Dozens of sports books land on my desk every year. Few, though, have ever packed the gut punch of The Silenced, an extraordinary story that was finally published in English last week. It tells the shocking true tale of what happened when one of the finest rugby teams in Argentina defied the state. Anyone who still believes the dastardly deceit that sport and politics shouldn’t mix should read it – and hastily repent.
It begins with an interview with Raúl Barandiarán, the sole survivor of the original La Plata 1st XV rugby squad from 1975. Every one of his 20 teammates, the Italian author Claudio Fava writes, were murdered: “gunned down, assassinated, ‘disappeared’, in an attempt to tear a generation – an entire squad – out by its roots”.
This was no ordinary squad. La Plata, based in a coastal suburb of Buenos Aires, were one of the leading clubs in Argentina. “They were a good group of guys,” Barandiarán says. “The best – we were unbeatable at sevens. But we never got called up to the national side. 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 70s and early 80s, when 30,000 people suspected of opposing the government were tortured, killed or disappeared, was a dangerous place to be.
The first to be murdered, on Good Friday 1975, was the scrum-half Hernan Rocca, who had decided to stay at home while most of the team toured Europe. “They followed him home from training one night,” says Barandiarán of the paramilitary group Triple A (Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance). “They stopped him en route and they murdered him right there on the Pan-American Highway. They put 19 bullets in him.” He was 21 years old.
For La Plata’s next match against Champagnat, Fava relates how the club held a minute’s silence for Rocca that stretched to 10. It was an act of mourning that became a dangerous act of defiance.
Fava’s novel is based on fact but – like The Damned United – fictionalises many scenes. “A minute can drag on for a lifetime, as drawn out as a slow death,” he writes. “Down on the grass, nobody moved. Up in the stands, nobody sat back down. Everyone remained fixed, frozen, arms by their sides, the ball forgotten. Everyone waited for a bit more time 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 pistol pressed into the back of his head.”
The silence turned the spotlight on the team’s squad, many of whom belonged to communist groups. And after 1976, when General Jorge Rafael Videla took over, things got even worse.
Three 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 Communist party member, was discovered. “His body was found floating in the Rio de la Plata, bloated beyond recognition by the water, arms bound tightly, hands chopped off, a bullet in the head,” says Barandiarán. Like thousands of others Pascua had been thrown out of an aeroplane. But 15 of the 20 from La Plata who disappeared have never been accounted for.
“Every death opened another wound, a fresh horror, another laceration of the soul,” writes Fava. Yet incredibly the team continued to play on, despite being forced to field youth-team players. They even rejected a plan from their coach, Hugo Passarella, to organise a team escape through a tour of France.
While La Plata’s story has slowly seeped out in Argentina, in Europe it is barely known. It is a reminder, in a week when players from the Netherlands, Norway and Germany wore T-shirts to protest against human rights in Qatar, and protesters urged Mars Wrigley to pull Snickers from being the official Beijing Winter Olympic chocolate, of how sport and politics are intertwined.
The more you learn of the story through witness testimony, on the Desaparecidos website and the grainy video footage of the players in their canary-coloured kit from the 70s, tackling and mauling without a care in the world, the more powerful and shocking it becomes.
Rocca’s sister Araceli, for instance, is haunted by imagining the moment he was kidnapped, killed and his body dumped 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 the madness. “It was not fate that lay behind the violence, but rather a twisted mentality, the dark and bleak sensation of power, the greed and thirst of a few, their desire for impunity,” he decides. “In this, president Jorge Videla and Benedetto Santapaola – the mafia boss convicted of the murder of my father – bear similarities.”
The last La Plata player was kidnapped and declared “disappeared” just three days after Argentina’s football World Cup victory in 1978. But the world was looking the other way. No wonder Fava writes that the tournament was the “jewel in the crown of the junta’s propaganda machine”. That, maybe, offers more food for thought. A Winter Olympics in Beijing or a World Cup in Qatar, anyone?