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They won, in the end, through total, passionate commitment. Osvaldo Ardiles, midfielder for Argentina, had played his heart out for almost 40 minutes. Now, over to the left of the Dutch goal, he was brought down heavily by a defender. As he crunched onto the grass, he had the right to surrender, to shake himself, get to his feet and hope for a foul to be called. Instead, almost prone, he stabbed at the ball, and got enough of it to reach Leopoldo Luque cutting down the middle. Luque chipped it on to Mario Kempes. And the master striker, the goleador of Argentina, hammered it to the left of Keeper Jan Jongbloed and into the Dutch goal. In the World Cup final of 1978, Argentina had taken the lead in the final game. The Argentinians would go on to win 3-1 in overtime. But just now they had scored first and River Plate Stadium exploded with banners of sky-blue and white, the colors of the flag of Argentina.
The wild roar reverberated crazily and lasted for minutes. The passion of the players in blue and white was an echo of the crowd. It seemed impossible for that passion to be contained, even by the hardened veterans of the Dutch team. Johan Neeskens had said before the final that the crowd could have a huge effect on the game. Neeskens knows his crowds, having played in the '74 World Cup and in Spain.
As the Argentinian team ran onto the field before the start of the game, millions of fragments of torn paper, like a driving blizzard, blotted out the stands, and there was a prolonged salutation, something between a howl and a roar. It was awesome, but the Dutch, who were playing in their second straight World Cup final, did not quail in the face of it.
And they were representing more than just Holland. Among the vast acres of blue and white in the stands, a solitary sign read EUROPA. This final was European soccer vs. South American soccer, a calculating, scientific style against an improvised, informal one. Never had a European team won the Cup in South America, only once had a Latin American team prevailed in Europe. At River Plate on Sunday, the Dutch fans were pitifully few. A careful search with binoculars picked out one brave band of 14 Dutchmen in the stands. "Every one of them will be needed," a Dutch journalist said seriously.
The two finalists each had a couple of early failures in the three-week-long tournament, Holland losing to Scotland 3-2 and Argentina being beaten by Italy 1-0. But it soon became clear that they were the most aggressive teams in the competition. The marvelous running and shooting of Argentina's Kempes, for example, and the way the Dutch had changed, after the early games, from a dour, unexciting side to one almost as adventurous and creative as the team that Johan Cruyff led in 1974, alone justified the presence of both teams at River Plate. "The two bravest sides have come through," said Argentine Coach Cesar Menotti.
The early action had been slow, but last Wednesday, on the final day of the second round, the Cup matches suddenly pulsed with life.
Rosario Airport, 7:30 p.m.: a cacophony of samba drums and blaring horns, a blaze of Brazilian flags. No way to reach the ticket counter, which is jammed by a hundred fans struggling to watch the small black-and-white TV set flickering behind it. Fifteen minutes into the game being played more than 600 miles away at Mendoza, it is Argentina 0, Peru 0. The Brazilians who are crowding the airport have just come from watching their own team thrash Poland 3-1. Now, unless Argentina can beat the Peruvians by four goals, Brazil is in the final. Five more minutes of Argentina's time wastes away. The samba drums throb in anticipated triumph. And then Kempes crashes the ball home: 1-0 now and 21 minutes out of the 90 spent. Both Luque and Oscar Ortiz hit the Peruvian goalposts. Then Flight 556 to Buenos Aires is called, and as the Brazilians file reluctantly to the gate, there comes another roar from the ticket counter. Fullback Alberto Tarantini has soared up to head one in from a corner. It is 2-0 with three minutes to the halftime break. The Argentinians are even with the clock.
The tormented Brazilians board their flight. Even before takeoff the captain has the radio commentary from Mendoza piped over the intercom. It is no act of kindness though. Minutes into the second half, Kempes makes it 3-0, and a fourth goal, the crusher, comes four minutes later from Luque. It is the end of Brazil unless the Peruvians can come back. Ren� Houseman and Luque put in two more goals. Argentina is in the final. On the ground at the Buenos Aires airport, the Brazilian fans slip away, silent. And in Buenos Aires, six million people flood the streets in delirium.
That 6-0 win, in the opinion of many, looked too good to be true. The Peruvians, who had played well enough in earlier games, lasted 20 minutes and then lay down and died. "I do not think they will ever hear their national anthem at the World Cup with pride again," said the Brazilian coach, Claudio Coutinho, bitterly. "The Peruvians should have been guests of honor at the postgame festivities," thundered the Jornal do Brasil. To make matters worse, the Peruvian goalie, Ram�n Quiroga, had been born in Argentina. To explain his guiltlessness, he published an open letter the next day in a Buenos Aires newspaper. It was not his fault, he said; the whole team played their worst game of the tournament. "We just rolled over," he admitted.
Almost the only Brazilian to keep his dignity was Pel�. In his syndicated newspaper column, he wrote, "Come, come, gentlemen. We should not permit ourselves as Brazilians to sink so low as to put up these smoke screens. We are lucky to be in contention for third or fourth place."