the height of its dirty war, in which the military dictatorship tortured, killed and disappeared thousands of political opponents.

That’s not an exact parallel with Qatar, which has been criticized for its treatment of migrant workers and its intolerance of homosexuality. But from the goals of the host country to the rhetoric of FIFA officials to the misgivings raised by participants and observers, this World Cup has been less historical outlier than exemplar.

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“There’s definitely a real revisiting now of various World Cups because it shows you a little bit of FIFA’s pattern,” said Clemente Lisi, author of “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event.”

“And I fear that going forward, it won’t change. If you look at the countries that are interested in the World Cup in the future, we’re talking about Saudi Arabia, China. You know, these are places that FIFA may be able to do business with, but in terms of human rights records, we’re not talking about stellar countries here.”

Human rights groups say that there have been thousands of unexplained deaths among the migrant workers who helped ready Qatar for the World Cup as the tiny nation built stadiums and infrastructure. Qatar has disputed the figures, but in an interview British journalist Piers Morgan posted online last month, a top Qatari official pegged the number of migrant worker deaths at between 400 and 500. That was much higher than previous government figures, although officials later attempted to backtrack from the comments. The country’s criminalization of homosexuality also has generated protest and outrage.

Like Argentina in the ‘70s, Qatar has chalked up outside condemnations to bias, with Qatar’s foreign minister calling criticism of the nation’s human rights record “very arrogant and very racist.” FIFA President Gianni Infantino has denounced European critics for “moral lesson-giving,” which he labeled “hypocrisy.”

Those comments would have sounded familiar at the World Cup in 1978, when Argentina’s president, Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, accused opponents of harboring “anti-Argentine” sentiments.

FIFA never considered changing course. The FIFA president at the time, João Havelange, was a Brazilian, and he took satisfaction in playing the World Cup in South America. On the eve of the tournament, Havelange praised the host nation, telling local reporters: “I am among those that most depended on the hard work that your country undertook, and I haven’t been disappointed. It fills me with pride, first from knowing that Argentina responded to the challenge and second because I am also South American. We have achieved everything we proposed.”

‘Soccer amid the concentration camps’

In the year and a half leading up to the 1978 World Cup, the United States was moving to a new approach on human rights. The 1976 coup that had overthrown the democratically elected government of Argentina took place during the administration of President Gerald Ford, and Henry Kissinger, Ford’s secretary of state, advised the junta to act quickly before opposition to human rights violations grew in the United States. He told Argentina’s foreign minister, “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly,” a declassified memo shows.

But President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat who took office in January 1977, made human rights a priority and took a more critical approach to the anti-communist regimes the United States was then supporting during the Cold War. In June of that year, his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, told the Organization of American States that the United States would tie aid to human rights in Latin America. Argentina’s government already was bristling at “interference” from outsiders, The Washington Post reported at the time, and arguing that harsh measures were required to combat leftist guerrillas.

Vance rejected that ends-justify-the-means calculation. “If terrorism and violence in the name of dissent cannot be condoned, neither can violence that is officially sanctioned. Such action perverts the legal system that alone assures the survival of our traditions,” he said.

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After the coup, there were calls to boycott the World Cup, including by a group of French journalists and intellectuals who declared in a manifesto, “We should not play soccer amid the concentration camps and torture chambers.” Amnesty International supported the group, warning that the real Argentina of prisons, torture, and repression of political opposition would be masked at the World Cup. But the efforts were unsuccessful, and as the soccer tournament approached, the Argentine military dictatorship took a page from the 1936 Nazi Olympics, using the international sports competition to burnish its image on the world stage.

“Holding the tournament will show the world that Argentina is a trustworthy country, capable of carrying out huge projects,” boasted Adm. Emilio Massera, a member of the ruling junta and one of the leaders of the coup. “And it will help push back against the criticism that is raining on us from around the world.”

Yet less than a mile away from the Buenos Aires stadium that staged several games, including the final, Massera was running the notorious Navy Mechanics School. At this clandestine prison, security forces were torturing and killing political opponents — some of whom could hear fans cheering from the stadium. An estimated 5,000 people were sent to the facility.

“This event, which draws worldwide attention to the host country every four years, is regarded by Argentina’s military Government as a major test of public relations,” the New York Times wrote in a preview story. “It is concerned about its reputation as a battleground of extremist violence and brutal repression and is hopeful that the country will be found to be more normal and a friendlier place than it has appeared abroad.” The military junta spent millions on public relations efforts in Europe and the United States, the Times reported.

Opponents of the regime sought to take advantage of the international attention on the tournament by highlighting the government’s practice of disappearing dissenters, but these efforts sometimes ended with tragic results. With the World Cup six months away and attention on the country increasing, on Human Rights Day in December 1977 a group of Argentine mothers known as “Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo” took out a newspaper ad listing the names of their missing children.

One of the founding mothers of the human rights group, Azucena Villaflor, was kidnapped by armed men that very night and taken to the Navy Mechanics School. Her remains weren’t identified until nearly 30 years later, after her body washed up on a beach and was buried in an unmarked grave.

A made-for-TV event

The first match of the World Cup took place June 1, 1978 — a late-autumn brisk sunny day in the Southern Hemisphere — at Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires. Fans wore overcoats or wool jackets.

Thousands of police circled the stadium, and helicopters hovered overhead, but the regime tried to put on a peaceful face, releasing hundreds of white doves. “We hope these games will contribute to strengthen peace, which we desire for all the world and among all men,” Videla said to a mix of clapping and whistles of disapproval from the upper tier of the stadium, the Times reported. The first match ended in a 0-0 draw between West Germany and Poland.

Lisi said that the regime’s main concern was making the tournament look good on TV.

“At the time, fans didn’t travel with the ease they do now,” he said. “So it really was a made-for-TV event. Basically it was a fresh coat of paint on everything. They spruced up their stadiums. Because they knew it would serve as a distraction but it could also be an effective propaganda tool to solidify their power.”

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And Argentina’s success in the World Cup helped unify the country. “This must be the happiest city in the world,” The Post reported after Argentina beat Peru, 6-0, to make the final. “Imagine carnival in Rio, Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the end of World War II in New York City and you have an idea what Buenos Aires is like. … Argentines are wild about soccer. They love it more than their husbands, their wives, their children — or so it seems.”

Kissinger, by then a private citizen, attended the World Cup as a guest of the Argentine regime, but he was causing headaches for the Carter administration. In a declassified cable from June 27, 1978, the U.S. ambassador to Argentina at the time summarized Kissinger’s meeting with Videla, the Argentine president. The ambassador wrote that he was concerned that “Kissinger’s repeated high praise for Argentina’s action in wiping out terrorism and his stress on the importance of Argentina may have gone to some considerable extent to his hosts’ heads.”

‘The beginning of this trouble’

The tournament couldn’t have gone better for the ruling junta. Argentina went on to win the championship, defeating the Netherlands, 3-1, in the final. Videla took a victory lap not just for the title but in securing a propaganda coup as well, thanking FIFA for allowing his nation to host the World Cup and giving “the Argentine people a chance to show what it is capable of.” He called the World Cup “the symbol of peace.”

During the final, a few prisoners at the Navy Mechanics School got the chance to watch the game on a small black-and-white TV. After Argentina won, the guards took some of the prisoners on a drive to observe the mass celebrations.

“One car stopped at a local pizzeria and the prisoners, many who hadn’t been outside the compound’s walls for years, stood there, pale, trembling and terrified as patrons jumped on tables and sang triumphant soccer songs,” wrote Ken Bensinger, author of “Red Card,” a book about the global FIFA corruption scandal. “Nobody seemed to notice when they were put back in the cars and taken back to their torture chambers.”

Some Argentine players later expressed regret for allowing themselves to be exploited by the regime.

“There is no doubt that we were used politically,” one player, Ricky Villa, said years later.

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Argentina wasn’t shy about using the victory to strut on the international stage — and to push back on criticism from the United States on its human rights record. In August 1978, about six weeks after the final, the State Department’s top human rights official condemned the government for using “systematic torture” and “summary executions.” But the military dictatorship, newly emboldened by its victory, called the American official’s statement “false and tendentious, an offense to the Argentine people and harmful to ties between both states.”

“In recent weeks, as Argentines bask in the glory of staging and winning the World Cup soccer championship in June, they have begun to strike back,” The Post reported at the time. “There has clearly been a reawakening of the nationalistic spirit that has been a factor in Argentine political life since Juan Perón first came to power at the end of World War II. The new militancy has appeared at a time when U.S.-Argentine relations are at their lowest ebb in years.”

Some Argentine media played the whataboutism card against the United States. That summer, an Argentine newsmagazine, SIETE DIAS, featured President Carter on the cover along with photos of Philadelphia police officers stomping on the heads of African Americans, as well as troops allegedly shooting at rioters in an unidentified American city. Inside, according to The Post story, the magazine ran a photo of soldiers aiming guns at a terrified Black woman, under a headline which read, “The United States today. Mr. President, is this the bulwark of human rights?”

In 2008, the 30th anniversary of Argentina’s World Cup, Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the mothers group that had protested the disappearances under the regime, held a commemorative match at Estadio Monumental for players and survivors of the Dirty War.

“The 1978 World Cup was a gold brooch for repression, a mundial that was made to wash the faces of the murderers in front of the world,” said one of the organizers of the event, Mabel Gutiérrez.

Lisi, the author, described the 1978 and 2022 World Cups as bookends.

“I think ’78 is the beginning of this trouble FIFA gets itself in, and this is the culmination of it now,” he said. “FIFA wants to clean up its act, they want to be less corrupt, they want to be more transparent, but I think as long as they’re awarding World Cups to countries like this, it’s not going to help them at all.”

Frederic J. Frommer, a writer and sports historian, is the author of several books, including “You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals."

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