In 1982 it was the setting for the second round of the World Cup and the teams were the national sides of Italy, Brazil and Argentina, all former World Champions—playing each other in a round-robin mini-league for a place in the semifinals (Argentina–Italy, Argentina–Brazil and Brazil–Italy, in that order). The games transcended the quotidian as war may be said to transcend debate.
These are, it sometimes seems to me, our only two universal games, war and soccer. They are to be found, both together, in all but a few rare and remote subcultures of the world (in Melanesia, for example, or here and there in North America) and always at the heart of the national experience. War is perhaps closer to the realm of fantasy, soccer to that of the real, but both share this ubiquity and centrality, as though arising, each, from some collective libidinous source, primary and intuitive. Perhaps they are simply variations of the same game, modern industrial era ritualizations of some common activity from the Dreamtime of the species, back when both used the same players and the same pitch—which is to say, all the men of the tribe and all of nature. Still today, they often fade into each other. Soccer managers "declare war," generals apply soccer tactics and terminology in their campaigns, warlike violence invades the soccer pitch, spreads into the stands and out into the communities (as when border tensions and the passions of World Cup qualifying matches blurred into the notorious and bloody "Soccer War" in 1969 between Honduras and El Salvador—ironically, two of the 1982 finalists, and yet again—or still—shooting at each other back home), soldiers wear their team colors into battle like guerdons or play the enemy in no-man's-land during temporary ceasefires, fan clubs are known as "armies."
In this inextricable commingling of battles on the pitches and the pitched battles elsewhere of war and rebellion, the World Cup twenty-four years later in 2006 could see such match-ups as Iran against the U.S.A. or England, or the Serbs against the Croatians, but in the summer of 1982 the war-of-the-day was between Argentina and England over a barren pitch known respectively as the Malvinas and the Falkland Islands, and both of them had teams at the 1982 World Cup. It was this war that overshadowed Argentina's defense of its 1978 championship, keeping their fans at home, draining their resources, demoralizing team and nation alike as the casualty figures mounted and their hopes for any kind of face-saving exit dwindled. Nevertheless, on the eve of the World Cup inaugural match between the reigning world champions and Belgium, the Argentine junta, facing imminent and catastrophic defeat, decided to keep the war going one more day, making every effort meanwhile to get live TV transmission of the game to the troops holding the islands, hoping for a miracle. Instead, as though to make the world share their sadness, they only lost a few more countrymen. Their world champions had courage on the day maybe, but no bullets, Belgium scoring the only goal of a crunching, cautious, somewhat tedious game. Whereupon, within hours, Argentina surrendered to Great Britain, the troops switched off the TV sets and returned to the mainland like disillusioned fans (a few citizens protested: they disappeared), and junta leader General Leopoldo Galtieri, presaging the fate of a lot of national team managers before the World Cup came to an end, "resigned." With a straight face, the London Times reported that, among senior military officers in the Falklands campaign, commando commander Brigadier Julian Thompson had been nominated "man of the match."