For all of their heritage, there is a very real sense in which Argentina’s World Cup victories in 1978 and 1986 represent an important validation of their style, their method and their passion for the game. But these two victories, won just eight years apart, could not have come about in more different ways. One was the result of a socialist revolutionary, a free-thinker who changed the way that Argentina approached the international game. The other, a triumph for rigorous, systematic preparation.
The story of the two coaches who brought about these victories exemplify the two diametrically opposed schools of thought that continue to battle for the soul of Argentinian soccer. But beyond that, it is a microcosmic example of the fundamental ideological conflict that was the story of the twentieth Century and seems set to similarly dominate the twenty-first. This is the tale of Cesar Luis Menotti and his successor, Carlos Bilardo. Two men, four World Cup campaigns and two world titles.
The rules of Association Football first came to Argentina in 1867, but this dry publication of the game’s rules did little to stir up any great interest in the game until the arrival of a Scottish school master, Alexander Watson Hutton, in the 1880s. His passion for the game created an enduring love affair that today remains undimmed. However, the football espoused by Hutton was unrecognisable from the South American interpretation of the game that we see today. Instead, it was a peculiarly British affair: 2-3-5 formations were universal, many of the players were expats and the game was played with a very British attitude. Passion was considered to be a weakness, a hindrance to both good practice and to the adherence of fair play. It was not until 1903 that the Argentinian FA (AFA) began to use Spanish as its official language. Indeed, the AFA’s ‘F’ stood for ‘Football’ (as opposed to ‘Futból’) as late as 1934, by which time Argentina had contested both an Olympic and World Cup final.
The development of La Nuestra, ‘our style of play’, in Argentina stemmed from the slum housing of Buenos Aires during the 1920s. There, poor workers lived cheek by jowl, meaning that space in which one could play football was at a premium. The result was a game where possession became central. Dribbling and ball retention became the most prized assets of La Nuestra. This individuality, creativity and expressive attacking play became the fundamental facets of a style that rapidly began to dominate the soccer world. Together with their neighbours from across the River Plate, Uruguay, Argentina dominated the nascent global game. Uruguay won Olympic titles in both 1924 and, beating Argentina in the gold medal match, in 1928. Two years later, they added the inaugural World Cup title, defeating Argentina 4-2 in the final in Montevideo.
2-3-5 remained the formation of choice, but both Uruguay and Argentina practised a style known as La Gambeta, where the withdrawn inside forwards would act as the fulcrum of the side’s creative efforts. It was the beginning of the importance of the number 8 and number 10 to Argentinian football’s midfield. These early practitioners would keep hold of the ball with mazy dribbles and whatever tricks that they could muster. The legacy of this time can still be seen, in the Spanish names that have been retained by many of these special moves.
However, it was not a style that proved to be particularly sustainable on the international stage. Argentinian football proved to be as tactically malleable as in any other major outpost of the game – Renato Cesarini’s brilliant River Plate side of the 1950s, known as La Maquina, played an infinitely intricate, quicksilver 3-3-4 formation (complete with an Italian-style tornante wing back) and swept away all comers, for instance – but the Argentine game’s mentality proved far harder to shake. Its overt reliance of flair and individual brilliance meant that when it came up against new tactical thinking from around the world it would often be found wanting. Argentina produced many fine players throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but upheaval and disorganisation were always lurking. Each brilliant performance was as likely to be followed by a capitulation as it was an encore and, as surely as the Maracanazo (the defeat to Uruguay in the final, decisive game of the 1950 World Cup) was the trauma that sparked a revolution in the Brazilian game, Argentina’s moment of reckoning came at the World Cup in 1958.
The national side was at the time coached by Guillermo Stabile. Stabile was a brilliant forward who had played for his country in the first World Cup final and, upon his retirement from playing in 1939, was appointed manager. Stabile, however, had no great interest in tactics or systems: he believed in picking the best Argentinian players and letting them do their thing. It was a method that could not keep pace with the speed of the game’s development.
The squad arrived in Sweden, cresting the waves of the behind-the-scenes organisational chaos to which all involved with the national side had become accustomed, and were drawn in a group with the Northern Ireland, Czechoslovakia and the reigning champions, West Germany. Their opening fixtures saw a disappointing 3-1 defeat to the Germans, followed by a stylish reply three days later against Northern Ireland. Having fallen behind to an early Peter McPartland goal, Argentina rallied to a 3-1 win of their own. Their crucial final match was on Sunday 15th June 1958, a date that still resonates in the annals of Argentinian football. Outplayed and out-thought by a demonstrably superior Czech side, Argentina lost 6-1. Argentina finished bottom of their group: to rub salt in their wounds, their conquerers could only finish one place above them and were also eliminated at the first hurdle. The Albiceleste returned home to a baying crowd who pelted them with rotten vegetables. Their defeat became a total humiliation two weeks later: Brazil had won the World Cup.
The AFA’s solution was to appoint the pragmatic Juan Carlos Lorenzo, who would lead the national side to both the 1962 and 1966 World Cup finals. Lorenzo changed the way that Argentinian players thought about the game, instituting tactical systems designed to stifle the opposition while allowing their own strengths to thrive. He established the groundwork for what was to come: Osvaldo Zubeldía and anti-futból.
Zubeldía was the arch realist of Argentinian soccer. He hated La Nuestra, with its reliance on trickery and individuality. His focus instead was toughness and determination, which he called Fibra. A tough, disciplined and motivated player could be made skillful, Zubeldía argued, but a talented ball player without the necessary application could never be great. This became the central tenet of what came to be known as anti-futból. Improvisational brilliance was cast aside and stringent, tireless preparation was brought in in its place. In Zubeldía’s opinion, everything that is likely to happen in a football match can be foreseen, and what can be foreseen can be drilled and practised.
If it sounds unromantic, it is because it was. Zubeldía was a visionary coach who was also responsible for bringing pressing and the high defensive line into the Argentinian palette, but equally it was he who introduced its reliance on duplicity and gamesmanship. The Corinthian ideals of Alexander Watson Hutton had been vanquished. When Manchester United played Zubeldía’s Estudiantes side in the 1969 Intercontinental Cup, Paddy Crerand remarked that they were the dirtiest side he had ever played against.
Zubeldía was only the manager of the international side for a single year, in 1965, but the effects of his reign were far-reaching indeed. Argentina became notorious for a muscular, loveless style of football where winning was prized above everything. But winning at all costs has a very distinct limitation: it has to work. Argentinian football, for all its revolutionary zeal, was still treading water. In 1970, the Albiceleste failed to qualify for the World Cup finals, finishing bottom of a group containing Bolivia and Peru. It was the first (and so far, the only) time that Argentina had failed to reach the last stages of the tournament that they had done so much to establish. Rallying in 1974, they made it to West Germany but were eliminated by the Netherlands, Rinus Michels’ brilliant side demonstrating that skill, flair and vision could be more than a match for tactical expediency. The final scoreline was 4-0 but truly, it could have been anything.
It is at this point that we meet the first of the heroes of our story. Argentina’s appetite for their team’s continued underachievement on the global stage was starting to weigh heavily on its supporters. This only served to be amplified when in 1976, the Peron regime was removed by Jorge Videla’s military junta. Fascist dictatorships are famously touchy when it comes to highly visible sporting failure at international level and, with his country hosting the 1978 tournament, a weak national team could no longer be tolerated.
Normally, such totalitarian regimes achieve improved results by doubling down, intensifying their dependence on system and preparation. With extraordinary irony, however, Argentina’s salvation lay in a slight, bohemian socialist called Cesar Luis Menotti, a man who prized freedom of expression on the football field above all things, who talked of teamwork as a philosophical idea and of loss as a necessary function of competition. Menotti was as unlikely a saviour for a military dictator’s flagging football team as could ever have been devised, yet his approach harkened back to a style of play that had made football the most popular game in Argentina in the first place and the Argentinian public fell in love with him for it. They gave Menotti – perma-smoking, tousle-haired and rake thin, looking more like a university lecturer than a sports coach – the nickname El Flaco, the slim one.
Menotti was born in Rosario, on 5th November 1938. A striker, he enjoyed a nine-year playing career of moderate success, playing in Argentina for Rosario Central, Racing Club and Boca Juniors as well as abroad for New York Generals, Santos and Clube Atletico Juventus. He also won two caps for Argentina. Menotti retired in 1969 and the following year, with an eye on moving into management, he travelled to Mexico to watch the World Cup. There he became entranced with the flamboyant brilliance of the Brazilian side who would win their third world title. From that point onwards, Menotti would never sacrifice style in order to achieve results. “You can lose a game,” he argued, “but what you cannot lose is the dignity earned by playing good football”.
Upon his return from Mexico, Menotti went into coaching, first at Newell’s Old Boys before moving to Huracan. By 1973, Huracan were the Metropolitan Champions of the reformed Argentinian league, playing with a verve and style that electrified the crowds. In one match, a 5-0 win over his hometown club Rosario Central, Rosario’s supporters applauded his Huracan team’s breathtaking series of tricks, feints and creative use of both space and the ball. When the Argentinian team returned from West Germany in 1974, Menotti was the outstanding candidate for the role of manager.
His first goal was to sweep away the culture of anti-futból that had come to dominate the team’s stylistic and tactical thinking for the previous generation. Menotti called this paradigm ‘right wing football’ and he did not mince his words in his dismissal of its efficacy: “There is left wing football and right wing football. Right wing football wants us to believe life is a struggle. It demands sacrifices. We have to become steel and win by any methods. Obey and function, that is what those with power want from the players. That’s how they create retards, useful idiots that go with the system”. Useful idiots had been the hub of Argentina’s strategic planning for as long as any of its players could remember. Under Menotti, they would be of no use any more. Blind followers were not a part of Menotti’s vision. Imagination and acknowledgement of their special position became prerequisites. For Menotti, a footballer was “a privileged interpreter of the dreams and feelings of thousands of people”. In 1978, this number would be millions.
Argentina went into their tournament on a high. Menotti had them playing a direct, attacking 4-3-3 formation that was a throwback to a forgotten era of La Nuestra and La Gambeta. Forwards like Oscar Ortiz, René Houseman and Leopoldo Luque were thrusting and dynamic runners, supported by the classic Argentinian midfield trio of a defensive number 5 (Americo Gallego), tireless number 8 (Osvaldo Ardiles) and an advanced playmaker, the enganche, the number 10 (Mario Kempes). At the back sat Argentina’s very own Bobby Moore, Daniel Passarella. Menotti’s team were sufficiently settled that he had the luxury of leaving an extraordinarily talented 17-year old, to whom he had previously given his international debut, out of the squad. His name, as you are almost certainly aware, was Diego Maradona.
Argentina got off to a good start, but drawn in a second round group with their bitter rivals Brazil, the Albiceleste could only manage a tame 0-0 draw. It meant that, in order to reach the final, Argentina needed to defeat Peru by four goals or more. Stories abound about what happened next, a series of suspect transactions, gifts and diplomatic pressures brought to bear by a corrupt military regime who would stop at nothing to ensure a home victory. Some argue that Argentina offered to take thirteen political dissidents off of Peru’s hands. There were rumours of arms deals, huge gifts of grain and of $50 million-worth of unfrozen Peruvian assets. Some of it, or all of it, might be true. However, as Jonathan Wilson points out in his book Inverting The Pyramid, if you showed the tape of the match to an observer who had no idea of the circumstances, they would most likely see nothing untoward. Peru, a team who had nothing left to fight for, were simply overwhelmed by a superior team with everything to gain and roared on by a huge, fiercely partisan crowd. At full time, Argentina had won 6-0 and were in their second World Cup final.
Their opponents were the Netherlands, the team who had unwittingly sparked Menotti’s revival of the Argentinian game. While on the field, Menotti’s team showed no sign of abandoning his principles, off it Menotti had no such scruples. The Dutch side were taken on a circuitous tour of Buenos Aires by their coach driver, arriving at the stadium late. Once they were there, the team were left to wait for their opponents to emerge from the tunnel for the kick off, as the cauldron-like atmosphere threatened to turn nasty. Once the home team did appear, it was to kick up a fuss about Rene Van de Kerkhof, who was wearing a plaster cast on his arm. Van de Kerkhof had been wearing the cast throughout the tournament and the reasons for Argentina’s objections to it were far from opaque. Once the match had begun, however, the gamesmanship stopped and thanks to two goals from Mario Kempes, Argentina won 3-1 after extra time. In a shower of ticker tape and shrieking nationalistic fervour, they secured their first world title.
In 1982, Menotti oversaw its defence. Argentina began slowly in Spain, losing 1-0 to a gifted Belgian side before comfortable wins against Hungary and El Salvador took them through to the second round. There they were drawn in an astonishingly tough group with Italy, the eventual champions, and Tele Santana’s impossibly gifted Brazil side. Menotti’s charges lost both games: in the latter, Diego Maradona was sent off as Brazil won 3-1. It would be the last time Maradona would play for his country for three years. Menotti’s time, too, was done. He was always an ideological misfit within the Argentinian system and once his methods could no longer guarantee success, he proved to be a dispensable part of it.
Four years later in the changing rooms at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, Diego Maradona sat cradling the World Cup in his arms, singing, “we dedicate this to all of you, even the fucking whore who gave birth to you”. Argentina were the champions of the world again, but as you may have gathered, his was a team who enjoyed a very much less harmonious relationship with the Argentinian people than their predecessors had.
Much of this was down to the style of the new man in charge. Carlos Bilardo was born on 16th March 1939, four months Cesar Luis Menotti’s junior. Between 1958 and 1970 he had been a combative midfielder for San Lorenzo, Espanyol and Estudiantes, the latter having brought him into the orbit of Osvaldo Zubeldía, a coach who would have an indelible effect on Bilardo’s footballing imagination.
After Menotti stepped down as the Argentina coach, Bilardo was his obvious successor. Just as Menotti had, Bilardo arrived as the champion of the Metropolitan League, in his case with Estudiantes. However, Bilardo’s approach was as antithetical to Menotti’s as it could be. Where Menotti argued “to those who say all that matters is winning, I want to warn them that someone always wins… Efficacy is not divorced from beauty”, Bilardo’s philosophy was far less prosaic and more straightforward: “Football is winning and nothing else”.
Bilardo’s approach also proved to be considerably less successful, initially at least: in his first fifteen games in charge, Argentina won only three, including an early exit from the Copa America and a humiliating friendly defeat to China during a demonstration game in India. For a public who had grown accustomed to winning – and doing so with considerable verve and style – Bilardo seemed like a step backwards in every department. Things improved a little once Maradona, struck down since his previous appearance in the sky blue and white by illness, serious injury and loss of form, returned to the international fold in May 1985. Still, Argentina would arrive at Mexico 86 as largely unfancied outsiders. Maradona later described his countrymen as having watched the opening match “with their eyes half closed”.
Bilardo, however, was rather more sanguine. He had spent the previous three years doing what he did best: exhaustive preparation. Undeterred by the fact the majority of his team now plied their trade in the European Leagues, Bilardo spent countless hours on transatlantic flights, briefcases bulging with video cassettes, to enforce his message and drill his players into his thinking. The joke at the time: “Burruchaga crosses in Nantes and Valdano heads it in Madrid”.
Bilardo reserved his closest attentions for Maradona, now rehabilitated and playing the best football of his career in Naples. Bilardo took Maradona under his wing, defending him from the increasingly virulent criticism from home that he was a international failure. Bilardo knew that Maradona was the key to his team’s chances in Mexico and was not backwards in conveying this message, either to Maradona himself or the rest of the team. To this end, Bilardo appointed Maradona as the team’s new captain, the previously unassailable Daniel Passarella dropped. Bilardo’s assessment was immediately proved to be a sound one. Jorge Brown, the team’s sweeper and the scorer of the opening goal in the 1986 World Cup Final, stated that Maradona grew in stature with the new responsibility, getting up before every other member of the team and making himself available to his teammates for advice and guidance.
Bilardo’s masterstroke, however, was a tactical one. Far from the world’s most hands-on manager colliding with the world’s most outrageously talented creative footballer, instead Bilardo made this a confluence of circumstances that would work for everyone involved. Argentina played a conventional 4-4-2 formation for the beginning of the 1986 World Cup, but by the time the team lined up against England for the quarter final, they had definitively switched to a unfashionable and at the time largely unexplored 3-5-2. Bilardo replaced a centre half with a central midfielder, allowing for a three-man unit to operate in midfield behind Maradona. This allowed him the total freedom he needed to operate to his most devastating effect. However, it also meant that the efforts of the rest of his teammates efforts needed to be meticulously choreographed and practised. A disciple of Zubeldía, who once stated that of the ten outfield players only three need to be responsible for attacking, Bilardo had overseen the renaissance of the useful idiot.
There was no denying, however, that Bilardo’s methods were working and that the bunker mentality that he had allowed to develop had galvanised the squad into a tight group. Bilardo had made significant play of the fact that, in the months leading up to the tournament, there were strong rumours that he was about to be dismissed. Now, each additional positive result fostered greater unity and increased the squad’s sense of self-righteous justification.
This was just as well, because some of Bilardo’s other ideas were significantly less sound. Upon taking command, his first order of business was to ban his players from eating chicken, which he considered to be bad luck. He wore a lucky shirt to every game at the tournament and made sure to always take a large statue of the Virgin Mary. His Argentina team are also perhaps the only world champions to have arrived for the final in a fleet of taxis: the team coach having been discarded after it broke down on the way to their opening fixture with South Korea. Arriving at the match instead via a convoy of cabs, Argentina won 3-1. Never one to change a winning formula, Bilardo laid on cars for each subsequent fixture.
Maradona’s brilliance – and occasional act of spellbinding mendaciousness – took an otherwise average team to the final in Mexico City and a showdown with West Germany. Bilardo correctly anticipated that the Germans would look to mark Maradona out of the game and so implored the rest of his players to raise their own level and prove that they were all were worthy world champions. To their credit, this is exactly what happened. With Maradona shackled by Lothar Matthäus, Argentina took a 2-0 lead before the West Germans fought back to level with ten minutes to play. The game becoming stretched as the clock ticked down to the end of normal time, Matthäus gave Maradona an inch and the Argentine playmaker used the space to slide a ball through for Jorge Burruchaga to win the match. After the game, Bilardo was simmering. “But we are the world champions”, came the argument from his bench. “Yes, but we conceded two goals from corners”, was his reply.
Bilardo had been vindicated. He had never been as popular as his predecessor in the role but now his team had equalled his achievement, playing his way. “You can argue”, said Bilardo later, “but when a man shows up with the World Cup, you shut your mouth.” His position in charge, once the subject of great debate, was now undeniable. The man that the Argentinian public had nicknamed el narigón (Big Nose) would take responsibility for the defence of their hard-won title.
Italia 90, though, proved to be a object lesson in the downside of Bilardo’s approach. With Maradona now four years older and suffering from the kind of on-field attentions that must have, at least, brought grudging approval from Bilardo’s coaching brain, Argentina were more reliant on the ability of his teammates. They began their campaign with a famous defeat against an overlooked Cameroon side who were to become the stars of the tournament, before losing their goalkeeper Nery Pumpido to a broken leg ten minutes into their second fixture, a 2-0 win over the Soviet Union. A draw with Romania meant that the champions would scrape through their group in third place and face a second round match with Brazil. This was far from a vintage Brazilian side, and Argentina prevailed thanks to Maradona’s only goal of the tournament. The quarter final with Yugoslavia was a stark 0-0 shutout settled with penalty kicks and the semi final saw Bilardo’s men dump out the hosts in the same fashion following a 1-1 draw. If winning is all that matters, winning ugly (or winning on a technicality) is not a problem, but it certainly doesn’t win you any friends. Argentina had reached the World Cup final but they had done so with the following record: played 6, won 2, drawn 3, lost 1. They had conceded three goals and scored just five in return. On two occasions they had failed to find the net at all.
In a tournament that was already notable for overly defensive tactics, gamesmanship and bad tempered play, Bilardo’s reigning champions were reserved for particular opprobrium. Their egregiously physical and cynical approach saw them arrive at the final, a repeat of their 1986 tie with West Germany, with four players suspended. During the course of their month in Italy, over half of their 22-man squad would miss matches with injuries or bans.
They saved the worst for last. Bilardo’s team established a series of undesirable records in the 1990 World Cup final, which was a brutal, cynical affair. They were the first team to fail to score in international soccer’s biggest match, mustering just one solitary shot on target to West Germany’s sixteen. They also became the first team to have a player sent off in a World Cup final, Pedro Monzon flying, studs up, tackle on Jurgen Klinsmann causing a six-inch gash in the German striker’s shin. To make matters worse, he was quickly followed by Gustavo Dezotti, dismissed for a second bookable offence. Eventually, Roberto Sensini’s foul on Rudi Völler five minutes from time allowed Andreas Brehme to put the watching world out of its misery from the penalty spot. General consensus had it that Bilardo’s team had been the most unworthy and unpopular finalist in World Cup history.
A weeping Maradona blamed the referee, Edgardo Coedesal, for the defeat. He might just have easily have blamed himself: in the build up to Argentina’s semi-final with Italy, to be held at Napoli’s San Paolo stadium, Naples’ favourite son had given a press conference exhorting the residents of that city to support Argentina rather than the hosts. “I don’t like the fact that everyone is asking the Neapolitans to be Italian and support their national team. Naples has always been marginalised by the rest of Italy. It is a city that suffers the most unfair racism. For 364 days you are considered to be foreigners in your own country: today you must do what they want by supporting the national team. Instead, I am Neapolitan 365 days a year”. When Maradona scored his penalty during the shoot-out, it was greeted by a cheer from the San Paolo faithful. However, their counterparts in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico were significantly less understanding. Maradona et al were booed throughout the night as soon as they were in possession.
It was an extension of a lesson Argentina had already learned. Bilardo was a bold, successful coach and Diego Maradona perhaps football’s greatest ever player. But while the team that they had forged could be admired and respected, they would never be loved in the same way that Menotti’s had been. With no silverware to shield them, Bilardo’s men had been an unedifying spectacle, while Menotti’s had gone down with the dignity and grace befitting of champions.
Still, it was Bilardo’s style rather than Menotti’s that has had the most telling impact in the intervening years. This is in no small part to the fact that it is the Bilardistas who are more likely to see positive returns from their style in their first forays in football management. The Menottismas, far less reliant on system and preparation, tend to walk a more precarious line. Particularly prevalent has been Bilardo’s 3-5-2 formation, which has taken root across all levels of the game and, as of December 2016, is again enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
However, for as long as football is played in Argentina, the ideological conflict between the Bilardistas and Menottismas will be central to the battle for its soul. It is now over thirty years since the Albiceleste prevailed on the world stage, and an expectant Argentinian public will continue to variously demand or criticise each approach until the World Cup trophy returns to their shores. There are no shortage of disciples on either side of the divide: the most prominent Bilardista in the game today is the brilliant, hard-headed Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone, but several alumni of Bilardo’s victorious 1986 squad have also forged long and successful managerial careers in his mould – Sergio Batista, Jorge Burruchaga and, of course, Diego Maradona are among their number. Menotti’s most high-profile follower is the trailblazing Marcelo Bielsa, who in his turn found a willing student in Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentinian coach who led Chile to their first Copa America title in 2015. Mauricio Pocchettino, a former player of Bielsa’s, is also cut from the same cloth.
Argentina’s recent direction has been blighted by patchy form, with a qualifying round of matches for the next World Cup which almost ended in the nation failing to reach the jamboree for the first time since 1970. The man currently in charge is Jorge Sampaoli, who replaced the hapless Edgardo Bauza earlier this year. He met his initial target of getting the team through to the finals, although some might argue that the mercurial talents of one Lionel Messi had more to do with the team eventually scrambling through to the finals than any of the team’s plethora of recent head coaches. However, as far as Argentina is concerned, Sampaoli will be judged on how his team performs – if not necessarily on how well it plays – in Russia, less than a year from now.