Soulful and Soulless: The amazing story behind the two most representative photographs of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup

El Gráfico is an argentine institution: one of the oldest and possibly the most prestigious sports magazine in South America. In its 3.064th edition, on june 27th 1978, El Gráfico reviewed its own coverage of the Argentina 1978 World Cup, that César Luis Menotti and his players had won two days earlier.

Words By: Fabián Mauri

Words By: Fabián Mauri

During the month of the competition, El Gráfico produced four regular editions, plus other three extra editions, as Argentina was winning and the sales kept going up. That meant a total of 648 pages, work of over a hundred journalists, between writers and photographers. The pictures published in that edition were chosen between 232.756 images. Two of those photographs are remembered as some of the best in the history of Argentina’s press.

Both pictures were taken within ten minutes or less, in the afternoon of June 25th, at River Plate Stadium, where Argentina and The Netherlands were playing the championship final. Curiously enough, none of them portraits a football match in action, a goal or a player with the ball on his feet.

But, looking at them today, in a brutal or poetic way, it’s possible to reconstruct that particular time of Argentina’s history.


The first picture was taken at the president’s box by Paraguayan photographer Higinio González, who wasn’t a regular in El Gráfico’s staff. He used to work at the press office of the Casa de Gobierno (the government offices). His job was to register the official activities of each member of the Junta Militar, the military board that run the country during those dark years of dictatorship.

The three maximum authorities of the country at the time were Jorge Rafael Videla -head of the army-, Emilio Eduardo Massera –head of the navy-, and Orlando Ramón Agosti. During their years in power, around 30.000 argentines were killed for political reasons, a lot of their bodies where never found: they were desaparecidos. Many others were kidnapped and tortured, hundreds of babies were taken away from their mothers and given away to powerful families

González followed them around, pretty much, to take their pictures. He had a special agreement with Eduardo Forte, photography director of El Gráfico that was actually quite simple: if he happened to take an unusual-unconventional-informal-out-of-protocol picture of any of the commanders, he would give it to Forte, who would publish it in any magazine of Atlantida Editorial Group, the owner of El Gráfico and several other magazines (Gente, Para Ti, Somos) that usually published that kind of “the way you’ve never seen them before” stories.  The idea, of course, was to show the “human side” of the dictators.

At first, that incredible image that would later be picked between 3.000 others as the best of the World Cup was utterly ignored by the editors.

The official objective of the Junta Militar during the final that their country played against The Netherlands was to make history. For some reason, those three military men thought that an argentine win would bring such joy, that people would acclaim their government, the oversize collective happiness would turn the dictatorship into a legitimate government. The country would change. They thought that, with a win, the peronismo –the most influential political ideology in the country- would never return. That was clearly in their heads, so the tension in that president’s box was terrible.

Kempes’s first goal, Nanninga’s equaliser and –specially- Nanninga’s shot that hit the post were making everybody a little nervous. Kempes scored again on extra time, but the match was still tight until the 116th minute. Four minutes before the end of the match, Bertoni made it 3-1. That was it. That was the title. Argentina was about to be world champion for the first time. It was over.

Higinio González had his back turned against the field. As soon as he heard the mad cheers of the crowd, he focused his Nikon F in Videla, Massera and Agosti, that literally jumped off their seats to celebrate the goal. Massera seems to have a claw instead of a left hand. His enormous black eyebrows would scare anyone. Videla, at the center, raises his arms as much as his overcoat lets him. For the first time in his life, it seems like he has lost control of himself. A hand escapes from the photograph frame, the other shows an open palm and his five fingers. Agosti, with a defiant look, clenches his fist and wrings a piece of paper.

Higinio González took four or five shots, he knew he had collected a valuable image, a very original one, that eventually would become a valuable document. It was rare to get such a spontaneous moment out of those men. He knew that too, he photographed them daily and had learned that the three coronels where incapable to show any human emotion. He rewinded his Tri-x roll and put it in his pants pocket. “This one is for Forte –he thought. At El Gráfico they’re going to love this one”.

At El Gráfico, excelence in sports coverage aside, intimacy with players aside, love to the job of every journalist aside, the directors had a clear political position: they completely backed the military dictatorship. A famous false letter from dutch player Ruud Krol to his daughter printed in the magazine (in which he spoke wonders of the host country of the World Cup) is one of the most emblematic examples of how Editorial Atlántida collaborated with the government at the time.

In fact, El Gráfico directors liked Higinio González’s photo. A lot.  It was ideal to show a human side of the genocide leaders. It was published on june 27th (that particular issue printed 500.000 copys), an issue that show Passarella on the cover, lifting the Jules Rimet cup. The title was: “La hora más gloriosa del fútbol argentino”, the most glorious hour of argentine football.

The photograph of Videla, Massera and Agosti was printed in two pages, right next to Bertoni’s goal, the one that González couldn’t watch live. That picture, called simply “Joy” by his author, was the cover of another argentine magazine: Somos. That particular political publication, also in line with the military government, used a celebratory title: “Argentina and the World Cup, a country that changed”.


The second photograph, taken five minutes after the other one, contains a profound anecdote. His autor, don Ricardo Alfieri, an iconic graphic journalist of the magazine –a veteran, retired even-, when the match ended, after extra time, at the end of that cold afternoon, tried to sprint to the middle of the field, like he used to at a younger age, to capture the moment of hugs and cheers of the recently acclaimed champions. He already had one foot over the line of Pato Fillol’s goal before Gonella, the referee, made his whistle blow three times. He jumped from his knee-on-the-ground position but quickly realised that time hadn’t been kind on his athletic form. His colleagues passed him by and most of the of light-blue and white players were already too far from him, up ahead. As Don Ricardo tried to catch his breath, he found himself right next to Fillol and Tarantini huging, on their knees.

Every other photographer ran them by, aiming for the center of the field, looking for Kempes. Don Ricardo, all alone, barely crouched  and took the shot. Fillol was huging himself, Tarantini seemed to be comforting him, don Ricardo took another shot and kept going until the scene got “dirty”. In a photographer’s slang, a photograph gets dirty when  disruptive elements that don’t offer anything extra to the scene start to appear and rather complicate its understanding. In this case, the scene started to be filled with kids, young fans that had snuck into the field to hug the players and take the Vuelta Olímpica.

The most important edition in the history of El Gráfico was about to print, and the photography lab had a frantic activity. Don Ricardo enjoyed a bit of the general excitement, he told and heard some stories, left his rolls to be developed and headed to his home in Barracas to rest. In the rush of closing that edition, the photograph that a few days later would be chosen among other 3.000 as “The best photograph in the world cup” in a competition organised by Canon, went unnoticed. Unlike the first photograph of that sequence, the one that showed the hug between Tarantini and Fillol, which was published in a double page with the words “Yes, Pato (Fillol), we are champions!”.

It was not until Tuesday 27th that don Ricardo Alfieri, back in the lab, checking his negatives, discovered that he had captured something amazing. A young man without arms, with the long sleeves of his jersey flaming in the night, had moved closer to Fillol and Tarantini to join them in a hug that was physically impossible. Don Ricardo made a copy and went up to the third floor to show his finding to an old colleague of sporting adventures, another legend of that editorial office, Osvaldo Ardizzone, journalist and poet, who immediately baptized the image as “the hug from the soul”.

It’s one of the most popular photographs in argentine history. Years later, I was lucky enough to work side by side with don Ricardo in Argentina’s football fields and I heard many fathers, standing on the other side of the fence, say to their children:  “Do you see that photographer with the yellow scarf around his neck? That’s don Ricardo Alfieri, the author of “The hug from the soul”.

I think that the interpretation of his photograph grew over time, at first it created some tension: the joy of triumph represented in the players contrasted with the pity that we felt for that poor boy with no arms. Later on, when we began to learn more about the atrocities of the dictatorship, of the concentration camps, of the vuelos de la muerte (death flights –where bodies of desaparecidos where thrown to the River Plate from airplanes), we then realised that the boy without arms was an embodiment of all of us, the argentine people, forever maimed, in the most glorious night of the dictators that lead the genocide.