Almost 50 years after crossing the River Plate by boat and losing in Uruguay in the inaugural World Cup final, Argentina beat the Netherlands in Buenos Aires and was crowned World champions on home soil.
THE MAIN STORY
The World Cup returned to South America in 1978, but political instability in Argentina almost derailed the tournament from taking place before a ball was even kicked. Whereas FIFA was concerned in 1974 about the possibility of Arab terrorism in West Germany in the aftermath of the Munich Massacre, in 1978 it was the threat of violence from within Argentina that worried soccer’s world governing body the most.
Argentina had fallen under the brutal military dictatorship of General Jorge Rafael Videla, who came to power in a 1976 coup d’état that deposed Argentina’s president, Isabel Martinez de Peron. For two years, thousands of people had been killed by Videla’s ruling military junta, including Omar Actis, president of the World Cup Organizing Committee, who was assassinated by guerrillas.
Led by the Netherlands, several nations talked of boycotting the World Cup in protest against Videla’s totalitarian regime and its violation of human rights. Eventually, the dictator exercised some diplomacy and guaranteed there would be no bloodshed during the competition, and the boycott never happened.
Same as 1974: The 16-team field was divided into four groups, and a second group stage replaced the knockout quarterfinal round. The top two teams in each group would then be placed into two groups of four with the winners meeting in the final.
Argentina and the Netherlands gathered for the final, the vociferous and intimidating crowd at Buenos Aires’s Estadio Monumental giving the hosts a tremendous psychological advantage. The stadium was such a cauldron of tension and electricity — fans pounded drums on the terraces, lit flares and threw more streamers onto the field than the average tickertape parade — that the Dutch players voiced their concern to FIFA officials prior to the match about leaving the stadium alive should they win.
Argentina’s Mario Kempes found the back of the net just before halftime. His strike partner, Leopoldo Luque, made a glorious run down the left and drew the defence with him before crossing the ball into the middle where Kempes ran onto it and hammered it past Dutch goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed.
The Dutch took over the game in the second half and after being thwarted so many times they managed a goal with eight minutes left in regulation when substitute Dirk Nanninga concluded a sweeping move by Arie Haan and headed a cross from Rene van de Kerkhof past Fillol. Later on, forward Robbie Rensenbrink’s shot from inside the six-yard box beat the Argentine goalkeeper but hit the post. Rensenbrink’s unbelievable miss cost his country the World Cup.
It was Argentina who came out revived in extra time, Kempes taking control of the game when he dribbled past three Dutch players before smashing in a rebound past Jongbloed in the 105th minute. Bedlam erupted at Estadio Monumental as the locals could smell blood, and it was Kempes who delivered the fatal blow, bursting through the Dutch defence again before setting up Daniel Bertoni to score with five minutes remaining.
Number of participating teams: 16
Top scorer: Argentina’s Mario Kempes (6 goals)
Number of games: 38
Total goals scored: 102
Average goals per game: 2.68
Highest scoring game: West Germany’s 6-0 win over Mexico on June 6 and Argentina’s 6-0 win over Peru on June 21
Total attendance: 1,610,215
Average attendance: 42,374
MAN OF THE TOURNAMENT
Mario Kempes. Kempes was held off the score sheet in the opening round, but the man they called El Matador — The Matador, quickly found his scoring touch and finished as the tournament’s top scorer with six goals. He scored four times in the second round and twice in the final, including the winner in extra time, to lead Argentina to its first World Cup.
MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT
Scotland’s 3-2 win over the Netherlands in the first round. It wasn’t enough to send them through to the next round, but Scotland’s improbable win over the powerful Dutch was a major upset and an entertaining game that will be forever remembered for Archie Gemmell’s brilliant goal.
DID PERU LIE DOWN FOR ARGENTINA?
Argentina and Brazil each won their first game of the second round and then battled to a goalless draw. On the last matchday, Brazil bested Poland 3-1 in the afternoon, meaning Argentina had to defeat Peru by at least four goals in its final game later that same evening. Argentina thumped Peru 6-0, the result leading to accusations that Peru, with no chance of moving on to the final, had been bought off — or threatened by the military junta — and laid down for the hosts.
The “evidence” suggested collusion: Argentina had only scored six goals in the competition up to that point, the same number Peru had allowed. Critics also pointed out that Peruvian goalkeeper Ramon Quiroga was born in Argentina, and that the Argentine government stood to suffer massive financial losses without its team in the final. There appeared to be something rotten in the state of Argentina. Nevertheless, nobody could prove the two teams conspired together — a charge both countries vehemently dispute to this day — and Argentina prepared to take on the Netherlands.
NO CRUYFF AND BECKENBAUER
Franz Beckenbauer was only 32 when the 1978 World Cup rolled around, but he retired from the national team the year before. Johan Cruyff also retired from the national team in the build-up to this World Cup.
Archie Gemmell’s goal for Scotland against the Dutch was a picture of pure grace and ballet, easily one of the greatest goals in World Cup history. With his team leading 2-1 in the 68th minute, Gemmill picked up the ball just outside the penalty area and effortlessly slalomed past three Dutch defenders, leaving them purely awestruck in his wake, before sublimely chipping the ball over onrushing goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed and into the net.
GEMMELL IN POPULAR CULTURE
Gemmell’s goal became such a hallmark of Scottish culture that author Irvine Welsh worked it into his landmark 1993 debut novel, Trainspotting (made into a movie three years later starring Ewan McGregor). Mark Renton, the book’s protagonist, meets young Diane in a bar and the two wind up back at her place for a night of passion. After reaching climax with Diane, Mark screams out, “I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978!”
Despite media and fan backlash, Argentina’s coach Cesar Luis Menotti decided not to select a certain 17-year-old Diego Maradona for his World Cup roster.
BRANDTS’ UNIQUE BRACE
Dutch defender Ernie Brandts holds the unique distinction of being the only player to ever score a goal and an own-goal in a single World Cup game. In the second round, he mistakenly put the ball into his own net to hand Italy a 1-0 lead, but quickly made up for his error by scoring early in the second half, this time against the Italians.
SCHON BIDS ADIEU
After appearing in four consecutive World Cups, West Germany manager Helmut Schon retired following the 1978 competition. He still holds the record for most World Cup appearances (25) and wins (16) by a manager.
• Dutch forward Rob Rensenbrink scored the 1,000th goal in World Cup history, converting a penalty shot in the Netherlands’s 3-2 loss to Scotland.
• Mario Kempes, who at the time played with Valencia in Spain’s La Liga, was the only foreign-based player on Argentina’s World Cup roster — the rest of the squad played in Argentina’s domestic league.
• For the second straight time, England failed to qualify for the World Cup. England lost only once in their six qualifying matches, against Italy in Rome, but the Italians advanced (both teams finished tied for first in the group with 10 points) thanks to a superior goal difference.
• Tunisia’s 3-1 win against Mexico in the opening round marked the first victory by an African nation at the World Cup. Tunisia later held defending champions West Germany to a goalless draw.