by Raanan Rein
With the World Cup underway in Putin’s Russia, Raanan Rein looks back forty years to the controversies surrounding the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, and the transnational solidarity campaign that sprang up in response.
There is a long history of authoritarian governments using international sporting events to legitimise their control. In 1978, the dictatorship in Argentina, having seized power in a military coup two years previously, invested considerable efforts in using the World Cup to legitimise its dictatorship, both to Argentine society and to the world. With Argentina beating the Netherlands in the final, the military generals were able to celebrate both a sporting and a political victory. The tournament served its purpose as a smokescreen for state terror. President Jorge Rafael Videla could boast of the “perfect organization of such an important event,” which had “shown the world of what the Argentine public’s force and faith is capable, united in the achievement of a common goal.”
Despite Videla’s triumphalism, however, the summer of 1978 saw a global, organised reaction against the World Cup being held in a country ruled by a repressive, criminal regime. Many observers considered these protests to be a complete failure: despite calls for a boycott, none of the fifteen foreign teams withdrew from the competition and there was little in the way of disruption during the tournament. At the same time, however, it is possible to see the protests sparked in 1978 as the start of a transnational solidarity movement which succeeded in promoting a public debate – in various countries – on ties with the Argentine dictatorship, on issues of human rights and international relations, and on the use and abuse of sport for political purposes. Demonstrations around the world, and particularly in Europe, forced the military regime to invest time and money in a counter-propaganda campaign, and the boycott campaign were instrumental in raising global awareness of massive human rights violations in the Southern Cone. Supporters of the boycott argued that sport and politics could not be separated, and that the Argentine generals were taking advantage of the tournament to convey a false image of a peaceful society.
The boycott campaign was initiated in Paris, where a centre for solidarity with the Argentine victims of the dictatorship had been established. The Committee for the Boycott of the World Cup in Argentina (COBA) was formed, taking as its symbol an adapted version of the official tournament logo, incorporated into the barbed wire fence of a concentration camp. Press conferences were organized, meetings and public talks were held, posters were displayed, leaflets and pamphlets were handed out in neighbourhoods and factories, and short documentaries were produced. More than 200 COBA chapters were established across France, with tens of thousands of people actively involved in campaigning across the country. Similar campaigns were also promoted by solidarity organisations in the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, West Germany, Switzerland, the United States, Sweden, Finland, and, to a lesser degree, Mexico, Spain (especially Catalonia), and Israel.
In West Germany, protests against Argentina’s hosting of the World Cup sparked a heated political debate, leading to an unprecedented tension between the Football Association, which had expressed humanitarian concerns about the Argentine dictatorship, and the federal government, which sympathised with the regime’s campaign against left-wing terrorism. Memories of terrorist violence in the so-called “German Autumn” of 1977 – which included the kidnapping of the President of the German Employers Association and the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight – were still fresh in Bonn. The West German squad, as well as the Swedish team, were divided over the ethics of holding the tournament in a country ruled by a repressive authoritarian regime. In Spain, the campaign drew on the still fresh memories of the Franco dictatorship and its long and harsh repression.
In Israel, the national team’s failure to qualify removed from the agenda any debate of an active World Cup boycott. The only Israeli representative at the World Cup was a referee named Abraham Klein. Compared to the campaigns which had spread across Europe, protests in Israel were minor. Most of the activists were Argentine exiles, who were joined by a smaller number of Israeli left-wing militants. While relatively small, however, protests in Israel were nonetheless politically significant. The Israeli government supplied the military dictatorship in Argentina with arms and ammunition, especially during the later stages of the regime. Meanwhile, the anti-Semitic campaigns of Videla’s dictatorship saw the disappearance of 1,300 Jews.
While the worldwide protests against the World Cup in Argentina failed to meaningfully impact the tournament itself, their longer term effects were nonetheless significant. While psychological effects are hard to measure, it is clear that for many Argentine political exiles, the transnational solidarity campaigns initiated in 1978 created a sense that they were not alone or forgotten. In political terms, the boycott campaigns surrounding the Argentine World Cup constituted an important precedent in the realm of sport, popularising tactics that would later be used in similar mobilisations. Several of the French militants who had participated in the 1978 boycott campaign were later involved in calls for a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Initiated by the United States as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, this campaign was more successful, with no less than sixty-five invited countries refusing to participate in the games.
By contrast, calls for a boycott of this summer’s World Cup in Russia have been feeble. Following the poisoning of former intelligence operative Sergei Skirpal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, threats of an English withdrawal – including from the foreign secretary – were quickly diluted to a half-hearted boycott of dignitaries. In the US, there were calls to boycott the tournament in protest of Russia’s supposed cyber-interference in the American presidential elections, while Syrian and Ukrainian exiles called for boycotts in response to Russia’s role in their respective conflicts, though in the event, the failure of the USA (or Syria or Ukraine) to qualify preempted any sustained campaign. While calls for a boycott in 2018 have mostly represented top-down initiatives, failing to inspire widespread popular engagement, the transnational solidarity movement of 1978 demonstrated the potential of grassroots action to catch the imagination of campaigners around the world, and to have a global political impact.
Raanan Rein is the Elias Sourasky Professor of Latin American and Spanish History and Vice President of Tel Aviv University. He is also the Head of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for International and Regional Studies. He is a member of Argentina’s National Academy of History, and former President of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association (LAJSA).