BUENOS AIRES — It was June 1978, the worst of times for a nation in the vise of dictatorship. And the best of times for soccer-obsessed Argentines.
Argentina won its first championship 30 years ago this month, in the only World Cup tournament to be played here. The victory caused a torrent of nationalist pride in a country beaten down by repression.
But the biggest winners probably were the junta leaders, who scored a massive propaganda coup that set back fledgling international efforts to expose their bloody excesses. For Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla and other junta chiefs, futbol was a convenient means to switch the conversation away from the mounting number of victims casually labeled "the disappeared"-- then a catchy new rhetorical surrogate for mass murder.
Three decades later, many Argentines, including some now-graying members of the 1978 national squad, have begun re-examining the dictatorship's overt politicization of the World Cup victory. Several are expected to participate in a symbolic soccer game to commemorate the regime's victims, scheduled for Sunday. The match is to be played at the River Plate Monumental Stadium -- the same venue where Argentina defeated the Netherlands, 3-1, in the hard-fought final on June 25, 1978.
Some commentators now liken that championship to the century's most notorious political manipulation of sports -- the 1936 Berlin Olympics, coopted as a perverse paean to Hitler's Nazi ideology.
"The 1978 World Cup was a gold brooch for repression, a mundial [cup] that was made to wash the faces of the murderers . . . in front of the world," said Mabel Gutierrez, among the organizers of anniversary events focusing on human rights.
The River Plate stadium is less than a mile away from what was once one of the junta's most notorious torture centers, the Naval Mechanics School, where about 5,000 people were held and are believed to have been "disappeared." Prisoners could hear the cheers from the nearby field.
Surviving detainees have recalled Kafkaesque scenes of interrogators taking time out to root for the home team. Guards even encouraged shackled, hooded and half-conscious prisoners to join in the merry-making.
"We won! We won!" the lockup's notorious chief of intelligence, Jorge "El Tigre" (The Tiger) Acosta, shouted over and over, recalled Graciela Daleo, a survivor. "When he said, 'We won,' I was certain that we had lost," Daleo said in a seminal documentary film made here examining the "parallel history" of the 1978 championship. "And we did lose."
On that evening, Daleo says, she was among a number of inmates taken for a surreal jaunt: Jailers whisked her and others off in a Peugeot 504 sedan and drove among the celebrating masses on the streets of a delirious capital.
Daleo stuck her head through the sedan's sun roof into the chilly evening to view the unbridled, madcap revelry.
"I stood up on the seat and looked at that multitude," Daleo recalled. "That was another moment of terrible solitude. I was crying. I was certain that if I began to shout that I was a 'disappeared,' then no one would even notice."
Today, analysts say the victory tightened the junta's stranglehold on power and emboldened the generals in their nefarious ways, weakening efforts in Europe and the United States to isolate them. The dictatorship would remain in power for another five years.
Junta chief Videla, today widely disparaged as a homicidal thug, regularly lambasted what he termed a global "anti-Argentine campaign" during the 1978 championship and received half a dozen standing ovations in packed stadiums. Dissenting voices were denigrated as lacking in patriotism.
Rumors persist to this day that Videla somehow fixed Argentina's 6-0 victory against Peru, a triumph that clinched a berth in the finals. But no proof has emerged.
During the games, Videla welcomed Henry Kissinger to add an air of legitimacy. The former U.S. secretary of State and avid soccer fan came with his family for the spectacle, playing to the cameras.
"Millions succumbed before the official viewpoint that the sporting victory was the triumph of a people at peace," Pablo Llonto wrote in a book about 1978 titled "The Shame of All."
For years, many Argentine stars who played on the national team reacted defensively to allegations that their actions aided the generals. The coach of the 1978 team, Cesar Luis Menotti, has long argued that Argentina's triumph should not be devalued.
"I have nothing to regret," the lanky ex-coach stated in the documentary. "I was very loyal to my team and to the people."
But others appear more ready to acknowledge political maneuvering, while defending players' responses.
"There is no doubt that we were used politically," Julio Ricardo Villa, a forward on the team, told the filmmakers.
The recognition of political exploitation has been a gradual one, said Ezequiel Fernandez Moores, the film's screenwriter. Like many Argentines who lived through the period, most players say they knew nothing of the large-scale political kidnapping, torture and assassinations.
"The contradiction only became evident in time when everyone learned of the horror" of the period, Fernandez Moores said. "This has produced in some people a sense of guilt, in others shame . . . while others still believe that the victory in the World Cup should not be linked to the dictatorship."
Andres D'Alessandro in The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.