Ricardo Bochini has little reputation outside of Argentina, having spent his entire career playing there. He featured in just one World Cup match, collecting a modest 28 international caps in a 13-year spell. He played for only one club, but it wasn’t either River or Boca, the two most internationally renowned teams from Argentina. It’s not what you’d expect from one of Argentinian football’s most influential players.
“a midget, ungainly, imperturbable, without a powerful shot, nor header, nor charisma”
It’s difficult to do justice to a player who debuted 45 years ago and played their entire career on the other side of the world, but Ricardo Bochini somehow captures the imagination in a way that not many players can. He’s somewhat mysterious, what with his lack of international recognition, and has a contradictory charisma born out of not seemingly having any. A small, unassuming kid who learned football on the streets – a archetype that’s more celebrated in Argentina than in most places.
Small, unathletic, shy; Bochini fits into that mould of footballer who shouldn’t be, the kind that you couldn’t tell from looking at them that they would thrive in a physical sport. But it’s the reason he thrives is the reason he was so special, overcoming any shortcomings through a natural intelligence for the game.
Watching Bochini move with the ball looks like an art that has faded away – as with many footballers from decades ago. The flawless pitches and speed of the game has sped things up so fast that the players who dictate the ball these days do it as though the ball is ‘glued to their foot’. Obviously that’s an incredible skill, and more difficult in terms of dribbling – there never has been anything like watching Messi move with the ball as if it’s barely relevant to where he’s going – but Bochini did it in a different way, pushing the ball where he needed it to go, rather than carrying it.
Bochini touching the ball before a defender could react was one example of his speed of thought and understanding of the game, but it wasn’t his most famous. Bochini was known as the master of La Pausa (the pause, if that wasn’t already obvious). La Pausa is the art of delaying your pass while you wait for the game to take shape around you. It’s a display of confidence, foresight, understanding, and an admirable arrogance that few players can pull off.
Bochini was famous for it, waiting for his forwards to be where they needed to be before making the killer pass. It’s a feat of playmaking that Juan Román Riquelme would be renowned for in his own right, but Bochini was the master.
“None of this is something you can teach. I believe it comes in the moment, it depends on the inspiration of your players.”
Ricardo Bochini on La Pausa
Bochini has perhaps gained most of his international notoriety from being known as the idol of Diego Maradona. This seems both simultaneously flattering and unfair to someone with the ability of Bochini. On the one hand, inspiring the player who is perhaps renowned above any other is a legendary feat. On the other, it can’t help but understate Bochini’s talents in their own right, permanently attaching his career to that of another.
And Bochini had a hell of a career.
Born in 1954 in Zárate, in the province of Buenos Aires, Ricardo Bochini went to the capital city to find a team. Initially trying San Lorenzo and Boca Juniors, he eventually found his home at another of Argentinian football’s ‘Big Five’: Independiente.
Independiente are the third biggest club in Argentina, after Boca Juniors and River Plate. Making up the ‘Cinco Grandes’ along with their Avellanede rivals Racing Club, and San Lorenzo, The Red Devils are traditionally one of the most successful Argentinian teams. Bochini would make his debut in June 1972, just one month after Independiente had lifted the Copa Libertadores for the first time in seven years, their third after all. Bochini just missed out on a medal that year, but he needn’t have worried.
It was the beginning of an unprecedented level of dominance in the Copa Libertadores, as Independiente lifted the trophy in 1972, 1973, 1974, and 1975 (1975 being perhaps the most difficult: Bochini had to do military service that year). Inspired by Bochini and winger Daniel Bertoni – who, unlike Bochini, would move to Europe and gain more international recognition – The Red Devils took over the continent and then the world in 1973.
Independiente had competed against Ajax in the 1972 Interncontinental Cup but lost the tie 4-1 on aggregate. Bochini hadn’t featured, still in his first season, but after Ajax turned down the opportunity of a rematch the following year, their defeated European Cup finalists Juventus took their place. This time Bochini would start, with the fixture taking place over one game, held at the Stadio Olympico in Rome. Juventus missed a penalty, Antonello Cuccureddu putting it over the bar, before Bochini pounced in the 85th minute.
A one-two with Bertoni moved the little Argentinian into the box where he paused, characteristically, before lifting the ball over the rushing Dino Zoff.
The goal crowned Independiente as Intercontinental Champions for the fist time, and Bochini was already a club hero, just a year into his career.
Bochini would taste domestic glory for the first time in 1977, winning the Nacional for the first time in a decade, and then retained the trophy the following season. Metropolitano success came in 1983 (the Argentinian League system is bizarrely complicated compared to everywhere else), a year that also saw Bochini named Argentinian Footballer of the Year.
Internationally, though, Bochini didn’t have the same recognition. His career with the Argentinian National team started out well, being capped 18 times in his first five years as a professional. He was left out of the 1978 World Cup squad, however, the tournament being played on home soil, and one that Argentina would go on to win – River Plate’s Norberto Alonso being chosen in his place (there have long been rumours that Alonso was chosen as he was a favourite of Admiral Lacoste, the organiser of that years World Cup, and who would later be interim President of Argentina under the military dictatorship).
Other than a solitary appearance in 1979, Bochini wouldn’t feature for Argentina until 1984, being kept out of the team by younger players (ironically, their new No.10 was particularly good). That year though, the now-veteran Bochini led Independiente to their seventh Copa Libertadores, and his personal fourth – they beat Gremio of Brazil 1-0 over two legs, the winning goal coming from Jorge Burruchaga after Bochini’s most famous example of La Pausa.
International glory followed as Independiente faced European Champions Liverpool in the Intercontinental Cup of 1984. This time a 6th minute José Percudani goal was enough to see them off, another 1-0 win handing both Bochini and Independiente their second Intercontinental Cup.
Come the 1986 World Cup, Bochini was 32 years old and plainly not at the level he once was. Still, he was included in a World Cup squad for the first time. The reason for this wasn’t at all to do with needing the Independiete legend, and more to do with this:
“Watching him play drove me crazy with delight”
Diego Maradona on Ricardo Bochini
Indeed, Bochini was apparently in the side purely because Maradona wanted him to be, and Maradona being who he was, Bochini was included.
The tournament progressed, Maradona did his thing, and by the time they faced Belgium in the semi-final, Bochini hadn’t played at all. Maradona put Argentina 2-0 against the Belgians, and with five minutes to go, wearing a No.3 shirt, 32-year-old Ricardo Bochini made his World Cup debut. Maradona immediately ran up to the oncoming Bochini and said:
Maestro, we’ve been waiting for you.
The final minutes play out with Maradona pretty much solely trying to play with Bochini, exchanging passes and looking for him when other players are clearly better placed. Reportedly, Bochini found the experience patronising and didn’t much care for it, but he’d officially played in a World Cup, even just for five minutes.
The boy who idolised him made the assist in the final as Bochini’s former Independiente teammate Burruchaga scored the winner against West Germany in the final – Bochini was a World Cup winner.
One more trophy would head Bochini’s way before he called time on his career – the Metropolitano in 1989 – retiring in 1991 with well over 600 appearances for Independiente. A one-club man, he’s regarded as their greatest ever player.
In all, Bochini’s international reputation isn’t befitting of his talent. What he proved for decades, however, whether it was through a legendary player or a legendary side, few have been as inspirational as Ricardo Bochini.