Cinema | A soccer player’s escape from Argentina … into philosophy

Claudio Tamburrini, as portrayed by Argentine actor Rodrigo de la Serna in Crónica de una fuga (Chronicle of an Escape), makes what fellow prisoners within Mansión Seré see as an extraordinary request. The Almagro goalkeeper who became one of the “disappeared” in Nov 1977 asks for kitchenware with which to eat his meals. Moments later, spoons rattle as they are tossed onto the floor—one small achievement in a bid for human dignity.

Tamburrini, now a philosophy professor at Stockholm University, becomes animated when addressing this point within extra features contained on the Crónica DVD, released in North America on Aug 19. Does his character at this moment merely display an obsessive-compulsive nature? Tamburrini asks fellow prisoner Guillermo Fernández—the architect of their escape—nearly 30 years later. Or, appropriate to the goalkeeper’s unique perspective on football and life, does he make a more fundamental existential demand? “I am a human being … give me my cutlery.”

Landscape painter Derek Eland in “At the Match” captures the zeal possessing Argentina supporters at the start of the 1978 World Cup final on 25 Jun 1978, in Estadio Monumental. Dutch player Johnny Rep described the atmosphere at the start of the game as kokend (boiling). (© Derek Eland)

Tamburrini’s philosophical approach to the physical horrors of 120 days of imprisonment expresses one side of what he calls in an interview a “schizophrenic life” (audio below). Another side, about which he is also passionate, involves football. His father trained him “in a joyful manner” to play. He has maintained, by all appearances, this joy for the sport, persisting at age 53 within a Swedish amateur league; in interviews on the DVD, he demonstrates juggling skills, wears a Boca jersey and remains coy about his support for CA Vélez, although he confesses to staying up to 2 a.m. to watch the matches via satellite.

He titled his memoir Pase libre: La fuga de la Mansión Seré (Free Transfer: The Escape from Mansión Seré), recalling his primary anxiety on being abducted by Argentine military authorities on 23 Nov 1977 that his club would cut him loose. Indeed, Almagro, a second-division side, did relinquish ties with Tamburrini by making him available for “free transfer,” akin to purging him from the roster.

Other indignities followed for Tamburrini’s family and for other families of los desaparecidos, of whom there were some 30,000, the estimate offered by human rights groups. The military dictatorship governed Argentina between 1976 and 1983, initiating the so-called dirty war. Neighbors and friends shunned Tamburrini’s mother after his disappearance, a memory that has remained prominent.

Interview with Tamburrini, from Stockholm, Feb 28. (53:13)

He has encountered officials of Almagro on return visits to Argentina, as well as those who refused to speak with his mother. Again, Tamburrini’s views transcend personal experience to integrate the broader context of the period. “I don’t even know, actually, to be honest, if what they did was wrong,” says Tamburrini, “because what they did was provoked, of course, by fear. And who are we to judge? I don’t want to judge. … Why not talk about old times and look forward? That is what life is about.” Tellingly, Tamburrini does not criticize the Argentine military in his book; rather, he crafts what he calls a “Sartre-like novel” of existential terror.

On 23 Mar 1978, Tamburrini escaped Mansión Seré, a decrepit detention and torture center in the Morón neighborhood of Buenos Aires, along with Fernández, Daniel Rusomano and Carlos García. The portrayal of the detainees in Tamburrini’s book attracted interest from Uruguayan filmmaker Adrián Caetano. In his director’s statement, written in 2006 when the film first was released, he says that the essence of the production became the idea of four prisoners, kept in handcuffs, unclothed, in an empty room at what had once been an ornate, French-style country mansion abseiling from the window during a fierce nighttime thunderstorm. “Four young men naked in all senses,” Caetano emphasizes, “under the rain, hurt, bruised, scared, running without knowing what would be the end of their imprisonment.”

In Caetano’s formulation, the prisoners opted for life—a transcendent choice—while Tamburrini says the decision partially reflected a “suicidal attitude” especially on his part and that of the group’s leader, Fernández. The other two members of the contingent had to be coerced into leaving. In the film, as Fernández and Tamburrini improvise the liberating escape cord from bed linens, one of the detainees mutters, “This is wrong … you have no right.” The inhibitions demonstrate the prison keepers’ effectiveness at making inmates accept an unacceptable situation, such that one feels guilt even for contemplating departure.

Tamburrini’s character shows such doubts. Given an opportunity to assault one of the guards, as they are absorbed watching an Argentina football match on television in the house kitchen, Tamburrini hesitates. On this occasion, he opts for the relative predictability of house life, before fully internalizing the truth of the saying from one of his fellows that Tamburrini and the others, in the eyes of Argentine society, were dead. “We’re disappearing,” the inmate tells Tamburrini. “You’re disappearing.” The solution becomes a decision for unpredictability, a positive choice for escape such that “at the very least you can be sure that your ordeal will soon be over, for instance if the escape does not succeed, if it fails.”

To his overseers in Mansión Seré, known in shorthand as “Attila the Hun,” or Attila, Tamburrini assumed the identity of a university student, a suspected leftist and footballer. Along with others who lost their outside names within the military’s clutch, Tamburrini became “arquero” or “Almagro”; collectively, the imprisoned often were addressed as “girls” or “faggots.” Given Caetano’s commitment to cinematic truth, the actors appear naked much of the time, bearing the gashes and welts that recall a crucified Christ. From starting out as an abductee with no knowledge of the disappeared or the extent of the military’s ambitions of purging Peronists, Tamburrini gained the insight that his existence was under threat. His own dream of becoming a European-based footballer was all but over:

I was very naive, even politically. … I didn’t realize the magnitude of the horror that I was going to confront during my captivity. During the first week or the first two or three days I still expected to be released. … I was abducted on a Thursday. Some of the guards told me, “Unfortunately, you have to wait until Monday …” to be released. So I waited very hopefully for Monday to come and then to realize it wasn’t that easy. That helped me become a very experienced prisoner, because I was not an experienced prisoner during the first week. I was rather naive. I was thinking about life outside that detention center. That’s not good, because you have to realize when you are in that kind of situation that the only life you’ve got now is the life between those four walls.

Claudio Tamburrini


His football dreams would play out in a setting different from what he had envisioned. Naturally, after torture, confinement and months of hiding following escape, resuming football training was not realistic. One of the Attila guards had promised that, after Tamburrini’s release, the two would reunite to play football. The guard, Tamburrini observes wryly on supplementary DVD footage, never called.

Tamburrini’s period of hiding, before accepting political asylum in Sweden, was only interrupted during the mass public celebrations during the World Cup finals in Jun 1978. “Did I do the right thing?” Tamburrini asks himself in a 2006 reflection, “The Right to Celebrate.” He reveled with thousands following a 6–0 semifinal victory over Peru, a match that Argentina needed to win by at least three goals in order to advance to the final against the Netherlands.

Military leaders seized on the World Cup—“the greatest mass cultural manifestation of the modern era,” in Tamburrini’s words—to show their legitimacy to a world audience. Junta leader Jorge Rafael Videla welcomed former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the VIP viewing area. Other survivors from among the disappeared recall in documentaries such as Mundial ’78, la historia paralela (World Cup 1978: The Parallel Story) that they were forced to ride with captors through the mobs celebrating the 3–1 win over Holland.

Graciela Daleo, in a BBC interview, remembers being escorted in a green Peugeot 504. With others, she was taken to a restaurant, where they sang victory songs with “[t]he guy who had tortured you with electric drills.” The perception of such parallel worlds contributes to Daleo’s sense of onrushing madness, with the World Cup zeal adding stress:

I don’t know, the football thing becomes the dominating thing even in the concentration camp. The torturer who had tortured you when you were kidnapped, if he supported the same club as you did, this terribly mad ghostly bond would be established. Whenever I hear that song by [Joan Manuel] Serrat, “Fiesta,” where he sings “the villain and the rich man shake hands, the differences don’t matter” … I don’t know. I’ve got an anger that has less to do with a sociological analysis and is more a gut reaction: I hate World Cups because they dissolve the class struggle. In a way, during the World Cup it seems we are all the same. We are not all the same. (175–76)

To recognize the 30th anniversary of Argentina’s victory at the 1978 World Cup finals, several human rights groups, including Madres de Plaza de Mayo, staged “La otra final”—for “life and human rights”—at River Plate stadium.

Tamburrini offers another formulation, while respecting the memory of the period that has now been enshrined in projects such as Instituto Espacio para la Memoria, or the National Memory Archives. The observation that footballers are poor narrators of their experience does not apply to him.

He asserts that sports, especially the World Cup and Olympic Games, must be retained by those with good intentions and not surrendered—as nations do via politically motivated boycotts—to the mechanisms of the enemy. Therefore, he marched after the victory over Peru, viewing the Argentina side as a manifestation of the better instincts of a country rife with contradiction. “Who are the intellectuals to tell the poor and disadvantaged in society when to cheer and when to celebrate?” he argues. His feeling, recalled in his essay on celebration many years later, was that citizens of Buenos Aires were reclaiming the freedom of assembly:

On the way to the final, Argentinians gradually felt a newly born courage and regained control over the streets of the country, as they hadn’t been able to do since the military coup in 1976. That night, celebrating with all the football fans on the streets, I revived the feeling I had at the moment of my escape, that the regime was far from being unassailable, and that I could leave my hideout, go abroad and announce what I had witnessed to the international community. How many lives were saved when the masses were back on the streets again? Or by a newspaper announcement with the name of [César Luis] Menotti, perhaps the most famous football coach at that moment?

Tamburrini’s views are echoed by footballers of the period, such as Leopoldo Luque, who said at 30th-anniversary commemorations of the World Cup triumph that “we were simply players convened to play in the World Cup. I was simply a footballer who wanted to fulfill a dream, to become champions with the national selection.” Similarly, Diego Maradona in his autobiography rejects any linkage between the dictatorship and Argentina’s subsequent victory at the 1979 World Youth Cup: “Videla and his cronies, who made thirty thousand people disappear, don’t deserve anything, least of all to tarnish the memory of the success of a group of kids. … [I]n those days Videla was in charge. And if there is a picture of me shaking hands with him all I can say is: I didn’t have a choice.”

Football, as with everything else, can be good or bad, Tamburrini says. It is a potentially powerful political weapon yet limited in its capacity to transform the world. Since the 1978 World Cup, he writes, torture endures as a state-sponsored policy, authorized even by the United States.

Having realized his vocation as a philosopher of sport and penal systems through unpredictable mingling of tragedy and a seized opportunity, Tamburrini testifies to the grey areas when making connections between politics and sport. “It hasn’t limited possibilities,” he says of his encounter with suffering. “It’s given me more possibilities.”


During the week of Aug 25, survivors of Mansión Seré began presenting in federal court their case against retired Air Force officers charged with overseeing the system of detention and torture in the Morón jurisdiction (“Dos sobrevivientes de la Mansión Seré acusaron a la Fuerza Aérea,” Página 12, Aug 26). Argentine military authorities administered more than 300 such clandestine prisons.


Graciela Daleo, “Disappeared,” trans. Marcela Mora y Araujo, in Perfect Pitch, vol. 3: Men and Women, ed. Simon Kuper and Marcela Mora y Araujo (London: Headline, 1998), 168–77; Alfonso Daniels, “Argentina’s Dirty War: The Museum of Horrors,” Daily Telegraph, 17 May 08; Eddie de Oliveira, “ ‘All I Knew about Sweden Was Olof Palme,’ ” The Local: Sweden’s News in English, 17 Jan 07; Miguel Frías, “Recuerdos de una época de terror,” Clarín, 17 Dec 05; James N. Green, “Facing the Past: Archives, Torturers, and the Legacies of Dictatorship,” Hemisphere: A Magazine of the Americas (Latin American and Caribbean Center, Florida International University) 15 (summer 2005): 23–25; Diego Armando Maradona, Maradona: The Autobiography of Soccer’s Greatest and Most Controversial Star, with Daniel Arcucci and Ernesto Cherquis Bialo, trans. Marcela Mora y Araujo (2000; New York: Skyhorse, 2007); Claudio Tamburrini, “The Right to Celebrate,”, 6 Jun 06.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (1)

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  1. Maggie Lamont says:

    I watched the film by Israel Caetano in Spanish (I don’t speak Spanish) and found that I didn’t need subtitles because the story was gripping and transcended language. The men’s incredible bravery, daring, and cunning to orchestrate their escape, and especially the parting message they scrawled on the wall, had me practically screaming when they got away. I studied the Argentinean Dirty War in college, and although the heinous acts committed by man against man had me doubting Human Nature, the truth is never easy to look at, but I’m glad I saw it. Caetano’s film is welcome in light of some appallingly simplistic films Hollywood churns out. I definitely want to read Pasa Libre.

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