Ernesto Semán watched the 1978 World Cup final in a Buenos Aires home with his father, Elías, and his friend, Rubén. Despite the fact that the two men were already spending their days in hiding due to the persecution of the dictatorship, they went out to celebrate in the streets. In mid-August of that year, both were kidnapped. They are still missing. This column is about memory, passion and football.
The celebrations in the streets of Argentina for the 78 World Cup
I am writing this in a notebook, sitting in a cafe six blocks from the house at 348 Darwin Street where I watched the 1978 final. The house belonged to Rubén Kriscautzky but above all to his wife, his daughter, and his dog Colita. Rubén, together with my father Elías Semán, were leaders of the Communist Vanguard and at that time they spent their days more or less in hiding. My father had seen parts of the inauguration on the black-and-white television of Beatriz Sarlo, who did not understand –or, more precisely, did not approve– interest in the World Cup in the midst of the dictatorship. For the game against Peru, on June 21, Rubén and Elías decided to watch it with us at the house on Darwin Street. Four days later, for the final against the Netherlands, we met again in Darwin Street, and we went out to celebrate, emerging into public life, with an energy that I, at nine years old, had no idea of. In the River Plate stadium, a few blocks from a concentration camp, Argentina had displayed a football that was both brave and human, animal like all of us. Enthusiasm spilled over a shattered country, something that the dictatorship would seek to capitalize on, without any evidence of having achieved it.
We walked through the streets, full of flags and joy, hidden in the crowd and at the same time, I sense now, profoundly alone.
The following Sunday, Rubén explained to his friend Horacio Pineau the reasons for celebrating. The town was going through a shredder of hardships, it deserved that moment of happiness. “Today my duty was / sing to the country / raise the flag / join the plaza.” Where else?
There was another reason, less explicable, less said but more ubiquitous: they liked soccer. Like a huge majority of Argentines today (certainly not all). My father was not a football obsessive but rather, as Ricardo Piglia would later say about that cohort of men and women, a professional revolutionary. But he liked soccer, he was a fan of San Lorenzo and he was mobilized, on his own terms, by the dream of melting into a hug with a happy people. Seeing matches in which magical bodies run and think shapes of fantasy against the clock, giving shape to something that was unimaginable until a second before, change the modest history of what is happening on that pitch.
Elías and Rubén were kidnapped in mid-August of that year, when the World Cup was still irradiating from behind but was beginning to be a memory. It is likely that those festivities were their last moment of intense happiness, shared to the bone. Since that cold Sunday, 44 years have passed, eleven World Cups, one up, three finals.
Ruben Kriscautzky, disappeared in August 1978
Neither torture nor death, nor the end waiting there around the corner. All of that faded away for an instant, something else was happening there. Something that in a childish, animal, physical and fundamental way was important. It was the most important. Football is, always, the most important thing. Like literature or friendship or enjoying a bowl of noodles or a nap in the square. The World Cup too. In the gesture there was more defiance than unconsciousness, that mixture of madness and desire, that suicidal passion and so full of life. That lesson marked by fire that nothing and no one could tell us what it is that will make us happy.
Elías Semán, disappeared in August 1978
There are those who grant the people the right to fully enjoy the World Cup and forget for a while about the inequities of this world. In general, they fall into the same trap that they criticize: assuming that what is important is still elsewhere. That reading a book or listening to music is only justified because it supposedly makes us better. That doing what one loves without stopping to think about its productive nature transforms us into second-order economic agents. That wasting time, being unproductive and finding pleasure is only justified if we immediately return to what is important, to star as victims in a world of inequities and abuse that, on top of that, when we want to confront them, they tell us that this is in the hands of technicians and leaders who know, precisely because it is important.
Imagining that soccer is an analogy for a country’s society, government, or culture is a way of belittling its intrinsic importance. Soccer is soccer. Its beauty, like that of a letter printed on a page, like the texture of a body, like a scent or a sound, owes nothing to anyone. It does not reflect anything: it is in those places, emotional, happy and dramatic, where life, ours and that of a nation, takes place.
On Sunday, when the game ends, whatever the result, there will be an explosion of emotions, those that shake us forever. And although it may seem incredible to us at the moment, it will be left behind very quickly, with the days and weeks, to become recollection and memory, in our history which, like football, is the most important thing, like the telephone number of the home of our childhood 44 years old, eleven World Cups, one cup, three finals.
Reviewing that history, I verify that the three World Cups in which I will have seen the final in the Villa Crespo-Chacarita corridor are:
1978: Darwin 348.
1986: Velasco 292.
2022: Pizzeria Imperio, Corrientes 6891.
For that and for everything else, I choose to believe.