Henry Kissinger and his curious football links

It was the final game of the second group phase. Earlier in the day, Brazil had beaten Poland 3-1, which meant that Argentina had to beat Peru by four to make it to the 1978 World Cup final. Before kick-off, the Peru team were visited in their dressing room by Jorge Videla, the leader of the military junta that had seized power in 1976, and Henry Kissinger, who had been the US secretary of state until the previous January. This, Peru’s players felt, was deeply odd.

Kissinger, who died on Wednesday, loved football, and often attended games. In 1976, for instance, after flying to Britain to discuss the crisis in Rhodesia, he went to Blundell Park for Grimsby’s win over Gillingham with the foreign secretary Tony Crosland, a passionate Grimsby fan. Eight months later, Crosland took him to watch Chelsea draw 3-3 with Wolves in the old Second Division. Then too he had visited the dressing room, to widespread bewilderment. “He said he loved soccer,” the Chelsea striker Steve Finnieston recalled. “The players’ comments ranged from ‘All right, mate?’ to ‘Who’s that wanker?’ … Not a lot of respect was shown.”

Henry Kissinger watching Chelsea v Wolves in the old Second Division in 1976. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

But what happened in Rosario was more sinister. “It seemed like they were there just to greet and welcome us,” said Peru’s captain Héctor Chumpitaz. “They also said that they hoped it would be a good game because there was a great deal of anticipation among the Argentinian public. He wished us luck, and that was it. We started looking at each other and wondering: shouldn’t they have gone to the Argentina room, not our room? What’s going on? I mean, they wished us luck? Why? It left us wondering …” Kissinger’s office said he had “no recollection” of the incident.

Argentina went on to win 6-0, which raised eyebrows. There is much circumstantial evidence of a fix – unproven allegations that the Argentinian government shipped 35,000 tones of grain and possibly some arms to Peru, and that the central bank released $50m of frozen Peruvian assets. Most disturbing were the allegations made by a Peruvian senator, General Ledesma, to Buenos Aires judge in 2012 that the match was rigged as part of Operation Condor, a grim plan by which South American dictatorships tortured each other’s dissidents in which Kissinger was implicated, with Videla accepting 13 prisoners from Peru in return.

“Were we pressured? Yes, we were pressured,” the midfielder José Velásquez told Channel 4. “What kind of pressure? Pressure from the government. From the government to the managers of the team, from the managers of the team to the coaches.” Perhaps that is true, but anybody watching the game in search of an obvious fix will be disappointed. Peru hit the post in the first half and their goalkeeper Ramón Quiroga made a string of fine saves. To an eye not looking for a fix, it seems that Peru, with nothing to play for, just wilted in the second half under the pressure of relentless Argentina attacks and a ferocious home crowd. As to Kissinger’s presence, he was an ally of Videla – “If there are things to be done, you should do them quickly,” he reportedly told him after the coup in 1976 – and he did love football.

As a boy growing up in Bavaria, he had been a fan of his home-town club SpVgg Fürth, who were three times a German champion between 1916 and 1929. When he became security adviser to Richard Nixon in 1969, staff would include reports on the team’s games among his briefing papers on a Monday morning.

Henry Kissinger is presented with a shirt of the team he supported, Greuther Fürth, in 2012. Photograph: Bastian Ott/EPA

He played football as well, first as a goalkeeper and then, after breaking a bone in a hand, as an inside-forward. He devised new tactics which, in the account he gave to Brian Kilmeade in The Games Do Count, he claims were a forerunner of catenaccio, although it sounds more like just massing players behind the ball. “The system was to drive the other team nuts by not letting them score, by keeping so many people back as defenders,” he said. “It’s very hard to score when 10 players are lined up in front of goal.” That the ends were more important to him than the means comes as little surprise.

Although his family’s flight to the US to escape Nazi persecution took him away from football, Kissinger continued to find it a useful tool of diplomacy, particularly with Leonid Brezhnev with whom he had a lengthy discussion about Garrincha at a summit in Moscow in 1973. It was seeing football pitches on spy-plane photos in Cuba in 1969 that led him to realise Soviet troops were stationed on the island – “Cubans play baseball,” as he reportedly snapped at Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff. He helped João Havelange unseat Stanley Rous as Fifa president in 1974 and to arrange Pelé’s move to the New York Cosmos a year later, both as part of a broader plan to improve relations between the US and Brazil.

Henry Kissinger with the former West Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer in 1980. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Havelange, though, later fell out with Kissinger, seemingly over the USA’s doomed bid to host the 1986 World Cup, and accused him of having fixed the second-phase game at the 1974 World Cup in which the Netherlands beat Brazil 2-0. By then Kissinger’s reputation was such that wherever there were wheels within wheels, he could credibly be accused of turning them.

And why, given he was one of the first senior figures to recognise the potential of the world’s sport in politics, would he not be turning them in football?


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