With the regular editorial having made way a little while ago for my regular Pitch Invasion column, I’ve decided to put the page on HEGS to a slightly different use from now on. Periodically (hopefully approximately every two weeks) I’ll be posting a piece looking back on a segment of Argentina’s long and rich footballing history. Great players and teams of the past, famous triumphs and tragedies, or just a little flavour of the game’s quirks and legends in Argentina. Where better to start, I thought, than by celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the day the selección finally won their first World Cup…
It was a goal that took just seconds to score, over in the blink of an eye on today’s videos. At the time, though, the moments before the ball crossed the line seemed to stretch to minutes, and it was celebrated all the more by the watching millions across Argentina because they, more than any other people, had been waiting for it for forty-eight long years.
Mario Kempes runs onto a through pass, taking it in his stride, and effortlessly steps past first one, then another Dutch defender, long strides with the ball under his spell. Then the moment in which a nation held its breath. Goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed rushes out and blocks Kempes’s run before the striker can get the decisive touch. Kempes, already past Jongbloed, stops and can do nothing to affect the flight of the ball as it cannons of the goalkeeper and spirals into the air. He waits…
Half a second, or half a century? Because although this is the first World Cup Argentina has hosted, the selección already have unfinished business in this competition. In the inaugural tournament, held a short hop across the Río De La Plata in Montevideo, Uruguay, Argentina had sailed to the final in the Estadio Centenario, where they had lost a thrilling match 3-2 to the hosts. Since then, with each passing tournament, the question of when the national team would finally achieve their ultimate ambition had grown more pressing.
Now, in the final for a second time, in front of a home crowd in the Estadio Monumental, Argentina had taken the lead, through Kempes in the first half, only to be pegged back late on by Dick Nanninga’s header for the ‘Clockwork Orange’, the team of flawed genius who had defeated themselves in the final four years previously against West Germany. The Netherlands, surely, would not be so foolish again. The need to make the difference in extra time carried historical as well as immediate weight.
So Kempes waits for the ball to decide its course, as nearly 71,500 souls in the stands hold their collective breath in anticipation.
Earlier in the tournament, in the final match of the second group stage, Argentina had known when they took the pitch in Rosario, thanks to Brazil’s 3-1 win over Poland hours before, that they required a four-goal win against a Peru side who had been dark horses for many before the tournament started. The scoreline in that match – a 6-0 victory in front of perhaps the most partisan crowd ever seen at a World Cup Finals match – has been held in suspicion ever since. It would be incorrect not to mention this, although evidence for the defence of both sides’ honour points to the facts that Peru had already lost twice in that group stage to Brazil and Poland, that Argentina were more determined to go out and simply blow their opponents away than ever before, and, of course, that Peru actually hit the post early on through the legendary Teofilio Cubillas with the score at 0-0.
For many, though, suspicions that the military junta ruling Argentina at the time had ‘bought’ the match were still too strong, even when Argentina coach César Luís Menotti was, along with writer Jorge Luis Borges, perhaps one of only two men in the country publicly visible enough to be able to voice his opposition to the government without fear of ‘disappearing’. These, in the words of Ezequiel Fernández Moores, ‘Were years in which politics abused football. Years of Kempes, the matador. Years of [General Jorge] Videla, the assassin.’
On the pitch, though, Menotti’s philosophy was then, and still is to this day, that the footballer should be expected to entertain the crowd, and Mario Kempes, the only member of his squad who at the time of the finals was playing his football abroad (for Valencia, in Spain), was at the centre of this attacking strategy.
Still Kempes waits, and as he watches, he anticipates, as great forwards do, that the ball is going to fall close to him. As Argentina holds its breath, Kempes brings his foot up. He connects with the ball fractionally before two rushing Dutch defenders can get to it, and spins, arms aloft. Behind him, the defenders fall to the floor, and the ball bounces over the goal line and into the net. Argentina explodes.
That goal, on the stroke of half time in extra time, was not in fact the last of the match, but it was the one which broke Dutch resistance, and which gave the Argentine side the belief that, yes, the World Cup was finally theirs. Five minutes before the end of the extra half-hour, the ball broke from Kempes through the Dutch defence to Daniel Bertoni, who swivelled and drove past Jongbloed. 3-1 to Argentina.
Delerium on the pitch, delerium in the stands. Thirty-eight years after defeat in Montevideo prompted riots in Buenos Aires, Argentina could finally stand alongside neighbours and rivals Uruguay and Brazil, as well as Europeans Italy, West Germany and England. Mario Kempes was the top scorer with six goals, and was voted Player of the Tournament, but the men behind him, from Ubaldo ‘Pato’ Fillol in goal, to Osvaldo Ardiles and captain Daniel Passarella in the centre, and Menotti on the bench, had ensured the fairytale that the tickertape parade so wonderfully anticipated. On the 25th June, 1978, for the first time, Argentina were the champions of the world.