As a Scottish schoolboy who was in love with goal nets and the prospect of Scotland becoming world champions, the Argentina World Cup in 1978 couldn’t have seared more had I been sirloin scorched on the parilla.
While I’d never experienced anything like the disappointment of Scotland failing in their opening game against Peru, equally, I’d never seen anything like the goals installed uniformly at the tournament stadia.
The nets were stunning. Brilliant white and pulled taut at the seams into squared corners as if draped over the stanchion of an A-frame. Suspended by L-supports which I recognised from Scotland’s televised friendly against Brazil at the Maracana the previous summer, they were framed by elliptical hardware with–get this—black bands painted on the bottom of the posts.
The white nets were beautiful, alluring even as Cubillas rocket-shot from 25 yards billowed behind Alan Rough for 2-1 Peru. But it was the black bands at the base of the posts that were the TV eye-candy. They drew the eye magnetically each time the goals came into camera shot. I found myself unable to look away from the TV at exactly the time that the Scottish nation was switching off.
The black bands drew the eye but they also drew questions: the initial, thrilling “What?” subsiding to a curious “Why?” I knew that this would itch till I scratched.
It itched for nearly 40 years. By that time I had waded through a library of unsatisfactory books and TV documentaries that just missed the point. That was until I found myself accompanying my wife on her PhD research trip to Buenos Aires. There I met the man who painted the posts black—and who explained why.
Unknown to my 10-year old self, in June 1978 Argentina was ruled by a murderous military junta. By the time of the World Cup finals, the junta had “disappeared” thousands of Argentines, many into clandestine torture centres. I accompanied my wife as she researched the social memory of the junta’s violence and I visited the sites of many of these centres.
I was struck by the fact each centre I visited was sited in a high-density urban area. One such clandestine torture centre was Club Atletico, so named because of its proximity to Club Atletico Boca Juniors stadium—La Bombonera. Although this centre was demolished when a highway overpass was built over it and the site is now being excavated, what is most striking about Club Atletico was its location in Buenos Aires CBD. It was anything but clandestine. If the plan was to hide the torture centres, they were hidden in plain sight.
I took respite from the horror in either the rightly-famous Don Julio parilla or the Plaza Italia book market, both in Palermo, which is a leafy suburb in Buenos Aires north. On one occasion I visited both on the same day.
I was in the parilla pulling on a bottle of Quilmes while perusing the vintage full-colour picture book of the 1978 finals I’d manage to score at the market when the waiter approached. Not for my order but instead jutting out his chin in the universal code for, ‘What are you reading?’
I showed him the photo I was looking at. It was a full-page picture of French goalkeeper Jean-Paul Bertrand-Demanes lying injured at the base of the post in les Bleus group game against the hosts. The waiter—a tall, straight-backed elderly gentleman with a crooked smile—looked at the picture then looked at me and asked, in Spanish, “Are you French?”
I shook my head and explained, in my appalling Spanish, that the crumpled goalkeeper wasn’t my interest in the photo—the base of the post, painted black, was. He raised his eyebrows. Then, and was there a glint in his eye as he proceeded to take my order, he advised me that if 1978 was my thing, I should be sure to visit Estadio Monumental, site of the World Cup final.
I went to the Monumental a week later to watch River vs. Boca, the Superclasico: big noise, big colour and big spectacle. The game itself was a grinding, low quality 0-0 which gave me plenty of time to ruminate how little the now-dilapidated stadium had changed since the 1978 World Cup final. The goal nets were now standard box-nets, same as the world over, and the black bands on the posts were long gone. Yet still, it would have been no surprise to see an Adidas Tango football drop from the sky and an apparition of Rob Rensenbrink appear near the six-yard line, stretching out a leg to divert the ball towards goal…
Next day, an Argentine friend arranged for a stadium tour. When we walked on the pitch we roused the groundstaff who were languishing in the autumnal sunshine. I had managed slalom through the Dutch defence and was Mario Kempes bearing down on goal for 2-1 in the World Cup final when a burly, surly, slow moving middle-aged groundsman approached, waving his hands. Like stadium staff everywhere he wanted us off the grass.
I had a South American jag for the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” so, standing in front of the goal I jabbed a thumb and channeled Paul Newman, asking, “What happened to the old goal nets? They were beautiful.”
The groundsman scratched his stomach and belched.
I stood looking at the goal where the globally generic box nets hung in place of nets that were once a work of art. Nets that had blown the mind of a 10-year old who lived thousands of miles and nearly four decades away and considered all we’d lost. My Spanish failed me. “A small price to pay for beauty,” I whispered.
A nudge in the back signalled it was time to go. I turned away from the goal then paused, drawing from the groundsman a sharp look that turned into a lazy shrug when I asked, “What about the black bands at the bottom of the posts?”
“A brush and black paint,” he answered impatiently, the firm hand at the base of my spine pushed me away from goal like the ghost of Daniel Passarella marking Johnny Rep in ’78.
At this point I dug my heels in—literally dug my heels into the Monumental turf—and said, “Not how you painted the black bands. Why?”
After a deep sigh he looked at me, the fight ebbing out of him as he realised I’d travelled too far and obsessed over this question for too long to be pushed away.
He escorted my friend and I to the grounds office, a poky, yellowed room that reeked of stale cigarettes and gestured to the line of black and white photographs on the wall. I was, by now, accustomed to the collage of black and white portraits by which those who were disappeared by the junta in the 1970’s were remembered.
The line of monochrome head shots on the stadium office wall looked no different, so I approached the photos as a wall of remembrance when I noticed in one picture a familiar crooked smile and glint of eye. Still channelling Butch and Sundance, I pointed to the photos and asked, “Who are these guys?”
The groundsman shook a Marlboro out of a pack of 20 and explained that the men in the photos were the groundstaff who worked with the 1978 World Cup organising committee. “If you want to know why they painted the posts black, you’d have to ask these guys.”
I moved in close up to the portrait that I was somehow familiar with, my heart beating in my ears. I concluded that, yes, the man in the photo was nearly forty years younger with a wild, 1970’s Leopoldo Luque hairstyle but the smile, the eyes…for sure, this was the waiter at the Don Julio parrilla!
I pointed at the photo and asked his name. The groundsman blew a smoke ring and said, “Ezequiel Valentini.”
It was over a week later when I returned to Don Julio’s. When I pushed on the door and entered, Ezequiel was pouring wine at table. He turned to look at me, recognition entering his eyes as a smile formed at the corners of his mouth, a quick nod communicating that he knew why I’d returned.
At his afternoon break we sat at a table in the back, the sun angling in through the high window as Ezequiel sipped on a Pepsi and told me why they had painted the base of the posts black in 1978.
“You have to understand,” he said in a low voice. “We had a big problem.” I edged closer as he explained that while the groundstaff had a job to do, they were appalled at the idea of the junta exploiting the World Cup finals for political purposes and horrified by the disappearance of thousands of their compatriots.
“You knew about the disappeared?” I asked.
“By mid-1978 everybody knew,” he said. “The staff, the players, everyone had the same problem. How can we do our best knowing that the generals will benefit?”
I remembered then the old tale of the Argentine manager Cesar Luis Menotti guiding his confused players through this moral maze prior to the World Cup final, advising them not to win for the junta but to win for the metal workers, the butchers, the bakers and the taxi drivers who filled the stadium.
“Already the goal nets, or rather, the method by which we were to suspend the goal nets, had caused a lot of problems,” Ezequiel continued, saying FIFA had only two requests: that there be no stanchions or hardware behind the goal and that the method they employed to suspend the nets should be uniform throughout the six stadia that were to host the games.
“We knew the goal nets would be on display for the whole world to see,” Ezequiel said. “It was important the method used to suspend the nets represented the people of Argentina.”
Both of FIFA’s requests were to prove difficult. Prior to 1978 many Argentine stadia suspended the goal nets with English-style A-frames. Each region of the country had a different design of A-frame and, even at club level, you’d find the A-frames at La Bombonera were different to those at the Monumental, even though both stadia were within Buenos Aires.
“The stanchions were a part of regional or club identity,” Ezequiel said, “so replacing them was not going to be straightforward.”
And what were the stanchions to be replaced with?
Ezequiel leaned in, smiled his crooked smile and said, “You know us Argentines consider ourselves more European than South American?” I’d heard this often, that as Simon Bolivar had not liberated Argentina from the Spanish, they were different to the other countries of Latin America. “So, naturally, we wanted a European method of suspending the nets.
The staff was keen on the Continental D’s, or triangular elbows that had been so prominent at Euro ’76 in Yugoslavia.
Though it was a decision for the staff—“the junta knew nothing about football”—someone nonetheless caught the ear of an influential general and persuaded him that goal nets in South America had traditionally been suspended by L-supports, as seen at the World Cup in Brazil in 1950.
Ezequiel shook his head at the absurd memory. “The junta was very keen on tradition. Whoever sold them the idea of Brazilian L-supports for a World Cup in Argentina knew exactly what buttons to press.”
The uniformity requested by FIFA—that the nets in all six stadia should be suspended in the same manner so, anyone watching the tournament on TV anywhere in the world would know they were watching Argentina ‘78—caused great anxiety.
“We’re just not a uniform people,” Ezequiel said, looking out the window and musing that if the Argentines were indeed European, they were southern European—Italian maybe, not German.
As an example he cited the local staff in Mendoza who defied both FIFA and the junta to install ‘European’ Continental D supports to suspend the nets for the first match there, which was between Holland and Iran. Ezequiel shrugged, like, what can you do? “We’re just not a uniform people,” he repeated.
And what of the black bands at the base of the posts? Ezequiel touched his bicep and at once I realized: “They were black armbands? They were a protest against the disappearances?”
They were not a protest Ezequiel was quick to point out. Rather, they were a form of remembrance.
“Everyone knew someone who knew someone that had been disappeared. The staff all wanted to protest. By now the Mothers were marching in Plaza de Mayo and we knew the world was watching. We discussed cutting a message into the grass, or painting a message on the advertising hoardings, something the TV cameras would see.”
The ideas were discarded. Publicly protesting against the junta in front of the world was akin to committing suicide. Ezequiel looked me in the eye. “I wasn’t scared for myself. The terror worked in such a way that made you scared for your family and friends.”
With no safe opportunity to help the country protest, it was a colleague of Ezequiel’s who first mooted the idea that they help the country mourn.
“Every single player on each team at the World Cup should have publicly worn a black armband to remember the Argentine dead,” Ezequiel said, jabbing the table with his finger.
The connivance of the international community added to the terror in Argentina ensured that idea would never happen. Ezequiel and his colleagues decided the goalposts would be the public bearer of the black armband instead. First they had to present the idea to the generals.
“They asked what the black bands were for. We told them it was tradition.” Ezequiel chuckled at the memory. “They were clueless about football.”
I mentioned that I’d puzzled over the black bands at the base of the posts for nearly 40 years. Were they worried that no one would know their exact purpose? Ezequiel shook his head. “Thousands were disappeared, presumed dead. Even today it is not possible to say exactly who and how many were killed by the junta. It was enough that they were remembered publicly.”
I lean forward to press the point but Ezequiel is on a roll. “The junta sited their so-called clandestine torture centres in full view of the public. We remembered our dead in full view of the world. Like those centres, our act of remembrance was hidden in plain sight.”
The sun had long dipped behind the building opposite and dusk had fallen on the Palermo streets outside. Ezequiel had to get back to work.
I thanked him for his time then signed my vintage Argentina ’78 picture book and presented it to him as a memento of our time together.
We shook hands and I got up to go.
Ezequiel shouted, “Wait.”
I turned, confused. Did I forget something?
Ezequiel cracked a warm, crooked smile and said, “Don’t you want to know if the Argentina v Peru match was fixed?”
By David Forrest. David is author of The History of Goal Nets.
Header image credit goes fully to @sebastian1906.