Military tactics

In Argentina, football and politics were already linked before the banners appeared proclaiming “Las Malvinas son Argentinas”. Rodrigo Orihuela explains how the sport operated under the military regime

Twenty-five years after the Falklands War, Argentines still feel strongly about the islands and consider that they were victims on two fronts – first of the British armed forces, second of their country’s dictatorship. The most important political and social legacy of the war was that it brought down the bloodiest military government in Latin America – some 12,000 people are officially listed as having been murdered by the regime that ruled from 1976 to 1983 and thousands more are still “disappeared”.

Of all the main elements of Argentine life, football was the least affected by either the war or the dictatorship. The military needed to keep the masses as uninterested in current affairs as possible and football was a useful tool. The game also provided senior officers with an entree to powerful circles outside the armed forces. Rear Admiral Carlos Lacoste was head of the 1978 World Cup organising committee and went on to be a FIFA vice-president until 1984, when he was replaced by Julio Grondona. Grondona was a club official in 1979 when he was elected to head the FA, with the backing of Lacoste, and he still holds the post. Other high-ranked officers entered football by more indirect channels. The members of the first junta (army chief Jorge Videla, his navy counterpart Emilio Massera and air-force boss Orlando Agosti) were made honorary members of top club River Plate and were not expelled until 1996.

However, the most common way for officers to connect themselves to clubs was through patronage. The most notorious patron of all was General Guillermo Suárez Masón, charged with 430 ­disappearances and 39 murders before his death in 2005. Shortly after the 1976 coup, Suárez Masón became a member of one of Buenos Aires’ smaller clubs, Argentinos Juniors, for whose youth side he had played as a goalkeeper. The teenage Diego Maradona began his career at Argentinos, with whom he was the league’s top scorer for four consecutive years from 1977. Bigger local and foreign clubs tried to buy Maradona almost from his first season as a pro in 1975 and humble Argentinos could have done little to retain him had it not been for Suárez Masón. The general ran the state-owned petrol company YPF and the airline Austral, both of which became sponsors of Argentinos and allowed the club to hold on to “El Diego” until 1980, when he moved to Boca Juniors.

The military played a role in Maradona’s career again in 1979. Diego had been left out of the 1978 World Cup squad by coach César Menotti – a self-proclaimed Communist who none heless had no problem in socialising with the military rulers – but in 1979 he was the figurehead of the national side that was going to play in the World Youth Cup in Japan. The glitch was that Maradona was meant to do compulsory military service and therefore could not travel abroad. Thanks to Lacoste he was freed of his obligation, travelled to Japan and helped Argentina win the trophy.

In 1982 Maradona was to be part of the World Cup squad. The war was already under way when the team left for Spain and there was never any question of their not taking part. The military propaganda machine had made everybody believe Argentina was whipping the British armed forces in the South Atlantic and football carried on as normal, to the point that there is no record of any top-division players having fought in the war; none appears to have been arrested by the dictatorship, either, although there were a handful of lower-division players who spent time in detention centres.

The FA renamed one of the two main domestic tournaments “Sovereignty over the Malvinas” and the national team took the field in several pre-World Cup friendlies with a banner that read “Las Malvinas son Argentinas”. Maradona and many of his team-mates have often said how surprised they were when they arrived in Spain and read in the local press that Argentina was losing the war. Misinformed by the ­military‑friendly Argentine media, most simply thought the Spanish papers had got it wrong. The country’s most famous radio commentator, José María Muñoz, an open supporter of the regime, even found a way to support the Argentine military cause when covering England matches – instead of calling English players by their names he simply referred to their shirt colour, saying, for example: “The player in red has the ball…”

Nineteen years after the war, Daniel Passarella, the 1982 skipper, said: “I should not have played at the 1982 World Cup. A lot of kids died in Malvinas and I, as the captain, should have done something to stop us going on the pitch.” But probably the most famous Falklands-related gesture by a footballer was Osvaldo Ardiles’ decision to leave Tottenham on loan to Paris St-Germain. During the first Argentine air raid on the islands, on May 1, 1982, an air-force lieutenant called José Ardiles died. The pilot was Ossie’s cousin.

From WSC 245 July 2007