by David Nammour and Will Flaherty

Football’s Start in Argentina

As was the case across the South American continent, football came to Argentina via British sailors traveling to the Rio de la Plata basin in the 1860s. From there, the game developed in a number of British schools established in Argentina, spreading rapidly throughout the country from there. Clubs formed as offshoots of these schools, many featuring English-language names (Newell’s Old Boys, Banfield) that still persist today.

But of these early clubs, none have had quite the success of River Plate and Boca Juniors. These two teams have won a combined 56 Argentine club titles, nearly half of all national titles, and battle for the label of best team in Buenos Aires whenever pitted in their bi-annual superclasico. Both had origins in the poor La Boca district of the city, but when River moved north to the Nunez neighborhood in 1923, the followings of these two teams diverged. River Plate became the team representing more affluent classes of Buenos Aires, while Boca Juniors remained the team of the people, playing with the name of the gritty neighborhood they called home across their jerseys. Still today, the rivalry persists as one of the most intense in the world of professional football—so much so that an English newspaper ranked the superclasico as one of the 50 sporting events you must see before you die. That’s high praise coming from the birthplace of the game itself.[1]

EPALeoLaValle4River Plate fans are fired up for a 2008 superclasico matchup with rivals Boca Juniors at River’s Estadio Monumental

Since the start of the professional football era, Argentina and its playersFBL-ARGENTINA-DI STEFANO-COPAM have long played an important role in world football, and European leagues are no exception. One of Argentina’s early top exports to Europe was Alfredo di Stefano. The son of Italian immigrants, di Stefano starred at River Plate as a 17-year old but made his biggest splash with Real Madrid, where he began in 1952 and would play for over a decade on one of the first European club rosters to be truly international in nature, alongside stars like Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas and France’s Raymond Kopa. The tremendous success of Real Madrid and di Stefano set a precedent that would soon be followed in the years to come by other major European clubs.[2]
Above right: A 1947 photograph of Alfredo di Stefano in an Argentine national team kit

Peron and Postwar Argentina

Although the Argentinean national team’s success on the international soccer stage was limited after its runner-up showing to neighboring Uruguay in 1930 World Cup, the country soon began to assert itself politically as one of South America’s most progressive nations. The 1946 election of General Juan Peron ushered in a new, socialist-influenced political climate in Argentina. During his tenure as head of state, living and working conditions in the country improved significantly. But the picture was not all rosy, as Peron’s government began to clamp down on free expression and the media in an effort to eliminate opposition movements and leaders. The use of widespread imprisonment and torture was one of the weapons in Peron’s political arsenal, setting a precedent that Juan_Peron_con_banda_de_presidente would be followed by future Argentine leaders wary of losing their grip on power. Football was another means for Peron’s supporters to rally, with spontaneous chants often breaking out at Boca Juniors games of “Boca, Peron, una corazon” as a sign of the President’s immense popularity amongst the working class supporters of Boca.[3]

Above: Gen. Juan Peron

Peron was exiled in 1955 by a bloody military coup and his political supporters were banned from seeking office. But the populist strain of his politics remained in newly elected president Arturo Frondizi. The military, however, remained on the watch for the resurgence of Peronist politics, eventually deciding in 1966 to overturn a popularly elected government that was creeping too close to the populism of past governments. The new military government had great success in stimulating the economy, but level of political repression remained high. Observing from across the ocean in Spain, Peron made his move to return, eventually forcing the regime to offer up free elections that he won in 1973. His death in 1974 left the presidential seat to his third wife, Isabel, but without the figurehead of the movement, Peronism began to lose steam. [4]

The Junta and the 1978 World Cup

On March 24, 1976, the Argentine military launched a coup d’etat that unseated Isabel Peron and seized control of the nation. Reprisals against dissidents and political were swift and harsh, yet football a symbolic element at the core of daily life Argentine life, despite the tense atmosphere in the country. As Argentine writer Rogelio Ramos Signes analogizes of the military government, “[The junta] called it soccer anyways, and it was the only sport they played. The ball, made of transparent glass and elongated like a chorizo, was carried from field to field in an apron pocket. You couldn’t touch it with your feet (and if you did happen to touch it, you got an automatic prison sentence); the penalties were decided by how the dice fell into a swimming pool; hanging from a helicopter, the goalies scored the goals, heading the ball, and only if it was raining.”[5]


Led by General Jorge Videla, the junta would last until 1983 and launch a reign of terror and fear that resulted in the murder of over 30,000 Argentines. In his paper National Identity and Global Sports Events, Eduardo Archetti detailed how a “country accustomed to military intervention and violence had never experienced cruelty and madness on this scale.”[6]

Gen. Jorge Videla

But in the midst of the political turmoil, Argentina was gearing up for an event of global proportions – the FIFA World Cup. Over a decade before the coup, FIFA awarded Argentina the 1978 World Cup. So with less than two years before the opening kick, the Videla junta led massive efforts to “prepare” for the Cup by ramping up measures eliminating all signs of political dissent. As Hebe de Bonafini and Matilde Sanchez wrote in The Global Game:

A treasonous report obtained in the worthless office of some high and mighty priest established that ‘they plan to wipe the country clean of disturbing elements before the first tourist sets foot in it. Argentina is going to show the world its capacity for recuperation.’ That meant they would exterminate dissension at all costs.[7]

One of the most visible signs of dissent came from a group of concerned mothers. Called the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, parents of disappeared political dissidents gave a public face to the atrocities of the junta. Every day at three o’clock in May leading up to the start of the Cup, the mothers would go to the Plaza de Mayo to protest — only to have the police waiting for them to arrive.


Playing a “cat-and-mouse” game, the mothers would be removed from the square, only to sneak back into the square minutes later. Their protests played on emotions, as the grandmothers, mothers and daughters of the disappeared took the streets bearing enlarged pictures of their loved ones. These women did an end run around the government minions by barring men from their protests. After all, what publicity would be worse than the mass arrest of scores of gray-haired grandmothers? With this ingenious tactic of protests, the women of the Plaza de Mayo “had invented a game that excluded men, a game that the junta was constitutively incapable of participant in on its violent terms.”[8]

On June 1, as the World Cup kicked off, the mothers staged a large-scale protest in the Plaza de Mayo, with scores of international journalists present to cover the emotional display. Although the junta may have wanted to put football at the forefront, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo used the showcase of the World Cup to let the world know of the atrocities of Videla’s government.

But away from the Plaza, the 11th World Cup was in full swing. The first to be held in South America since Chile ’62, the ’78 Cup grouped the 16 qualified teams in four initial groups of four teams. This cup would be the last with 16 teams (in the following editions of the World Cup, the number of participants would expand to accommodate the burgeoning number of African footballing nations) and the first with the new penalty shootout rule (although the first shootout would ultimately take place in the 1982 World Cup). In the second round, Netherlands and Italy were matched up in a game that would decide who would advance to the World Cup Final Match from Group A. Arie Haan led the Dutch with a clutch goal to defeat Italy and advance to the final match. In Group B, Argentina and Brazil were the contenders to face the Netherlands in the finals. With the same number of points heading into their final matches respectively, goal differential would decide the winner of the group. Taking advantage of the fact that their game was scheduled after the conclusion of Brazil’s match with Poland, the Argentineans knew that they needed to defeat the Peruvians by a margin of 4 goals. The means to reach that final scoreline, however, would later come under intense scrutiny.[9]

Leading 2-0 at the half, Argentina would dominate play in the 2nd half against Peru and win the match 6-0, resulting in advancement to the final match with the Netherlands. The dubiousness of the result was clear to spectators and organizers: “Argentina needed to beat Peru by four goals to finish ahead of Brazil; it won 6-0… Relations between Peru and Argentina improved with the gift of grain and the freeing of Peruvian credits in Argentina, and many were left to wonder at the more direct financial benefits to some Peruvian players” [10]

Argentina-Peru, 1978 World Cup

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Despite this controversial finish, Argentina would continue on to face the Dutch in the finals. Even before making the trip to South America, the Netherlands team had publicly debated whether their participation in the tournament would be construed as a sign of support for the illegitimate junta, and Dutch star Johann Cruyff decided to skip the World Cup entirely in a move seen by many as politically motivated. The final match had its own controversy as the Dutch accused the Argentinean team of stall tactics; Argentina won the match 3-1 after extra time, clinching the nation’s first World Cup. After the game, Dutch player Johnny Rep noted of the game atmosphere that “It was too hot. All the militaire. It was too heavy. It was kokend, boiling.”[11] And as could be expected, the win was exploited by the junta to the greatest possible extent. As Archetti writes, “For the Junta it was clear: the victory articulated the excellence of the nation and the importance of staying together, like the national team, against all kinds of enemy. Football was defined as a privileged arena as far as patriotism was concerned. Videla proclaimed four days after the final that the ‘triumph was obtained with capacity, courage and discipline,’ and not, as [Argentine national coach Cesar Luis] Menotti stated, with ‘technical ability.’”[12]

article-0-04E637970000044D-397_468x325Gen. Videla (center) featured prominently in Argentina’s 1978 World Cup victory celebration after Albicelestes’ 3-1 victory over the Netherlands.

Failures in the Falklands and on the Football Pitch

With such a high level of orchestration by the Junta, which devoted 10 percent of its budget to staging the 1978 World Cup, it was only logical that some sort of letdown would follow Argentina’s victory.[13] Argentina’s economy stagnated as the Videla regime’s plans to liberalize the Argentine economy failed mightily. From taking over in 1976 until 1981, the Argentine economy lost 300,000 jobs, and most major labor unions were banned all together on account for their potential to dissent the government. Furthermore, policies to liberalize Argentina’s trade policies led to reduced or removed tariffs and the flooding of the domestic marketplace with cheap imports, further harming the Argentine manufacturing and agricultural sectors.[14]

With support waning at home, the junta felt it necessary to do something drastic to shore up their mandate. The Argentine generals found their solution in April 1982, in the form of a small, backwater British island outpost just 300 miles off the Argentinean coast.

On April 2, the Argentine launched an amphibious invasion to overtake the Falklands, known as the Islas Malvinas by the invading forces. Although the Argentine military planners expected little response from a post-colonial United Kingdom, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was unwilling to cede the territory in the face of Argentine aggression. A British task force of over 100 ships and 27,000 personnel steamed south to reclaim the captured islands, the adjacent island of South Georgia was quickly secured on April 25. An operation to retake the main Falklands Islands would commence on May 21, with British marines and crack SAS troops fighting through to the capital Stanley by June 14, forcing an Argentine surrender and bringing an end to the hostilities in the South Atlantic.[15]

falklands-warArgentine military helmets litter the ground on the Falklands Islands in the wake of Britain’s successful re-capture of the islands.

The invasion was a disaster for the Junta, and would lead to its eventual ouster and free democratic elections in 1983. But misfortune would also befall Argentina’s football team on the pitch right around the same time the nation’s army waved the white flag in the Falklands. Argentina would lose on the opening day of Spain ’82 1-0 to Belgium, portending tough times ahead for the national side. With its superstar Diego Maradona struggling to make an impact, Argentina would limp to a second place finish in its preliminary group and would eventually fail to muster a single point in the semifinal group stage after losses to Italy and Brazil, leading to a disappointing trip home for Albicelestes.[16]

Winning in 1986 With a Helping “Hand”

After the downfall of the dictatorship in 1983, a democratic government was reinstalled, and prosperous times were ahead for Argentina—particularly on the pitch. The 1986 World Cup in Mexico was perhaps the paramount tournament performance by Argentina’s national football team.  During this World Cup, Argentina possessed a precious jewel that would unleash its potential, and restore Argentina’s pride. This jewel was named Diego Armando Maradona. For many years, Maradona had established himself as one of the best players in the history of football, leading his team to Argentina League victories (with Boca Juniors in 1981) and a Primera title with Barcelona in 1983. However, the culmination of his career was yet to come.

Argentina was a strong contender for the 1986 World Cup title when play kicked off in Mexico, and from the start, Argentina made a strong impact and cruised through the group stages. However in the quarterfinals, Argentina’s matchup with England would produce a game for the ages, and not entirely for all the right reasons. In a match will always be remembered as one of the most controversial matches in the history of the game, Argentina advanced to the semi-finals after defeating England 2-1 on the efforts of two Maradona goals.

The first goal was one of controversy, as Maradona appeared to punch in a free ball in the box over the outstretched arms of English goaltender Peter Chilton and into the back of the net, in what should have been a clear penalty and disallowed score. Instead, the goal stood, and the legend of the “Hand of God” was born when Maradona claimed in the postgame presser that he had scored with some help from above[17].

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There was no doubt, however, about Maradona’s second goal. The Argentine effortlessly dribbled past six English players before scoring the go-ahead goal and paving the way for Argentina through to the semi finals. Maradona’s second tally would later be honored by FIFA as the Goal of the Century.[18]

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After defeating the Germany in the final 3-2, Argentina claimed the 1986 World Cup title, its second all-time. Winning the 1986 World Cup finally meant a win for all of unified Argentina, a win not clouded by the disturbing politics of a military junta. Furthermore, by overcoming the English in the quarterfinals, the Argentines experienced a cathartic victory that in some ways mollified the painful military defeat at the hands of the British in 1982. In his movie Maradona, Emir Kusturica interviews Maradona about the game, with the footballer describing the win over England as a win for all of Argentina. Maradona described the game as a war, a football war, but unlike in 1982, the Argentinean emerged victorious. The delight Maradona took in cheating a goal pass the British was shown in the movie, when he compared the goal to stealing a young Englishmen’s wallet.  His joy was enhanced by the fact that he got away with the prank. But he would later admit that he did score the infamous hand of God with his own.[19]

Contemporary Parallels – Le Main de Dieu of Thierry Henry

In light of Maradona’s famous “Hand of God” goal, recent events involving a similarly controversial goal by France’s Thierry Henry are of particular interest. During the qualification for the 2010 world cup in South Africa, France was paired against Ireland in a two-leg, final round playoff. The winner would book their ticket to South Africa, with the loser just missing out on a World Cup berth. In the first leg, France prevailed 1-0, but in the second leg at Paris’s Stade de France, controversy erupted. With Ireland up 1-0 in the 103rd minute, Henry received a long pass in the box and flicked it to William Gallas for a game tying goal that would ultimately usher France into the 2010 World Cup field. However, replays clearly indicated that Henry had handled the ball twice before giving the kiss of death to the Irish with his assist, launching a maelstrom of media invectives against Henry and protestations by the Irish for a replayed match. Yet again, politics became intertwined with football as Ireland’s Justice Minister made public demands that FIFA reconsider the game’s result in light of Henry’s professed chicanery.[20]

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The difference between the English and the Irish examples certainly is one of magnitude — the Irish lost a qualification match, whereas England lost in the Quarterfinals of the World Cup. No one can argue which of the both teams had suffered more from their respective brushes with the Hand of God. After the game, Henry made the mea culpa of admitting guilt for what the television audience clearly saw. But ultimately, can we blame him for doing that, or even Maradona for his actions in 1986? Although use of the hands is a form of cheating, it is up to the referee or even the linesmen to make the call on the field, and when such calls are missed, controversial outcomes should be expected. If anything, the examples of Maradona and Henry show just how narrow the margin is between victory and defeat in World Cup football.

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Works Cited
[1] Murray 32; The Guardian, 50 Sporting Things You Must Do Before You Die,,6903,1182710,00.html. Wikipedia for River Plate/Boca Juniors

[2] Phil Ball, Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football, (London, WSC Books, 2003), 123-128.

[3] David Goldblatt, The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer, 266.


[5] Rogelio Ramos Signes, The Global Game, “Fahrenheit 1976,” 112-113.

[6] Eduardo Archetti, “National Identity and Global Sports Events,” 135.

[7] The Global Game, “Boycotting the World Cup,  196.

[8] Archetti, 67.


[10] The Global Game, 172.

[11] The Global Game, 112.

[12] Archetti, 139.

[13] National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer, (Washington, D.C: Brookings Institute, 2005), 73-74.

[14] David Pion-Berlin, Through corridors of power: Institutions and Civil-Military Relations in Argentina, (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1997), 54-56.

[15] David Childs, Britain Since 1945: A Political History, (New York: Routledge, 2006), 226-230.




[19] Interview with BBC,; Interview of Diego Maradona by Emir Kusturica, Maradona by Kusturica (film).


Photo Credits
Argentina Flag Illustration – Photoillustration by Will Flaherty

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