At 9:30 on Sunday night in Barcelona, Erwin Vandenbergh, a 23-year-old Belgian, was on his knees in front of 95,000 people, kissing the grass and then raising his arms to the darkening sky, until abruptly he disappeared beneath a heap of red-shirted bodies.
These weren't histrionics. This was a signal moment for Vandenbergh, a forward on his country's side in soccer's World Cup tournament. Seconds before he had scored on a well-struck shot wide of Goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol's despairing right hand, putting his team up 1-0 and on track to a victory by that score over the reigning world champions in the inaugural Cup game of 1982.
It was a happy augury, perhaps, for the rest of the tournament—ah, would there be other upsets and unexpected heroes in the 28 days ahead? However, in the days before Vandenbergh's artful goal, there had been other, far less favorable, omens.
All the preceding week big-bellied clouds off the Atlantic had intermittently darkened the sky over Barcelona, but the day before the first game the blackest cloud of all arrived from more than 8,000 miles away. It was the news that the battle for Port Stanley in the Falklands had begun. For the organizers of what the Spanish call the Mundial, the huge festival of soccer that occurs every four years and outshines the Olympics in terms of world TV audiences (estimates range as high as 1.5 billion fans) and media coverage, it was a savage blow, perhaps ameliorated by Monday's reported cease-fire in the Falklands.
Even earlier, as 3,300 children had rehearsed for the opening ceremony, running onto the grass of the Nou Camp stadium carrying white soccer balls and forming the shape of Picasso's Dove of Peace, the rumblings of the faraway war had been heard. It was said that almost all the British-held reservations in the Basque country around Bilbao where England's national team would play in the first round, had been canceled.
And in the south, on the Costa Blanca, about 300 Argentines had arrived to support their national side where 10,000 had been expected. That tiny contingent was holed up in its hotel, the Tropicana Gardens, in Benidorm. It wasn't surprising that the Argentines stayed in their rooms because in summer the resort town is virtually part of the United Kingdom. For example, with a population of 2,200, it has 300 British bars. Unsurprisingly, seven miles away, at the posh Hotel El Montiboli near Villajoyosa, Argentina's team was watched over by Spanish soldiers with automatic weapons. And at the Argentine training stadium a mile or so away down a dusty, unpaved road, there were more heavily armed troops.
Once or twice after the team arrived, Cesar Luis Menotti, who had coached Argentina to victory in the 1978 World Cup, emerged to make statements, sometimes lighthearted (Argentina's soccer reporters, he declared, couldn't even write home to their mothers, let alone compose a match report) but more often somber, because he was aware of how the situation in the Falklands could affect his players. "We cannot win sovereignty over the Malvinas on the soccer field," he said at one point.
Adding to the strain was the fact that, as defending champion, Argentina was to play in the opening game. Two days before that took place, El Pais, the Madrid daily, quoted the wife of one of Menotti's players, Defender Alberto Tarantini, as saying that during practice the coach was "enraged, screaming," that practices had been canceled and that players had headed to the beach.
There were some pockets of sanity. In Benidorm there is a pub called the Scottish Embassy, kept by a barrel-chested Scot named Jack Burden. Like many of the locals, Burden was angry over scare stories in the British press—for instance, reports of minute glass fragments being slipped into the drinks of British vacationers by Argentine sympathizers on the staffs of Costa Blanca hotels. Every British tourist approached in town vehemently denied the tales. "It's all lies," declared one. "They bend over backwards to be friendly."
Burden pointed out that his son, Ian, was serving as a paratrooper in the Falklands and his barman, Hugo Brecias, is from Mar Del Plata in Argentina. "We have no problem," said Brecias.
Meanwhile, both the Argentine and English players were feeling the kind of stress that would do little for their chances, which, in England's case, were regarded as minimal only a few months back. The English had played so poorly in preliminary rounds that they barely qualified for the trip to Spain. A change had come about since then, beginning with the appointment of Don Howe as assistant coach to Ron Greenwood. With Howe's hand tightening the defense, England has won six straight games in international warmup competition, conceding only one goal, and should make it to the second round in Spain. England's first-round competition in Group Four includes France, Czechoslovakia and Kuwait.
Argentina, despite the calamity of its first-game loss, could still advance. The Argentines' main worry, apart from their preoccupation with the South Atlantic, was the performance of Diego Maradona, soccer's wunderkind, the vaunted New Pelé, who will stay in Spain after the World Cup. Maradona, a forward, signed with F.C. Barcelona last week for a reported $7.5 million.
Mercifully, the tournament is so constructed that it seems unlikely that England and Argentina will meet, except perhaps in a playoff for third. The same isn't true of Scotland, which could play Argentina in the next round. But, though better than in '78, Scotland will have a tough time getting past the first round.
Thankfully, the World Cup's other problems have more to do with soccer itself. One of them is the daunting size of the field, which has been enlarged to include 24 national sides rather than the traditional 16.
In the next four weeks there will be 52 games in no fewer than 17 stadiums all over Spain, from Bilbao in the north to Malaga in the south. The first round will be contested among six groups of four teams each. In each group one team is seeded so that it will have the great advantage of playing each of its three round-robin games in the same city. Thus Italy, the seed in Group One, is based in Vigo and will play Poland, Peru and Cameroon. In Group Two, Germany, based in Gijon, takes on Algeria, Austria and Chile. Group Three has seeded Argentina playing in Alicante (except for the Barcelona inaugural) with Belgium, Hungary and El Salvador. In Group Four, England is the seed and thus will get to sit tight in Bilbao. Spain, the seed in Group Five, is based in Valencia, where it will play Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and Honduras. In Group Six, seeded Brazil will meet the U.S.S.R., Scotland and New Zealand in Seville. In each group the unseeded teams will play each other in different cities. When the first round ends, the leading pair of teams in each group will be placed in four groups of three sides for Round 2, also a round robin. When that concludes, the leaders of each group will go on to conventional semifinals and then the final.
The oddsmakers believe Brazil will ultimately reign in Spain. London bookies have the Brazilians as 4-to-1 favorites. For soccer fans, the good news is that Brazil means to be Brazil again—exuberant, intuitive, inventive, as in the great days when the banana-yellow shirts of Pelé, Garrincha, Didi, Jairzinho and Rivelino swept dazzlingly across the grass in Sweden, Chile and Mexico to win the World Cups of '58, '62 and '70. In Argentina in '78, even Brazil's shirts had seemed pallid. Its coach then, Claudio Coutinho, had tried, with unhappy results, to force his players into a European mold with structured plays and a high work rate. As a result even the genius of a player like the renowned striker Zico was stifled.
But Zico is still only 29, and Brazil's new coach, Tele Santana, means to give him free rein to dispute ownership of Pelé's mantle with Maradona. The whole team, Santana says, will be allowed to play its natural game. Alongside Zico in midfield will be the lanky, bearded—are you ready?—Dr. Socrates B. Oliveira, known in the Brazilian convention simply as Socrates. Yes, indeed, he's an M.D. and, yes, unarguably, he's the tactical brains of his team. Another Brazilian apparently destined for fame is Junior, a brilliant attacking fullback.
Oddly, the team that may turn out to be the Brazil of Europe is the Soviet Union. Traditionally a dour, drilled side, it has sparkled in recent seasons after an infusion of imaginative, warm-blooded players from Soviet Georgia who have blended amazingly well with the cooler heads from Kiev and Moscow. Given a solid start in Round 1, it's conceivable that' the Soviets could find themselves taking the field on July 11 in the final at Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
By contrast, the likes of New Zealand, Cameroon, Algeria, El Salvador, Kuwait and Honduras are mere footnotes, it would seem, in the Mundial—though one should never forget the humiliation of England by the U.S. in 1950 and the shame of Italy's losing to North Korea in '66. Perhaps, then, they are entitled to their own footnotes right now.
The New Zealanders, declared The Times of London, casting about for something nice to say, "have the endurance of mountain goats." Cameroon is said to employ a witch doctor and to have brought its own cook, while the Algerians won't be permitted to eat during daylight hours because this is the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast. El Salvador has proclaimed that it's furious at being regarded as a bunch of pushovers by the haughty Argentines. Said Coach Mauricio Rodriguez, "We know we are a modest team, but it is annoying to hear them always say so."
Kuwait, it seems, has let down the good folk of Valladolid by not bringing the 10,000 fans the locals expected would be tossing their petro-pesetas around. Only 700 have shown, and they have been labeled tightwads. And the Hondurans will feature their scowling captain, whose real name is Madariaga but who likes to be known as El Primitivo.
However, even the big fish in the tournament aren't without their woes. The Italians are in a rebellious mood, according to La Gazetta Dello Sport. Excessive training back home in Alassio is said to be the cause. It's possible that Italy, in spite of its seeding, might not progress to Round 2.
Spain has a huge advantage in playing at home, but the obverse of that is the huge pressure on its players to earn the $400,000 per man it is reported they will be paid if they become the champions. Group Five is a soft one. It seems likely that Yugoslavia, one of the best outside bets, will advance with Spain.
The remaining seed, West Germany, is the second favorite behind Brazil and because the seeding was transparently designed to produce a European vs. South American final, the two teams could easily meet on July 11.
It would be a memorable encounter. The West Germans won all of their qualifying games and have lost only three times in four years, twice to Brazil and once to Argentina. In the extraordinary Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, a forward, the West Germans have a player who could be the star of the World Cup.
Along with West Germany, Poland, Austria, Argentina, Hungary, England, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Yugoslavia, Brazil, the Soviet Union and—well, all right—Italy, should advance to Round 2.
But after Belgium's upset of Argentina on Sunday, such predictions are made at great risk. On the sunny afternoon of the inaugural it was thought likely that the local Spanish might be sympathetic to Argentina. Still, it seemed strange that almost all of them should be carrying the national flag of the world champions—until it was discovered that the flags were being handed out free by the thousands in what was plainly a carefully orchestrated plan.
However, inside Nou Camp, most of the flags appeared to have been mislaid as a marvelous confection of Catalan music, fireworks and dancing filled the stadium for an hour. Then, as the game got underway, the crowd began to sense that this might be no ordinary inaugural.
At first, the excitement came mainly because Maradona appeared passionately anxious to prove that he was worth every cent of all those millions of dollars. In the first seconds he cut in from midfield, his powerful thighs rhythmically pumping, to set up his striker, Ramon Diaz, who crashed a tremendous volley that Belgium's goaltender, Jean Marie Pfaff, just got his hands on. But then the thrust came from Alex Czerniatynski for the Belgians, with Vandenbergh barely failing to put a header past the beaten Fillol.
But after less than half an hour, the steam hissed out of the game. The Belgians shut the shop down by holding men back in their own half. They were going for the old cautious tie again and keeping their options open for the rest of the round. The Spanish crowd, which had settled down early to a sporting impartiality—even booing the referee for failing to give Belgium a penalty kick when an Argentine back appeared to handle the ball—started to give the Europeans the whistle, the more so when the Belgians began exploiting the offside trap, leaving the Argentine attack stranded and impotent in front of the Belgian goal.
The game appeared doomed indeed when Argentina started to do likewise, something of a disgrace for world champions. And so it went, until at 62:38 minutes Vandenbergh found himself miraculously unmenaced in front of the Argentine goal, with the opposing backs caught flat-footed. With the Belgians in the lead, the game took fire again, the champions hurling attack after attack against the thick red line of Belgians massed in their own half. The huge Spanish crowd had by now entirely forgotten the little blue-and-white flags, even when Daniel Passarella, Argentina's captain, last seen holding the golden World Cup trophy aloft in triumph almost four years ago in Buenos Aires, came roaring through, and even when a powerful, curling free kick from Maradona went over the defending wall, curved dramatically downward, hit the underside of the bar and, with Goalie Pfaff helpless, crashed down almost on, but not over, the goal line.
The fans sensed that if what they were seeing wasn't exactly a miracle—after all, the Belgians were runners-up in the European Nations Cup in 1980—at least it was a first-rate upset in the making.
The clock ticked away. Once, in despair, Maradona tried to drag a prostrate Belgian to his feet so that the action could go on. Now the game had changed in spirit from a World Cup inaugural to a World Cup final. A handful of agonized Belgian fans blew whistles as if they could end the match themselves.
Then it was truly over, and the Belgians tore off their shirts, donned captured Argentine ones and ran over to the tiny group of red-black-and-yellow-bedecked compatriots to share the glory of the day.
Only for Maradona would there be no surrender. Brusquely, he turned away from Belgian Defender Eric Gerets, who, during the game, had curbed much of his fire. No Argentine shirt for Gerets. It hadn't been a happy introduction to Spain and Barcelona for Maradona. And now, it seemed likely, the very survival of the world champions in the tournament rested on his shoulders.