His military captors forced him to pose as a journalist for the 1978 World Cup

Illegally detained in 1976, Raúl Cubas was sent to interview Argentina’s men's national football coach

The article in La Nación where Cubas was pictured at Menotti's press conference in 1978. Credit: courtesy Raúl Cubas

Raúl Cubas doesn’t remember the first time Argentina won the FIFA World Cup. He knows that he watched the final at his parents’ home, and recalls as far as the first goal. Everything after that is a complete blackout. He knows from his mother’s telling that they all left to celebrate following Argentina’s 3-1 win over the Netherlands. He walked along the streets cheering, wrapped in a flag, his niece on his shoulders. 

The next thing he remembers, he was back in the clandestine detention center where he was being held captive. Unlike most of the jubilant fans parading through the streets of Buenos Aires, Cubas was free only for that day. At the time, he was a political prisoner of the military government that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983.

The FIFA 1978 World Cup is a bittersweet victory for Argentina. The tournament was both hosted and won by the football-loving nation, but it came at a time the country was under the rule of the most brutal dictatorship it had ever seen, responsible for the forced disappearance of 30,000 people (victims known as desaparecidos, missing.) 

Raúl Cubas in a magazine interview from 1983. Credit: courtesy Raúl Cubas

“I have no recollections. I guess it’s survivor’s guilt. Thinking about why it was me that had the chance of seeing the game with my family,” he says, his gruff voice coming through the phone with an unmistakably Argentine accent, even though he’s lived in Venezuela since 1979.

He’ll drop a chevere from time to time, a Venezuelan word for “cool,” or use the pronoun “tu” instead of the typical form “vos” used in Argentine parlance. But aside from these small variations, you’d be hard-pressed to find a linguistic trace of the country he’s lived in for the past 44 years.  

His story is also painfully familiar for anyone who knows Argentina’s recent history, one of the thousands of people kidnapped, tortured and kept in captivity for years by the dictatorship. Considering the death toll left by the Military Junta, Cubas was fortunate in the sense that he was able to survive the ordeal.

Forty-five years after Argentina won its first FIFA World Cup in 1978 also marks the anniversary of the strangest task Cubas was ordered to do: in May of that year, he was forced to pose as a journalist for his captors and interview the coach of the Argentine Men’s national football team that was gearing up to play the tournament. 

Kidnap, torture, and forced labor

Argentina’s last military dictatorship started with a coup on March 24, 1976. Cubas was kidnapped in October of that year in La Matanza, Buenos Aires province. He was part of the armed militant group Montoneros at that time and was captured after showing up for a meeting that had already been tipped off to the military. 

“Like many militants and activists in those days, I carried around a cyanide pill with me in case I was ever captured. As soon as I knew they had me, I took it. For whatever reason, it didn’t work, and only knocked me out. I woke up I don’t know how many hours later in shackles with a hood over my head,” he says. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was actually in the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA, by its Spanish acronym), one of the most savage concentration camps that operated during the dictatorship.

The basement of the ESMA, the place Cubas was first made to work as a political prisoner. Credit: Wikipedia

He spent his first three months undergoing questioning and torture. He was beaten and underwent mock executions, while also being taken out on drives to identify fellow militants. This went on until December, when he started working as forced labor for the Navy. Even though the torture and the violence ceased, for a while he was still forced to wear shackles and was moved around the compound with either a hood or a blindfold. 

His first assignment was listening to wiretaps on fellow militants, politicians, and union leaders and reporting what he heard. This went on until September of 1977, when he was transferred to a section of the ESMA called “The Fishbowl,” where he was tasked with learning which activist and militant groups the military’s detainees belonged to, as well as reading newspapers and finding articles critical of the dictatorship, part of what the military called the “anti-Argentina campaign.” 

Cubas came across The Herald on numerous occasions, as it was the only newspaper that printed reports of missing people made by their family members. 

“Lieutenant Jorge Rolón, who was in charge of The Fishbowl, told me I had to log all the missing people reports made by family members in the paper. Captain Perrén, who was my supervising officer, was also at that meeting, and spoke of the Buenos Aires Herald editor and publisher Robert Cox in very harsh terms, saying ‘this Brit is dangerous because he publishes information on the disappeared without checking if there’s even been an official complaint filed in the judiciary.’”

Cubas was told to deliver two weekly reports, one with news articles critical of the dictatorship, and another with the Herald’s missing persons reports. In numerous interviews over the years, Cox has said that he only reported on missing persons cases in which the family had already filed a habeas corpus, meaning they had formally requested the judiciary intervene. 

“They were the only newspaper that printed stories of the desaparecidos, and I always keep a special place in my heart for The Herald for that,” Cubas said.

It was in this context that he received a strange order from his captors: they wanted him to interview César Menotti, the coach of the national football team, which was getting ready to play the World Cup. In order to do this, he would have to pose as a journalist, step out into the outside world, and act as if nothing was wrong.

A desaparecido in a press conference

The idea of interviewing Menotti was part of the Foreign Affairs Ministry press department’s efforts to generate favorable coverage for the dictatorship. The intent was to use it as press material that could be later distributed by Argentine embassies around the world. They asked Cubas to do it because he was a football fan working with media coverage in the ESMA and had worked at a magazine prior to being kidnapped. 

The article in La Nación where Cubas was pictured at Menotti's press conference in 1978. Credit: courtesy Raúl Cubas
The article in La Nación where Cubas was pictured at Menotti’s press conference in 1978. Credit: courtesy Raúl Cubas

“I accepted because it was proof of the trust they had in me, which meant that my chances of survival were greater. I wasn’t in an emotional state where I could consider escape, plus I knew that if I did escape, my parents would pay the price. What I did plan to do, if given the chance, was slip Menotti a list of the people detained with me,” says Cubas about the planning.

The military went out and bought him what could only be considered the “journalist uniform” of the day: pants, shoes, a shirt, a tie and a formal jacket. He left the ESMA in a car along with Rolón and two other military officers towards the Ezeiza training camp, where the team was practicing. Upon entering he saw that the security at the gate was personnel he had seen in the ESMA, confirming to him that the Navy had their hands in various institutions related to the World Cup. 

He participated in a press conference with five or six sports writers from publications like El Gráfico, Goles and Clarín. After it was over, the military commanders instructed him to interview Menotti. Cubas asked if he could go alone, saying he would get too nervous if they were around. Surprisingly they agreed, leaving him on his own while they went to talk to other journalists. 

Menotti’s first reaction was surprise that a Foreign Ministry press department would be interested in sports. Cubas started doing the interview, with his mind racing and going over and over in his head what he should do with the list of people detained at the ESMA. At the last minute, he decided against it.

“It was so surreal that I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t give him a list without explaining what it was, and in order to do that I would have risked getting caught,” he says. He went back and wrote the article, which, as far as he knows, was never published. He later asked someone who worked at the Foreign Ministry if there was anything in their files, but they couldn’t find anything.

The next day, he saw his picture as part of the media scrum published in La Nación. He didn’t report it to his captors. Instead, he cut it out and kept it for himself. 

He has never spoken to Menotti again but says he would like to, and ask him a very precise question. “I would like to know what he would have done had he received a list of people who were disappeared at the time.”

“At the time, I had contradictory feelings regarding the World Cup. On the one hand, I didn’t want anything that could give the dictatorship any sort of good press, but at the same time, my passion for football would win over and I would find myself rooting for Argentina.”

Raúl Cubas works with numerous NGOs in Venezuela devoted to the protection of human rights. Foto: courtesy Raúl Cubas

Cubas was freed in January 1979 and went into exile in Venezuela, where his partner at the time had a brother who had already fled. In Cubas’ telling, political prisoners had two possible exit routes at the time, aside from being shot dead or thrown out of an airplane in the “death flights.”

“You were offered to either stay in Argentina and work for the military, or you could be released, but you had to leave the country. It wasn’t up to you, but I had always made it clear I couldn’t stay, for security reasons and my parents would be worried sick about what could happen to me. “I had four family members who were disappeared at the time,” he said, referring to a brother, a sister, and two inlaws, a brother-in-law and his brother.

The recent World Cup win in Qatar represented a special moment for Cubas. “It was the first time since my time in ESMA that I was able to enjoy a World Cup. Even during the 1986 World Cup win, I was still very bitter and haunted by memories of everything that had happened. Maybe it was because so much time has passed, or the ‘Messi effect’, but I enjoyed it with my children and grandchildren.”

Two months ago he was in Argentina and visited ESMA for the sixth time after being released with a French journalist and documentary crew. It was the first time he left without feeling the anguish that had plagued him in prior visits.  

“I guess time really does set things in place,” he says.


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