45 years after Argentina’s 1978 World Cup win: ‘We were in a bubble’

Renowned journalist Ernesto Cherquis Bialo discusses the tournament’s legacy, played under the last dictatorship

Mario Kempes scores a goal against Netherlands in the 1978 World Cup finals.

Ernesto Cherquis Bialo (82) is one of the most respected names in Argentine sports journalism. Even though he was born in Uruguay, he spent his entire career across the Rio de la Plata, covering everything from boxing to football. Think about every major sporting event in the last sixty years, and chances are he was probably close by. 

Among the highlights of his long career, he was Editor-in-Chief of El Gráfico, Argentina’s premiere sports magazine published between 1919 and 2018 that had its golden years between the 1940s and 80s. He has also been Sports and Content Manager for Radio Rivadavia, as well as Media Director for the Argentine Football Federation (AFA, its Spanish acronym), among other things. He’s the winner of four Martin Fierro Awards, Argentina’s main Radio and TV awards, as well as the recipient of a 1987 Konex Award, a yearly distinction given to the country’s most distinguished cultural figures.

For younger generations of football fans, it may be difficult to put Argentina’s 3-1 win over the Netherlands on June 25, 1978, into context. The victory that won the country its first World Cup has a complex legacy for those who lived through it, as the sheer joy of the triumph was inevitably mixed with the dark political times the country was experiencing.  The Herald met with Cherquis Bialo —who was working at El Gráfico at that time— for the 45th anniversary of that final to discuss his memories of how the tournament came to be, its legacy, and how it all connects with Argentina’s win in Qatar 2022.

Ernesto Cherquis Bialo covered the 1978 Football World Cup played in Argentina. Credit: C5N

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina?

The frustration of all the bizarre presentations we did for FIFA so Argentina could host it. The tournament pitch wasn’t the Military Junta’s idea, it all started long before that.

El Gráfico had a big interest in Argentina organizing a World Cup. A commercial interest, but also a sporting one. We were one of the world’s top-five sports magazines and had a great deal of influence. We were considered more important than a Sports Ministry, which did not even exist at the time. It was El Gráfico, given its importance as a publication, that pushed the idea of organizing a World Cup.

We went to Tokyo in 1964, where the candidates to organize the next World Cup were presenting their pitches. We only had some AFA logo pins with us, very amateur management. The people from [TV station] Televisa made their presentation with videos and slides. We only had four pictures and three posters, so Mexico won the bid. 

During the 1974 [Juan Domingo] Perón government, Argentina made it clear it intended to host the 1978 World Cup. After Perón died, that task fell on [his widow and vice president] Isabel Martínez de Perón, but he had been the real force behind it all. Like Mandela for the South Africa 2010 World Cup or Televisa for Mexico in 1970.

There has been some confusion in recent years, where some imply the military government pushed for the World Cup. It was not like that, they took advantage of it and used it, but the tournament had already been awarded by FIFA to a constitutional government in 1974.

The military coup happens within this context. Everything was taken over: radio stations, television channels, government ministries, and also the AFA. “If the AFA is taken over, they cannot organize the World Championship,” FIFA president Joao Havelange said at the time. 

This forced something exceptional. The government said it needed the World Cup, so the AFA was democratized through an assembly and an election that ended up placing Dr. [Alfredo Francisco] Cantilo at the front. 

In other words, the AFA was the only democratic institution under the disgraceful military coup. Unions, civil associations, TV and radio stations, were all under their control. Everything except the AFA. Because otherwise, FIFA would have withdrawn the 1978 World Cup.

What was it like to present  Argentina to the world in that situation?

We were not living a tragic reality yet. At that time, I think we were in a bubble, the World Cup bubble. Sports journalists were busy with the teams, the stars, and the interviews. We were focused on sports.

One day, journalist Gianni Minà, from the Italian broadcaster RAI, arrived [in Buenos Aires]. [El Gráfico] gave logistical support to every big publication, Kicker, France Football, RAI. Everyone came to us because it was the biggest name in Argentina. They arrived in a car and were unpacking their cameras when the police came and took them to jail.

Our newsroom was at Azopardo 578, right around the corner from the police station. When I think about it now, we were so far removed from what was going on that when the doorman told us the police had come in civilian clothes and taken them away, we just went to the police station. They told us the Italian crew was in an office next door, a special unit in charge of investigating political activities.

We went and kicked the door down. “Is Gianni Minà here? He is a colleague of ours,” we said. Because we were El Gráfico, he was immediately released. At dinner later we asked him what they were doing. “Just taking some pictures and they arrested us,” he said. That was the moment we began to think about what was happening in the country. We knew we were under a military regime, but what were we not seeing? What things were going on that we were unaware of? That was the first symptom.

It was a very different time…

It’s hard to make a distinction between what regular citizens lived under the Military Junta and what the Argentine National Team experienced. Journalism students and schools invite me to speak every year, and I always offer to share my experience, because you have to speak about what happened.

I’ve been getting the same question for the past 25 years: How could you experience the final match against the Netherlands in the stadium’s press box while the prisoners were screaming at the ESMA? The truth is, that’s a difficult question to answer because we didn’t know anything about that at the time.

That sort of thing would be impossible today. The military government and militarism would have been impossible with social media, because, in an interconnected world, anyone can see things.

What was the legacy of that first World Cup win for football culture in Argentina?

[Argentina head coach César Luis] Menotti changed the way things worked. He was a very knowledgeable guy who had played in different places and had many interests. “You have to change the way things work in football, the Argentine National Team has to be the number one priority”, he said and found support from AFA president David Bracuto.

From that moment on, players were under the orders of the Argentine National Team’s coach from Monday to Friday. No player from the team was going to be transferred abroad until the World Cup ended. Clubs had to release them to play in either the senior or sparring team. None of this was debatable, because the AFA president enforced it. From 1974 to 1978, the Argentine National Team was a priority for all Argentine football clubs.

This has been the standard ever since. During [Julio] Grondona’s tenure as AFA president, these policies were kept in place. Always pick the best candidate for the youth teams. That’s how [José Néstor] Pekerman was hired in 1994 despite bigger names being available. They also selected the best coaches for the senior team, with [Marcelo] Bielsa, [Alejandro] Sabella, [Alfio] Basile, [Gerardo] Martino. The best were always chosen, and the clubs had to let them play.

How would you compare it to other victories of the national team?

World champions have something extra, although sometimes people don’t understand it. It’s a pity it’s an underestimated achievement because it was a great team, with some great players. They had their share of luck, had to go to extra time to beat the Netherlands, and suffered a shot on the post. But for teams to become world champions, in addition to having an aesthetic, a technique, and a bit of magic, it requires something extra. 

How do you explain this? It lies in every player’s soul. World champions do not win just because they play well, because there have been teams that played better than eventual world champions and didn’t make it. The Netherlands team from 1974 is a good example.

In Argentine football lingo, it’s often called “mística,” mystique…

That’s a good way of putting it. I don’t have a better word so I’ll take it. You need some kind of leadership. Menotti had that role in 1978. He was a guy on another level who could convey that idea. A young, strong, and natural-born leader.

Diego [Maradona] later took that leadership role. He was a motivator who insulted you and demanded more, that kind of leadership. Now we have [Lionel] Messi, who is the most exclusive of them all. Maradona felt filial respect for Bilardo; he wasn’t buddy-buddy with him. Messi’s leadership is different: whereas Maradona was selected by the coaches, Messi selects the coach. There would be no [Lionel] Scaloni if Messi hadn’t given his blessing.

Without Messi’s approval, it never would have happened. The AFA president allowed him to decide because they wanted him to be happy. If he’s happy, his teammates are happy, and the team is also happy. And when a team is happy, that’s when you have a shot at being world champions.


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