Blood on the Crossbar by Rhys Richards – Review
By Karl Hornsey
The subtitle of this book – The Dictatorship’s World Cup – is the perfect one to sum up its contents. Rhys Richards blends a mixture of reports on each match of the 1978 World Cup with a potted history of the social and political context in which it took place. And to any football fan, it’s widely accepted that the tournament in Argentina will always be tainted by events off the field, despite the quality of what happened on it.
It’s also a supremely well-timed book, given some of the similarities in circumstance between that World Cup and the one that recently took place in Qatar, with widespread global condemnation that the most prestigious event in sport should be hosted by a country with such a controversial track record. It’s also telling that both Argentina and Qatar were determined to host the tournaments to improve their global standing, but instead only served to shine a spotlight on events that they would much rather have remained behind closed doors.
Richards certainly doesn’t shy away from telling the truth about what was going on in the dictatorship in the late 1970s, although the full horror of the regime will probably never be known. The hosts went on to win the World Cup for the first time in their history, but there will always have something of an asterisk next to the triumph, such were the number of dubious decisions and circumstances that happened to go their way. Argentina had a very talented side, but their route to the final was littered with fortune, which in turn only helped to improve the lustre and mystique of the Netherlands, whom they defeated in the final.
“Debate and doubts”
The author intersperses reports from each group with the background to each nation’s standing at the time, and then adds in chapters about those who aimed to have the World Cup moved to another country, boycotted it or at the very least showed a desire to highlight what was going on behind the façade. Richards has delivered a fascinating book, and one that moves along at pace as the tournament progresses.
Some matches more than others deserve greater attention to detail, and that is what the author has delivered, in particular on the final, as well as Argentina’s concluding group match against Peru, which will forever be the subject of debate and doubts as to whether the outcome was a fair and just one.
With the recent World Cup, it seems little has changed. Even the very first incarnation in 1930 suffered its fair share of controversies, and we’re still mired in them to this very day, but for sheer murkiness on and off the pitch, the 1978 World Cup is hard to beat, and that’s what makes this excellent and worthy book all the more interesting.
‘Blood on the Crossbar’ by Rhys Richards is published by Pitch Publishing, £18.99 hardback