Interview: Blood on the Crossbar – The Dictatorship’s World Cup
Why does a Welshman from the Rhondda come to choose the 1978 World Cup in Argentina as the subject of his first book? Well, you may as well ask why a Welshman from the Rhondda came to make one of the most infamous refereeing decisions in football history at that same tournament. Or even why a colony of Welsh speakers ended up in the wilds of that country and survived for over one hundred and fifty years. The answer is simple really…why not?
Author Rhys Richard does have an explanation though: “Lockdown was the beginning – just needing something to do. I’m too young to remember 1978, the 90s were my first World Cup memories, but I recall seeing an opening montage once and the Kempes goals in the final – him celebrating arms outstretched, ticker tape everywhere – there was something elemental in it.
Then I was also lucky enough to have lived in Argentina and visited Y Wladfa in Patagonia during my twenties, so I had a natural affinity with the place. Finally, when it came to wanting to write something, I realized that no-one had focused on these finals in English before, so there was a gap.”
Blood On The Crossbar is the result – the title taken from a travelling stage show performed by two Dutch entertainers who were opposed to the World Cup being hosted by Argentina and vehemently opposed to their Netherlands team attending.
The basis for their argument was clear: “The tournament couldn’t be separated from the bloodshed, and to take part in the tournament was to endorse the dictatorship and its crimes.”
The book’s timing is prescient considering Qatar’s recent role as World Cup hosts, a FIFA decision that raised many questions, eyebrows, objections and protests. This last World Cup is viewed as the most controversial since Argentina’s forty-four years previously.
That country in 1978 was in the grip of a murderous military junta, headed by General Jorge Videla. Up to 30,000 Argentinians – political activists, left-wing sympathisers and innocents – simply disappeared during ‘The Dirty War’ of 1976-1983.
The Cold War and resultant tacit backing from the US emboldened the junta’s leaders and led to human rights violations on a terrifying scale.
Richards captures the horror that overshadows everything with unsparing honesty: ”Prisoners were tortured in detention centres, children were abducted from their parents…and political enemies were taken on ‘death fights’ – drugged and thrown from aeroplanes into the Río de la Plata.”
The famous ‘Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo’, and their struggle for justice – to find out what happened to ‘The Disappeared’ – bookend a story of how the dictatorship sought to welcome the world and make football’s grandest occasion a ‘nation branding’ exercise.
In so doing they had to welcome the world’s press, briefed by Amnesty International and prepared to expose the truth. Crucially, as Richards explains: “In opening its doors to the world, the dictatorship had invited unwanted attention to its darkest secret”.
Yet the 1978 World Cup itself is one that has captured the imagination of many, including the author: “The images of the 1978 World Cup Final are some of the most evocative in the history of the tournament. The misty eyes of nostalgia easily recall the turf of River Plate’s El Monumental (stadium) littered with ticker tape and the colour contrast between the Oranje and La Albiceleste.”
But even as the nation came to a standstill to watch their heroes in blue and white beat the iconic, orange clad ‘total footballers’ of the Netherlands, duplicity was never far from the surface.
At the ESMA detention centre, just a stone’s throw from the stadium, guards and inquisitors stopped their torture of prisoners long enough to listen to the cheers.
As one Argentinian footballer explained: “Sport makes torturers and tortured embrace after goals are scored. During the World Cup, Argentinians replaced critical political judgement with sporting euphoria”.
And we readers are equally guilty of being drawn into the footballing narrative, since there is so much colour and drama to the tournament itself.
The hosts for example, led by the cigarette puffing, left-leaning César Menotti, a manager brave enough to leave the prodigiously talented teenager Diego Maradona out of his squad.
There were only sixteen teams and no knock-out stages, which meant no hiding place either for the best sides. Italy beat both Argentina and France in the opening group stage, then drew with West Germany and lost to the Dutch in the next.
Then you had Scotland, who’d beaten Wales to qualify the previous year in that infamous encounter at Anfield. They were led by Ally MacLeod, supported by a horde of travelling fans – Ally’s Army – and were convinced that they had what it took to win the whole thing.
They came home embarrassed and disgraced.
And what of the Welsh referee? Clive Thomas’s last gasp blast of his whistle denied Zico a goal and Brazil a victory against Sweden, in what Richards describes as: “The most controversial match in the history of the World Cup.”
That was until Argentina, needing to win by four clear goals to progress to the final, managed to put six past fellow South Americans Peru, leading to decades of very well founded conspiracy theories.
Finally, throw in everyone’s favourite 70s ‘second’ team, the Netherlands. The names still set the pulse racing – Krol, Neeskens, Rep, the van de Kerkhof twins, Rob ‘Snake Man’ Rensenbrink and Arie Haan – he of the unstoppable long-range shot. All they were lacking was Johan Cruyff – who stayed at home – and the Jules Rimet trophy, which stayed in Argentina.
But, here’s the rub. There is a reason why this Argentina team – the country’s first ever World Cup winners remember – are not loved as are Maradona’s champions of ’86. They are certainly not revered like Messi’s 2022 vintage.
Argentina won its third World Cup a few months after Richards first published Blood on the Crossbar, and last year’s win both capped the career of one of the world’s greatest ever players and captured the world’s imagination.
So, as ’22 had Messi and ’86 had Maradona, the World Cup of ’78 should surely have belonged to six goal, Golden Boot winning hero Mario Kempes. Not so according to Richards, since the 1978 victory celebrations were short-lived. Yes, the initial euphoria “was so loud it drowned out the suffering… However, for far too many, it will always be regarded as the dictatorship’s World Cup”.
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