At 9:30 on Sunday night in Barcelona, Erwin Vandenbergh, a 23-year-old Belgian, was on his knees in front of 95,000 people, kissing the grass and then raising his arms to the darkening sky, until abruptly he disappeared beneath a heap of red-shirted bodies.
These weren't histrionics. This was a signal moment for Vandenbergh, a forward on his country's side in soccer's World Cup tournament. Seconds before he had scored on a well-struck shot wide of Goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol's despairing right hand, putting his team up 1-0 and on track to a victory by that score over the reigning world champions in the inaugural Cup game of 1982.
It was a happy augury, perhaps, for the rest of the tournament—ah, would there be other upsets and unexpected heroes in the 28 days ahead? However, in the days before Vandenbergh's artful goal, there had been other, far less favorable, omens.
All the preceding week big-bellied clouds off the Atlantic had intermittently darkened the sky over Barcelona, but the day before the first game the blackest cloud of all arrived from more than 8,000 miles away. It was the news that the battle for Port Stanley in the Falklands had begun. For the organizers of what the Spanish call the Mundial, the huge festival of soccer that occurs every four years and outshines the Olympics in terms of world TV audiences (estimates range as high as 1.5 billion fans) and media coverage, it was a savage blow, perhaps ameliorated by Monday's reported cease-fire in the Falklands.
Even earlier, as 3,300 children had rehearsed for the opening ceremony, running onto the grass of the Nou Camp stadium carrying white soccer balls and forming the shape of Picasso's Dove of Peace, the rumblings of the faraway war had been heard. It was said that almost all the British-held reservations in the Basque country around Bilbao where England's national team would play in the first round, had been canceled.
And in the south, on the Costa Blanca, about 300 Argentines had arrived to support their national side where 10,000 had been expected. That tiny contingent was holed up in its hotel, the Tropicana Gardens, in Benidorm. It wasn't surprising that the Argentines stayed in their rooms because in summer the resort town is virtually part of the United Kingdom. For example, with a population of 2,200, it has 300 British bars. Unsurprisingly, seven miles away, at the posh Hotel El Montiboli near Villajoyosa, Argentina's team was watched over by Spanish soldiers with automatic weapons. And at the Argentine training stadium a mile or so away down a dusty, unpaved road, there were more heavily armed troops.
Once or twice after the team arrived, Cesar Luis Menotti, who had coached Argentina to victory in the 1978 World Cup, emerged to make statements, sometimes lighthearted (Argentina's soccer reporters, he declared, couldn't even write home to their mothers, let alone compose a match report) but more often somber, because he was aware of how the situation in the Falklands could affect his players. "We cannot win sovereignty over the Malvinas on the soccer field," he said at one point.
Adding to the strain was the fact that, as defending champion, Argentina was to play in the opening game. Two days before that took place, El Pais, the Madrid daily, quoted the wife of one of Menotti's players, Defender Alberto Tarantini, as saying that during practice the coach was "enraged, screaming," that practices had been canceled and that players had headed to the beach.
There were some pockets of sanity. In Benidorm there is a pub called the Scottish Embassy, kept by a barrel-chested Scot named Jack Burden. Like many of the locals, Burden was angry over scare stories in the British press—for instance, reports of minute glass fragments being slipped into the drinks of British vacationers by Argentine sympathizers on the staffs of Costa Blanca hotels. Every British tourist approached in town vehemently denied the tales. "It's all lies," declared one. "They bend over backwards to be friendly."
Burden pointed out that his son, Ian, was serving as a paratrooper in the Falklands and his barman, Hugo Brecias, is from Mar Del Plata in Argentina. "We have no problem," said Brecias.