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Qatar Isn't The First Regime to Polish its Image With a World Cup

A gardener waters a patch of grass at the heart of the former Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), in downtown Buenos Aires. It’s a tiny island of greenery in a sea of asphalt and gray concrete. On the surface, it looks like an unremarkable educational facility, but just four decades ago it was a concentration camp that held thousands.

“You can feel it, wherever you go around here,” the gardener tells me. “The collective pain . . .” He starts to finish his thought before deciding that there’s nothing more to be said.

ESMA is situated along Avenida del Libertador (“Liberator’s Avenue”), at the heart of the Argentinian capital, and Estadio Monumental — the massive stadium that was modernized and upgraded before the 1978 FIFA World Cup by laborers prohibited from union organization, controlled by military observers at gunpoint — lies mere blocks away.

FIFA had given Argentina the chance to shine and host the World Cup, despite the country’s military government and “disappearing” of thirty thousand people. Despite being next to the festivities, no photographer, reporter, or visiting player was ever let inside the gates of ESMA.

As FIFA does its best to downplay human rights concerns during the first week of World Cup play, the echoes of Mario Kempes’ extra-time winner in the 1978 final between Argentina and the Netherlands bounce around the interior of ESMA.

In the case of ESMA and the FIFA World Cup 1978, the entourage of reporters, fans, and participants left Argentina without covering or witnessing, let alone changing, that much. If anything, the Argentine military junta ought to have been pleased with the review given by Swedish national coach Georg “Åby” Ericson during his stay in the South American nation: “Our stay here is marvelous; we’re having a good time. I haven’t seen anything that suggests that this isn’t a great country.”

Beaten and malnourished prisoners who could barely stand up were forced to cheer along with their torturers, while understanding that Argentina’s 3–1 victory and historic first World Cup trophy also secured an enormous political victory for the military dictatorship.

“If they won, we lost,” Graciela Daleo, a surviving ESMA prisoner and university professor, writes in an essay about the 1978 final, experienced inside the walls of the concentration camp.

Daleo, who slept hooded and did slave work in the basement — “La Pecera” (“The Fishbowl”) — at the time of the June 25 final, recalls the television set that was suddenly brought into her world. She watched through its black-and-white flickering images and cheered along with the echo from Estadio Monumental. And for a moment, torturers and prisoners were united. One of ESMA’s superior bosses, Jorge Eduardo “El Tigre” Acosta, was frantic. “We won, we won!” he screamed, and shook his captives’ hands and kissed their cheeks.

Read entire article at Jacobin