The 1978 FIFA World Cup, the 11th staging of the FIFA World Cup, quadrennial international football world championship tournament, was held in Argentina between 1 and 25 June.
England and Belgium failed to qualify for the second World Cup in succession, losing out to Italy and the Netherlands respectively. 1976 European champions Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and the Soviet Union were eliminated by Scotland, Spain, France and Hungary respectively and thus failed to qualify for the finals. Bolivia’s win meant Uruguay failed to qualify for the first time since 1958. Newcomers to the finals were Iran and Tunisia; Austria qualified for the first time since 1958, while France, Spain and Hungary were back for the first time since 1966. Peru and Mexico returned after missing the previous tournament. For the first time, more than 100 nations entered the competition.
The format of the competition stayed the same as in 1974: 16 teams qualified, divided into four groups of four. Each group played a round-robin with two points for a win and one for a draw, and goal difference used to separate teams level on points. The top two teams in each group would advance to the second round, where they would be split into two groups of four. The winners of each group would play each other in the final, and the second-place finishers in the third place match. For the 1978 World Cup, FIFA introduced the penalty shoot-out as a means of determining the winner in knockout stages should the match end on a draw after 120 minutes. The method, however, was not put in practice as both the third-place match and the final were decided before 120 minutes. The first World Cup to feature a penalty shoot-out was the 1982 World Cup, in the semifinal match between France and West Germany.
The first round produced several surprises. Poland won Group 2 ahead of world champions West Germany, after holding the Germans to a goalless draw and then beating Tunisia and Mexico. The Germans then thrashed Mexico 6–0, and finally played out a second goalless draw against Tunisia. Although they failed to qualify for the second round, Tunisia made history by beating Mexico 3–1 while trailing 0–1 at half time. It was the first time that any African team had won a match at the World Cup finals.
Peru pushed the Netherlands into second place in Group 4, where Scotland missed out on goal difference for the second successive tournament. Teofilo Cubillas was outstanding for Peru, scoring twice against Scotland in Peru’s 3–1 win and hitting a hat-trick in their 4–1 victory over newcomers Iran. Rob Rensenbrink of the Netherlands also scored three times against Iran, scoring all the goals as the Dutch won 3–0. Scotland drew with Iran 1–1 and the only highlight of their campaign was a 3–2 victory over the Netherlands in their final group game which was not enough to prevent elimination. Iran, the reigning Asian champions, went out of the tournament winless. Rensenbrink’s goal against Scotland was the 1000th goal of World Cup history. Scotland’s Willie Johnston was expelled from the World Cup after he was found to have taken a banned stimulant during the opening game against Peru.
The biggest surprise of all came in Group 3, where Austria finished ahead of Brazil. The Austrians beat Spain and Sweden, while Brazil were held to draws by the same two teams. The draw between Brazil and Sweden was especially controversial; Welsh referee Clive Thomas awarded Brazil a very late corner kick, and Zico directly headed the kick into the net; but Thomas blew for time before Zico made contact with the ball, and the goal was disallowed. The Brazilian players were not happy with the decision, but the final result remained a 1–1 draw. Heading into their final group game, Brazil needed to beat Austria to be certain of advancing to the second round and managed a 1–0 win thanks to a goal from Roberto Dinamite. Brazil and Austria thus finished with the same number of points and the same goal difference, but Austria won the group by virtue of having scored more goals.
Group 1 had the strongest line-up of teams in the first round, featuring Italy, the host Argentina, France and Hungary. The two places in the second round were claimed before the final round of games, with Italy and Argentina both beating France and Hungary. The match between Italy and Argentina decided who topped the group, and a goal from Roberto Bettega midway through the second half was enough to give that honor to Italy. It also forced Argentina to move out of Buenos Aires and play in Rosario.
The 1978 World Cup marked the fourth and last occasion during which a national team did not wear its own kit to play a match (the first being in the 1932 World Cup third place match between Germany and Austria; the second in the 1950 World Cup first round match between Switzerland and Mexico and the third in the 1958 World Cup first round match between West Germany and Argentina). The incident happened during the game between France and Hungary. Both teams arrived at the venue with only their white change kits, resulting in a delayed kickoff while officials went in search of the jerseys of a local team from Mar del Plata, Club Atletico Kimberley; the jerseys had vertical green and white stripes and were worn by France.
In the all-European Group A, the Netherlands got off to a flying start by thrashing Austria 5–1, Johnny Rep scoring two of their goals. In a rematch of the 1974 final, the Dutch then drew 2–2 with West Germany, who had previously shared a goalless game with Italy. The Italians beat Austria 1–0, and so the Netherlands faced Italy in their last group game knowing that the winners would reach the final. Ernie Brandts scored an 18th-minute own goal to put Italy ahead at half-time, but he made up for his mistake by scoring at the right end in the fifth minute of the second half. Arie Haan got the winner for the Dutch with 15 minutes remaining, and the Netherlands had reached their second successive World Cup Final. In the game known as the ‘Miracle of Cordoba’, West Germany were surprisingly beaten by Austria 2–3 which marked their end as World Champions.
Group B was essentially a battle between Argentina and Brazil, and it was resolved in controversial circumstances. In the first round of group games, Brazil beat Peru 3–0 while Argentina saw Poland off by a score of 2–0. Brazil and Argentina then played out a tense and violent goalless draw, so both teams went into the last round of matches with three points. Argentina delayed the kick-off of its last match to await the result of the Brazil-Poland encounter. Brazil won by a 3–1 score, meaning Argentina had to beat Peru by four clear goals to reach the final but they managed to do it. Trailing 2–0 at half-time, Peru simply collapsed in the second half, and Argentina eventually won 6–0. As previously noted, rumors suggested that Peru might have been bribed or threatened into allowing Argentina to win the match by such a large margin. However, nothing could be proved, and Argentina met the Netherlands in the final. Brazil took third place from an enterprising Italian side with Nelinho scoring a memorable goal, and were dubbed “moral champions” by coach Claudio Coutinho, because they did not win the tournament, but did not lose a single match.
The final, Argentina vs Netherlands, was also controversial, as the Dutch accused the Argentines of using stalling tactics to delay the match. The host team came out late and questioned the legality of a plaster cast on Rene van de Kerkhof’s’s wrist, which the Dutch claimed allowed tension to build in front of a hostile Buenos Aires crowd.
Mario Kempes opened the scoring for the hosts before Dick Nanninga equalized a few minutes from the end. Rob Rensenbrink had a glorious stoppage-time opportunity to win it for the Netherlands but his effort came back off the goal post. Argentina won the final 3–1 after extra-time, after Daniel scored and Kempes, who finished as the tournament’s top scorer with six goals, added his second of the day. The Netherlands, because of the controversial game events, refused to attend the post-match ceremonies after the match ended. They had lost their second consecutive World Cup final, both times to the host nation, after losing to West Germany in 1974. Argentina won 5 games but became the first team to win the World Cup after failing to win two matches, where they had lost to Italy in the first round and drawn with Brazil in the second round. Four years later, Italy would win the next World Cup despite failing to win three games.