At the first football World Cup Final I ever saw, it snowed, a highly improbable event in Buenos Aires, even in the winter month of June. But this snow wasn’t snow, it was ‘snow’, made by people, for people and delivered as part of a frenzied release in support of their national team, playing in only their 2nd World Cup final and their first at home. That team was Argentina, their opponents were also playing in their second World Cup Final, that team was the Netherlands.
I’d never seen anything like it, as a 13 year old in a small town at the top of the South Island, a metropolis compared to the tiny village I’d lived in on the southern west coast until recently, the ticker-tape laden Estadio Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires seemed impossibly far away and completely exotic. I’d watched the Lions rugby tour of New Zealand the previous year and a couple of FA Cup finals but this was my first introduction to the World Cup.
I vaguely remember disquiet about Argentina hosting the tournament. Little did I know... The country was a basket case, ruled by a military Junta under General Videla (yes, he of the "Dónde están? [Where are they?]" mothers, and the answer, "They are neither alive nor dead. They are disappeared."), the chairman of the World Cup Organising Committee, General Omar Actis had been assassinated after the coup in 1976 and world opinion almost led to the tournament being called off. While this never happened, the tournament was shorn of several stars, most notably Johan Cruyff, who refused to attend, retiring after the Dutch qualification rounds.
See, this is one of the things I love about the World Cup, it is inextricably linked to culture, history and politics. The old cliché is that sport and politics should not mix, the truth is that they should always mix, and they always do mix. If it weren’t for the political, social and cultural backdrop to any sporting engagement, why else would we watch it?
As for the football, I don’t remember much about the build up games except that everyone expected Argentina to win. The Dutch had been the best team in the world for about 5-6 years but without their star player, Cruyff, there were question marks over whether they could prevail. Argentina despite the favourites tag, had struggled in the group stages and then had to go down to the wire against Brazil, with many calling foul on their unlikely 6-0 win over Peru to put them through to the final on goal difference. There was an inference that the dictatorship was using the national team to bolster their own popularity with Argentineans and the world, even to the point of bribery and match fixing.
Not that I realised this back then or had given any thought to it at all. If memory serves me right I’d just recently bought my first ever grown up album (David Bowie’s Heroes) and anything to do with ‘away’ that invoked excitement was fine by me. The games were shown live at breakfast time before school, just the way a World Cup should be. We all sat in the lounge and watched our one year old colour TV, the Dutch team’s orange jerseys freaked the set out causing a pixel blur as they ran across the screen. Apparently a young guy called Diego Maradona was available but not included for La Albiceleste (White and Sky Blues), his predecessors at this tournament were Mario Kempes, Luque, Ardiles and Passarella. Kempes, known as El Matador (imagine!) was a 24 year old striker, surprisingly the only player in the squad to play overseas (Valencia) he had the hopes of the country on his shoulders but hadn’t scored at all in the group stages. He’d put this right in the knockout round though and was in good form.
The Final could politely be described as ‘fractious’, the Dutch side must have wondered what they’d walked into and the game was held up while the Argentineans complained about a plaster cast on one of the Dutch players arms. The Dutch, in turn seriously considered refusing to play considering the environment hostile and relaying to officials their fears of getting out of the stadium alive if they were to defeat their hosts. Once started though it was end to end stuff, none of this highly sophisticated defensive play that we see nowadays, they really attacked each other, how could it be otherwise in that environment.
Kempes scored and the Dutch pulled it back and then in injury time my first taste of the sheer misery and unfairness that combines to make football such a great game. The Dutch winger Robbie Rensenbrink rounded the keeper and put an unmissable shot towards goal and.... it smacked off the post in what must have been a devastating moment for the Oranje, probably confirming their status as the almost team of major tournaments. In extra time the Argentineans took control with Kempes scoring one goal and setting up another to win 3-1.
From my memories, it was a classic case of a team being swept home by their supporters. The noise, the flares, the confetti, a total edge of anarchy that just didn’t stop for the whole 90 minutes making it all but impossible for the unfortunate Dutch side to come back again.
The cameras didn’t shut off at the final whistle of course, so we got to see the whole outpouring of joy and emotion as well as no little relief from the home side. Cesar Luis Menotti, the chain smoking, big collared style merchant and leftist, apparently refused to let government officials in to see the players at half time. The government may have used the tournament as propaganda for themselves but there’s no denying that the players won it on their own merits and it gave the country a real fillip in some pretty awful times.
2010 is my latest World Cup Final and the Netherlands are finally back. I’ve watched so much football in the intervening 32 years that I can appreciate the likes of Sneijder, Robben and van Persie but the mystique and much of the wonder is gone in a more professional and sanitised game. There’s no doubt though, whether they win or lose I’m sure there’ll be some memories for me, back to 1978 and my first tournament, the most punk rock of World Cups and the one that started a love affair that’s never gone away.