After their opening embarrassment, Argentina did manage to win a couple of games to qualify for the second round, and so recovered a certain respect. Brazil was the big favorite going into the round-robin—indeed, the favorite of the whole 1982 World Cup— and the game between these legendary rivals was touted as the "Latin American Final," with the winner favored to go all the way. Less was expected of Italy, who had gotten through to this round with three dismal draws against unrated teams, but they were a dour defensive squad and could always be a spoiler. Which is how the first game, which the Argentines lost to the Italians 2–1, was read: a reliance on hard men, craft above beauty, an upset victory for "negative" football. The press complained afterward of Italian ruthlessness and brutality. "Anti-football," they called it, "something between defense and homicide," though later their memory of this match would be more generous (as with life, only the past is open-ended). Certainly the tenacity and commitment of the Italian players in the blistering heat was awesome, the crushed pride of the Argentines almost palpable.
It is perhaps this passionate commitment, together with that peculiar but universal tendency of a people to identify its national interest with the success or failure of its soccer team, that most reminded us of the last time we were sitting up here, in the wind and rain, watching that night game that was more than a game between the Culés or "Big Arses" of Barcelona (so called because in the old days the fans sat on open-backed bleachers, which presented to passers-by this now-commemorated view celebrated by generations of cartoonists) and the "Parakeets" of Espanyol. This was 1977—or Year 1 A.F. (After Franco) by the new Catalan calendar—that euphoric year of the destape (the popping of the cork, the lifting of the lid) which saw the almost instantaneous nationwide demolition of the structures of Francoism, broad political amnesty, the legalization of the Communist Party, free trade unions, the publishing explosion and the Pornographic Revolution, the first general elections since the days of the Republic, and in Catalunya the new cultural renaixença, sardana-dancing in the streets, and the restoration of the autonomous Catalan parliament, the Generalitat. This body had been operating in exile since the end of the Civil War, and one of the high moments of the autumn of '77 was the welcoming home from almost forty years of exile of its president Josep Tarradellas. This took place at the airport, in the streets and plazas of Barcelona (soon to recover their old pre-Franco Catalan names as though to erase from the communal memory the shame of the Castillian—which is to say, foreign—occupation), and finally at FC Barcelona's Camp Nou, that holy temple of Catalanism across town where the tribe had gathered on alternate Sundays throughout the Franco era in symbolic—and vociferous—resistance.