The history of Argentinian football is full of changes in beliefs, style, and motivation. It started out as all the others by copying the English, before finding la nuestra – ‘our way’, the idea of individual beauty and charisma. That eventually made way for mechanical team play, although did still hold on to the belief that football should be beautiful and fun. In the 1960’s, however, those two ideals were thrown as far out of the window as they would go: Estudiantes de La Plata were here to win.
‘You don’t arrive at glory through a path of roses.’
Argentina suffered an immense shock at the 1958 World Cup. For years the country had lived in isolation because of the Second World War, setting Argentinian football down a path of aestheticism that led it to believe that Argentina played the best and most beautiful football. They decided against playing at both the 1950 and 1954 World Cups, first because of a dispute with the Brazilian federation, and second because of pure isolationism. 1958, however, would be when Argentina showed the world just how fantastic it was.
The lost the opener to West Germany before beating Northern Ireland, but it was the third game against Czechoslovakia that changed everything. They lost 6-1. And to Czechoslovakia – far from a major European powerhouse (in fact, the Czech’s wouldn’t even make it out of the group after losing a play-off the Northern Ireland).
‘[Argentina were] a lot of little fat men with stomachs, smiling at us and pointing and waving at girls in the crowd.’
Northern Ireland midfielder Jimmy McIlroy.
Suddenly, Argentina had a wake-up call: la nuestra was not the way to win, and they did not play the best football in the world – something they had firmly believed since the 1920’s. The backlash was immense, with beautiful football losing its prestige over pragmatism. Enter Osvaldo Zubeldía.
Osvaldo Zubeldía had been a reasonably successful player for Vélez Sársfield and Boca Juniors, before becoming manager of Atlanta in 1961 after retiring. There he had led the team to respectable positions, gaining enough of a reputation to get the national team job in 1965. His tenure with Argentina was unsuccessful, however, lasting under a year. The same year he would be hired by Estudiantes de La Plata, arguably the largest of the teams outside of the five Grandes (Boca, River, Racing, Independiente, and San Lorenzo) but a team fighting relegation.
— Nico Fernández ⚽️🎙 (@NicoFernandezBB) March 5, 2017
What Estudiantes did have though, was a great youth team, and Zubeldía quickly decided to promote a large number of them in place of the first team. Just two years later, Estudiantes became the first team outside of the Grandes to win the professional Argentine Championship. That’s 36 years of dominance from the five teams of Buenos Aires finally ended – but how they did it was a topic very up for discussion.
Zubeldía had built a philosophy on training hard and ultimate discipline – things that are almost taken for granted today. Really, they were pretty much taken for granted everywhere in Europe, too, with Argentina’s reluctance to be a part of the world game leaving them ignorant to it for a long time. Zubeldia implemented things like double training sessions, a much more physical game, and the offside trap – three things that had not properly been seen in the country before.
That side was heralded, if maybe a little cautiously – it was the other side to it that people had problems with. As with most teams that value pragmatism over style, Estudiantes took certain things a little far, and others far further than that.
There were two players on the team who perhaps defined the two sides. One was the very naturally talented Juan Ramón Verón (father of Juan Sebastián, the junior Verón beginning his career at Estudiantes and now owns the club), the other was Carlos Bilardo.
“The match has to be won, and that’s the end of it”
Bilardo was not known for any natural ability – in fact, he wasn’t particularly regarded as being very talented at all – but he was willing to go the extra mile to win. Some of the stories about him are quite shocking, and make Luis Suárez losing his cool biting people seem like child’s play. It’s said that Bilardo would take pins onto the pitch with him, stabbing his markers when they got close – and that’s about the lightest of it.
Desde la cuna hasta el cajón, desde chiquito en el tablón, como Bilardo y Zubeldía por Estudiantes doy la vida! pic.twitter.com/4F7x4VZh1O
— Mr. Brightside (@juanbelvedere) April 13, 2017
Really, stabbing someone with a pin is pretty harmless in comparison to the rest. Less harmless is the psychological stuff. Racing’s goalkeeper had suffered some personal tragedy by the time he faced Estudiantes: his mother had been against him marrying, and six months after he had done so, she died. That’s an unfortunate story, a sad one, and the guy must have felt about as low as he ever would. That, to Estudiantes and Bilardo, was a clear opportunity to gain an advantage: Bilardo approached him during the game, “Congratulations, you’ve finally killed your mother,” he said.
Or there’s the time that Bilardo, a qualified gynaecologist, used his contacts in medicine to find out that an opposition player’s wife had recently had a cyst removed from a ‘private’ area. No one knows exactly what Bilardo said, but it earned him a kick to the stomach – probably worth it as the player was sent off.
Not that it was just a mix of annoyances and psychological games – Estudiantes were firmly more physical than most would accept. They kicked, they punched, they did whatever it took.
So, Estudiantes had won the title, becoming the first team from outside the big five to do so. They didn’t stop there, however, and in 1968 they became the third Argentinian side to lift the Copa Libertadores. Such was the success that El Grafico, the premier South American sports magazine, compared them to La Maquína – the greatest of all the great teams – imagining a game between the two (they decided La Maquína would win, naturally).
But Estudiantes were a remarkably successful side, proceeding to retain the Libertadores in 1969, and then again in 1970. Three in a row left them undeniably the top side in South America, regardless of how they did it. It also meant games against European competition in the Intercontinental Cup – and first up were Manchester United.
‘The dirtiest team I’ve played against.’
Manchester United midfielder Pat Crerand
‘The night they spat on sportsmanship’.
The Daily Mirror
The game would be played over two legs, with Estudiantes winning the first game 1-0 in Buenos Aires (Estudiantes’ stadium was deemed too small, so the match was played at Boca Juniors’ la Bombanera). The players, particularly Bilardo, pinpointed Nobby Stiles as a target, spending the game kicking him and winding him up. Eventually, with a bleeding eye from a headbutt, Stiles swore at a linesman and was sent off. The second leg would be even worse.
Estudiantes were at their ‘best’ in Manchester, taking the led in the 6th minute through Verón and effectively shutting up shop. They conceded a 90th-minute equaliser from Willie Morgan, but the 1-1 draw was enough to win the Intercontinental Cup. The game was heavily marred by violence, however, most memorably the sending off of George Best and José Hugo Medina. Best had punched Medina after being targeted all game, the kicks and punches causing him to eventually snap. He even spat at Medina after being shown the red – not that Medina was in any way more just; Medina shouldn’t have been on the pitch after elbowing Morgan early in the second half.
They’d face AC Milan the following year, and things got out of all control. The first leg was a comfortable 3-0 home win for Milan. The second leg was a horror show.
El milanista Nestor Combin víctima de la dureza de Estudiantes en 1969 pic.twitter.com/zJCjNhbhp6
— Alberto Cosín (@albertocosin) December 12, 2016
Estudiantes won the game in Argentina 2-1, but it was hardly important. The violence in the game was such that the President of Argentina got involved, and considering the extent of it all, it’s understandable. Milan captain Gianni Rivera was punched by goalkeeper Poletti, who also dished out kicks to everyone he could. Ramón Aguirre Suárez elbowed Néstor Combin in the nose, breaking it and leaving him bloodied. When Combin was eventually escorted off the pitch after all the assaults, police arrested him for draft dodging (Combin was born in Argentina, but left as a teenager for France). Poletti and Suárez were given thirty days in jail for their assaults, and were both banned from football – Suárez for five years and Poletti permanently, although both were later rescinded on appeal.
It was the beginning of the end for Estudiantes under Zubeldía. They won the Libertadores again in 1970 but lost the Intercontinental Cup to Feyenoord, enough of a reason for Zubeldía to resign, public opinion firmly against him and his team.
The title of this piece may be a little dramatic, but the debate over just how important success is still raging today. Now, what Estudiantes did was obviously on another level to José Mourinho parking a £300m bus in front of his goal, but both certainly draw the ire of fans – particularly opposition fans. Football is entertainment, after all, and the success of your team is certainly entertaining, even if it’s not the beautiful ideal that so many hold.Is there a duty to entertain opposition fans?
Is there a duty to entertain opposition fans? Not particularly, and football is also competition. Estudiantes won the league title and three Copa Libertadores over a four-year spell – a period of success that very few teams have achieved. Whether that is worth the tricks and the fouls is very much up for debate – although the violence obviously isn’t. Estudiantes ended up pushing the limits of pragmatism too far, preventing them from sustaining their success.
They certainly left a legacy though. Argentina may have reviled Estudiantes at their worst, but they would later celebrate that legacy greatly. Carlos Bilardo, the face of that team, the man with the least talent and the dirtiest player they had, would take Zubeldía’s ideas and win the 1986 World Cup. Now that was probably worth it.