4 Apr 2012

Henry Kissinger and football’s longest unsolved riddle

Argentina’s win against Peru in the 1978 World Cup has always been mired in controversy. Now players tell Channel 4 News they were subject to political interference at the highest level.

Football’s world governing body, Fifa, is never far from the headlines. Unfortunately for the world’s biggest sport, its governance is often discussed in the context of scandal, allegations of corruption, and bungs.

Recent days have been no different – with one of Fifa’s own committees publishing a damning report accusing the organistation of a “systematic” lack of transparency and “clearly unconvincing” sanctions.

Football clubs, too, receive a good deal of criticism – witness Channel 4 News’s investigations these last few weeks into the questionable tax affairs at Scotland’s biggest club, Rangers.

But fans – indeed, the sport itself – rely on the sanctity of competition. That when two teams take to the pitch, what fans see are 22 players who actually want to win. Who will try to the best of their abilities to score more goals than they let in. And without the sporting equivalent of the Hippocratic oath, football becomes the charade that is American pro wrestling.

Yet there are games that haunt football’s collective memory. Was what we witnessed the real deal – or was there a secret agreement to fix the result?

Fixed results?

There is no bigger unsolved mystery in the history of the “beautiful game” than how Argentina came to win the 1978 World Cup. They did it on home turf. It was one of the proudest moments in the nation’s history. But were their results fixed by General Jorge Videla, their military dictator?

I want to propose the annulment of the 1978 World Cup. Argentina should give it back. Genaro Ledesma, trade unionist

And what, if anything, has former US Secretary of State Dr Henry Kissinger got to do with this enduring mystery? Dr Kissinger was invited to Argentina to watch their World Cup triumph, invited as a personal and controversial guest of the regime’s brutal president.

But first let’s put this in context. Consider the potential global impact of those jubilant images of Argentina’s first World Cup success, because Argentina’s military junta was in something of a bind at the time. The World Cup was held during the dirty war, when tens of thousands of left-wing political activists were “disappeared” by the state.

Former Peruvian senator Genaro Ledesma has a theory that he claims explains all you need to know about the 1978 World Cup. He told Channel 4 News: “I want to propose the annulment of the 1978 World Cup. Argentina should give it back. It should be investigated by Fifa and by the Argentinian judiciary.”

Secret political deal

At the time, Ledesma was a trades union organiser in Peru. He claims the Peruvian government had him and several other left-wingers abducted to Argentina for torture. And he didn’t just tell this to Channel 4 News, but a special court in Argentina set up to investigate human rights abuses.

It was part of a secret political deal, Ledesma claims, to help Argentina rebrand itself by winning the most important trophy in world sport. Peru would send its political prisoners to Argentina “in order to disappear them”, he claims.

And the deal was sealed, he reckons, with an offer the Argentine junta just couldn’t refuse. “Peru’s President Morales Bermudez offered to return the favour by losing their World Cup game with Argentina by a large score.”

In a pivotal match that would decide who made it to the World Cup final, Argentina needed to beat Peru by at least four goals, otherwise the hosts would be knocked out. But Peru – a very good team back in ’78 – played inexplicably badly. Argentina were leading 2-0 at half time and went on to win 6-0. It was a huge and surprising margin.

‘We were pressured’

Jose Velasquez was one of Peru’s best players. He was surprisingly substituted half way through the game, because, he told Channel 4 News, his government had ordered the team to lose.

Were we pressured? Yes. What kind of pressure? Pressure from the government. Jose Velasquez, Peruvian footballer

“Were we pressured? Yes, we were pressured. What kind of pressure? Pressure from the government. From the government to the managers of the team, from the managers of the team to the coaches.”

Peru’s military president at the time, Morales Bermudez, insists that by 1978 he was charting his country towards democracy. There have been rumours about the World Cup team’s capitulation before. Explanations at the time involved shipments of grain and suitcases of mafia cash.

But a murky deal with the Argentine military? Bermudez recently told Peruvian television these latest allegations were just fantasy.

Into the opposition dressing room

With Argentina’s leaders, however, there is a different story. Their then dictator, General Jorge Videla, is now in jail for life, convicted of crimes against humanity. Not quite justice, but at least an official explanation for what happened to some of the many victims of his regime.

What about Videla’s alleged role in securing that 78 World Cup title? We still just can’t be sure.

We do know this: during the tournament Videla was regularly seen in the stadium during Argentina games. In the VIP box, waving at the team. It wasn’t the only place he was seen, though. And this is where the plot gets even more murky.

In the moments before that key game against Peru, the military dictator – the all-powerful figurehead of a vicious regime – walked through the bowels of the stadium and right into the opposition team’s dressing room. A team he was hoping would lose.

Astonishing guest

And what happened next is the subject of fierce debate. Several Peru players have now told Channel 4 News, Videla took with him a most astonishing guest: one of the world’s most powerful statesmen – the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The pictures of them together in the stadium would be flashed around the world. Being filmed gladhanding with a figure as influential as Kissinger brought Argentina’s violent right wing regime kudos and respect.

With the results of the must-win game against Peru by now allegedly fixed – it was a priceless PR coup. But for the team though – it was troubling. For what on earth were they doing there?

Peru’s former captain, Hector Chumpitaz, told us: “It seemed like they were there just to greet and welcome us… They also said that they hoped it would be a good game because there was a great deal of anticipation amongst the Argentine public. He wished us luck, and that was it.”

I was changed in the tenth minute of the second half. There was no reason to change me. Hector Chumpitaz, former Peru captain

The players just couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

“We started looking at each other and wondering: shouldn’t they have gone to the Argentine room, not our room? What’s going on? I mean, they wished us luck? Why? It left us wondering….”

As has the world of football ever since. The game began. Peru mysteriously started leaking goals. At half time Argentina still needed two more to make it to the final. And then the plot thickens further still. Why was one of Peru’s best players taken off? Jose Velasquez is still angry.

“Something happened. Our team was changed. I was changed in the tenth minute of the second half – when we were already losing by two goals. There was no reason to change me. I always was an important piece in our team. So what can one think?”

No recollection

Well, what can one think? Argentine newspaper headlines at the time hailed the heroics of the national team. But was it in fact fixed by the Argentine regime?

We approached Dr Kissinger to see if he noticed anything suspicious that day. He is, after all, a lifelong football fan who was last year asked by Fifa, no less, to help investigate corruption.

We know that several Peru players claim Dr Kissinger came right into their private dressing room. If he did, did he see anything suspicious? Did he hear anything suspicious?

Well, his spokesman has told Channel 4 News that he didn’t. That “he has no recollection of being in Peru’s dressing room at all” with his friend, the Argentine dictator.

A dictator in jail for life, who’s now accused of agreeing to undertake torture for his political friends in Peru – in return for Peru helping Argentina win sport’s most glittering prize.

Did their military regime fix the team’s journey to the final – where Argentina would go on to beat the Netherlands and lift their first World Cup. What exactly happened in that crucial game against Peru?FIFA says it has no plans to probe football’s murkiest unsolved riddle.

Argentina is still learning about the painful crimes of its dirty war – but the enduring mystery of the 1978 world cup? For now, it stays unresolved