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Document Friday: The 1978 World Cup in Argentina, Part I

November 20, 2009
Today, the 1978 World Cup hosted by Argentina is widely remembered for the victorious Argentine team’s “alleged stalling tactics” and the refusal of the defeated Dutch players to honor their hosts at the post-championship ceremony. Today’s “hot doc” shows that the World Cup also contributed to a “less repressive atmosphere” in Jorge Rafael Videla’s Argentina with fewer arrests, disappearances, and killings.

This 21 June 1978 cable from the US embassy in Buenos Aires to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance cites the World Cup as the reason for fewer government arrests, an increase in the number of prisoners released, as well as those “authorized to leave the country [read: deported].” This, the embassy reports, is because “Police and military forces in Argentina have been under strict orders to avoid reactions or incidents which would give foreign visitors and press fuel for criticizing the country’s security practices.”

The Videla junta received far less international attention than the Pinochet regime in neighboring Chile, but its human rights abuses were of a much greater magnitude. According to an Argentine Military Intelligence estimate, 22,000 people were killed during Argentina’s “National Reorganization Process” between 1975 and 1978. During this period, Argentina also participated in Operation Condor, a clandestine cooperative between the Southern Cone intelligence agencies to assassinate South American leftists in an attempt to eradicate communist influence in the region.

Gol de Kempes. Final World Cup 1978. Argentina vs. Holanda. Buenos Aires. From Wikimedia Commons.

As this “hot doc” alludes, the embassy viewed the Videla junta’s arrests, deaths, and disappearances—which the previous administration tacitly supported—with revulsion, even compiling a 10,000-name list of the abducted and disappeared. Today’s “hot doc” is also important as it portrays another instance of a government willing to support the killing of civilians in the name of defeating terrorism.

It also shows that while the decrease in political persecution during the World Cup was minimal, enhanced international media coverage during international competitions can temporarily bring attention to human rights abuses by the hosting authoritarian regimes.

Tune in next week to see which team Henry Kissinger picked to win the 1978 World Cup. (I’m not joking!!)

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