1978 World Cup: A first title for Argentina

The World Cup returned to South America in 1978, but political instability in Argentina almost derailed the tournament from taking place before a ball was even kicked.

The Argentines defeated the Dutch in extra time in a thrilling final in Buenos Aires

Argentina's Mario Kempes celebrates scoring against the Netherlands in the 1978 World Cup final in Buenos Aires. ((Getty Images))

The World Cup returned to South America in 1978, but political instability in Argentina almost derailed the tournament from taking place before a ball was even kicked.

Whereas FIFA was concerned in 1974 about the possibility of Arab terrorism in West Germany in the aftermath of the Munich Massacre, in 1978 it was the threat of violence from within Argentina that worried soccer's world governing body the most.


  • Number of participating teams: 16
  • Top scorer: Argentina's Mario Kempes (6 goals)
  • Number of games: 38
  • Total goals scored: 102
  • Average goals per game: 2.68
  • Highest scoring game: West Germany's 6-0 win over Mexico on June 6 and Argentina's 6-0 win over Peru on June 21
  • Total attendance: 1,610,215
  • Average attendance: 42,374


Argentina had fallen under the brutal military dictatorship of General Jorge Rafael Videla, who came to power in a 1976 coup d'état that deposed Argentina's president, Isabel Martinez de Peron. For two years, thousands of people had been killed by Videla's ruling military junta, including Omar Actis, president of the World Cup Organizing Committee, who was assassinated by guerrillas.

Led by the Netherlands, several nations talked of boycotting the World Cup in protest against Videla's totalitarian regime and its violation of human rights. Eventually, the dictator exercised some diplomacy and guaranteed there would be no bloodshed during the competition, and the boycott never happened.

As per custom, the reigning world champions had the honour of opening up the festivities. This was not same West Germany team that won on home soil four years earlier - Franz Beckenbauer quit the national team the year before and Paul Breitner stayed at home - and it showed in the tournament opener on June 1 in Buenos Aires, a goalless draw against Poland.

West Germany thumped Mexico 6-0 in their next game, but was again held to a goalless draw, this time by World Cup newcomers Tunisia. Poland topped Group B ahead of the Germans who narrowly advanced to the next round.

Supported by rabid, intimidating crowds in Buenos Aires, Argentina was victorious against Hungary and France, making its World Cup return after 12 years, before hitting a brick wall and falling 1-0 to an attack-minded Italy.

The win locked up first place in Group A for the Italians, and forced second-place Argentina, who had played all three of its games in the capital, to contest its second-round games in Rosario. The Argentines advanced, but they hardly looked dangerous, with goal-scoring threat Mario Kempes being shut out in all three games.

Austria was the surprise winner in Group C ahead of Brazil (on goal difference), sending Sweden and Spain home early.

Over in Group D, Peru was in charge after defeating Scotland and Iran, another World Cup debutante, and holding the Netherlands to a 0-0 draw. The Dutch had a precarious grip on second-place over Scotland going into their final contest of the group.

The Scots, hugely disappointing up until that point, came alive against the powerful Dutch, taking a 3-1 lead with just over 20 minutes to play on the strength of two goals from Archie Gemmill, the second one being among the best ever scored at the World Cup.

Scotland needed one more goal to finish in second place on goal difference, but the Dutch ended Scotland's dreams of advancing when Johnny Rep scored in the 72nd minute. The Netherlands lost, but it was enough to see them through to the next round. Scotland, having taken it to their opponents, won many admirers for their cavalier play in one of the best games of the competition.

Italy and West Germany, old acquaintances at the World Cup, were together again in the second group staged and played to a 0-0 draw in the opener. It was in the second round that the Netherlands, after a slow start, began to show their class. They opened with a 5-1 win over Austria and scored a late equalizer to earn a 2-2 draw with West Germany.

MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT: Scotland's 3-2 win over the Netherlands in the first round. It wasn't enough to send them through to the next round, but Scotland's improbable win over the powerful Dutch was a major upset and an entertaining game that will be forever remembered for Archie Gemmell's brilliant goal.

MAN OF THE TOURNAMENT: Mario Kempes. Kempes was held of the score sheet in the opening round, but the man they called El Matador  - The Matador, quickly found his scoring touch and finished as the tournament's top scorer with six goals. He scored four times in the second round and twice in the final, including the winner in extra time, to lead Argentina to its first World Cup.

SPOTLIGHT: Archie Gemmell's goal for Scotland against the Dutch was a picture of pure grace and ballet, easily one of the greatest goals in World Cup history.

With his team leading 2-1 in the 68th minute, Gemmill picked up the ball just outside the penalty area and effortlessly slalomed past three Dutch defenders, leaving them purely awestruck in his wake, before sublimely chipping the ball over onrushing goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed and into the net.

The goal became such a hallmark of Scottish culture that author Irvine Welsh worked it into his landmark 1993 debut novel, Trainspotting (made into a movie three years later starring Ewan McGregor).

Mark Renton, the book's protagonist, meets young Diane in a bar and the two wind up back at her place for a night of passion. After reaching climax with Diane, Mark screams out, "I haven't felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978!"

AND ANOTHER THING: South America has always had a turbulent relationship with FIFA over staging the World Cup. Before Argentina, the previous time a South American country held the World Cup was in 1962 in Chile - a span of 16 years.

The 1986 World Cup was originally awarded to Colombia, but the country ran into financial difficulties and Colombian authorities declared in late 1982 that they could not afford to stage the competition. The following year, FIFA selected Mexico as replacement hosts.

The World Cup will return to South America when Brazil hosts the tournament in 2014, an amazing 36 years after the continent last staged the event.

Italy also beat the Austrians, setting up a do-or-die showdown with the Netherlands in Buenos Aires with the winner advancing to the final.

Dutch defender Ernie Brandts managed to score on his own goal in the 18th minute to give the Italians a 1-0 lead, but then made amends when he netted the equalizer shortly after the start of the second half. Arie Haan unleashed a 40-yard thunderbolt that beat Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff with 15 minutes left to secure the win for the Dutch in a thriller.

The Netherlands clearly deserved to go through, but things weren't so clear in the other group where Argentina, admittedly playing better than it did in the first round, advanced under controversial circumstances.

Argentina and Brazil each won their first game and then battled to a goalless draw. In the final game of the second round, Brazil bested Poland 3-1 in the afternoon, meaning Argentina had to defeat Peru by at least four goals in its final game later that same evening.

Brazil looked to be as good as in. Surely, Argentina's goose was cooked.

It wasn't.

Argentina thumped Peru 6-0, the result leading to accusations that Peru, with no chance of moving on to the final, had been bought off - or threatened by the military junta - and laid down for the hosts.

The "evidence" suggested collusion: Argentina had only scored six goals in the competition up to that point, the same number Peru had allowed. Sceptics also pointed out that Peruvian goalkeeper Ramon Quiroga was born in Argentina, and that the Argentine government stood to suffer massive financial losses without its team in the final. There appeared to be something rotten in the state of Argentina.

Nevertheless, nobody could prove the two teams conspired together - a charge both countries vehemently dispute to this day - and Argentina prepared to take on the Netherlands.


Argentina and the Netherlands gathered on June 25 for the final, the vociferous and intimidating crowd at Buenos Aires's Estadio Monumental giving the hosts a tremendous psychological advantage.

The stadium was such a cauldron of tension and electricity - fans pounded drums on the terraces, lit flares and threw more streamers onto the field than the average tickertape parade - that the Dutch players voiced their concern to FIFA officials prior to the match about leaving the stadium alive should they win.

The hosts seized on this apprehension and scored first, the devastating forward Mario Kempes finding the back of the net just before halftime. His strike partner, Leopoldo Luque, made a glorious run down the left and drew the defence with him before crossing the ball into the middle where Kempes ran onto it and hammered it past Dutch goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed.

The Netherlands rallied at the start of the second half, raining down on Argentina's goal and peppering Ubaldo Fillol with shots, but the Agentine goalkeeper made one brilliant save after another.

The Dutch had taken over the game and after being thwarted so many times they managed a goal with eight minutes left in regulation when substitute Dirk Nanninga concluded a sweeping move by Arie Haan and headed a cross from Rene van de Kerkhof past Fillol.

Argentina was staggering and ripe for the picking. The simplest of blows would have knocked them down to the canvas and handed the game to the Netherlands. Instead, the Dutch threw a wild punch that didn't land - forward Robbie Rensenbrink's shot from inside the six-yard box beat the goalkeeper but hit the post. Rensenbrink's unbelievable miss cost his country the World Cup.

It was Argentina who came out revived in extra time, Kempes taking control of the game when he dribbled past three Dutch players before smashing in a rebound past Jongbloed in the 105th minute.

Bedlam erupted at Estadio Monumental as the locals could smell blood, and it was Kempes who delivered the fatal blow, bursting through the Dutch defence again before setting up Daniel Bertoni to score with five minutes remaining.

Argentina's victory was a team effort: Fillol's outstanding goalkeeping, captain Daniel Passarella's leadership in defence and Ossie Ardiles's tireless running in midfield all played a major part in the victory.

But there could be no denying that it was Kempes who made the difference. Shut out in the first three games of the tournament, he came alive in the second round and scored crucial goals when it mattered most - in extra time in the final. Argentina's first World Cup title was won on the strength of his golden boot.

Almost 50 years after crossing the River Plate by boat and losing in Uruguay in the inaugural World Cup final, Argentina fulfilled its destiny and was crowned World Cup champions on home soil.


  • Dutch forward Rob Rensenbrink scored the 1,000th goal in World Cup history, converting a penalty shot in the Netherlands's 3-2 loss to Scotland.
  • Despite media and fan backlash, Argentina's coach Cesar Luis Menotti decided not to select a certain 17-year-old Diego Maradona for his World Cup roster.
  • After appearing in four consecutive World Cups, West Germany manager Helmut Schon retired following the 1978 competition. He still holds the record for most World Cup appearances (25) and wins (16) by a manager.
  • Mario Kempes, who at the time played with Valencia in Spain's La Liga, was the only foreign-based player on Argentina's World Cup roster - the rest of the squad played in Argentina's domestic league.
  • For the second straight time, England failed to qualify for the World Cup. England lost only once in their six qualifying matches, against Italy in Rome, but the Italians advanced (both teams finished tied for first in the group with 10 points) thanks to a superior goal difference.
  • Tunisia's 3-1 win against Mexico in the opening round marked the first victory by an African nation at the World Cup. Tunisia later held defending champions West Germany to a goalless draw.
  • Franz Beckenbauer was only 32 when the 1978 World Cup rolled around, but he retired from the national team the year before when he left German club Bayern Munich and signed a multi-million dollar deal with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League.
  • Dutch defender Ernie Brandts holds the unique distinction of being the only player to ever score a goal and an own-goal in a single World Cup game. In the second round, he mistakenly put the ball into his own net to hand Italy a 1-0 lead, but quickly made up for his error by scoring early in the second half, this time against the Italians.