Qatar is not the first state to use the event as a distraction from human rights abuses, as a revisiting of the horrors that took place during the Argentina 1978 tournament will reveal
Campaigners urge a boycott of the World Cup because of the host nation’s human rights record, but the tournament goes ahead. We’ve been here before. For Qatar this month, read Argentina in 1978. Then, as now, the world’s most potent sporting festival was marinated in suffering, corruption and death.
The bad taste still lingers.
Nobody knows exactly how many migrant workers have died building Qatar’s World Cup stadiums and infrastructure. In February last year, the Guardian calculated the number of dead from Nepal, the Philippines, Kenya, Bangladesh and elsewhere to be 6,500. In 1978, General Jorge Rafael Videla’s military dictatorship in Argentina was two years into its “National Reorganisation Process” that killed an estimated 30,000 people.
A bloody incident in 1976 set the tone for that tarnished carnival of football — and laid a foundation stone for this year’s edition.
At 4am on August 20 that year, residents of Fátima, north of Buenos Aires, were woken by an explosion. Brick foundry workers arrived later to find body parts of mostly young people scattered over a field. The carnage was linked to the murder the previous day of General Omar Actis, head of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup organising committee.
Videla’s government falsely blamed the assassination on leftist guerrillas, and 30 innocents were selected for “reprisal”. Recently kidnapped and languishing in a police prison near the presidential palace, the victims were taken from their cells, blindfolded, drugged, tied up and put on a truck to Fátima. On arrival, they were shot in the head and their corpses blown up with dynamite. The mutilated dead included husband and wife architects and university professors, and Horacio Gastelú, a 21-year-old biology student whose “crime” seems to have been teaching slum dwellers to read and write.
When he was killed, Actis, a former footballer and engineer considered incorruptible, was planning a press conference to outline his plans for a modest World Cup using existing stadiums and Argentina’s black-and-white TV system.
His deputy, the ambitious and well-connected naval captain Carlos Alberto Lacoste, had something very different in mind.
Lacoste was the protégé of Admiral Emilio Massera, head of the navy and second most powerful man in the junta. Massera wanted a lavish World Cup to showcase the glories of the new Argentina, and with Actis out of the way, Lacoste organised it for him. The tournament budget soared from $70m to about 10 times that (it was never audited) as new stadiums were built, old ones revamped, poor people displaced and a state-of-the-art colour TV system installed.
The success of the tournament made Lacoste a rich and powerful figure. For 11 days in 1981, he was even the country’s interim president. Thanks to his friendship with corrupt Fifa president João Havelange, he also became vice-president of Fifa for four years and helped organise the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
In 1984, after the fall of the dictatorship, journalist Eugenio Méndez identified Lacoste as “the intellectual author” of Actis’ assassination. David Yallop’s book How They Stole the Game alleges that Fifa allowed the manipulation of the 1978 tournament in Argentina’s favour, and that Lacoste, on orders from Videla, fixed their notorious match against Peru, the equivalent of the semi-final. (Argentina had to win by four goals against the strong Peruvians. For 15 minutes, Peru played normally and were the better team. Then they rolled over and let Argentina win 6-0.)
Most fatefully for our own time, in 1979 Lacoste appointed his own protégé, Julio Grondona, as head of Argentina’s football association. “Don Julio”, as he became known, proceeded to dominate South American football for 35 years, and enabled corruption at Fifa. As the organisation’s senior vice-president in 2010, he took bribes to vote to award this year’s tournament to Qatar. (He died in 2014 before he could be tried for corruption).
Videla’s junta had seized power in March 1976, in a coup widely welcomed by Argentinians, who thought it would save the country from the cycle of violence from left and right.
Previous repressive regimes had locked up their opponents. The new rulers had a different plan: to bring stability by murdering every “subversive” they could get their hands on. Rather than risk the legal or diplomatic problems that came with openly arresting and imprisoning opponents, the regime would simply make them vanish. They would be neither dead nor alive, but desaparecidos (disappeared). Socialists, journalists, union organisers, Jews, dissident nuns, journalists, social workers and psychiatrists were among those targeted as threats to the nation and to Christian civilisation (the Catholic hierarchy supported the regime).
Victims were kidnapped by operatives in plain clothes and taken in unmarked cars to clandestine torture-murder camps. When desperate relatives sought information about their loved ones, the authorities usually shrugged their collective shoulders and denied all knowledge. The system ran efficiently. The kidnapped were tortured to extract information about potential new victims who would, in turn, be kidnapped and tortured to reveal more names. Most victims were young, many of them women, who were, as a matter of course, violently raped. Pregnant women — and there were hundreds of them — were generally allowed to give birth before being killed, their babies normally sold or given to military families. Few of those kidnapped survived. Victims were mostly shot, tortured to death, or thrown alive from planes into the South Atlantic.
As this year’s World Cup has drawn global attention to Qatar’s “human rights problems”, so the 1978 tournament focused some attention on Argentina’s desaparecidos. Mostly, though, it gave the dictatorship a tremendous boost. The nationalistic fervour that climaxed with Argentina’s win over the Netherlands in the final was the high point of the regime’s popularity.
The “Process” is often likened to the Holocaust. The number of dead was small by comparison, but the largest murder centre, the ESMA (Navy School of Mechanics) near the River Plate stadium that staged the World Cup final is called “Argentina’s Auschwitz”, and the tournament is often compared to the Nazi Olympics of 1936.
Perhaps the most profound work on the Holocaust is the film Shoah, and I often think about something its director Claude Lanzmann said when I interviewed him in 1986. I made the mistake of starting with “philosophical” questions about the “meaning” or “lessons” of the Holocaust. He looked at me as if I was mad. His approach was the exact opposite. He was obsessed with details. What exactly was the speed at which gas vans drove through the forest at Chelmno? Why were death trains pushed to the station at Treblinka but pulled into Birkenau? “This is philosophy too,” he said.
Like the Nazis, the Videla regime tried to hide its crimes. Almost all incriminating documentation was destroyed. Even during the many “mega-trials” of the 2000s and 2010s, confessions were rare. Instead, we are left with fragments: survivor testimony, evidence from court cases, a handful of official studies. We see the images of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo — the organisation of mothers who campaigned for information about their kidnapped children — in their white headscarves, and the black-and-white photographs of the permanently missing, smiling and beautiful, frozen in their mid-1970s haircuts. But how can we respond if we don’t know something about the Argentine equivalent of vans and trains?
A Lanzmann-like impulse has driven some survivors in Argentina to uncover haunting details. Miriam Lewin, a survivor of ESMA who became a writer, spent years finding out about the planes, crews and methods of the death flights she narrowly escaped. Her co-written book Final Destination revealed one murder weapon — a twin-engined Skyvan PA-51 of the Argentine Naval Prefecture — was still being used in Florida, as a cargo plane. The door through which victims were thrown was at the back. They were told they were to be set free and given something to “relax” them: an incapacitating dose of sodium pentothal. One of the killers described what happened when the planes flew over the ocean: “[The prisoners] were unconscious. We stripped them and when the flight commander gave us the order, we opened the door and threw them out, naked, one by one.”
The peak years of killing were 1976 and 1977, but the system was still running smoothly through 1978. Every day of the World Cup, someone in Argentina was being kidnapped, murdered or tortured. For example, on June 3, Scotland lost to Peru in Córdoba, watched by Videla and Havelange. On the same day, in Casera, a 21-year-old social work student called Alicia Cristina Amaya was kidnapped from her home and was never seen again.
The ESMA was the most notorious death camp. But La Perla, 12km from Córdoba, where Scotland, Peru, Mexico, Tunisia, Iran, Holland, West Germany, Austria, Brazil and Poland all played World Cup matches, was no less horrific. La Perla was the creation of General Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, commander of the Third Army Corps. Historian James Brennan described Menéndez as “a raving, rabid individual” with a “maniacal temperament”. He personally supervised torture and executions, organised a Nazi-style book-burning and even, in 1979, attempted an inept coup against Videla, whom he considered too “mild”.
Estimates of the number of people who passed through La Perla range from 1,000 to 3,000. Only 150 survived. Torture techniques included electrocution, beatings, mock executions, semi-drownings and a variety of sexual humiliations. Sometimes entire families were tortured and raped in front of each other.
Torturers had nicknames and their own styles. “Texas” (real name Elpidio Rosario Tejeda) specialised in beating prisoners using two batons simultaneously while he howled and danced around them. The balding, middle-aged “Uncle” dreamed of inflicting “hygienic” torment, decorated his torture chamber with pot plants, and covered blood stains on the walls with artistic prints of pastoral scenes.
La Perla held only 100 prisoners at a time. They lay shackled, blindfolded and in silence on straw mattresses in a large hall, and periodically, to make space for new arrivals, they were killed in batches. Gagged, trussed and driven into the surrounding countryside, they were shot into pits and their bodies burned, buried, or crushed and dumped in salt mines.
“Nunca más!” as they say in Argentina: “Never again.” 1978 should have inoculated football against colluding with evil. But it did not.
So how should we now feel about another tournament tainted by corruption and pain? 1978 may offer some pointers.
During the tournament, foreign journalists not focused solely on football could feel the fear. Instead of attending the opening ceremony, Dutch reporter Frits Barend went to the Plaza de Mayo to interview the madres who bravely demonstrated there every Thursday afternoon. The place was eerily empty until a small group of mothers appeared. Barend remembers: “I introduced myself and they were very happy I was there, and they told me about their sons, their fathers, their husbands who disappeared and they said it’s all a lie, what Videla and the government is saying, that it’s a peaceful country… Of course, I was already being photographed [by police].” Fortunately, a French TV crew arrived. “I asked them, ‘Please film me here so if I disappear, in Holland they know that I was still alive at four o’clock’.”
The madres were distressed the World Cup was taking place while their loved ones were missing. As journalist Ailín Bullentini put it, “when the country exploded with joy after the final, the Mothers cried in the privacy of their homes”. One of the group’s founders, Haydée Gastelú, mother of Horacio, murdered at Fátima, moved with her husband to an isolated house “without television, radio or anything”, a temporary refuge where “football was forbidden”.
In the clandestine prisons, things were grimmer still. Some guards let their victims listen to radio commentaries of matches. At the ESMA, prisoners could hear the games for themselves. Survivor Manuel Kalmes remembered when Leopoldo Luque scored for Argentina against France. “You could hear the crowd chanting ‘Luque! Luque!’ and we prisoners joined in. Why not? The guard’s reaction was curious. We heard him run around the cell, yelping like a dog after the goals. But then he went quiet again, leant in close to us and whispered, ‘That’s the last goal you’ll ever cheer, you sons of whores’.”
On the night of the final, things took a surreal, nightmarish turn. In death camp El Banco, some prisoners watched the match. Survivor Mario Villani remembered: “The guys running the camp decided that as this was an historic event for Argentina, they would arrange for everyone to ‘enjoy’ it. In quotes. Or maybe not in quotes. See? The limits become blurred... Still shackled, still cuffed, we watched the game. And [cheered] the goals. The whole thing was very mixed up. It’s not that they said, ‘Now, you’re required to cheer the goals’. But these were people who, if they hadn’t been desaparecidos, would have been home, or at the stadium, watching and cheering. Some — whether they knew it or not — had already been programmed to die... It was extremely cruel.”
At ESMA, the notorious Jorge Eduardo Acosta, responsible for the murder of French nuns and Madres leaders, was euphoric. He shouted: “We won! We won!”, shook male prisoners’ hands, gave women prisoners kisses and sent some of the prisoners with guards into the cheering crowds celebrating Argentina’s victory. Graciela Daleo thought: “If they’ve won, we’ve lost.”
Miriam Lewin remembered: “It was torture to see people hugging in the street while I was a detainee in a concentration camp who didn’t know whether they were going to kill me from one day to the next and who knew that companeros were being tortured at that very moment.” Taken to a pizzeria, she saw fans waving Argentina flags and chanting government slogans. “I can’t ever forget the rage I felt,” she said. “Even now, the World Cup gives me a combination of visceral revulsion and melancholy.”
David Winner is the author of books including ‘Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football’ and ‘Those Feet: An Intimate History of English Football’