DDozens of sports books arrive on my desk each year. Yet few have had the force of The Silenced, an extraordinary story that was finally published in English last week. It tells the shocking true story of what happened when one of Argentina’s best rugby teams challenged the state. Anyone who still believes the cowardly delusion that sport and politics shouldn’t mix should read it and hastily repent.
It begins with an interview with Raúl Barandiarán, the only survivor of the first rugby team of La Plata 1 ° XV of 1975. Each of his 20 companions, writes the Italian author Claudio Fava, were murdered: “shot, murdered, ‘disappeared’, in an attempt to uproot a generation, an entire squad ”.
This was no ordinary team. La Plata, based in a coastal suburb of Buenos Aires, was one of the leading clubs in Argentina. “They were a good group of guys,” says Barandiarán. “The best, we were unbeatable in seven. But they never called us to the national team. Rugby is a right-wing sport in Argentina and we were on the left ”. And being on the left during the “dirty war” in the 1970s and early 1980s, when 30,000 people suspected of opposing the government were tortured, killed or disappeared, it was a dangerous place.
The first to be killed, on Good Friday 1975, was scrum half Hernán Rocca, who had decided to stay home while most of the team toured Europe. “One night they followed him home after training,” says Barandiarán of the paramilitary group Triple A (Alianza Anticomunista Argentina). “They stopped him on the road and killed him right there on the Pan-American Highway. They put 19 bullets in him ”. I was 21 years old.
For La Plata’s next match against Champagnat, Fava recounts how the club kept a minute of silence for Rocca that lasted to 10. It was an act of mourning that turned into a dangerous act of defiance.
Fava’s novel is based on facts but, like The Damned United, it fictionalizes many scenes. “A minute can last a lifetime, as long as a slow death,” he writes. “Down in the grass, nobody moved. In the stands, no one sat down again. They all remained motionless, frozen, with their arms at their sides, the ball forgotten. Everyone waited for a little longer to pass, because a minute was too short … too short for that miserable death with the metal wire wrapped around his wrists and the muzzle of the gun pressed to the back of his head. ” .
The silence put the spotlight on the team’s squad, many of whom belonged to communist groups. And starting in 1976, when General Jorge Rafael Videla took office, things got even worse.
Three members of the team, Otilio Pascua, Pablo Barut and Santiago Sánchez Viamonte, were kidnapped together. A month later, the body of Pascua, an architecture student and member of the Communist Party, was discovered. “His body was found floating in the Río de la Plata, swollen beyond recognition by the water, his arms tightly tied, his hands cut off, a bullet to the head,” says Barandiarán. Like thousands more, Pascua had been thrown from a plane. But 15 of the 20 from La Plata that disappeared have never been counted.
“Each death opened another wound, a new horror, another laceration of the soul”, writes Fava. Yet incredibly, the team continued to play, despite being forced to feature players from the youth team. They even rejected a plan by their coach, Hugo Passarella, to organize an escape from the team through a tour of France.
While the history of La Plata has slowly filtered into Argentina, it is hardly known in Europe. It’s a reminder, in a week in which players from the Netherlands, Norway and Germany wore jerseys to protest human rights in Qatar, and protesters urged Mars Wrigley to remove Snickers from being the official chocolate of the Games. Beijing Winter Olympics, how sports and politics are intertwined.
The more you learn about history through witness testimony, in the Website is missing and the grainy video of the players in their canary-colored 1970s uniform, Approach and maim carelessly in the world., the more powerful and shocking it becomes.
Rocca’s sister, Araceli, for example, is obsessed with imagining the moment when he was kidnapped, killed, and his body thrown on the road. “I was obsessed with thinking about how you had lived it, how your fears had been”, she writes. “Did you tremble? Did you cry Did you ask not to be killed? Did you feel the terror of powerlessness? “
Towards the end of the book Fava, whose own father was murdered by the Sicilian mafia, tries to find a method in madness. “It was not fate that was behind the violence, but a twisted mentality, the dark and bleak sense of power, the greed and thirst of a few, their desire for impunity,” he decides. “In this, President Jorge Videla and Benedetto Santapaola, the mob boss convicted of the murder of my father, have similarities.”
The last player from La Plata was kidnapped and declared “disappeared” just three days after Argentina’s victory in the 1978 World Cup. But the world looked the other way. Not surprisingly, Fava writes that the tournament was the “jewel in the crown of the board’s propaganda machine.” That, perhaps, offers more elements to think about. A Winter Olympics in Beijing or a World Cup in Qatar, anyone?
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism