World Cup Retrospect – Argentina 78

The 11th Fifa World Cup was held in Argentina, a country where just two years previous a military coup had taken place, installing a right wing military junta, causing much controversy before the tournament had even begun. The Netherlands – beaten finalists in 1974 – publically declared their reluctance to participate at the finals citing political reasons and Johan Cruyff has since denied his non-participation was due to political reservations. In the end no team took such action, but the tournament was notable for its absence of such luminaries as Yugoslavia and the then European Champions Czechoslovakia. 16 teams qualified for the tournament and were split into four groups of four. Like the previous World Cup, the top two teams would qualify for a second group stage, the winners of the two second round groups competing in the final.

The group stage offered few surprises with tournament favourites Brazil, Italy and hosts Argentina progressing without difficulty. Much of the drama of the first round was provided by a notably confident Scotland side whose exuberant coach Ally McLeod had proclaimed would return home with at least a medal, when asked what he would do after the World Cup, replying: “retain it.” Such confidence seemed a bit farfetched when they fell 3-1 behind in their first game against Peru and things went from bad to worse when they failed to beat tournament minnows Iran in their second game. This left them needing to beat the Netherlands by four clear goals in their final match in order to progress. On the day, the Dutch opened the scoring, but improbably Scotland rallied and took the lead just after the break. With 20 minutes remaining they scored again, Archie Gemmill scoring probably the most famous goal in Scottish football history and a candidate for goal of the tournament, beating three defenders with a mazy dribble before coolly chipping the ball over the oncoming keeper. However, the Netherlands rallied and pulled another goal back making the task facing the Scots insurmountable and so ended an episode that is still fetishised over within Scottish football’s cult of glorious failure.

Perhaps they were left reeling from their near elimination from the tournament but the Netherlands got round two of the tournament underway with a statement of intent, hammering a previously impressive Austrian side 5-1. A 0-0 draw against West Germany in their second group game meant they needed a victory over Italy to secure a place in the final. What was in effect a semi-final kicked off at El Monumental and disaster struck for the Dutch as they fell behind to a Ernie Brandts own goal after 19 minutes. During the second half the Italians decided to attempt to defend their narrow lead but were overcome. Brandts made up for his mistake earlier in the game by grabbing the equaliser shortly after half-time and Arie Haan got the winner 15 minutes from time, sending Holland into their second successive World Cup final.

The second round’s other group enticingly threw together Argentina and Brazil, but after winning their respective opening ties against Peru and Poland the pair played out a disappointing 0-0 draw in Rosario. The result was a huge advantage to Argentina as in the final round of games – thanks to some decidedly dodgy scheduling – Brazil would play their tie against Poland before Argentina faced Peru, meaning Argentina would know exactly what was needed in order to progress. Brazil’s 3-1 victory meant that Argentina needed to win by three clear goals. The resulting 6-0 score line is still shrouded in controversy and will always be tainted to some, but the football Argentina played that day was scintillating.

Despite being without Cruyff, the final offered a last chance to the Netherland’s total football generation to take a prize on the world stage. For Argentine football it was a step towards a form of reconciliation. Coach, Cesar Menotti had rejected at least some of the pragmatism and cynicism that had come to characterise Argentine football during the early seventies and built a side that played an attractive attacking game that recalled the mythical ideals of la neustra a golden age of domestic Argentine football. However, controversy was never far away from this Argentine team and some suspected foul play in the run up to the final. The Dutch team coach took a deliberately scenic route to the stadium on the day of the match and were swamped with Argentine supporters who did not provide them with the friendliest of welcomes. Before the match kicked off Holland were left out on the pitch awaiting the Argentina team’s arrival and exposed to a visceral and partisan crowd.

The final was tainted by some dreadful officiating by a referee and two linesmen who seemed determined to give everything the home side’s way. The game was also extremely physical with some brutal challenges perpetrated by both sides. It was the Argentines who took the lead when Mario Kempes finished deftly, one of the few moments of quality in a bad tempered first half. The second half was just as cagey and the referee seemed to turn a blind eye to some brutal challenges, mainly from the home team. With less than 10 minutes remaining the Dutch equalised with a fine header from Dick Nanninga. Minutes later Holland almost won the game, when to all intents and purposes, Rob Rensenbrink appeared to have steered a shot towards goal. The ball however took a freak deflection off an unseen object and went out of play via the post.

From then on there could only be one winner as the game lurched into extra time. Kempes crowned a man of the match display by scoring Argentina’s second, doing well to hold off some desperate challenges before steering the ball into the goal. It was effectively the goal that won the World Cup for Argentina, and Kempes’ sixth of the tournament earning him the golden boot. Daniel Bertoni added Argentina’s third in the second period of extra time to put the game beyond a visibly drained Holland side. Despite the controversy and cynical tactics that characterised the tactics of the hosts both on and off the field, they had played some mesmerising football during the tournament – with the goal scoring of Kempes and the midfield artistry of Ossie Ardiles – and however tainted, their title was probably deserved.

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