The Dutch team that travelled to Argentina was greatly weakened by the absence of their three times winner of the European footballer of the year award, Johan Cruyff. Cruyff’s absence had nothing to do with injury and simply resulted from his refusal to play. It was a decision that enraged the Dutch public.

If the Dutch were unimpressed with Cruyff, England fans reacted with open fury at the behaviour of their erstwhile manager Revie; who not only contrived to cost England qualification, but walked out of the England job in a particularly mendacious way. Eccentric decision making, aggravated by poor team selection, meant that Revie, who had previously been manager of Leeds United, was subjected to some harsh barracking in the football press. Nonetheless, the Football Association decided to stick with their man, reserving judgement once the qualifying campaign was over. Revie, however, had other ideas. Having secretly secured the position of manager of the football team of the United Arab Emirates, Revie approached the FA; because of the “heartache” that he and his wife were suffering, Revie offered to go if the FA paid off the balance of his contract, worth some £50,000 and, additionally, gave him a £50,000 gratuity as a golden handshake. At the time there was a rumour that Revie had been offered the newly vacant position of manager of Manchester United, so the FA asked him outright whether he had been offered another job, or was looking for one; Revie expressly denied that he had been offered any job, or had any interest in another, which was a lie. The FA declined to adopt Revie’s proposal. Soon afterwards a newspaper story broke about Revie’s intention to quit and his deal with the UAE. An enraged FA, rightly, charged Revie with bringing the game into disrepute. Revie refused to appear before the FA tribunal and was found guilty in absentia. He was banned from any football under the aegis of the FA until he agreed to appear before its disciplinary committee, he was additionally banned for ten years. Unfortunately, the FA committed a technical breach in applying its disciplinary procedures, at least according to the High Court of England and Wales two years later, for the Court determined that the Chairman of the FA had probably (sic!) been biased against Revie. Nonetheless, Revie’s reputation in England was in ruins, as even the presiding judge remarked: “The way Mr. Revie resigned presented a sensational and outrageous example of disloyalty, breach of duty, discourtesy and selfishness”. He was never to manage a major English club again, Court ruling, or no Court ruling. The timing of Revie’s resignation was such that his successor, Ron Greenwood, had no chance of undoing the damage that Revie had wrought. To this day Revie, who died in 1989, is derided by many England fans. The only good thing to come out of the saga was that the Italian team that went instead of England was a good one.

One new face at the World Cup was that of Iran’s. Few at the time had any inkling that the Pahlavi autocracy, which had been re-established by the British and Americans in the 1950s, was on its last legs. Fewer still expected the Iranians to prosper on the football field, and in truth their solitary draw was more a product of their opponent’s ineptitude than their own footballing prowess.

Tunisia, on the other hand, did create a stir. New to the World Cup finals, they adumbrated the growing footballing strength of the African continent. Tunisia almost qualified for the second round at the expense of the reigning champions.

The choice of Argentina as hosts did raise some disquiet, especially in Europe. For Argentina was not only famous for its beef and Juan Péron; but alas, had a brutal dictatorship which was responsible for many disappeared. Not only that, but the very young children of some of its murder victims were taken for adoption by some of their killers. In Argentina itself there was a hunger for success, many times South American champions, their strength as a footballing nation was not reflected in even one success in the World Cup. Instead, they had the disappointment of being beaten by their much smaller neighbours Uruguay all the way back in 1930 in the inaugural World Cup; they had suffered the indignity of being branded “animals” by Alf Ramsey, who had managed England to success in 1966; they had had many of their best players poached by Italy for decades; and they had been rejected as World Cup hosts no less than three times. If football was used as an excuse for war in Central America before the 1970 World Cup; at least in 1978 it persuaded the military junta and the guerillas engaged in an insurgency to agree to a truce.

In terms of geographical distribution there wasn’t all that much in the way of change; there were ten from Europe (up one), three from South America (down one), and one each from Central and North America, Africa and Asia. The slight shift from South America to Europe reflecting the much greater recent sporting success of the European nations, particularly in the 1974 World Cup.

The decision was made to follow the format of 1974, i.e. The first two from each group would go through into a second round which would be split into two divisions of four teams each. The winners of the two divisions would then contest the final. This time the system was not a success as the reader will see.

The teams were from: Italy, France, Hungary, Poland, West Germany, Austria, Spain, Sweden, Netherlands, Scotland, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Tunisia and Iran.

On the face of it group three looked the most challenging; for not only did it contain three times world champions Brazil, but also Sweden who had done so well just four years previously. One could add that Spain was an under performing giant, home not only to the immensely strong Real Madrid club side, but also the scarcely less formidable Barcelona. As the competition was to show, the Austrian team were a mighty handful.

Playing in their first World Cup since 1966, France drew the short straw of being in the same group as Argentina and Italy. A revival as a footballing power almost certainly means a new generation of players; in the case of France their hopes and expectations were all centred one player: Michel Platini. Born on 21 June 1955 in Joeuf, Platini made his debut at the age of twenty-one for the unfashionable club side Nancy-Lorraine, before transferring three years later to Saint Etienne and later on Juventus. His quality was recognised at once, as he was picked to play for France in the same year he made his club debut. A speciality of Platini’s was the free kick, as he showed in his very first match for France in a friendly against Czechoslovakia when he succeeded in scoring from one. Never lacking in confidence, Platini liked to direct operations from midfield; his flicks, delicate passes and back-heels often putting unbearable pressure on the opposing defence. Platini’s finest period was to come later, after he had joined Juventus, when he was voted European footballer of the Year no less than three times. The French team was, perhaps, a little bit too reliant on his skills, and thus France’s only significant success was the win of the European Championship in 1984.

The Italy of 1978 still had much of the catenaccio attitude, even though their defence was weaker than it had been for years; yet as an attacking force it was much more potent that any of its predecessors. Twenty-two year old Paolo Rossi had made his professional debut six years earlier for Juventus, but his career was soon blighted when troubles with his legs forced him to undergo several cartilage operations. Juventus decided that the best thing to do was to loan him out to the less renowned clubs Como and Vicenza. At Vicenza he was converted to a striker, a decision that was vindicated when Rossi became the top scorer for that season in the Italian second division; moreover, Vicenza themselves won promotion. The following season Rossi scored twenty-goals in the top division, a wonderful return in that defence minded league. His reward was to be picked for Italy in 1977, and to be a member of the squad that travelled to Argentina in 1978. Rossi was an exceptionally fast, lightly built, player who was well nigh impossible to man mark and had an almost devilish ability to anticipate and score from optimistic through balls. There were some who thought that this unfancied side would have actually won the competition in 1978 if they had only abandoned some of the negativity that seemed ingrained.

Dino Zoff was thirty-six years of age at the time of the 1978 World Cup. A vastly experienced goalkeeper who always looked comfortable when grabbing the ball or kicking it away to safety. A team winning a corner against Italy with Zoff in goal could virtually forget about scoring, such was his knack for anticipating what was to come. Zoff’s early career was with Udinese, he later went to Mantova and then Napoli; however, he only started winning things at club level when he moved to Juventus in 1970. Zoff had made his debut for Italy no less than ten years previously, only losing his place in 1970 following a temporary loss of form at the time of his move to Juventus. Zoff went a record 1,142 minutes for Italy without conceding a goal from 1972 to 1974. Zoff displayed almost the same level of dedication as England’s Gordon Banks when it came to training and preparation; his one weakness was that he did not possess Banks’s shot-stopping power.

Marco Tardelli began playing professional football for third division Pisa in 1972. Within two years, at the age of twenty, he was turning out for Juventus. Originally a fullback, Tardelli was moved into midfield where he struck up a formidable partnership with Romeo Benetti. Tardelli quickly adopted Benetti’s penchant for hard crunching tackles, which gave the Italian team a great deal of security and a platform for launching quite devastating attacks. Tardelli was much more creative than this brief picture would indicate, in many ways he was the fulcrum of this Italian team. Four years later he would be at the height of his powers and score one of the finest goals ever seen in the World Cup. The prominence of Juventus players, there were nine in the squad of twenty-two, gave the Italians a cohesion that others lacked.

Argentina were almost certainly not the strongest side in the 1978 World Cup. Yet they had several advantages: the hurt of decades of under achievement was a far greater motivator than anything Cesar Luis Menotti their manager could say, the partisan crowds guaranteed the kind of atmosphere in which teams lacking in confidence could fold and they had two world class players with a strong supporting class. One of these players was Mario Kempes, and he was rated so highly that Luis Menotti made him an exception to the rule that only home-based players were eligible to play for Argentina. Just a month short of his twenty-fourth birthday at the time of the World Cup, Kempes was the top scorer in the Argentine league in 1974, and the top scorer in the Spanish league in 1977. As tall as most central defenders, Kempes had an impressive heading ability which, unusually for someone of his height, was coupled with impressive ball control. Exceptionally fast on the ground, he was well nigh impossible to dispossess. Kempes running full tilt at a defence was the stuff of Argentine dreams, and a living hell for his opponents; hell because Kempes could easily exchange highly accurate one-twos with his striking partner, making it impossible to know what to do. Because of his height and speed, opposing teams had to be careful when attacking, just one slip and the ball would be booted upfield with Kempes in pursuit and likely to score.

Soon to be wildly popular with Tottenham Hotspur fans, Osvaldo Ardiles was an immensely enthusiastic, workaholic midfielder for Argentina, who never let his comparatively small size shake him from his determination to thread through the most delicate of passes. With a superb sense of balance, Ardiles could twist and turn, and then set off at speed to apply the most terrifying of passes to those ahead of him. Impossible to faze, Ardiles could dribble through and ignore the most questionable of challenges. Ardiles made his debut in 1976 for Argentina against the Soviet Union, little known outside his homeland in 1978, the twenty-six year old was to make a most exciting impression both on and off the pitch. Keith Burkinshaw the manager of Tottenham Hotspur was in Buenos Aires for the World Cup and to sign players, for he had heard that Ardiles was available. In the event Burkinshaw signed not only Ardiles, but his colleague and friend Ricardo Villa. The presence of these two Argentine players transformed the prospects of Tottenham who won two trophies in 1981 and 1982 with them. It was unfortunate, and a personal tragedy for those most directly affected, that the Falklands war between Britain and Argentina broke out in 1982, the war persuaded Tottenham that it would be prudent to lend Ardiles to Paris St. Germain for one season. Although extremely popular with Spurs fans, Ardiles was subjected to some mindless barracking by opposing fans upon his return. Ardiles later moved to Blackburn Rovers and Queens Park Rangers, but his best years were with Argentina and Tottenham.

The world champions West Germany had not stood still, they had already found a replacement for the ageing Gerd Müller in the form of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. The consummate professional, Rummenigge learnt Italian for his move to Internazionale in 1984 after one year with Borussia Lipstadt and ten with Bayern Munich. Always a fast player, Rummenigge combined it with strength and commitment. Frequently fouled, Rummenigge heeded the advice of his mentor Dettmar Cramar the manager of Bayern Munich and avoided retaliating; treating the kicks and blows he received as a compliment and seeking revenge in the form of goals. His value for West Germany was such that he was played even when injured.

Poland, narrowly deprived of a place in the 1974 final by West Germany also unearthed a new player. Zbigniew Boniek, also known as “Crazy Horse” for his frequent, and often totally unnecessary, battles with the footballing authorities. Born on 3 March 1956, twelve year old Zbigniew Boniek played for the youth team of the army club Zawisza in 1968. Later on he moved to RTS Widzew Lodz in north-western Poland. A hard worker and a confident player; there were doubts in his teenage years that Boniek would make the grade, for he was small and frail. By the time the 1978 World Cup began, Boniek had been an international for two years and was well used to playing foreign teams owing to the success of Widzew Lodz. On the pitch Boniek never gave less than 100% and was always on a look out for whatever scraps fell his way as a top class striker, the most dangerous facet of his game was his devastating shooting ability, he also had the priceless ability of making it next to impossible for opposing defences to divine his intentions. In 1982 he was able to cross the Iron Curtain and play for Juventus.

The great white hope of Brazilian football in 1978 came from an impoverished background. Slight of stature, Artur Antunes Coimbra, nicknamed Zico, was born on 3 March 1953 in Rio de Janeiro. Taken on by Flamengo, for whom Zico played all his club games save for a brief spell with Udinese in Italy, the malnourished fifteen year old had to be given a special diet to acquire the necessary body strength. An out and out striker, Zico marked a partial return to the traditions that made Brazil favourites with the neutral. His phenomenal technique was such that he was the absolute master of the ball at his feet, and practically impossible to dispossess. Utterly fearless in the attack, Zico not only scored with his feet, but also by heading, which was somewhat surprising for someone so small. In his footballing career he managed to score a mind boggling 643 goals. He had been picked to play for Brazil in 1976 and carried the hopes of the nation in 1978. Unfortunately the weight of expectation was too much for Zico in 1978, and he never really showed his true class, he was not helped by some unfortunate refereeing.

Argentina as hosts, quickly began to attract doubts as to their credentials when they could only beat Hungary, in their opening game, two-one after Hungary had had two players sent off. A questionable penalty against France also saw the same score line. Thus, in their last game of the first round, they squared off against a more credible Italian team for the right to top the group. There was the added advantage that the winners would stay in Buenos Aires, and the runners up would be banished to provincial Rosario. Argentina had to win to stay in Buenos Aires, whereas a draw was adequate for Italy. An absurdly partisan crowd fully expected Argentina to overwhelm Italy, on twenty-two minutes Bertoni of Argentina shot just over the crossbar, it was a harbinger of things to come; for two minutes later Zoff, in goal for Italy, was beaten by Bertoni, but saw the ball kicked off the line by Gentile. Every time Argentina attacked, Italy had the answer, the impression was that Argentina could not score whereas there was a lot of movement and menace from Bettega and Rossi of Italy. A powerful shot from Kempes was stopped completely by Zoff. Then with twenty-three minutes to go, the Italians pulled off what they had been threatening for most of the match. From a throw in Benetti of Italy sent the ball down the left to Rossi who ran forward with it drawing the Argentine defence towards him, quickly Rossi passed the ball diagonally backwards to Antognoni, who immediately sent it forward to Bettega, Bettega in turn instantly flicked it leftwards to Rossi who had managed to run inside; Bettega now turned and ran to the semicircle just outside the area where he received Rossi’s return pass; running onto goal, Bettega smashed it goal wards between Galvan and Tarantini of Argentina and sent Fillol, in goal for Argentina, the wrong way. It was an utterly convincing win for Italy which gave hope to her fans that the long wait since 1938 was over.

A much improved Austria unexpectedly topped Group 3, indeed Brazil were fortunate to qualify having only drawn against Spain and Sweden. The main excitement in the Sweden match being that Zico of Brazil put the ball in the Swedish net just as the referee blew the final whistle. Had this goal been allowed to stand then Brazil would have qualified for Group A instead of B, although how that would have influenced the eventual result must remain speculative.

Buoyed up by the knowledge that they were the only British representative for the second World Cup in a row, Scotland came to Argentina with high hopes. The weight of expectation was made still greater by the boasting of their manager Ally MacLeod. This was the strongest team Scotland had sent to the World Cup; however, it had not done well in the recent Home Internationals featuring England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The reality was that the team was good enough to reach the second round, but certainly not markedly superior to the Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina, West Germany, Poland or Italy. Scotland’s first opponents were Peru, whose best player Cubillas was considered, by the Scots, as past his sell buy date; there was a solid basis for optimism. Alas, it is not enough to possess good players, they must also play well and as a team. At first everything seemed to be proceeding as expected when Joe Jordan opened the scoring inside the first quarter of an hour. Then the most appalling complacency took hold. Just before half time Cubillas equalised, and then he scored twice within seven minutes in the second half. Panic gripped the Scots and they were unable to do anything to alter the adverse three-one score. The blame for this needless defeat must be laid at the door of the Scot’s manager, it was nowhere near acceptable to tell one’s players that they were God’s gift to the footballing world, and then leave them to get on with it. Given that Scotland had yet to meet group favourites the Netherlands, this defeat was a body blow, a defeat made worse by the disgrace of Scotland’s Willie Johnstone, who was caught taking drugs, and was sent home in disgrace, he was subsequently banned from international football for a year. Could Scotland play any worse? Well yes, they did exactly that against group whipping boys Iran: and this was after the Iranians gift wrapped Scotland a first-half goal in the form of a bizarre collision between goalkeeper and defender. Iran made up this deficit in the second half. Thus it looked like Scotland’s players were returning home, not with a whimper, but with the full-blown fulminations of their own fans in their ears. Scotland had to beat the Netherlands by three clear goals, or it would be their last match of this World Cup. Yet even if they managed this, Scotland would almost certainly be penalised by Fifa because of Johnstone’s drug test, and not go through anyway. The enormity of this task was underlined by the Dutch status as one of the favourites of the tournament. It was a different Scottish team that took the field for the Holland match. Their intent was signalled after only five minutes when Rioch’s header hit the crossbar. Then five minutes later the Scots had a stroke of good fortune when Neeskens had to withdraw owing to a rib injury. Within two minutes Dalglish had the ball in the net; unfortunately the goal was not given, in the opinion of the referee Dalglish had jostled unfairly an opponent en route. With ten minutes to go to half time it looked like the Dutch would weather the storm and emerge on top when Rep was tripped inside the penalty area and Rensenbrink scored from the penalty awarded. With one minute to go to half time a header from Joe Jordan was firmly struck by Dalglish into the back of the net. After the half time interval was over the Scots continue to show intent; Souness ran into the penalty area and was mercilessly hacked down; Gemmill converted. Suddenly Scotland were two-one up with most of the half remaining to score the two goals required. For twenty minutes the Scots pounded the Dutch defences, and then it came: Kenny Dalglish had the ball in the Dutch half trying to initiate yet another bombardment when he was dispossessed; instantly Gemmill stormed in and won the ball back, he then set off at pace towards the Dutch goal, twisting and turning as he went, at the left hand corner of the penalty area Wildschut put in a strong tackle which Gemmill managed to dodge, seconds later Suubier put his leg out which Gemmill met by turning inside, he then slipped the ball through Krol’s legs and recovered possession, there was only one Hollander between Gemmill and the goal, Jongbloed, who spread himself expertly to deny Gemmill, yet the “wee mon” was not to be denied, he just delicately chipped Jongbloed to make the score three-one. This, the greatest goal of the tournament, and one of the greatest of all time, had the Scots’ fans screaming. But it was not to be, just three minutes had elapsed when Johnny Rep gained possession at the half way line, ran forward and smashed the ball thirty yards to undo all Gemmill’s work. And there the score remained, despite all the best efforts of the players on the pitch. At least Scotland could return with their heads held high, yet one couldn’t help but wonder: if only: if only they had played like that against Peru and Iran.

With all three Latin American sides going through, it was arguable that South America had been underrepresented. At least the composition of the groups made it likely that there would be one team from Europe and one from the Americas to contest the final. An impression that gained force when Poland had no answer to the partisan crowd and Mario Kempes, and succumbed rather tamely by a score of two-nil in their first game of this round. Brazil comfortably disposed of Peru by three goals to nil, without really looking as if they were playing anywhere near their potential. A persistent problem for Brazil was that Zico just did not spark, nor was he taking free kicks with his customary aplomb. The two South American giants squared off in their next encounter, in the event it was a bloodless affair in terms of goals in which caution was the mantra; yet the play on the pitch brought out the worst in the players. Brazil were content as they had the better goal difference, while Argentina had the confidence of a team whose next opponents were the weakest team in the group. Fifa, extremely unfairly, scheduled the last games of this round to be played at different times, even though Brazil protested. Brazil played first, which meant, following Brazil’s three-one win over Poland, that Argentina knew they would have to beat Peru by a margin of four goals. As it happened Peru’s goalkeeper was an Argentine, and his nickname was “El Loco”, the mad one. Initially Peru came out to play, and it looked as if Argentina would struggle to win by such a margin. Then, in the twenty-second minute, Kempes scored for Argentina. By half time Argentina were two nil up, with every prospect of reaching the requisite target. In the event Argentina scored another four times to win six-nil. The circumstances made this a wholly unsatisfactory affair, to the surprise of no-one the Brazilian manager Coutinho remarked: “The Peruvian players will feel no pride when they hear their national anthem in the next World Cup”.

Group B would be won by one of West Germany, Italy or the Netherlands, such was the easy conclusion to draw after the Dutch pulverised the Austrians five-one in the first game of the round, while the cautious West Germans and Italians played out a goal less draw. Sure enough the next games resulted in a narrow win for Italy over Austria, and an exciting draw between the Netherlands and West Germany. Thus when the Netherlands squared off against the Italians, the West Germans knew they had to crush Austria: “Austrie est imperare orbi universo”, “It is Austria’s destiny to rule the world” was the motto of Emperor Frederick III, and perhaps someone should have warned West Germany of this, for their world came crashing down thanks to Hans Krankl of Rapid Vienna. At first it looked possible that West Germany might score the five goals required, for they trooped off the field at half time leading by one goal; but then catastrophe, Bertie Vogts, so often the hero of the West German team, scored, but at his own side’s expense. It clearly would now be impossible to get anything like five goals; spirits drooped, for it might look good to come third in the record books, but it clearly was a deflating prospect to players who only had in mind winning the overall competition. After sixty-six minutes Hickersberger passed from the left to Krankl who was on the right side of the penalty area, Krankl caught the ball with his left foot and then pirouetted on his right while the ball started to drop; Krankl then hammered it home before the ball reached the ground, Germany were behind. A minute later West Germany equalised, but it was plain that the stuffing had been knocked out of them, finally in the eighty-eighth minute Krankl scored again: “Alles Erdreich ist Osterreich unterthan” may be a testimony to the impermanence of power, but this time the West Germans were subdued by Austria.

The first half of the game between Italy and the Netherlands was dominated by the Mediterranean side, and thus they went into the lead after nineteen minutes plays thanks to an own goal from Brandts who was under pressure from Bettega. Rather unexpectedly it looked as if Italy would reach the final, but then the defensive mentality that had cost them so dearly in the past began to resurrect itself, the Italians withdrew for the second half, permitting the Dutch to pile on the pressure. The Italian decision was all the more strange as the Dutch only needed to draw to go through. Soon Brandts made up for his slip, scoring the equaliser by shooting from twenty yards out and thereby exposing the folly of the Italian plan. Then, inside the final quarter of an hour, Haan underlined the known vulnerability of Zoff to long distance shots, belting one with all the power he could muster. Italy were now two-one down with no hope at all of scoring twice in retaliation, the match was over and the Dutch would face the hosts in the final.

Forty-eight years of waiting had taken their toll on the Argentines sense of fair play. Thus when the Dutch team trooped out in front of the seventy-six thousand strong crowd at the River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires on 25 June 1978, they were left to stand for five minutes, eventually the Dutch started to kick some balls to relieve the tension. Soon afterwards captain Daniel Passarella lead his players out. The crowd erupted and unleashed ticker tape all over their players. Seeking to capitalise on this act of gamesmanship, Passarella then complained to the referee about the plaster on the right hand of Rene van der Kerkhof, who had been wearing it ever since injuring two bones in the first game the Dutch had played in the tournament. This gamesmanship was clearly pre-planned, and it was surprising that the referee, Sergio Gonella of Italy, fell for it. Quite rightly Neeskans protested, and he was supported by his captain Rud Krol who indicated to his players that they should leave the pitch. At which point it began to dawn upon the referee that he was being made a fool of; fortunately, he came up with a face saving solution, Kerkhof would have to wrap his hand and the plaster in a soft bandage, which, of course made no real difference. But at least the game could begin. However, the Argentine ruse had one effect, the Dutch players were angered. An anger not lessened by persistent Argentine fouling, particularly by Galvan, who went unpunished. The Dutch dominated the opening exchanges, but were unable to exchange their advantages for something tangible, like a goal. Slowly the Argentine players began to come back into the game. Then Kempes scored, thirty-eight minutes into the game, which sent the crowd into paroxysms of joy. Yet the Dutch did not wilt, again and again they attacked the Argentine goal. With the referee losing some control over the game there was an enormous amount of kicking, from both sides; somehow the Dutch managed to keep going, and then with eight minutes to go, Nanninga headed home the equaliser. The players were tired, especially the Dutch, thus it was a disappointment for the European players when Resenbrink’s last shot of the ninety minutes struck the post instead of going in. In extra time, the Dutch, who were thoroughly exhausted, had no answer to Kempes’s rampaging runs. Hence it was no surprise when the South Americans scored two more. Argentina had won the World Cup for the first time.

© 2006 World Cup Years Ltd.