The moat is barely 15 feet wide. It is all that separates you from 80,000 of the most chauvinistic soccer fans in the world, whose manic howling and whistling has hardly dropped in pitch for close on 45 minutes. Suddenly you have to make a crucial decision. Go one way and you will make them delirious with joy. Go the other and you will arouse their terrifying displeasure.
The game is Argentina against France, midway through the first round of the XI Copa del Mundo, the World Cup. El Mundial. A win for the Argentinians will qualify them for the second round to which eight of the 16 teams would advance. It is very close to halftime, there is no score and the French are more than holding their own at Buenos Aires' River Plate Stadium. Then Leopoldo Luque, long black hair streaming, cuts into the far left of the French penalty area. A French back, Marius Trèsor from Martinique, comes up to challenge him. Both players seem to slide down together as they go for the ball. And Jean Dubach, the Swiss referee, has that frightening decision to make. He can wave play on or he can award a penalty, an almost certain goal, to Argentina.
For an agonizing time he does neither. He dithers. He discusses the matter with the linesman, though it is his decision and his alone. The howl of the crowd rises to a high screech. Then he points to the penalty spot. Daniel Passarella walks up, settles the ball and slams it into the right-hand corner of the net from 12 meters.
There seems to be only one explanation for the dithering. First-class soccer referees award penalties sparingly. If there is doubt, they don't give one. Few referees, of course, have to endure the intimidating responsibility of officiating at River Plate when Argentina plays there. And no one could be unaffected by the kind of pressure that Dubach faced.
June 18, 1978
And there was a further test for him. With the score 2-1 Argentina and 10 minutes left in the game, France's Didier Six comes sweeping through the defense and is clearly brought down a couple of feet inside the penalty area. This time the referee appears not to notice. Play goes on, the score stays as it is; France is out of the World Cup and Argentina has qualified for Round 2. "The referee did not have an elegant game," said French Coach Michel Hidalgo.
Argentina has a fine team. In Luque and Mario Kempes, it has two forwards who may be the most effective strikers in the Cup and any handicapper figuring the odds on the Cup final has to take into account the fiery crucible of the River Plate Stadium. To win here against the home side a team must be demonstrably superior.
And until last Saturday millions of Argentinians felt that their national side was home free. After each of its first-round victories, the great avenues of Buenos Aires became fiesta-wild—car horns honking out Ar-gen-tin-a, pickup trucks crammed with kids wrapped in their national flag, buses and cabs decked with the nation's sky-blue and white, like yachts at a regatta. The commitment is total.
Fiesta time, though, was a little delayed at the start of the Cup. Defending champion West Germany and Poland opened the tournament like two respected but aging heavyweights. They sparred cautiously for 90 minutes to a crowd chant of "Que se vaya," which is Spanish for "Go home, ya bums." The game ended in the 0-0 tie that any cynic (or realist) could have forecast. Both teams were almost sure to qualify under the scoring system that gives two points for a victory, one for a tie: there was no reason for either side to risk anything. Almost ostentatiously they didn't, and it was left to the French to score the first goal of the World Cup, 30 seconds after the start of their game with Italy the next day, though they wound up losing 2—1.
That was also the day of the first shock: Tunisia 3, Mexico 1. And the day of the first trouble: Argentina against Hungary at River Plate, a game of savage fouling that ended 2-1 Argentina with two Hungarians ordered off the field. And it was the day of the first rumors of scandal. Trouble up at Alta Gracia, the Argentinian press reported, the resort near Córdoba where the Scottish team was staying. "They are drinking alcohol in industrial quantities." claimed Cronica. At night, players were said to climb the security fence to go on the town.
Still, supporters of the Scots were not taking the stories too seriously. Their first game was with Peru—an old, patched-together team, so everybody believed. The morning of the game, the Plaza San Martin in Córdoba was bright with tartan. Every Scottish fan in sight was besieged by autograph hunters, with invitations to lunch, to dinner. Every kilt had a Pied Piper's train of kids following it through town. A very happy morning. It was a shame that the Scottish team had to go and foul it up.
The game started according to the scenario, the Scots attacking hard down the middle of the field, pushing the ball to Joe Jordan, and after 15 minutes he scored. Then, astonishingly, as if the issue were settled, they began to play a square-passing game, killing time, keeping possession. And nobody bothered to keep an eye on Teófilo Cubillas because after all, he'd been on the Peruvian team for 10 years. But casual Scottish play let Peru score the tying goal just before half-time, and in the second half Cubillas powered a mighty Peruvian revival. He scored twice and the game ended 3-1 Peru, the worst day for Scotland since the Battle of Culloden.
The wry joke around the Scotland camp that night was that Willy Johnston, the left winger, had proved positive on a dope test. "Yes," the punch line was, "they found Sominex." Which didn't turn out to be a joke at all. What they actually found were traces of fencamfamine, an amphetamine. Johnston was sent home in disgrace, to sign an exclusive contract with the Daily Record of Glasgow for his story, and Cronica crowed, JOHNSTON: DRUG ADDICT AND PIRATE. The latter accusation was a little obscure until one learned that "pirates" is what Cronica always calls the British on account of the dispute Argentina has with England over the Falkland Islands.
Meanwhile, another favored team, Brazil, was having a less than auspicious World Cup start, tying Sweden 0-0. And Spain had been beaten by Austria. Austria? Yes, Austria did have a team in the World Cup and, apparently, a player called Johann Krankl who was tall, with a kind of pale El Greco face and a neat El Greco beard, and looked as if he could give defenses a lot of trouble.
But the tournament did not really begin to shake down until it was a week old and teams completed the second of their three games. The West Germans smashed six goals past the hapless Mexican goalie; the Poles made heavy weather of beating Tunisia 1-0; Holland was held to a 0-0 tie by Peru; and there was further humiliation for the Scots who tied 1-1 with Iran and virtually put themselves out of the tournament. Whereupon Jimmy Kemp, a Scottish hospital cook, took space in a local paper to announce that henceforth he wished to be regarded as an Englishman and would be taking elocution lessons to rid himself of his Scottish accent. Chrysler, meanwhile, which had planned an advertising campaign featuring their cars and the Scottish team under the heading "They both run rings round the competition," hastily dropped the idea.
There was trouble also for Brazil. At Mar del Plata, Brazil could only tie Spain 0-0 and was in danger of failing to qualify for the second round. Zico, Brazil's celebrated forward, was taken off before the end of the game and booed by his countrymen. Pelè, covering the match for Venezuelan television, mourned, "Brazil, my beloved Brazil, has given me cause to weep. I hate to sit in the press box. I want to play each ball myself. I feel so impotent...." In Mar del Plata, Brazilians burned an effigy of the national coach, Claudio Coutinho, who thereafter was required to present his starting lineup to Admiral Heleno Nunes, president of the Brazilian Soccer Association, for approval. In Rio, a 44-year-old construction worker named Julio Gondim poured a bottle of sleeping pills into a drink and committed suicide. Another Rio resident was shot dead in a bar during an argument over whether Zico should be dropped for Brazil's next game.
And. Yes, there were those unknown Austrians and the elongated Johann Krankl. They defeated Sweden 1-0 on a Krankl penalty kick, qualified for the second round and headed their group. In the January FIFA ratings, the Austrians were ranked 15th out of 16. Now, like a homely girl who has suddenly inherited a million dollars, they found themselves being courted by the international press and turned slightly skittish about being interviewed. The famous Spanish club, Barcelona, it was announced, had signed Krankl for $650,000 on the strength of his two World Cup games. (The Cosmos, for their part, were said to be interested in the Peruvian Cubillas who had put Scotland out of the Cup.)
At the same time, steadily soldiering on was Italy, which looked at this stage to be the most solid all-round team. Having beaten France and Hungary, Italy, like Argentina, had already qualified so that last Saturday's game against Argentina at Buenos Aires promised to be something of a formality instead of the anticipated bloodbath.
The assumption before play began was that both the Italians and the Argentinians would be content with a win for the latter. If Argentina won, it would move into Group A and play its second-round games in Buenos Aires, with all the psychological advantage that would bring. An Italian loss would mean that Italy would play in Group B at Rosario, where a great many Argentinians of Italian descent live. íPerfecto! as they say in B.A.
And to begin with, that is what seemed to be in store. Italy went back on defense and stayed there. As usual, the River Plate crowd was giving its striking imitation of a Nuremburg rally circa 1936—thousands of blue and white flags waving in unison, nationalistic songs sung hoarse and deep, unidentifiable chants howled in an atmosphere of menace. When the Italians did go on the attack, they squandered chances casually, as when Giancarlo Antognoni skied the ball over the bar in the opening minutes. For Argentina, Mario Kempes ran fiercely, nearly scoring when he hit a free kick that Dino Zoff in the Italian goal just parried. The Argentinian midfield was in fine shape, Amèrico Gallego and Osvaldo Ardiles combining well and pushing good balls to the attack. But, with Luque out with an injured arm, there was little combined play up front. Passes that could only be called high and hopeful were easily blocked out by the Italian defenders. With the exception of a fine header by Roberto Bettega, the Argentinian backs had little to deal with in the first half.
But unlike the unlucky French a few days earlier, the Italians did not have to contend with pusillanimous refereeing. As if he were aware—and he probably was—of the controversy surrounding Dubach's decisions, the Israeli referee, Abraham Klein, seemed to go to the other extreme, and for once it was possible to sympathize with the baffled rage of the River Plate crowd. In the second half Klein disallowed what looked like a clear penalty for Argentina. But at least Klein was not intimidated.
With time beginning to run out in the second half, the Argentinians became more desperate and even less accurate in attack. And when a goal finally came, it was by Bettega, after a fine combined move, running through to score with a low shot.
That was after 67 minutes of the 90, and thereafter the game was simply the traditionally strong Italian defense holding out against raid after raid. Final score, 1-0 Italy. And the great crowd streamed away almost in silence.
But the silence, no doubt, could have been matched by millions of German TV watchers who, earlier that day, had seen their once-invincible team held to a 0-0 tie by Tunisia. This game was no formality; West Germany had to at least tie to advance. And this was no game of desperate defense by the underdogs, either. Again and again the Tunisian forwards slipped through the German defense. The one skill they lacked was shooting ability, and so the biggest upset in the World Cup since North Korea put Italy out in 1966 was just averted. The Tunisians deservedly celebrated the tie as a victory. By beating Mexico in their first game, they had become the first African country ever to win a Cup final game. Now they had held the defending world champions at bay. They were out of the Cup but they would go home happy.
The Brazilians, who at midweek looked as if they also might check out of their hotel earlier than anticipated, fought their way back into the Cup. To stay alive, they had to beat undefeated Austria on Sunday and hope that Spain, in the same group, would beat Sweden.
They took the field against the Austrians with both Zico and Forward Jose Reinaldo benched, and tore immediately into attack. But though the Austrians looked nowhere near as efficient as they had been in their first two games, the Brazilians found it hard to penetrate the defense, and wave after wave of yellow-shirted attacks came to naught. On the rare occasions when a breach was made, the chance was squandered.
It was not until just before halftime that Carlos Roberto, coming up from the left, scored to keep Brazil in the competition. The game ended 1-0, but the biggest roar of the second half at Mar del Plata came when the scoreboard signaled that Spain was a goal up against Sweden. Spain held on to win 1-0, ensuring that Brazil would qualify.
That almost wrapped up the first round. But there were still two games left to play: Scotland against Holland in Mendoza, in the shadow of the Andes, where there had been a litle snow overnight; and Peru vs. Iran in Córdoba.
On Sunday morning, Holland was sitting on top of its group, ahead of Peru. But a little after 6 p.m. it looked just possible that Scotland, after all its disasters, might qualify and put Holland out. The Dutch had scored first. But Scotland came back on a magnificent goal by Kenny Dalglish and a penalty kick by Archie Gemmil. Then another goal from Archie. Amazingly, it was 3-1 and the Scots were reaching for their calculators. There were 25 minutes left to play and if Scotland scored two more goals Holland would be out and Scotland in by virtue of goal difference between the two, because they were tied in the standings.
Scotland's dream lasted for just a minute. Johnny Rep hit a high shot into the top left corner of the net to reduce the Dutch deficit to 3-2. And so the game ended, and the Scots were out but with a little salvaged honor. Peru, meanwhile, beat Iran 4-1 to advance to the second round.
Almost, but not quite, perfectly, the eight remaining finalists split into European and South American groups. Germany, Italy, Austria and Holland will play in Buenos Aires (to the chagrin of Argentina) and Cordoba, and Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Poland will be in faraway Mendoza and Rosario. Thus the odds sharply favor a European team against a South American team in the final game on June 25. Who will be the finalists? A lot of wise money is on Italy now. And Argentina cannot be counted out at home. The final could well be a repeat of last Saturday night's match at River Plate. But there were a lot of games to play before then.