Playing against Death

The 'Disaparecidos' Team: La Plata Rugby Club

As much as many sports governing bodies or sports followers may not like the mixing of sports and politics, it is somewhat naive to think that the two do not or should never mix. No matter the country or city you hail from, take a good look into the sport you follow and you’ll see how politics sits within it with a very disguised but comfortable sofa. Those who follow the La Plata Rugby Club closely, know about the painful dark happenings which hovered around the club and its players some forty years after the club was founded. La Plata Rugby Club, a leading Rugby Union club from the city of La Plata, Buenos Aires, holds in its history, the stories of the disappearances of the club’s players under the Argentine authorities in the 1970s.

In March 1976, Argentina experienced a change of power. Isabel Peron, the country’s democratically elected President was expelled by a military coup. During Peron’s time as President, many political disappearances and murders occurred. When the following military regime of right wing dictator General Jorge Videla, had forced itself on the country, things escalated even more. Anyone thought to be in solidarity with the left or in opposition to the government was arrested, kidnapped, tortured and/or killed. Now this is where La Plata Rugby Club comes into the picture. Young middle class leftist Argentines who lived around the La Plata area used to meet at the Rugby club. The young men would meet up at the club to play and also discuss issues related to the political reality at the time. The government did not like this as the club was known to have many leftist figures. Though the club’s players were some of the best in Argentina at the time, they were never invited to the national team.

If the story stops here, it would still be a little disturbing because of the unfairness at work, but it gets worse. In his book, The Silenced, Claudio Fava reports on some of the happenings concerning the team. Raul Barandiaran, the sole survivor of La Plata’s 1975 1st rugby squad, states that all his other teammates disappeared or were killed. 

When the team was on a tour of Europe in 1975, Hernan Rocca, a player who did not travel, was killed. He was the first member of the squad to be murdered. This was even before the military take over of the country’s leadership. On Good Friday, he was followed after training that evening as he made his way home. The paramilitary group, Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance (Triple A) stopped him on the way. His body was later found blindfolded with 19 gunshot wounds. When the team found out about what had happened to Rocca, their coach Hugo Passarella, wanted the squad to seek asylum in Europe. Amazingly, the players defiantly decided to return to Argentina. They had decided not to bow to pressure from their government and to face the consequences whatever they might be. Though the military take over had not yet happened, the President's administration had given the military quite a bit of power. The military would go on to be given immunity under Peron’s tenure.

Within a week of Rocca’s murder, the team returned back to Argentina. A match had previously been scheduled between La Plata and Club Champagnat. Despite the setback of Hernan’s murder and the offer to postpone the match by Champagnat, the team decided to play in honour of Rocca. During this first match after their return, a minute’s silence was arranged in Rocca’s honour. What was supposed to last a minute ended up lasting ten minutes. The stadium was in mourning. Those ten minutes of silence were indeed a tribute to their teammate, but they were also a strong act of rebellion, they were an act against repression, they were a cry of freedom. This murder of scrum-half, Rocca would prompt some of the La Plata players to officially join leftist groups in the city.

Several reports estimate that there were approximately 1500 political murders and disappearances during Peron’s leadership. This number would jump to 30,000 during Videla’s dictatorship. 152 rugby players among an estimated 220 athletes disappeared in this period. The disappeared are called the Desaparecidos, in Argentina. 

In October 1977, two more players, Otilio Pascua, Santiago Sanchez Viamonte were kidnapped in the seaside resort of Mar del Plata. Pascua and Viamonte had moved away from La Plata because of the threats to their lives and families. Maria Pascua (Otilio’s sister) from her investigations found out that her brother had gone to visit Viamonte and was taken after arriving at Viamonte’s home. Viamonte had already been detained before Pascua arrived at his front door and was immediately arrested. Pascua, Viamonte and Viamonte’s wife were all carried away. It would seem the players were then forced to out others who the armed forces wanted to deal with. After a month had passed, Pascua’s body was found floating in the Rio de la Plata with his hands tied and a weight attached to its feet. The body had become quite unrecognisable at this point, bloated by the water. He had been thrown out of an airplane like others who were found in the same way. Between 1977 and 1978, over 2000 people had been killed by the death flights. 
There are reports and testimonies from those who carried out these atrocities that this was a way the military forces got rid of prisoners. The prisoners would be told that they were being transferred to another facility and would need to be ‘vaccinated’ to be accepted where they were going. In reality, they were drugged to make them drowsy and less resistant to the movement. Another body was found along with Pascua’s body, that of a female and even more bodies were found in the same circumstances, both male and female. 

Pablo Balut who was also kidnapped along with his wife in Mar del Plata was last seen in March 1978.

Though his wife was later released, he was never heard of again. The team captain, Mariano Montequin, was kidnapped on the 6th of December 1977 from his home in Buenos Aires by an armed group of men. His partner was also taken away. Days later, his apartment was completely cleared out by a military truck. He was kept imprisoned at the clandestine detention centre, El Banco, until he too was transferred in July 1978.

The players went to every training session regularly knowing that probably sooner or later a teammate would not be present. The club had to recruit younger reserves to fill the seats of murdered and missing players as their seasons continued. They continued to play as the military regime became more ruthless - stopping playing was not an option.
They fought with unequal weapons against a much stronger enemy but they were determined to show that it was more important to continue living than to surrender to despair. Their ideas and their will to live were stronger than death, and they knew death very closely. Their friends kept disappearing one after another, but the survivors of that extraordinary team continued to play undeterred, and they won, they almost always won. They won under the angry gazes of the generals seated in the stands. 

In a documentary, La Plata Rugby Club – No Bajen Los Brazos (Don’t Lower Your Arms), the club figures remember their friends, their athleticism and activism. They also mention how they would be taken under the cover of night, to be tortured and questioned. If they were found to support or have links with the leftist groups, the Montoneros and the ERP(People's Revolution Army), they were murdered or tried. Even those who had no strong political leanings to the right or left and were not members of any groups were picked up. In La Plata, and also other parts of the country, academics, students, government officials, artists and magistrates disappeared or were found killed. Anyone thought to be influential and on the left was targeted.

Till today, not many know about their stories. The players are only honoured by La Plata Rugby Club, their families and human rights organisations. In Argentina, many of the younger generation are only just beginning to know about La Plata Rugby Club’s players who disappeared. 15 La Plata players who disappeared have never been accounted for. 

The last La Plata player disappeared in 1978, three days after Argentina won the FIFA World Cup. Though there were whispers of the atrocities of the Argentine government during this period, the government did all it could to hide its repressive and bloody activities. Just like the La Plata players defied the government, there were campaigns against the staging of the World Cup in Argentina. Amnesty International kept records of the numbers who were disappearing and released statements to bring awareness to the reality on ground. The disappearances were either blamed on terrorists or people moving abroad by the local media. The press had no free hand of their own and had to parrot whatever the regime wanted. The military junta were able to control the media sufficiently enough that even some Argentines only saw what the government wanted them to see. 

Checkpoints were common all over the country. People and vehicles were stopped at random and asked to present identity documents or give bribes. Many were kidnapped, even pregnant women. Some of the women would be allowed to deliver their babies in captivity after which they would be killed and their children would be given to families with military ties. Many had to play to the junta’s tunes.

Apart from Fava’s book, many of the players’ stories can be found in Claudio Gomez’s book, Maten al Rugbier (Kill the Rugby Player). The families of the disappeared players still seek for justice. These stories are only just beginning to gain proper momentum outside Argentina, and they are indeed shocking ones.


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