Review: Blood on the Crossbar: The Dictatorship’s World Cup

Dylan Moore reviews Blood on the Crossbar, a new novel by Rhys Richards

On the day of an iconic World Cup quarter final clash in Qatar, Dylan Moore reviews Rhys Richards’ book about another time football was soiled by sportwashing

Argentina versus the Netherlands is one of the iconic fixtures of World Cup history. 

As Lionel Messi and Virgil Van Dijk and their teams step onto the pitch tonight at Education City Stadium in Doha, they will evoke the collective memory not only of two proud footballing nations but a whole planet that has become familiar with the generational clash of Oranje and Albiceleste

The white and sky blue stripes of Argentina and the bright orange jerseys of the Netherlands were first juxtaposed in the second group stage of the 1974 World Cup, in Gelsenkirchen – in what was then West Germany, a reminder of the way football history is written across the very story of the world. A 4-0 victory for the Dutch was inspired by the genius of Johan Cruyff. 

A generation later, Dennis Bergkamp supplied the magic in Marseille, scoring one of most memorable goals in all of World Cup history to secure a 2-1 win. 

And while the most recent World Cup encounter between these two heavyweights of international football culminated in another Netherlands win – 4-2 on penalties in a Sao Paulo semi in 2014 – it is Argentina’s victory in the 1978 showpiece that lives longest in legend.

Discomforting compromises and a heady mix of money, power, hypocrisy, corruption and human rights abuses are equally relevant in Qatar, 44 years on.

This was the final of Mario Kempes and the ticker tape, and it was mired in controversy from the start, with the home team stalling the kickoff and questioning the legality of a plaster cast on the wrist of the Dutch winger Rene van de Kerkof. There was a hostile atmosphere on and off the pitch, and the ninety minutes ended with the score at 1-1. 

Kempes, who had opened the scoring, added another in extra time – followed by an assist for Daniel Bertoni to put the result beyond doubt, sending Buenos Aires into raptures. 

But as Rhys Richards’ new book Blood on the Crossbar makes clear, there was far, far more to Argentina ‘78 than the considerable drama on the pitch.

If the book’s title is not arresting enough, its subtitle makes clear that the tournament will – in the words of Richards’ conclusion – ‘rightly or wrongly… always be viewed as the Dictatorship’s World Cup’. 

The dictatorship in question is that of General Jorge Videla, who had come to power in Argentina in 1976 following the coup d’etat that deposed the world’s first female president, Isabel Peron. Videla presided over a five-year reign of terror that became known as the ‘Dirty War’, when despicable human rights abuses became the norm and between ten and thirty thousand people were killed or ‘disappeared’. 

Although ‘communist guerillas’ were the supposed target of the US-backed ‘Operation Condor’, framed as an ‘intelligence operation’ across much of Latin America in the 1970s, in reality the continent’s right-wing dictatorships waged merciless campaigns of kidnapping, torture, disappearance and assassination against students, trade unionists, writers, journalists, artists and any citizens suspected of being left-wing activists or even those simply opposed to Washington-backed neoliberalism. 

Blood on the Crossbar begins on 25 June 1978 at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires, with Videla handing over the World Cup to the Argentine captain Daniel Passarella. It is a shame that the opening paragraph’s poetic description of this ‘defining night in the lives of both men as they realise conflicting dreams’ is tarnished by an error: a reference to the Jules Rimet Trophy, which had in fact been retired eight years earlier when Brazil won it for the third time.

Such a glaring editorial oversight in the book’s opening sentence is a shame, but in some ways ironically serves to highlight the fact that one of the many strengths of Blood on the Crossbar is actually Rhys Richards’ meticulous research.

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The book’s acknowledgements reveal the Welsh author’s ‘debt of gratitude’ to friends fluent in the urban vernacular of Buenos Aires; academics with encyclopaedic knowledge of Latin American football, culture and history; and many tireless activists and writers who fought against the dictatorship at the time and championed the stories of its many thousands of victims in the almost half-century since the coup.

Among Richards’ interviewees, many were directly involved in the 1978 World Cup, including Wales’ only representative at the tournament: Treorchy-born referee Clive Thomas, who is chiefly remembered for the blowing the final whistle on a group stage encounter between Brazil and Sweden while the ball was still in flight from a corner, and inadvertently ‘disallowing’ a last-minute winner from Zico.

There is little mystery about why Argentina ‘78 particularly resonates with the present. That opening set piece featuring a victorious footballing hero and a vicious, conniving dictator perfectly encapsulates the inextricability of politics from the apex of the world’s favourite sport.

Richards reminds us that the tournament ‘takes place amid a “dirty war”, where kidnap, torture and murder are practised on an industrial scale’. Discomforting compromises and a heady mix of money, power, hypocrisy, corruption and human rights abuses are equally relevant in Qatar, 44 years on.

Blood on the Crossbar is a kind of love letter to a generation of footballers whose achievements were overshadowed by the inescapable fact that some things are far more important than sport

In Argentina, the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were at least visible in their brave weekly march against the dictatorship; in Qatar, the mothers of the migrant workers who died building stadia have rarely had their voices heard. 2022 is a World Cup where even empty gestures have been silenced. 

What makes Rhys Richards’ book an instant classic of its genre is the careful balance the author brings to his writing about football and about wider society. Richards is both an outstanding sportswriter and an exceptional practitioner of longform journalism. 

Given he was not born at the time of the tournament, one can only applaud the way he has reconstructed a kick-by-kick account of the tournament – tracking the action from the group stages right the way through to the final – whilst also making his prose compelling for those few readers who might not be as obsessed with the sport as most of his readers no doubt will be.

Blood on the Crossbar has a surety of touch that allows the narrative to track the sporting action like a player cam while also being perpetually ready to employ the long lens to provide socio-political context.

Videla’s coup came just a decade before the victory of La Albiceleste in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, a tournament remembered all over the world – and in one country in particular – for the exploits of one Diego Armando Maradona. 

Rhys Richards makes clear that Argentina’s two World Cup winning sides – separated by just eight years, but also the war in Las Malvinas/the Falkland Islands, and the collapse of the dictatorship – are remembered very differently, even in Argentina. 

Among many other things, Blood on the Crossbar is a kind of love letter to a generation of footballers whose achievements were overshadowed by the inescapable fact that some things are far more important than sport. 

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What lifts it onto the very top shelf of football books is the fact it is a serious engagement with the ‘Dirty War’ while never losing its wide-eyed thrall to the hypnotic magic of Argentina’s passion for football. Above all else its sympathies are with the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. 

And its journalistic rigour means there is a lack of romanticism around the uncomfortable realities of the dictatorship’s World Cup. Richards outlines the horrors of the methods used by the Videla regime to dispose of its dissidents, including the dropping of bodies out of planes into the Rio de la Plata, and is just as brutally honest about the scenes that greeted the final whistle at El Monumental: ‘fans drunk on the heady cocktail of patriotic ecstasy, chanting “Viva Videla”.’

In time Richards reports that these conflicted scenes became ‘an albatross around the necks’ of the winning team. In retrospect the players and others involved in the victory were seen as collaborators – the detergent tablets with which the regime conducted their sportswashing. 

Which brings us back, of course, to the present. This year it has not been Argentine dissidents who have disappeared and died, but the migrant labourers who built the stadium on which half of the eyes of the world will fall as Messi and Van Dijk lead out their teams in the latest installment of a rivalry that brings together some of the best of European and South American football cultures.

Many banners in the sea of blue and white at one end of the stadium will be drawing a comparison between two of the greatest players to play the game, Maradona and Messi. 

Not only does Blood on the Crossbar rescue Kempes, Passarella and Bertoni from the shadow of the dictatorship, but in doing so reminds us that despite all of its ugly compromises, its commercialism, its hypocrisy, and its perpetual co-option by those wanting only to exploit its popularity for their own ends, football can also be a vehicle for the hopes of the people.

Blood on the Crossbar: The Dictatorship’s World Cup is published by Pitch Publishing.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.


Dylan Moore is Editor of the welsh agenda. He writes this in a personal capacity.

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