Football is a simple game: one ball, two goals, 22 players, in the end ze Germans win. And, ever since 1930, 16 teams from around the world compete every four years to determine their champion. On three occasions that contingent of 16 teams was not even fully exhausted, but that magic number should become obsolete. For 24 teams would be there in Spain 1982.
Qualification is very much automatic for most of the big sides these days. The doldrums of international weekends will only increase as the World Cup is expanded even further. One can’t help but think that even just qualifying and competing in the tournament just used to mean so much more.
In 1978 hosts Argentina and holders West Germany were already qualified, which meant only 14 spots were up for grabs. Just shy of 100 countries competed in qualifying. And so here the coming expansion very much does make sense. No wonder the list of teams missing out in ‘78 included illustrious sides such as the European Champions Czechoslovakia, Argentina’s arch-rivals Uruguay, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and, for the second time running, England.
On the other hand Austria were back first time since ‘58. France, Hungary and Spain hadn’t made it through since ‘66. Hungary even had to beat Bolivia in a two-legged Intercontinental Play-off for the final spot, but did so convincingly with a 9:2 aggregate win. They were rewarded with a place in Group 1, which today would carry the moniker “Group Of Death”. It featured the hosts, France and Italy – the latter having bested England in qualifying by way of superior goal difference.
France had booked their passage picking up five points in four matches against Bulgaria and the Republic of Ireland. On the second matchday in Argentina they met the hosts at El Monumental. And already had their backs to the wall.
France feel the pressure, open strong
Having gone up within the first minute, France had nevertheless lost their first match against Italy, 1:2. The same scoreline saw Argentina winning their opener against Hungary. Italy set the tone for the second matchday as the trounced Hungary in the early afternoon kick-off: Gli Azzurri were 3:0 up after an hour, with 3:1 the final score. Thus a second loss for France would ensure an early exit.
It’s a nervy start from both sides but the potential for a good match is visible early on. France do well to stifle the first couple of Argentinian moves, then look to break quickly stringing together a series of passes with few touches. The last pass into the box is missing.
France are set up in an altogether narrow 4-3-3. The centre backs stand just 10-12 yards apart with the full backs another 10-12 yards outside of that, but also 12-15 yards up. In central midfield Dominique Bathenay sits a few yards deeper on the left than Henri Michel does on the right. In front of them Michel Platini, already heavily involved from the start, is free to move around to either wing while attacking, and moves into the midfield line while defending to make it a row of three central defensive midfielders.
France look to open play through the middle, as little to no pressure is put onto the ball-handling centre back from the Argentinian forwards. With France advancing, Argentina tighten around their own box without setting up too deep, though. Eight Argentinians are set up between 20-30 yards out.
The first good chance of the game falls to France. Even though Argentina finally show a bit more intensity in the press during the French build-up, Platini is able to shift play to the right wing, where Rocheteau and Michel combine to evade multiple tackles. Bernard Lacombe had snuck in behind the defence, receives the cross at the far post but can’t place his diving header as it goes straight into the arms of goalkeeper Fillol (9’).
The hosts look to play vertically once given the chance. Play will generally be opened through the full backs. One of the forwards will then drop back to provide a short option, another will start a run into the space behind the French defence which, at 35 yards out, is positioned somewhat high. In the early going the French defenders are very sharp in denying that short opening move as they quickly harass their man when an Argentinian forward receives the ball with his back towards goal, giving him little space to turn.
After 15 minutes les Bleus have established themselves in the match. The full backs are now becoming more adventurous, providing overlap options on the wings. A simple move earns them another big opportunity. Didier Six beats his man on the left wing. His cross towards the near post is not very convincing, but as Rocheteau is quicker than his marker he nevertheless gets a stab at it, missing narrowly (16’).
Coming for the cross Fillol collides with one of his teammates who was also late to the ball. Fillol needs medical attention, gets up gingerly, but can resume play.
France falter, Argentina pounce
The first bit of danger for the goal of Bertrand-Demanes comes from an Osvaldo Ardiles solo down the right half-channel. The Huracán midfielder does well to evade three tackles, but a bit of confusion amongst the forwards over who should go for the cross has the chance come to naught (18’).
Just moments later Leopoldo Luque breezes by Christian López, leaving the centre back standing like he were a mere schoolboy. Still, the numbers advantage holds France above water at the back (18’). It’s all a bit reliant on individual skill but the Albiceleste have finally introduced themselves.
Soon enough the Argentinian forwards are again their own worst opponent. Both Mario Kempes and Luque are left by the French defence with ample room to go for a chipped cross. Being consummate goalgetters both of course do go for it themselves. Kempes is in the better position, but his shot is blocked by Bertrand-Demanes (21’).
French superiority is deteriorating quickly as les Bleus lose the numbers battle all across the field. Most notable is Argentina’s defensive positioning: Luis Galván anchors what is nominally a back-three with Alberto Tarantini to his left and Jorge Olguín to his right. Running the risk of being stretched to no end trying to man mark the wide forwards, both would either: 1) tuck in while receiving support from Ardiles and Jose Valencia on the outside, or 2) stay wide on one or both wings with Americo Gallego and/or Daniel Passarella dropping into the back-line from central midfield (see graphic above).
In central midfield Platini finds it hard to get anything going, two defenders are seemingly always on him as soon as he gets the ball. Trying to use their height advantage up front France by-pass Platini more and more anyway, sending high crosses into the box; to little effect. A bright spot in the offense is Michel whose deep runs pull defenders out of position.
On the other end Ardiles is the motor on offense. Half an hour in he creates and finishes a move by himself: After intercepting a pass intended for Bathenay, Ardiles plays it out to Houseman, makes the run towards the first post, gets on the end of the cross, but blasts an off-balance shot into the sky.
France rattled, Kempes & Luque on the same page
With the prior results in mind it’s clear France are afraid of making the first mistake. This results in an altogether unconcentrated end to the first half as the French play is stifled by a very poor distribution around and out of the back. A lot of balls from the centre backs into central midfield are completely unusable, even with little to no pressure from the Argentinian forwards.
Kempes and Luque finally get on the same page, combining for a one-two down the middle. The pair have the French defence back-pedalling, are allowed too much space, as Kempes hits a hard shot from 15 yards. Bertrand-Demanes is beaten but the shot hits the post (41’).
The next time he would not be as lucky. Kempes had started a run just inside the French half, brought up the ball towards the box, and, at around 20 yards, chips a pass towards Luque. Among the French defence only Marius Trésor reacts. Luque gets a shot off while Trésor tries to tackle him. As both go down a penalty is given. It’s likely less for a foul but for a handball as Trésor blocks Luque’s shot while going in for the tackle.
It falls upon the captain himself to take the penalty. Passarella converts with a hard shot towards the bottom right corner for the last action of the first half.
The tournament on the line, France come out of the dressing rooms with the necessary urgency, but can’t lower the error rate to start. Argentina do well enough to keep France out of the attacking third. A bit of reprieve is offered by Luque running at the French defence.
Platini gets on the scoresheet
Kempes and Valencia combine after a throw-in with the latter heaving a lobbed shot at goal from 40 yards out (56’). It had the accuracy, but Bertrand-Demanes wasn’t caught out. However, going for the save he ends up hitting his lower back against the post. The Nantes mainstay is stretchered off under applause and replaced by Baratelli.
His side aren’t wobbled. Patrick Battiston is on the ball high up on the right wing, drawing two defenders. As the right half-channel opens up, Battiston chips a pass into Lacombe’s path. Lacombe lobs the ball over Fillol, hits the bar, but rebound is converted by Platini (61’).
Both sides are playing for the win now. Both also very stretched as players distributed all over the field. Trying to gap the midfield as quickly as possible many more long balls are being sent up either way, something that hadn’t been seen before. The match breaks down into a lot of take-ons and little one on ones.
The best chance for France to turn around the match comes after Platini plays a terrific through ball for Six, who rides a tackle, but rather than take it around Fillol, goes for an early shot. Fillol works a good angle, forcing the shot wide by a yard or two (70’).
Leaving Luque unmarked spells French exit
Shortly before Six’ attempt, Menotti had made a sub, bringing on Norberto Alonso for Valencia. Alonso slots into central midfield behind Ardiles, though, before he can make much of an impression he’s down injured, receives treatment, and, within seven minutes, is himself replaced by Oscar Ortiz.
Having a team-mate subbed out injured seems to be the key to scoring in this match. Following the French example of around ten minutes earlier, Argentina find the back of the net just moments after Ortiz’ introduction.
The French defence have only themselves to blame. Luque had run rampant all match and is now given a respectful 5 yards of space on all sides as he receives the ball from, I believe, Houseman around 25 yards in front of the French goal. Within two touches Luque traps the ball, turns and puts a shot just inside the left post for the 2:1 (73’).
Though visibly shaken, there is little use holding anything back now for France. Hidalgo opts for more size in his forward line, moving Trésor up. Platini and Six combine again. This time Six is pushed taking the ball into the box but goes down a tad too easy to receive a penalty (79’).
France are altogether unconvincing. Even though Platini is finally grabbing the match by the scruff of its neck, his side is still making too many simple mistakes going forward, as well as being to lax defending against the ball once they lose it. The press is on only in the last third, the tackles coming overly hard as well. Kempes (80) and Luque (82) are both brought down with some frustration thrown in.
Luque gets the worst of it. As the goalscorer receives treatment on the sidelines, Argentina play out the closing minutes with ten players. Nevertheless they can hardly be bothered by France at this point.
A week into the World Cup and France had been eliminated. They would beat Hungary 3:1 in a dead rubber match to claim third place in the group. In the parallel tie Italy eeked out a 1:0 victory over Argentina to claim top honours. For the second group phase Argentina would move on to Group B, coming up against Poland, Brazil, and Peru. As runners-up they would now be playing their matches in Rosario instead of Buenos Aires.
- Man Of The Match: Ossie Ardiles, Argentina’s facilitator on offense, constant threat, defensive backup on the right wing
- Best Hair: Didier Six, with Oscar Ortiz and Leopoldo Luque strong runners-up, Cesar Menotti an honourable mention
- Viewing recommendation: Definitely worth a watch, at least in the highlights below (beware, the sound is a mess in that video)
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