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World Cup 2014: This is a tournament with echoes of Argentina '78

Huge spending on football infrastructure by an unpopular government, a host nation desperate to win – there are similarities to the last World Cup held in South America, writes Glenn Moore, but also many reminders of a very different world

The hosts were a controversial choice, with domestic opposition to the government and its spending on stadia, yet once the World Cup began the supporters got behind their flawed but occasionally brilliant team.

In a dramatic tournament there were hometown decisions, but also strong referees, a match-fixing row and a player sent home in disgrace. A north African team sprang a surprise, but in the end it came down to the usual contest: Europe v Latin America.

As the saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same. It is 36 years since the World Cup was last staged in South America. The world and its most popular game are very different, but much about Brazil 2014 echoes Argentina ’78.

Best remembered on these shores for a Scottish misadventure offset by Archie Gemmill’s bewitching goal, the abiding image is of tickertape cascading down the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires as Argentina celebrated their triumph. But decades on there are mixed feelings in Argentina. The cost of this year’s World Cup has provoked anger highlighted by strikes and protest marches, though nothing on the scale seen during the 2013 Confederations Cup. This is partly because they have been roughly suppressed, but the handling of dissenters is mild compared to Argentina in 1978.

Scotland's greatest World Cup moment came against the Dutch at the 1978 Finals


After several years of violent civil disorder there had been a military coup in 1976 following which 15-30,000 people, mainly perceived political opponents, “disappeared”. Thousands of others were incarcerated in jails where torture was widespread.

Amnesty International publicised the junta’s crimes but from an organisational point of view, the dictatorship was a bonus. As Fifa secretary general Jerome Valcke said in relation to Brazil’s chaotic preparation, “less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup”. It was not until the military, aware of the global prestige a World Cup could bring, took control, that Argentina invested heavily enough to stage the finals successfully.

The vast expenditure on stadia and infrastructure was estimated at 18 times what West Germany had spent on the 1974 finals, even prompting protests from the junta’s own treasury secretary who described it, in another parallel to the present day, as “the most visible and indefensible case of non-priority spending in Argentina today”. His house was bombed during the tournament. Nevertheless, aside from some poor pitches, the World Cup ran smoothly.


It was the last of the 16-nation finals, with the game’s global balance underlined by 10 being from Europe, three from South America, one each from Concacaf (Mexico), Africa (Tunisia) and Asia (Iran) [the ratio in this tournament is 13-6-4-5-4]. Tunisia and Iran were regarded as makeweights but Tunisia beat Mexico, drew with holders West Germany and were unlucky to lose to 1974 semi-finalists Poland. After Zaire’s disastrous appearance in West Germany, Africa’s potential had finally been revealed.

Most countries then knew little about football elsewhere, not least because the global transfer market was small. Nearly everyone in 1978 picked teams of players from their domestic league. The trio of South American countries, for instance included only one European-based player, Mario Kempes, of Valencia and Argentina, who would turn out to be its star. Scotland was the exception, 15 of the squad playing south of the border. They, though, were the only ones playing in England. It was after the finals Tottenham stunned English football by signing Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa.

Scotland had left amid wild optimism with 30,000 turning up at Hampden Park on a midweek afternoon to send them off and manager Ally MacLeod promising “of course we’ll win the World Cup”.

Scotland’s campaign was equally naïve. England’s results were poor in Brazil but their preparation was faultless. They will have prepared with hours of video analysis and their training ground was immaculate. The same applies to almost all teams in Brazil.

MacLeod barely bothered scouting the opposition, only partly because of logistical issues, and Scotland’s training ground was so rutted the players – bored senseless in an isolated, inadequate hotel, and arguing about bonuses – were reluctant to train on it. Reality bit when, despite taking the lead through Joe Jordan, Scotland were stunned 3-1 by Peru. It got worse. Willie Johnston tested positive for a stimulant and was banned and sent home. Then, in front of a paltry 8,000 in Cordoba, the Scots struggled to eke out a draw with Iran. Afterwards their bus was rocked by an angry travelling support.

Scotland had talent, and in the final game, with Graeme Souness at last selected and Gemmill scoring his famous goal, it showed as they went close to eliminating the Dutch. But it was too little, too late. The Netherlands, later knocking out Italy and West Germany, went on to the final where they met the hosts.

Argentina’s progress was controversial. Watching the film of the tournament is to be reminded how brutal much of the tackling was then. Argentina gave and received. So did the Dutch, Italians and Brazilians in particular, but referees tended to favour the hosts.

Other elements that date the finals are the chain-smoking managers of Argentina and Iran, Scottish goalkeeper Alan Rough wearing what he later admitted were basically gardening gloves, and Kempes being allowed to stay on the pitch after punching the ball off the line against Poland. The penalty was missed, Kempes later scored in a 2-0 win.

The second round was a group stage and after Argentina and Brazil had kicked each other into submission in a goalless draw, staggered kick-off times meant the hosts knew they needed to beat Peru by three goals while scoring four. Peru hit the post early on but lost 6-0. Later revelations involving grain transfers, $50m payments and Dr Henry Kissinger point to the match being fixed, though proof is inconclusive.

Argentina, again aided by weak refereeing, but also by the majesty of Ardiles, Kempes and Leopoldo Luque, beat the Dutch 3-1 in extra time in a dramatic, violent final. General Jorge Videla, not known as a football fan, presented the trophy with a smile. The World Cup had served its purpose, which is why there is an ambivalence in Argentina about the 1978 triumph which is not  commemorated anything like that in 1986.

England were absent from the tournament. Manager Ron Greenwood attended and wrote afterwards: “In England we have to concentrate more on working with the ball… looking closely at our technique and skill. Our centre-backs could deal all day with high balls, but they would be flummoxed by some of the quick one-twos I saw  in Argentina.” The more things change the more they stay the same.