Argentina's 1978 World Cup win against Peru was fixed in a brutal political deal, former senator says

Mario Kempes (right) scores the third goal
Mario Kempes (right) scores the third goal

One of the World Cup's oldest mysteries finally may be solved after claims were made this week of a sinister plot involving mass corruption, government interference and torture.

Argentina's 1978 triumph against Peru long has been suspected of involving dirty tricks by the Argentinean political dictatorship led by Jorge Videla that held power at that time. For more than 30 years questions have been asked about the controversial 6-0 win that clinched Argentina's place in the final, where they beat the Netherlands 3-1.

This week former Peruvian senator Genaro Ledesma said a deal was struck between Peru's then-president Francisco Bermudez and Videla, whereby Argentina would be allowed to win the game by at least the four-goal margin it needed to avoid elimination.

In return, Videla's regime agreed to receive and imprison 13 Peruvian political dissidents who were vocally opposed to Bermudez and his methods. “Videla needed to win the World Cup to cleanse Argentina's bad image around the world,” Ledesma, 80, told a Buenos Aires court. “So he only accepted the group if Peru allowed the Argentina national team to triumph.”

After Argentina won with ridiculous ease, suspicions immediately were raised. Conspiracy theories ranged from the Peru goalkeeper having been bribed to suggestions that a large shipment of grain had been sent between the two countries as payment for a fixed result.

Ledesma's accusations raise the possibility of a far more nefarious reality: It is alleged that the 13 dissidents were beaten and tortured by their captors. Even 34 years later, investigators still are trying to get to the bottom of the Condor Plan, an agreement between 1970s South American dictators whereby political opponents could be repressed by sending them to cooperating nations.

“With what I know now, I can't say I am proud of my victory,” said Leopoldo Luque, an Argentinean striker in 1978. “But I didn't realize, most of us didn't. We just played football.”

Fixing an outcome in such a manner would be virtually impossible in a modern World Cup because of changes in the format and scheduling of the competition. In 1978, the final eight teams played off in two groups of four, with the group winners contesting the final.

With Brazil having played its final group match earlier in the day, Argentina knew exactly what it required – a four-goal victory or better – to progress. Today the World Cup is played on a knockout basis from the round of 16 onward, and the last round of matches in any group in the preliminary phase are played simultaneously.

Argentina would go on to win the World Cup again in 1986, but its first success, and what should be remembered as one of the greatest moments in its sporting history continues to be marred by scandal.

Judge Noberto Oyarbide is leading an ongoing investigation mandated to get to the bottom of the Peru “fix” saga, yet even disregarding the controversial game, that period of Argentine history is far from pleasant reading.

Less than a mile away from the River Plate Stadium where the 6-0 “victory” was recorded stood the infamous Naval Mechanics School, where members of Videla's military junta tortured and are believed to have killed more than 5,000 political opponents.

Such was the spate of politically motivated arrests that those who went missing, never to be seen again, were referred to simply as “the disappeared.”

Videla used the World Cup as a public podium and insisted that reports of his regime's brutality were nothing more than an “anti-Argentine plot.” He even welcomed American politician Henry Kissinger to the tournament and received standing ovations at every match even while behind closed doors his cohorts practiced brutality on those who dared speak up.

“Millions succumbed to the official viewpoint that the sporting victory was the triumph of a people at peace,” wrote author and historian Pablo Llonto in his book, “The Shame of All.”

Over time, many of the Argentina players have spoken out about how Videla's influence tarnished what for most was their finest achievement in soccer. “There is no doubt we were used politically,” midfielder Ricky Villa said.