- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The moat is barely 15 feet wide. It is all that separates you from 80,000 of the most chauvinistic soccer fans in the world, whose manic howling and whistling has hardly dropped in pitch for close on 45 minutes. Suddenly you have to make a crucial decision. Go one way and you will make them delirious with joy. Go the other and you will arouse their terrifying displeasure.
The game is Argentina against France, midway through the first round of the XI Copa del Mundo, the World Cup. El Mundial. A win for the Argentinians will qualify them for the second round to which eight of the 16 teams would advance. It is very close to halftime, there is no score and the French are more than holding their own at Buenos Aires' River Plate Stadium. Then Leopoldo Luque, long black hair streaming, cuts into the far left of the French penalty area. A French back, Marius Tr�sor from Martinique, comes up to challenge him. Both players seem to slide down together as they go for the ball. And Jean Dubach, the Swiss referee, has that frightening decision to make. He can wave play on or he can award a penalty, an almost certain goal, to Argentina.
For an agonizing time he does neither. He dithers. He discusses the matter with the linesman, though it is his decision and his alone. The howl of the crowd rises to a high screech. Then he points to the penalty spot. Daniel Passarella walks up, settles the ball and slams it into the right-hand corner of the net from 12 meters.
There seems to be only one explanation for the dithering. First-class soccer referees award penalties sparingly. If there is doubt, they don't give one. Few referees, of course, have to endure the intimidating responsibility of officiating at River Plate when Argentina plays there. And no one could be unaffected by the kind of pressure that Dubach faced.
And there was a further test for him. With the score 2-1 Argentina and 10 minutes left in the game, France's Didier Six comes sweeping through the defense and is clearly brought down a couple of feet inside the penalty area. This time the referee appears not to notice. Play goes on, the score stays as it is; France is out of the World Cup and Argentina has qualified for Round 2. "The referee did not have an elegant game," said French Coach Michel Hidalgo.
Argentina has a fine team. In Luque and Mario Kempes, it has two forwards who may be the most effective strikers in the Cup and any handicapper figuring the odds on the Cup final has to take into account the fiery crucible of the River Plate Stadium. To win here against the home side a team must be demonstrably superior.
And until last Saturday millions of Argentinians felt that their national side was home free. After each of its first-round victories, the great avenues of Buenos Aires became fiesta-wild—car horns honking out Ar-gen-tin-a, pickup trucks crammed with kids wrapped in their national flag, buses and cabs decked with the nation's sky-blue and white, like yachts at a regatta. The commitment is total.
Fiesta time, though, was a little delayed at the start of the Cup. Defending champion West Germany and Poland opened the tournament like two respected but aging heavyweights. They sparred cautiously for 90 minutes to a crowd chant of "Que se vaya," which is Spanish for "Go home, ya bums." The game ended in the 0-0 tie that any cynic (or realist) could have forecast. Both teams were almost sure to qualify under the scoring system that gives two points for a victory, one for a tie: there was no reason for either side to risk anything. Almost ostentatiously they didn't, and it was left to the French to score the first goal of the World Cup, 30 seconds after the start of their game with Italy the next day, though they wound up losing 2—1.
That was also the day of the first shock: Tunisia 3, Mexico 1. And the day of the first trouble: Argentina against Hungary at River Plate, a game of savage fouling that ended 2-1 Argentina with two Hungarians ordered off the field. And it was the day of the first rumors of scandal. Trouble up at Alta Gracia, the Argentinian press reported, the resort near C�rdoba where the Scottish team was staying. "They are drinking alcohol in industrial quantities." claimed Cronica. At night, players were said to climb the security fence to go on the town.
Still, supporters of the Scots were not taking the stories too seriously. Their first game was with Peru—an old, patched-together team, so everybody believed. The morning of the game, the Plaza San Martin in C�rdoba was bright with tartan. Every Scottish fan in sight was besieged by autograph hunters, with invitations to lunch, to dinner. Every kilt had a Pied Piper's train of kids following it through town. A very happy morning. It was a shame that the Scottish team had to go and foul it up.