Argentina were awarded hosting rights for the 1978 tournament after the completion of the 1966 edition, having run unopposed following the award of 1970 to Mexico. Unfortunately for FIFA, two years before the competition was due to begin, Argentina president Isabel Peron was overthrown in a right-wing military coup, and a junta was installed to power. Nine months before the beginning of the World Cup, it was revealed that 5,618 people had disappeared under the junta’s governance, and many more were being held in concentration camps as part of the Dirty War. This instability led to the participation of many countries hanging in the balance, though eventually all 15 qualifiers arrived at the tournament. Argentina and holders West Germany were joined by the usual suspects – Brazil, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Poland, Netherlands, Poland – as well as a smattering of returning nations – France, Hungary, Sweden, Austria – and two first timers, once again from AFC and CAF, in Iran and Tunisia. Following the format from the previous tournament, four groups of four would be boiled down to two groups of four, and the winners of each second phase group would go on to contest the final.
The hosts just about squeezed through their group, though defeat to Italy in their final game saw the Italians take top place in the group. For France’s up and coming squad, this tournament came too early, while for the woeful Hungarians, it was thirty years too late. In Group Two, Poland continued where they left off in West Germany, topping the group ahead of the holders thanks to a battling performance from third place Tunisia. The North Africans surprised many by turning Mexico over in their opening game and, despite falling at the first hurdle, they returned home with their heads held high. Austria surprised many by topping Group Three ahead of Brazil, having failed to qualify in twenty years, the goals of Rapid Vienna striker Hans Krankl proving the difference against Spain and Sweden. Group Four held plenty of interest, pitting as it did the beaten finalists from ’74, the unknown newcomers, and the golden generation of a South American side against Scotland, once again the only home nation to make the tournament. According to one man, there was only one team that would win the World Cup in Argentina.
Having made his name at Ayr United and Aberdeen, Ally MacLeod replaced Willie Ormond as manager of the national team after Ormond resigned in order to return to club management. Upon his introduction to the squad, the new boss said “My name is Ally MacLeod and I am a winner.” Always important to back yourself. And soon enough, people were convinced. MacLeod began his reign with a goalless draw away at Wales in the World Cup qualifiers, before guiding his team to the Home Nations Championship with wins over Northern Ireland and England at Wembley. Qualification for Argentina was secured with back to back wins over Czechoslovakia and Wales, but by the time the tournament came round, Scotland’s form had dipped somewhat.
Not that it affected MacLeod’s outlook on the Tartan Army’s World Cup prospects. “You can mark down 25 June 1978 as the day Scottish football conquers the world.” the boss proudly trumpeted before his squad set off for Córdoba. He had good reason to be confident, too. The Scotland squad comprised of some of the finest players in the English First Division, including Nottingham Forest pair Kenny Burns and Archie Gemmill, fresh from winning the league; Manchester United powerhouses Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan; and Liverpool pair Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish, who had lifted the European Cup weeks before jetting off to Argentina thanks to a Dalglish goal. There were weaknesses in their group rivals too, as Johan Cruyff pulled out of the Netherlands squad on the eve of the tournament, and Peru’s golden generation looked to be on their last legs. As for Iran, well, who’d ever heard of Iran? Ahead of the tournament Scottish comedian Andy Cameron released Ally’s Tartan Army, a call to arms for the Scotland team to bring home the cup. Yes, the seventies WERE mental.
Unfortunately, MacLeod was a little too busy whipping up the press and Scotland’s supporters into a frenzy ahead of the tournament to actually prepare his team for the games. Meanwhile some key members of the squad were arguing with the Scottish FA over bonus payments. Then the bus broke down on the way to their opening game against Peru. All in all, the whole operation was a shambles. Still, things were looking up when, after less than twenty minutes of the game, Jordan pounced on a rebound to give Scotland the lead. César Cueto equalised before half-time, and in the second half Teofilo Cubillas showed his class and tore the Scots apart, scoring two wonderful goals. Things went from bad to worse for the Scots as winger Willie Johnston was sent home for failing a drugs test, but luckily they faced minnows Iran in their next game. Everything was going to plan at half-time as Scotland lead through Andranik Eskandarian’s own goal, but never a team to snatch humiliation from the jaws of comfort, the Scots relinquished their lead in the second half, and were unable to find a winner. That left them facing the Netherlands who, even without their talisman, were fancied as one of the favourites for the tournament.
To progress they’d have to win by three clear goals, though given the mood back home avoiding a three goal defeat would have been greeted as a victory. Remarkably though, incompetence gave way to bad luck in the opening stages of their final game, with Bruce Rioch battering the crossbar with a header before Tom Forsyth and Dalglish both had goals ruled out – arguably both should have stood. Released of the shackles of expectation, Scotland began playing their best football of the tournament, and were desperately unlucky not to be at least two to the good by the 34th minute. It was at that point that Rob Rensenbrink was bundled over in the area by Stuart Kennedy, and dusted himself off to slot home to resulting penalty. The Scots now needed four. Remarkably, MacLeod’s men dusted themselves off and went again, and Dalglish levelled the scores on the stroke of half-time with a half-volley, before Souness won a penalty a minute after the restart. Gemmil scored. Game on. Twenty minutes later, one of the most defining moments of the tournament came to pass. Gemmil picked up a loose ball on the right, waltzed away from the attentions of two defenders, sent another to the shops with a deft touch into the area and set himself before lifting a shot over Jan Jongbloed and into the net. The atmosphere fizzed. Suddenly, the belief was there. They might just do this. Alas, this was Scotland after all. Three minutes after Gemmil’s masterpiece, Johnny Rep produced a rip-snorter of his own, and effectively ended the game as a contest. In isolation, the game and the result could be considered Scotland’s finest moment on the international stage, but in the wider context it was the final insult in a fortnight of humiliation. The hubris MacLeod had brashly shown pre-tournament was widely ridiculed, and he would last just one more game as manager of Scotland.
With Netherlands and Peru through, the second phase could begin, and the all-European affair of Group 1 came down to a play-off between the last two beaten finalists. Ernie Brandts gave Italy the lead with an own goal before atoning with an equaliser at the start of the second half, and der Oranje’s place in a second successive final was secured by Arie Haan’s strike. Group 2 brought further controversy as Argentina faced Peru in the final game knowing they had to win by five clear goals if they were to pip Brazil – who’d already played earlier in the day – to a place in the final. Finding themselves 2-0 up at half-time, César Luis Menotti’s team put their foot on the pedal in the second half, while Peru seemed mystifyingly non-plussed as the Argentine goals flew in. Two goals in two minutes just after half-time put the hosts in touching distance of the final, and further strikes from René Houseman and Leopoldo Luque put a sheen on the result – an entirely incongruous 6-0 thrashing. Understandably there were accusations of bribery and match-fixing thrown at both teams, though to this day they both deny it.
The final itself lacked the drama of ’74, though Dick Nanninga’s late equaliser for the Netherlands did send it to extra-time. But with the Dutch side looking leggy, and a fierce partisan crowd behind Argentina, Mario Kempes restored the hosts lead at the end of the first period of extra-time, and Daniel Bertoni made certain with five minutes remaining. So, for the second tournament in a row the hosts lifted the trophy, and for Argentina their first World Cup, some 48 years after losing out to Uruguay in their last final appearance. Their delirious supporters then went home, looked at their calendars, and marked down 25 June 1978 – the day Argentina, by hook or by crook, conquered the world.