Real Madrid vs Valencia CF, Copa del Rey Final 1979

Simplicity is king, especially in a football cup format. Domestic cup competitions owe their mythos to minnows slaying giants, maybe even going on a run through multiple stages. The best formats encourage such runs: no staggered entries, no seeding, no replays. On a given night any team should be able to advance against opposition from a higher flight if luck favours them. An elegant system.

The Copa del Rey in 1978/79 ticks some of those boxes. It seems teams of the same flight would join the competition at different stages. Byes were handed out in the middle of the competition. Return legs reduced the chances for upsets. By the time teams reached the final they could well have played a dozen matches.

Going by their stature and usual level of success, in 1978/79 it had been a while since Real Madrid and Valencia CF had made it that far in the Copa. Whereas Madrid had won back to back editions in ‘74 and ‘75, Valencia had finished runners-up thrice in a row from ‘70 to ‘72.

Not that the road to the final had been all that easy in ‘78/79. Already in the Round of 64 Real went toe to toe with their city rivals. Atlético would go on to finish third in the league that season, and held Real to two draws. The Merengues prevailed on penalties. Valencia’s toughest test came in the Round of 16 going against holders Barcelona. A timely exit looked all but assured after a 1:4 loss at Camp Nou, only for Valencia to win the second leg at home 4:0. Continue reading

Argentina vs Holland, World Cup 1978 Final

What follows is a reimagining of a minute by minute for the World Cup 1978 final.

June 25th 1978, 08:00 UTC-3h: We’ve made it. After three and a half weeks the final day of the World Cup has arrived. 37 matches have all but flown by. 14 teams were weighed and found lacking. Only Argentina and Holland remain. Today we will find out which side will be crowned World Champions. Join us throughout the day and from kick-off for more updates.

12:00 UTC-3h: For Holland it will be the second World Cup final in as many editions. This time, though, they will be hoping for a different outcome. Four years ago Holland looked the finest side in the tournament, yet lost to pragmatic West Germany on the grandest stage. Even though a fair part of that ‘74 squad made the trip to Argentina, it is hardly the same team anymore. Were the Elftal a chess set, both the king and queen are now missing.

Rinus Michels had pulled double duty in 1974 anyway, even jetting between West Germany and Spain during the tournament to fulfill his obligations as Barcelona’s manager. George Knobel took a stab at being Bondscoach next, and led a divided squad to the European Championship in Yugoslavia. Holland lost the semi-final against eventual champions Czechoslovakia but prevailed against the hosts in the Third Place match. Knobel had already handed in his resignation before the start of the tournament, figuring the rifts inside the squad too large to overcome.

Jan Zwartkruis was always thought to be more a stopgap solution, yet qualification for the World Cup 1978 was duly achieved. Rumor has it Zwartkruis still held the reigns in Argentina even though the KNVB had secured the services of Ernst Happel. (A rumor which goes back mainly to Zwartkruis himself.) Mind, it was never likely that a loving relationship would develop between the rather outgoing Dutch players and the gruff and distant Austrian coach.

All of the locker room unrest was compounded by the absence of the nation’s greatest ever player. In October 1977 Johan Cruyff had earned his 50th cap for Holland. It should prove to be his last. Fast forward to the summer of 1978 and Cruyff was seriously mulling retirement. By now 31, injuries had caught up with him. Happel tried to persuade Cruyff with all his might, but the latter did not put on the oranje shirt again. [Only 30 years later would Cruyff reveal that, in 1977, he and his family were subjected to attempted kidnapping. Police protection and death threats were to follow. Leaving his family behind for weeks on end to play football on another continent was under these circumstances unimaginable.]

It is a testament to the quality of the Dutch football system that the side nevertheless reached the final again.

13:00 UTC-3h: It appears the Dutch team bus, on it’s way to the stadium, is stuck in traffic. Little wonder really, as half of Buenos Aires seem out and about. The capital is buzzing with excitement. People flood the streets clad in albiceleste, white and light blue. Flags are waved, ticker tape is raining down. Pictures captured by the TV cameras, sent around the world.

Behind the facade, the military junta reigns. The rights to host the World Cup 1978 had already been awarded to Argentina in 1966. Ten years later the military seized power. Official numbers state 8,961 ‘forced disappearances’ during the ensuing Dirty War. The regime targeted anybody from guerillas and military activists to students and journalists. Voicing political opposition could prove fatal. Estimates put the number of victims closer to 30,000. In Europe people took to the streets to protest against the junta and demanded their national teams boycott the World Cup. Some of the loudest shouts came from the Netherlands.

Amidst inner turmoil and external pressure, a football tournament to the military regime seemed a good platform to promote stability and national unity. An ailing economy was tasked to modernize stadia and infrastructure. The expenditure ran up $700m. An, admittedly bittersweet, anecdote at the intersection in all of this was the World Cup logo. The design evoked a popular pose of former president Juan Perón, greeting a crowd, arms aloft. By the time the junta could have intervened, merchandise had already been produced. To change the design then would have entailed a barrage of lawsuits and anyway, the money was much needed.

[Jonathan Wilson’s marvellous book “Angels With Dirty Faces” is very much recommended for anybody interested in this era of Argentine football history and the surrounding circumstances of the World Cup 1978.] Continue reading

Argentina vs France, World Cup 78 First Round

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. Continue reading