Argentina’s World Cup 1978: When FIFA Backed a Junta

In 1978, an Argentine military junta that murdered tens of thousands hosted the World Cup and got a chance to refurbish their image. We talk to a prisoner who watched the game with her torturers — a World Cup seen from hell.

FIFA World Cup final match between Argentina and the Netherlands on June 25, 1978 at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (VI Images via Getty Images)

A gardener waters a patch of grass at the heart of the former Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), in downtown Buenos Aires. It’s a tiny island of greenery in a sea of asphalt and gray concrete. On the surface, it looks like an unremarkable educational facility, but just four decades ago it was a concentration camp that held thousands.

“You can feel it, wherever you go around here,” the gardener tells me. “The collective pain . . .” He starts to finish his thought before deciding that there’s nothing more to be said.

On the surface, ESMA looks like an unremarkable educational facility, but just four decades ago it was a concentration camp that held thousands. (Klas Lundström)

ESMA is situated along Avenida del Libertador (“Liberator’s Avenue”), at the heart of the Argentinian capital, and Estadio Monumental — the massive stadium that was modernized before the 1978 FIFA World Cup by laborers prohibited from union organization, controlled by military observers at gunpoint — lies mere blocks away.

FIFA had given Argentina the chance to shine and host the World Cup, ignoring the country’s military government and its “disappearing” of thirty thousand people. Despite being next to the festivities, no photographer, reporter, or visiting player was ever let inside the gates of ESMA.

As FIFA does its best to downplay human rights concerns during the first week of World Cup play, the echoes of Mario Kempes’ extra-time winner in the 1978 final between Argentina and the Netherlands bounce around the interior of ESMA.

In the case of ESMA and the FIFA World Cup 1978, the entourage of reporters, fans, and participants left Argentina without covering or witnessing, let alone changing, that much. If anything, the Argentine military junta ought to have been pleased with the review given by Swedish national coach Georg “Åby” Ericson during his stay in the South American nation: “Our stay here is marvelous; we’re having a good time. I haven’t seen anything that suggests that this isn’t a great country.”

Beaten and malnourished prisoners who could barely stand up were forced to cheer along with their torturers, while understanding that Argentina’s 3–1 victory and historic first World Cup trophy also secured an enormous political victory for the military dictatorship.

“If they won, we lost,” Graciela Daleo, a surviving ESMA prisoner and university professor, writes in an essay about the 1978 final, experienced inside the walls of the concentration camp.

Daleo, who slept hooded and did slave work in the basement — “La Pecera” (“The Fishbowl”) — at the time of the June 25 final, recalls the television set that was suddenly brought into her world. She watched through its black-and-white flickering images and cheered along with the echo from Estadio Monumental. And for a moment, torturers and prisoners were united. One of ESMA’s superior bosses, Jorge Eduardo “El Tigre” Acosta, was frantic. “We won, we won!” he screamed, and shook his captives’ hands and kissed their cheeks.

Games in a Police State

It’s estimated that five thousand men, women, and children entered ESMA — one of 350 prison camps — through the backdoor during Argentina’s military dictatorship that lasted between 1976 and 1983. Almost none of them returned home.

Opponents of the dictatorship led by General Jorge Rafael Videla — trade unionists, artists, students, lawyers, writers, investigative journalists, social workers, or members of the urban leftist guerilla groups People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) and Montoneros — were literally labeled as “weeds,” as something the state apparatus had to root out to save Argentine society from communism.

One “weed” was Liliana Pellegrino. She was a twenty-one-year-old clandestine Montoneros activist who had just become a mother when she was kidnapped on November 28, 1978 a few blocks from her home, and then taken to ESMA.

Her husband, Carlos, had been kidnapped earlier the same day, and Pellegrino climbed into a taxi to head to a secret Montoneros house in Buenos Aires. But a mere eight blocks away from home, where the streets of Muniz and Venezuela join, a Ford Falcon — the standard vehicle used during Argentine abduction operations — forced the taxi to a halt.

Seconds later the taxi driver was forced out of the vehicle and severely beaten by Pellegrino’s kidnappers. Two of her captors — Alfredo “The Blond Angel of Death” Astiz and ESMA boss Acosta — were only sentenced to prison in October 2011.

“I held my newborn baby in my arms,” Pellegrino recalls, while sipping a cappuccino in a cafe in southern Stockholm, where she has worked as a social worker since the mid-1980s. “I tried to persuade them leave him out of this, he was only twenty days old, what had he ever done to them? But they wouldn’t listen, so we entered ESMA together — only to be separated inside the compound.”

Like all the other inmates at ESMA, Pellegrino was never charged or sentenced for any crime. The most severe punishment was to hear her child’s screams through the walls, inside the room filled with fear and odors of urine and feces.

“I got very sick since they didn’t allow me to breastfeed him,” she says. “After a while, that led to very high fever and sometimes the pain was so strong that I passed out.” Much of her time in prison is a blur, but she remembers the kicking, beating, and electric shocks.

“They said they were after information, but I think that more than anything, they simply enjoyed torturing people,” she says.

FIFA opted for Argentina as the host of the 1978 World Cup twelve years earlier, in July 1966. One week prior to the decision, the democratically elected government of Arturo Illia had been overthrown by General Juan Carlos Ongania. Democracy would eventually return to Argentina in 1973, coinciding with the long-awaited return of the exiled national hero Juan Perón, who had led the nation between 1946 and 1955. Perón died in 1974, however, paving the way for a political breakdown that ended in a 1976 military coup, Argentina’s sixth during the twentieth century.

The 1978 World Cup was thus the perfect chance for the newly installed military regime to bolster its international ties and “a perfect stage to wash away their guilt and reinvent themselves,” writes investigative reporter Gustavo Campana.

In early 1976, a general named Omar Actis was assigned to head Argentina’s World Cup Autarchic Entity, which had been handed over to the Navy from the army’s control. Actis soon raised concerns over rapidly escalating public spending, but was assassinated August 19, 1976, en route to a press conference where he was expected to publicly criticize Argentina’s World Cup largesse. Montoneros was blamed for the killing, but fingers were soon pointed in the direction of the military regime — and especially Emilio Massera, commander-in-chief of the Argentine Navy, and one of ESMA’s chief architects.

Actis’ successor, Carlos Alberto Lacoste — a Massera protégé — had no problems opening up the treasury, which paved the way for large-scale urban facelifts in the cities of Buenos Aires, Córdoba, and Mendoza. Bulldozers displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the cities’ shantytowns to make way for new roads, stadiums, and luxurious hotels to accommodate the participating World Cup nations, international media, and fans.

In the end Argentina spent over $520 million for its soccer tournament, which was almost four times the amount Spain did in 1982.

The military junta’s most important investment, however, was a secret agreement with the US advertising agency Burson-Marsteller, sealed in June 1976. The American company offered “an extensive program” — conducted in accordance with Argentine and Mexican public relations firms — to influence the international opinion in favor of Argentina’s political direction and the purported necessity to take action against its “state enemies.” Still, documented human rights violations, systematic atrocities, and the disappearances of thousands of regime critics were a problem. Western media organizations had to be targeted to ensure a favorable narrative.

Like reporters’ press tours in Qatar prior to the 2022 World Cup, European media outlets were flown into Argentina before the games’ start. Meanwhile, a fledgling boycott campaign was trying to find its footing. Two competing nations, France and Sweden, were desperately trying to locate citizens who had “disappeared” in Argentina, and Amnesty International led a protest under the slogan “Yes to Soccer, No to Torture!” In the end, only one player boycotted the 1978 world cup for political reasons, West Germany’s 1974 World Cup winner Paul Breitner.

Going to the games and describing the situation on the ground honestly might lead to an improved political situation in Argentina, it was said. But the mood of most was apathetic. West German dynamo defender — and later the unified Germany’s national coach — Berti Vogts was asked if he feared Argentina’s notorious torture chambers. “I’m sure our team is not in danger,” Vogts replied.

He was right. Except for the Swedish striker Ralf Edström — who was arrested (although quickly released when it dawned on the Argentine military that Edström was a professional soccer player and a Swedish national) for talking to a civilian at a Buenos Aires cafe — the terror stayed inside the domestic concentration camps.

The 1978 World Cup in Argentina qualifies as being among the most notorious political manipulations of sports, according to Argentine writer Ezequiel Fernandez Moores, who goes so far as to compare it to Hitler’s manipulation of sport during Berlin’s 1936 Olympic Games.

With the 2022 FIFA World Cup about to kick off, the list of shameful sports events welcomes another member. In Qatar, as in Argentina, hyper-exploited workers have been used to complete infrastructure, stadiums, and facilities for the upcoming tournament. In Qatar, as in Argentina, the political leaders are expected to look down on the green pitch from the stands, untouchable behind repressive laws and protected by the military.

The Crimes We Like to Forget

Migrant workers in Qatar ask themselves what the future will look like on the other side of the World Cup. In Argentina, after the final whistle of the tournament, the military regime seemed stronger than ever. Daleo and several other political prisoners at ESMA were, for some reason, summoned and escorted to downtown Buenos Aires. There, euphoric crowds had gathered to celebrate the final victory. Flags, chants, joy. Even pride.

At a fancy downtown restaurant, the prisoners joined their torturers around tables to celebrate the historic achievement. In the noisy and feverish ambience of patriotic joy, Daleo realized that the lasting victory of the 1978 World Cup meant an eternal personal defeat. She felt estranged from the world around her and wanted to “go back” to ESMA.

“I knew more about the horrible logic of that underground world than what I was seeing outside,” she recalls. “That was solitude: knowing that, if I shouted that I was a ‘disappeared,’ no one was going to give a crap.”

It’s estimated that five thousand men, women, and children entered ESMA during Argentina’s military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. (Klas Lundström)

During a series of trials in 1985, Argentina’s junta leaders were later charged and sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, extrajudicial murder, illegal repression, and systematic kidnapping of children. Some thirty children are estimated to have been born inside the walls of ESMA. Their mothers were subsequently drugged and dropped from airplanes where the Río de la Plata meets the Atlantic Ocean.

The infants were illegally adopted, often by military personnel. “To have your child inside a place like that was horrible,” says Pellegrino. “That desperation, to have just become a mother and then having him forcibly taken away from you.”

The fear of losing her newborn child nearly drove Pellegrino mad inside the compound of ESMA. But it also gave her leverage against her torturers. If they released her son, she would talk. Her son, she then found out, was released, and returned to her relatives.

In March 1979, Pellegrino exited ESMA after four months of imprisonment. A new life began in a state of constant numbness, where torture, degradation, and the threat of being murdered hung over her like a delayed sentence. Her husband, Carlos, remained imprisoned at ESMA with neither trial nor sentence for another two years until being released. Shortly afterward, they emigrated to Sweden.

“I’ll carry the scars and marks of ESMA for as long as I live,” says Pellegrino.

Today, ESMA is a museum to the victims of the Dirty War — inaugurated by then president Néstor Kirchner on March 24, 2004 — but public awareness of the depth of its crimes seems to be fading. “We learn nothing about ESMA in school,” says Joaquin Martínez, a teenager who visited ESMA for the first time.

As he strolls through the deserted halls and peeks into the cells, sensing the desperation the prisoners must have experienced in the damp dungeons underground, it dawns on him that there might be a reason for the silence about places like ESMA.

“How do you move on from here?” Joaquin asks. “I mean, the shame, the collective ignominy we all ought to feel when we realize what people have gone through inside the walls of this hell.” As millions avoid the obvious truth about the abuses of labor and authoritarianism in Qatar, posterity may very well ask the same question.