It was the result too good to be true. On the evening of 21 June 1978, Argentina were celebrating a place in the final of their own World Cup, and the national press were printing proud tributes to their heroic players. But the rest of the world had smelt a rat, and one of the longest-running sagas in World Cup history was underway.
The odds had been stacked against César Menotti’s team going into the final match of the second group stage. Brazil’s 3-1 win over Poland earlier in the day left La Albiceleste needing to win by four clear goals against a Peru team playing only for their pride. They won 6-0, went on to win the final against the Netherlands, and the world cried foul.
Nothing has ever been proven, but claims of bribery and match fixing have been bandied about ever since. British journalists, Peruvian politicians and Colombian drug lords have all proffered different theories about how Argentina convinced Peru to throw the match. But before we can think about how, we must first understand why.
In 1978, Argentina was ruled with an iron fist by tyrannical dictator Jorge Rafael Videla. His regime was synonymous with the disappearances of his political enemies, a subject about which he was not exactly coy. “They are not dead or alive, they are just disappeared,” he ominously admitted.
This was a continent-wide campaign of state terror known as Operation Condor, and it united the Argentine people in their fear and hatred of Videla. He saw the World Cup as an opportunity to unite the people behind a different cause – supporting the national team. Only victory would do, and Videla would go to any lengths to ensure it.
Asked in 2008 whether the Peru match had been fixed, Argentina forward Leopoldo Luque admitted that it was a distinct possibility. "I don't know, honestly," he said. "But Videla did many bad things, much worse than bribing, so...” He trails off, before adding: “But, we did play a tremendous game against Peru."
Indeed they did, although Peru started the match brightly and hit the woodwork twice before Mario Kempes opened the scoring in the 21st minute. Alberto Tarantini doubled the lead before half time but 2-0 was not an unreasonable scoreline against a talented Argentina side.
It was Peru’s collapse at the start of the second half which caused suspicion. Kempes and Luque scored very easy goals within a minute of each other as Argentina opened up the four-goal cushion that they required. René Houseman and another for Luque added gloss as the visitors caved in without a fight.
The most controversial of the three most prevalent theories came from Fernando Rodriguez, the son of a Colombian drug lord, who claimed that the Cali Cartel provided the money that Argentina used to bribe the Peru players.
Midfielder José Velásquez appeared to verify the bribery claims earlier this year as he revealed that six Peru players – including Argentina-born goalkeeper Ramón Quiroga – took money to throw the game.
Velásquez has always resented coach Marcos Calderón for substituting him early in the second half, telling Channel 4: "There was no reason to change me. I always was an important piece in our team."
One of the players that he accused was his replacement Raúl Gorriti, so perhaps this is just lingering bitterness from Velásquez.
The other two arguments both implicate the Peruvian government, rather than the players, as being the target of the bribes.
The first claims that Argentina gave Peru guarantees of supplies and money, on which they delivered shortly after the match. 35,000 tons of grain and a shipment of weapons were allegedly delivered, and the Argentine central bank unfroze $50m worth of credits for Peru. These allegations were revived by the Independent in 1995, but although they seem plausible, there is no solid evidence.
The other theory made headlines in 2012 when former Peruvian Senator Genaro Ledesma claimed that Peru had sent 13 political prisoners to Argentina “in order to disappear them”. According to Ledesma, Peru’s President Morales Bermúdez offered to return the favour by ensuring that Peru lost the crucial match by a wide margin.
“Videla needed to win the World Cup to cleanse Argentina's bad image around the world,” said Ledesma. “So he only accepted the group [of prisoners] if Peru allowed the Argentine national team to triumph.” Ledesma was speaking in court at the trial of Bermúdez, who was later charged for his role in Operation Condor.
This theory seems the most plausible, as it was stated under oath and fits in with the political climate of the time. It doesn’t explain what the Peruvian players stood to gain from losing, but you don’t need much of an imagination to fill in the blanks. Nobody would bat an eyelid at a few more disappearances.
Now let’s play devil’s advocate and assume that the Argentina players simply wanted it more than Peru. It’s entirely conceivable that the Peruvians were unnerved by the vociferous crowd in Rosario, and the presence of Videla in the stadium. The Argentine dictator even reportedly entered the visitors’ dressing room before the match to wish them luck.
Is it possible that Argentina’s victory was legitimate then? Well, they had beaten Peru 3-1 when the sides last met in Lima, and they did have the far superior head to head record. But Peru’s defensive record at the tournament had been solid, conceding just six goals in their previous five matches.
The scoreline is also an anomaly in fixtures between the two nations. In 29 previous meetings, the most goals Argentina had ever scored against Peru was five – and that was in their first ever clash in 1927, so not exactly relevant. In 24 subsequent encounters, Argentina have never scored more than four.
Ultimately, we may never know for certain whether the match was fixed or not, despite the mountain of evidence which suggests so. Ledesma called for the 1978 tournament to be annulled and Argentina’s trophy to be returned, but the result stands, and Peru's shame lives on.