By Phil Gillen
Argentinian soccer legend César Luis Menotti, a prominent character as a manager in Latin American football from the 70s to the 90s and beyond, was a participant, even winner, in one of the sport’s greatest competitions, the World Cup. Menotti was also an avowed socialist and stuck out like a sore thumb as a left-wing public intellectual and national team manager during the right-wing military dictatorship that gripped Argentina from ’76 to ’83. Menotti’s win of the World Cup, held in Argentina, in 1978 occurred in the midst of the so-called “Dirty War,” in which the military and paramilitary death squads killed, tortured, or otherwise disappeared at least 30,000 people: trade-unionists, students, artists, anyone suspected of left-wing loyalties.
If the story sounds familiar, perhaps eerily similar to recent reports of atrocities in Honduras, or those of Pinochet’s Chile, or of any story of dictatorship and mass killing in Latin America, you can probably guess a few of the actors behind this violent period. One is the United States Department of State, who knew about the coup d’état months in advance, and whose executive, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, encouraged the violence. “Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed,” Mr Kissinger reassured an Argentinian official soon after the coup, according to recently declassified state department documents. “What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights problems, but not the context. The quicker you succeed the better … The human rights problem is a growing one … We want a stable situation. We won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties.”
With underhanded support of the United States government secured, junta forces would go on to commit those horrific crimes against their people. “We did worse things than the Nazis,” recalled a penitent Argentinian Naval officer. It wasn’t just Kissinger’s notorious state department that backed up these crimes, however. According to historian Éric Toussaint, “most of the loans granted to the Argentine dictatorship came from the private banks of the U.S.” Not only did the coup itself take place with the support of the US government, the regime was financed directly by US banks, and the International Monetary Fund. Western companies with operations in the country also actively participated in the Dirty War, companies like Ford and Mercedes-Benz. These companies, setting up “clandestine detention centers” nearby or even attached to factories, often assisted in the kidnapping and torture of union representatives who worked for them. When we look at Argentina in this period, as with many other nations in Latin America and around the world from then to now, we see the crimes of neo-colonialism and United States imperialism.
What role can a game like soccer play in the face of these forces? To a large extent, we’ve seen the privatization of soccer as with so many public and cultural elements of our society. FIFA, the sport’s international governing body and the organizer of the World Cup, is perhaps one of the most corrupt private organizations on earth, further impoverishing nations with expensive, infrastructure-straining World Cups awarded in return for bribes by their governments. The 1978 World Cup, occurring in Argentina, presided over as it was by a dictatorship of war criminals, could be a dramatic early example of such corruption of the game. It’s widely accepted that Argentina’s eventual win was partly the result of rigging, and it’s been reported that prisoners in the Naval Mechanics School concentration camp could hear the roars of the crowd in the nearby Monumental Stadium in Buenos Aries during the games.
Although less dramatic, we’re faced with a similar conundrum today as the 2018 World Cup hits the midway point. While not undergoing an internal conflict as sinister and deadly as Argentina in the late 70s, this Cup’s host country, Russia, has seen its share of recent civil rights infringement, particularly gay rights. FIFA, holding its twenty-first World Cup, has never been more corrupt, having awarded the next World Cup to oil-rich Qatar, a laughably transparent act of corruption that has already caused the deaths of thousands of essentially enslaved migrant workers in stadium construction. Many of the teams represent nations that are engaged in or have inflicted various types of neo-colonial and imperialist oppression across the globe, like England, Germany, France, Spain, or Belgium. Even for the sports fan, it’s hard to find something positive in such a spectacle.
How did Menotti approach the problem in 1978? As a lonely left-wing voice left unmolested by the junta while they tortured and killed his comrades by the thousands around him, competing in a rigged World Cup designed to prop up the murderous dictatorship, he somehow found a way to look for a positive role his team could play. Through his soccer, through the sport played by his team, he looked to remind the watching nation of the freedom and creativity of Argentina before the dictatorship. “We are the people,” he told his players before playing in the Cup final. “We come from the victimised classes, and we represent the only thing that is legitimate in this country– football. We are not playing for the expensive seats full of military officers. We represent freedom, not the dictatorship.”
For Menotti, soccer, and sport in general, was and is a cultural language that can still be used to communicate a message of liberation when done in the right way, even when it is bound by oppressive forces, like a right-wing dictatorship, a corrupt organization, or the ever-present force of imperialism. This message can be found in this World Cup as well, despite the corruption surrounding it. It can be found in the valiant efforts of teams like Iran, Tunisia, Morocco, or Egypt, who never gave in, fighting to the final whistle and nearly succeeding against teams like Portugal, Spain, or England. It can be found in the celebration of Kosovan-Albanian Swedes Xhaka and Shaqiri, who raised their hands in the double-headed-eagle gesture to represent their Albanian heritage after scoring against Serbia, a reference to the oppression of that region by Serbian forces over the past few decades. It can be found in the virtuosity of Latin American teams like Uruguay or Colombia, who can express their creativity and freedom on the pitch in spite of recent and ongoing attempts to undermine their nations’ sovereignty by imperialist and neo-colonial forces.
Even for the other teams, those representing imperial European nations, for example, can send a message of liberation through soccer play. “There’s a right-wing football and a left-wing football,” Menotti asserted. “Right-wing football wants to suggest that life is struggle. It demands sacrifices. We have to become of steel and win by any method… obey and function, that’s what those with power want from the players. That’s how they create … useful idiots that go with the system.” When we watch the World Cup, we can seek out and celebrate that “left-wing football”: a style of play in which a team, as a disciplined and organized group, enhances their members’ ability to express themselves through the sport, and give their audience an example, not only of a beautiful game, but of a beautiful liberating spirit.