Was it right for Cesar Luis Menotti to take charge of the Argentine national team under the Junta dictatorship?
A review of Jonathan Wilson's Angels with Dirty Faces by way of a case study.
By Daniel Roßbach
Wilson's Angels with Dirty Faces charts the conflicted identity and history of Argentine football throughout the 125 years of its existence. He describes the country's stadiums as the places, in which that identity developed through the football being played and the way it was received in a country that was continuously torn between isolation and opening to the world, be it to receive fresh impulses or demonstrate its own accomplishment. A nation that is unable to decide whether to strive pragmatically for mere wins, or whether true success could only consist in triumphs that are achieved by actualising the highest form of a (footballing) ideology. That oftentimes the content of this ideology is rather vague becomes clear already in its most common name - la nuestra, our kind: it means whatever it is that a country can recognize itself in as it seems to be in constant doubt over its own identity.
Few other episodes of that history brings out the complex relationship between Argentina and its football as well as that of the (won) World Cup on home soil in 1978, when a team coached by Cesar Luis Menotti, the lefty who became Argentinian football's chief ideologue, beat the Netherlands in the final in order for Daniel Passarella to receive the cup Jules Rimet from general Videla, the president of the fascist military junta.
Should we condemn Menotti for coaching this team, and its members for playing on it? Did they put themselves in the service of a brutal, homicidal dictatorship? And what else could and should they have done?
The difficulty of this case lies in the fact that the answers to those questions point in opposing directions. Nobody could doubt that the Junta at least claimed the Albiceleste to be its representative, that it attempted to portray its sporting success as a Triumph of its fascist programme, in short, that it used the World Cup as propaganda. In the face of the horrifying brutality of this regime, which murdered 30.000 Argentinians, killed hundreds more in a pointless war and destroyed many lives with Torture, child abduction and incarceration, any acts that contribute to or strengthen it are moral catastrophes.
Reading Wilson's portrayal of the build-up to the '78 World Cup dampens any hope that the tournament could have been a platform or vessel for protest against the regime - even though it recounts the story of a banner sympathising with the opposition Montoneros being shown on Huracán's terraces in 1976. The dictatorship did react to this gesture, as it did to so many things, with deadly violence. Consequently, a defense of Menotti can not be based on claiming that football was in any way part of a resistance against the Junta. Nonetheless the manager known as a salon communist, whose Huracán team won a sensational( in every sense of the word) championship in 1973, defended his decision not to resign the post he had assumed in 1974 before the Junta-coup. He insisted that his team and its football should be seen as representing not the Argentinian state or government, but the Argentinian people. And he motivated his players by telling them to play not for the generals in their VIP-suits, but their families in the stands.
It is inevitable to see some hypocrisy in this approach, because obviously football in Argentina and particularly at the '78 World Cup was conditioned by the political regime - whether it did intimidate the Peruvians or not. But Menotti was not entirely wrong. A football team represents a country at leas in a less straight forward way than an army corps. As was discussed previously on these pages, there is a multitude of reasons to support one's country in sport or not do so. If not all of these reasons can be reduced to reprehensible nationalism, or amount to lending legitimacy to a country's political institutions, then even people opposing the dictatorship may have found reasons to support Menotti's team, to see it as theirs and enjoy to see them win. And even, if such attitudes don't hold up as consistent to close scrutiny, it may very well be that many people in Argentina shared stance with which Wilson quotes a journalist: "Let's play soccer without the shadow of death slipping into the stadiums through some crack. And let's mourn the lives lost without anything to distract us from our pain."
That takes us to the actual football played by Menotti's Argentina - as this could be one of the alternative paths to generating identification. And in spite of Angels with Dirty Faces presenting fewer detailed examinations of teams' or players' styles than might be expected - or hoped for - from the author of Inverting the Pyramid, Wilson does clearly chart the tension the team was caught in concerning the style and objectives of their play.
A 1-6 defeat to Czechoslovakia at the 1958 World Cup had ostentatiously ended the idiosyncratic golden era of Argentine football, marked by the synergetic individual brilliance of la maquina. In the aftermath of the '58 disaster club sides like Velez and Estudiantes were highly successful with diverse interpretations of anti-futbol, and created, or deepened, the split in the identity of the Argentine game. Menotti's name came to be the moniker for one of the factions - the idealistic one.
That notwithstanding Menotti choose not to select a very young, but obviously brilliant Maradona, and also left out the much more established Ricardo Bochini, who had been the fulcrum of a successful Independiente side, and who is one of the players a reader might discover by way of Wilsons book. He lost out to the unique talent of Mario Kempes - and political interference in favour of Beto Alonso, who (with shirt number 1) became Argentina's first option in attacking midfield.
Surrounding Kempes' technical, athletic and cognitive speed Menotti constructed a team that rarely dominated games, but managed to use its superior individual qualities productively. They did so by selectively pressing reasonably high up the pitch and focussing on fast attacks, facilitated by the outstanding Ardiles, that provoked one-on-one situations for the three forwards of their 433. Argentina created some exciting moments of football, but did not coin a style or influentially reinvented any footballing concepts. That may be why the retrospective perception of the Netherlands having been the best team of the tournament, as they were four years earlier, persists.
How to accurately situate the team of 1978 in the (dubious) taxonomy of Argentine football is non-obvious. Wilsons conjecture, that in its style it was at least not an embodiment of the Junta's ideology, seems well founded.
Fillol articulates the desire to do what he is doing, even in tragic circumstances. The same motive comes through in the defense Menotti mounts for himself, wich Wilson quotes:
What should we have done, Menotti asked, 'to coach teams that played badly, that based everthing on tricks, that betrayed the feelings of the people? No, of course not.' Instead, he argued, his soccer, being free and creative, offered a reminder of the free, creative Argentina that existed before the junta. That, though, is to overidealize it. Menotti took advantage of the political environment [...] there was a sense throughout the tournament that if an advantage was to be had, Argentina would make sure to take it.
Angels with Dirty Faces, p. 204
But the Argentinians shared this attitude with the other partaking nations - the German delegation in particular did not stand out with integrity. That is made worse by the fact that foreign players and FAs as well as international confederations would have been at much more liberty to voice opposition than the Argentinians living under the brutal regime. They could and should have prevented the tournament from taking place as a propganda exercise that cost immense resources in an economic crisis. Not to do so was a crime the Argentinian delegation did not bear any special responsibility for.
Of course, these mitigating factors would leave plenty of space to act morally better, as Huracán defender Jorge Carrascosa probably did, who, after playing for Argentina in 1974 refused to be called up for the '78 World Cup. That scope though, and their immediate guilt, is insufficient to condemn Menotti and his team.
There are moral questions that have unambiguous and uncontroversial answers. And there are moral questions that don't. I don't want to claim that what's at issue here - whether Cesar Luis Menotti was morally permitted to coach Argentina at World Cup '78 - belongs to the first category. So when I here argue for the claim that he was required to resign from his job, this does not amount to saying that Menotti is the devil personified and that his actions where utterly reprehensible. Menotti was the manager of Argentina's national football team, not the regime's chief torturer. That makes a difference, no doubt - the question is, whether that difference is big enough to justify assuming this role in the times of a brutal military dictatorship or even to say that he did the right thing in doing so.
As Daniel has already pointed out some of the historical background, I'll jump right to the core of my argument. But before that, let's have a look at a passage from Wilson's book which brings the moral complexities of the '78 World Cup impressively to the forefront:
Many detainees were allowed to listen to commentary of the final on the radio, supporting their country although they despised the regime that governed it. Anthropologist Eduardo Archetti relates the story of prisoners shouting „We won! We won!“ in their cells and being joined in their celebrations by Captain Jorge Acosta, „el Tigre“, one of the most notorious of the torturers.
Angels with Dirty Faces, p. 154
Menotti's work had positive consequences for many people, among them some of the victims of the regime. Is this sufficient to regard his activities as morally acceptable? I don't think so, and I want to argue for this judgement.
Let's consider two moral principles that - to me - appear intuitively convincing:
If you are faced with a choice between aiding or not aiding a murderous regime you should opt for not aiding it, unless this has massive, overwhelming negative consequences for yourself or others.
And, related to that:
If you have a chance to prevent that a murderous regime from using of yourself for its own ends, you should prevent that, unless this has massive, overwhelming negative consequences for yourself or others.
Let's first get to the caveat in both principles: at least as far as I know - after reading Wilsons book - Menotti was not to fear significant repression from the regime, had he resigned from his job managing the national team, and neither would anyone else face disastrous consequences from him not being in charge of Argentina. Perhaps Argentina would not have won the World Cup, and so not given the joy associated with that victory to Argentinians, including the regime's prisoners. But it is precisely this joy that benefited the regime. And in any case, moral appeals are neither here nor there with regards to the question of who should win the World Cup (in any sport, for that matter). The team that wins the final (playing fairly) should become world champions, not the team that would generate the greatest happiness with its accomplishment.
With that, we move to the first clause of our principles. I feel, to be honest, hard pressed to provide much argument in favour of them - they just seem pretty obviously true to me. Murderous regimes like that established by the Argentinian junta are grave harms, and any moral theory would call for them to be abolished or, at least, stifled. As Wilson points out in his book, which overall is very well worth reading, the World Cup was of great importance for the junta. It ended up as a successful propaganda maneuver, and Menotti's contribution to it was significant, albeit reluctant. To do anything that would consolidate a regime in power that is, as Wilson reports, responsible for the deaths of 30,000 people may be permissible only under very select conditions. I don't think any of these conditions apply in Menotti’s case.
This brief essay set out with remarks to limit its scope, and I will end it with more caveats. All of what I have said here relies on Wilsons book for context and background information. If anything were remiss in his treatment of this episode, and any crucial facts informing my argument were missing, I would be in no position to comment on what actually happened. Having said that, I do regard Wilson as an impartial and thorough journalist, and his description of Argentina under the junta for well researched and reliable.
Photo Passarella: public domain, by El Gráfico