As enticements to fix a football match go, it really was right off the scale. Argentina — desperately needing to put four goals past Peru to reach the final of the World Cup they hosted in the summer of 1978 — were alleged to have offered their opponents 35,000 tonnes of grain and the release of $50million for an easy ride.
It did not take long to establish that they would be getting one. They had hit the necessary number after 50 minutes, eventually winning 6-0 against their hapless fellow South Americans, to progress to a showdown against Holland in which Mario Kempes famously saw them home.
Debate about that match in Rosario has raged ever since. Brazil — who were eliminated — are convinced they were cheated. Argentina insist that that Peru, 3-1 winners over Scotland in the first group stage, were simply not very good.
Daniel Passarella cradles the World Cup trophy in 1978 after Argentina's win over Holland
Now the mystery has come a little closer to being resolved. A new film, screened on Saturday, about the tournament reveals details of a secret ‘emergency’ meeting at the Buenos Aires Sheraton, 48 hours before the match, which doesn’t reflect well on Argentina.
Eight years before Diego Maradona’s Hand of God did for England, it appears key personnel from both camps were ordered to attend the summit. Carlose Ares, a local journalist, says that he was told after the meeting had finished: ‘Don’t worry. Everything will be taken care of.’ He speaks of ‘manoeuvres’.
The Argentina stars whose careers were defined by that tournament insist there were no dirty tricks. Kempes tells filmmakers that talk of a fix is ‘all a lie’ and Ricardo Villa, who would soon join Tottenham, insists that ‘it’s not difficult to score against Peru’. Yet team-mate Leopoldo Luque is not so sure. ‘Maybe Peru were paid but we knew nothing,’ he says.
The indisputable fact is that Argentine dictator General Jorge Videla saw the tournament as a device for bringing legitimacy to his brutal, borderline fascist regime. The new film — Pele, Argentina and the Dictators — is a vivid reminder of how the world looked away, despite human rights abuses which left western Europeans feeling uncomfortable. ‘I’m not keen on the place it’s being played in,’ Brian Clough said of the tournament. Johan Cruyff refused to take part.
Protests in Holland that summer echoed recent calls for an England boycott of the Russia World Cup, which is designed to showcase Vladimir Putin’s autocracy. But the Dutch demands had conviction. The side had to board their flight there in secret, former Holland midfielder Willy van de Kerkhof tells the filmmakers.
Videla — much like Putin — did not seem to have an interest in football until the tournament approached, when he suddenly watched seven matches in a month. He was even prepared to tolerate left-wing manager Cesar Luis Menotti, who refused to dignify him and his regime. Videla knew the meticulous 39-year-old could be a winner.
Mario Kempes scores during Argentina's controversial 6-0 victory over Peru in Rosario
Kempes netted twice against Peru and finished the 1978 tournament as the top goalscorer
Leopoldo Luque also notched a brace for Argentina at the Estadio Gigante de Arroyito
Second goalscorer Alberto Tarantini weaves his way through the Peruvian defence
Menotti’s preparations began in October 1976, when he persuaded the Argentine football federation to ban the sale of players to foreign clubs. (Kempes, of Valencia, was the only one of the 1978 squad based abroad.)
But there was an inauspicious start to the tournament. The Argentines fell behind to Hungary, though came through to win. Kempes didn’t score at all in the group stage. Though finishing second in