The Gold Cup, better known to many as El Mundialito (The Little World Cup) was the gathering of some of the greatest teams on the planet as FIFA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the biggest sporting event in the world. For most of the world it was a time when the holidays were at the forefront of their minds. For Uruguayans, it would become a celebration of a victory off the pitch that many weren’t expecting.

Sport, going back to the days when Greece was at its height, was an instrument for appeasement, propaganda and control of any governing entity.

The end of the 70’s was a very tumultuous time around the world. While America as well as the Soviet Union started to get a first taste of what Middle Eastern politics had become with the establishment of theocracies and revolution in that region. Disco was at its height; but the end was fast approaching.

Ronald Reagan was taking over and a new era of politics in the United States was on the horizon. Although the mainstream media were oblivious to what was going on south of the border – very south of the border – there was change lurking in the air. Yet in Uruguay, television was still in black and white.

Military dictatorships were the norm in the region as the political leanings of Latin America took a drastic swing from the populist movements of the 1940’s and 1950’s to the military rulings that emerged in the mid 50’s. The political path of South America was paved with one term – coup d’etat.

The military dictatorships that ruled during this time did so with an iron fist and were looking for ways to legitimize themselves by any means possible.

Just like in another combustible political region, South America’s pendulum always swung drastically from one side to the other. As the Communist threat emerged in the late 1950’s in the region after Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista fell and Fidel Castro took over, the fear of the movement taking over in the South American continent materialized in the form of a civico-military, anti-communist stance that pushed back against organizations that were promoting leftist activities in unions, universities as well as resistance fronts such as the Tupamaros (the Uruguayan equivalent to the Argentine Montoneros).

The governments in charge prior to the coup resorted the states of siege that gave the military greater authority to be able to do what was necessary all in the name of “national security”. In Uruguay, Juan Bordaberry made this move and would be instrumental in the military takeover in 1973.

El Mundialito, or The Gold Cup, was supposed to be an encounter between the greatest football playing nations on the planet. This was also the perfect propaganda tool to celebrate the victory of the military right wing for the world to see. It was their chance to show that the people wanted them in charge. Order was established yet again because of the military’s intervention and they should stay in power perpetually- or at least that was the gist of their idea.

The military-drafted plebiscite scheduled for November 1980 was going to be the government’s biggest political victory as the country celebrated one of Uruguayan football’s greatest victories on the the football pitch. This is what El Mundialito meant when (not if ) the plebiscite would get the thumbs up from the voters. What it would became for the Uruguayan civico-military regime, turned out to be a circus of unimagined proportions when the plebiscite turned out to become a victory of unexpected and unprecedented proportions.

The morale in the country had sunk to an all-time low since the takeover. Former political prisoner turned president, José Mujica mentioned in the documentary Mundialito that the country was “very down” as many prisoners that were looking to find any possible way to avoid the inevitable – their disappearance or execution.

According to a 2006 declassified document from the US Embassy in Montevideo there were some chilling numbers that gave a better perspective as to what the Uruguayan “dirty war” left behind. Between 300-400 thousand people reportedly emigrated to avoid persecution at home. Nearly 6,000 civilians were tried in military courts If you look at it from a percentage standpoint, well over ten percent of the country went into exile.

Several of these exiles would be brought back to Uruguay or were victims of security forces abroad. Many of them looked for refuge in countries that took part in Operation Condor, a joint campaign by the military regimes of the region to streamline the process of removal or left-wing insurgents, intellectuals and propagandists from the respective political landscapes. This campaign alone was attributed, officially, in the death of 60 thousand people, according to the Centre for Documentation and Archive for the Defence of Human Rights.

The numbers might have been dwarfed if one were to look at them next to both official and unofficial numbers from the military juntas in places like Argentina, Chile, Brazil, or even Paraguay. If you were to look at this regime compared to others throughout history, the Uruguayan oppression was the most intense from a proportional perspective.

So being able to pull off a world-class event would help the nation once again earn front-page headlines and positive propaganda abroad. Meanwhile the regime worked full tilt endorsing the “Yes” for the plebiscite and also drumming up support for the tournament that would bring colour to Uruguayan television for the first time ever.

The Uruguayan government also wanted to seize this opportunity to be on the world stage. They saw what their neighbors across the River Plate were able to do just two years before as the Albiceleste were crowned world champs for the first time. Although this was what many believed helped the government in the short term, in the long term it focused unwanted attention that would begin to evolve in the beginning of the end, all of that of course capitulating in the war for the Falkland Islands just four years later.

For about two weeks, Uruguay would be the focal point in world football and FIFA president João Havelange backed this tournament fully. Football’s authority looked to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the World Cup in a non-World Cup year. The venue had to be where the first-ever final took place – the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo.

Business Potential, Pitfalls, and “The Knight” in Shining Armor

From a business perspective, there was minimal interest but that did not deter one businessman that saw the potential in making this tournament happen.

Greek entrepreneur Ángelo Voulgaris, an eccentric businessman that had several investments in Uruguay, decided to take the first step into financing this tournament despite the contrary opinions that floated about. His transatlantic and “trans-hemispherical” traverses in order to find investors to help were well documented in the Mundialito documentary.

After several failed guarantees from potential European investors, the tournament was in limbo and Voulgaris was in a position where he was going to lose a lot of money. There was also the fear that the tournament was not going to even get off the ground if he was unable to get the backing necessary to make this all happen.

Voulgaris reminisced about an Italian businessman with a growing television empire. The owner of this private cable network was looking for a big break in an effort to make a dent in RAI’s communication monopoly. One way would be by offering the audience the chance to watch a world-class event in which the Azzurri would partake in. The agreement would be made and Canale 5 would have exclusive rights to this tournament. It would be one of the first big events that would start to challenge the supremacy of RAI. It would also become the first privately-owned television network to broadcast at the national level in Italy. This was the first big break for media mogul Silvio Berlusconi both at the domestic level as well as internationally.

Berlusconi would also start to invest in several business ventures in Uruguay and that caught the interest of RAI as well as they established an international bureau in Montevideo just months after the conclusion of the tournament.

Berlusconi’s backing was crucial in helping the organizers go through with this tournament; but as Voulgaris and many others admitted, there was a lot of work that had to be done and there was little time to do so as December would approach quickly.

As far as profits, these were never discussed. There were never documents that talked about profits or losses from the tournament. More importantly, those that would have any access to have always been silent on the matter. Although Voulgaris himself would have known; but he never talked about it publicly. Even before the time of his death in 2010, he refused to talk to anyone about numbers.

The Host Team

Uruguayan football reflected the morale of the country during this time in history. From a performance standpoint, the national team was at one of its lowest points in its history. After ending up in fourth place in the 1970 World Cup, Uruguay were easily eliminated in 1974 and failed to qualify four years thereafter. The Uruguayan FA (AUF) were at odds in certain issues with the regime and there was a great deal of displeasure with the direction the national team was heading in.

At the club level, Nacional were fresh off their triumph in the Copa Libertadores and would be scheduled to face Nottingham Forest in the Intercontinental Cup that following February. The nucleus of that team consisted of that Nacional side that would be led by Waldemar Victorino, who would score against Forest just weeks after El Mundialito was over. Nacional would also have charismatic goalkeeper Rodolfo Rodríguez as the national team captain. Peñarol would also contribute with Rubén Paz and Venancio Ramos as well as Victor Diogo anchoring the defence.

The biggest name missing was none other than Peñarol idol Fernando Morena. At this stage in his career he was playing with Spanish side Rayo Vallecano and was the second leading scorer in Spain behind Quini, yet he was still unable to prevent the Madrid side from avoiding relegation that year.

He would eventually team up at Valencia with Mario Kempes and win the European Super Cup, scoring the title-winning goal against Nottingham Forest. Despite all he did for Uruguayan football, Morena saw very limited playing time for the national team even when he was winning Copa Libertadores titles with El Manya. He was not considered much in the World Cup in Germany and would not return until the 1983 Copa América to be significant part of the national side. Ironically, his participation in that tournament would be limited after he would suffer a broken leg against Venezuela.

If there was one thing that really stood out in that squad was the skill players that were at the disposal of coach and 1950 World Cup hero, Roque Máspoli.

Players such Glen Hoddle, Ray Wilkins, and Hamburg’s Ballon D’Or winner Kevin Keegan were absent as England decided not partake in this tournament. England were replaced by the Dutch, who were runners-up in the two previous World Cups; but the brilliant generation of players was already on their last legs by that point. The Van de Kerkhof brothers were present, but the Nannigas, Krols, Resenbrincks, Neeskens, Reps, and Cruyffs were no longer even relevant with the Oranje.

The rebuilding process there would be underway as there were youth players such as Johnny Van’t Schip, Mario Been, and a young striker named Marco Van Basten that would be the hope for the Dutch to become dominant yet again in future years.

West Germany came into the tournament as the newly crowned European champions. That year, Hamburg’s Horst Hrubesch became a household name after becoming the unexpected hero, scoring a brace in the final against Belgium. The team obviously came in as one of the favorites to win the tournament as players like Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Felix Magath, Hans-Peter Briegel and Euro 1980’s leading scorer Klaus Allofs were in the squad. While Bernd Schuster and a young defender from Borussia Monchengladbach named Lothar Matthäus would be left home.

Brasil did not have names such as Rivelino, Dirceu and Zico from their 1978 World Cup squad. Internacional’s Paulo Roberto Falcão was also absent after being part of the Copa América the year before. The absences did not translate into a lack of talent though. Ironically, Sócrates would be the mind behind the team in this tournament. The Corinthians midfielder was one of the first players to publicly speak out against the military regime that had ruled Brazil for nearly a decade and became the posterchild of that country’s repudiation of the government. Brazil, like Uruguay, would see their respective military governments cease to function in 1985.

Italy had several players from the 1978 side as well as many that would be instrumental when the Italians would win their third World Cup title just two years later. Dino Zoff as well as Paolo Rossi were not part of Enzo Bearzot’s side. Rossi had just been suspended for the Totonero scandal where his name was tarnished. This accusation he denied on multiple occasions and in his biography I Made Brazil Cry. Still there was a very important nucleus of players such as Bruno Conti, Gaetano Scirea, Claudio Gentile, Giuseppe Baresi, Pietro Vierchowod, Carlo Ancelotti, Antonio Cabrini and Marco Tardelli. Most of these players took part in the World Cup in Argentina as well as Euro 1980. So the Azzurri looked to put on a show that would help them win their first title in 12 years.

Argentina were coming in as the reigning world champions and their team remained intact for the most part. Mario Kempes returned as well as vertebrae in the middle with Ubaldo Fillol, Daniel Passarella and Américo Gallego.

Long gone was René Houseman who retired from the national team and his performance would start to quickly decline after his battle with alcoholism began to affect his play and would drastically cut short his career.

Ossie Ardiles was a bonafide star with Spurs by this point, while Ricky Villa was out of the picture with the Albiceleste since the World Cup triumph but would be instrumental in Spurs’ winning the FA Cup against Manchester City a few months later.

Although there were two pieces to the Argentine puzzle that were the injection of youth that César Luis Menotti took his time in introducing. Both Ramón Díaz and Diego Maradona were the heroes in Argentina’s triumph in Japan in the U-20 World Cup the year before.

For many this was going to be the first big stage for the both young stars, especially for the mercurial 20-year-old Argentinos Juniors star that was already being looked at by Boca Juniors.

So the stage was set for the military dictatorship to celebrate its great triumph in front of the people that were going to legitimize their authority and the rest of the world. The celebration was laid out and the logistics were all in place. The election and polls indicated that the election would come out as planned. There hadn’t been a military dictatorship that had lost a plebiscite up to that point. The precedent was set, the problem was that no one thought there would be a first time for everything.

The “No” vote won with well over 55% of the votes and what was going to be the celebration of perpetual authority turned out to be a rebel yell that marked the beginning of the end of a tyrannical rule. The plebiscite would be the action that spoke louder than any words of disapproval. In the end El Mundialito was not just a celebration of the Beautiful Game; it was also the country’s public display of repudiation once the tournament kicked off.

By Juan Arango

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona