In 2016, Carlos Timoteo Griguol, the legendary manager of Ferro Carril Oeste (just Ferro,colloquially), one of Argentina’s most forgotten but equally historic clubs, stands outside the club’s facilities. He is flanked by fans, members, board members, and many more associates. Ferro are about to unveil a statue of Griguol, and it is a meeting of the past and present.
In their difficult times of reconstruction, the club are paying tribute to their golden years and the man who pioneered Ferro’s 1982 and 1984 league victories. Griguol is emotional. His face quivers as do the fans’. It is a reminder of what the club is working towards: a return to Primera, the top flight of Argentinean football.
In ‘82 and ‘84, Argentina was green. It was not the blue and gold of Boca Juniors, nor the red and white of River Plate, nor the sky blue and white of Racing Club, nor the red of Independiente. It was the green of Ferro Carril Oeste. It was the Ferro of Griguol and the working-class neighborhood of Caballito.
Times are different now, though. Griguol has traded the baseball cap he wore on the Ferro sidelines in his managerial days for a more elegant beret. He is tamer now, as well; not having to yell instructions to his eleven green soldiers anymore. In his frailer form, he takes in the love and admiration that the club gives him. He was a journeyman manager, but Ferro was a special and romantic fling. The club has changed more than Griguol, however. The glory days are gone. In 2001, after two consecutive relegations, the club languished in the third division. Financial trouble plagued the club; forcing it into reformation and rebirth. As time goes by, those loyal to Ferro yearn for their return to the top flight more than ever.
Ferro was born in 1904, smack in the middle of Buenos Aires in the small residential barrio of Caballito, a living relic of Argentina’s immigrant past. It is a typical Argentine sports club, one that became a model for social community inclusion and recreation. Not only football, it was a neighborhood sport club that offered both recreation and professional sports, made up of local middle-class paying members known as socios. Ferro had basketball, volleyball, futsal and tennis teams, plus dozens more. While the elder members went to the pool, gym, courts, or pitches, the local youth would train in the junior sides; attending summer camps during vacations.
The Glory Days
From its conception to the 1970’s, Ferro bounced up and down between Argentina’s top flight and second division. By 1979, the club began to enter its most iconic era when Griguol was appointed as manager of the yo-yo club after a few years of stability in the top division.
In the early ‘80’s something beautiful happened: Inspired by Griguol, Caballito’s darling won the title in 1982, after just falling short of Boca Juniors the year before. Two years later, Ferro did it again, this time beating River Plate to the top. Their successes took them around the continent to play in the Copa Libertadores against the best in South America.
They were a revelation! El Gráfico, Argentina’s leading sports magazine, described the Caballito outfit as a “well-oiled machine”, a gem of sporting strategy in the wake of their 1982 victory. The team was a cohesive unit that pioneered zonal marking in Argentine football and was feared for its relentless pressing, and it was mostly down to the work of Griguol and his training regime.
Griguol was a fanatical strategist-- an analyst of the game and of sport in general. Germán Burgos, Diego Simeone’s assistant at Atletico Madrid, remembers how Griguol studied football obsessively. He was one of the first managers in the Argentine game to bring sports science into the training and preparation regime of a football club. His players had specific tasks and areas to roam and control. The style was conservative but very well coordinated, pressing, and their opponents dreaded Ferro for their superior fitness. Griguol used to meet with the club’s basketball coach, Leon Najnudel, and they would consult each other on improving their teams’ respective strategies, filming each other’s matches. Najnudel even advised him on how to implement screens in set-piece plays. Similarly, Griguol would advise Najnudel on how to coordinate his team’s defensive setup.
Ferro was well-engineered, and a prime example of “taking what you’re given”. Almost all of their ‘82 and ‘84 sides were Ferro-bred players. In a 2004 interview, Griguol recounts how he first trained his players to execute the unique style he had thought up for the Caballito side. At the time, a high-intensity pressing game was a rather new revelation in Argentinean club football.
Caballito beamed with pride. Their 1982 squad was one of four Argentinean sides to have an invincible season. Ferro not only succeeded in football, their basketball team won the national championship three times in the ‘80’s as they evolved into a prime example of an urban Argentinean club.
The stairway from heaven
Ferro would soon begin to be a victim of its own success. Talismanic manager Griguol would be pried away to River Plate in 1987 and many players would follow suit. Santiago Leyden, the club’s director since 1964, had made such a name for himself that the Municipality of Buenos Aires lured him into a job at the Ministry for Sport, hoping to see more community clubs like Ferro thrive.
The team’s form began to decline and Ferro slid down the Primera División table. Financial issues compounded the situation as subsequent directors embroiled the club in debt and financial woe amid corruption scandals and mismanagement. In 1999, Leyden came back to try and save the club. He was elected by the club’s members but only lasted six months as director. He marked his departure by saying, “I can’t administrate misery”. Meanwhile, the socios began to leave, leading to a loss in revenue, and Ferro could hardly maintain a squad and its facilities.
The club hit what they thought was rock bottom in 2000 when they were relegated to the second division. The glory days were officially over. Ferro looked nothing like the team they were fifteen years back. In 1998/1999 Ferro saw an abysmal 875-minute goalless run as the club began to prepare for life in Argentina’s Nacional B. The shoddy administration racked up millions in debt and skinned the squad of most of its professional players.
Ferro were considered a big club back then,and going down was tough to swallow. But, like clubs in England such as Newcastle United, Ferro were considered too big for the second division and were expected to rebound to the top flight. Sadly, things got worse. They faced a consecutive relegation in 2001 and found themselves in the third division. Yet even more players and socios fled the club leaving it down to the youth academy to try and save face. Much of 1999-2001 was played with eight professionals, at best.
On a cold night in Velez Sarsfield’s stadium, and in the middle of Caballito, the same song rang out from the stands in sing-songy yet somber Spanish: “We thank the players for showing they have guts/ because even in the club’s worst moments they played for the institution/ The players don’t deserve this relegation/ The fans don’t deserve this relegation/ The greedy directors deserve this for taking all the money.”
“La crisís” was how Clarín, the nation’s largest newspaper described it.
Once a staple of middle class recreation and a model for community activity, the pride of Caballito was on its knees and gasping for air. With hundreds of cheques written by the club to unaccounted destinations and external debts in the millions, Ferro struggled to provide for its players. Angry fans claimed the board were simply stealing money from the club.
The pinch was felt beyond the football team. The club couldn’t afford to maintain its facilities and Ferro’s youth teams were forced to train at the nearby Japanese Association of Buenos Aires. The basketball team’s head coach, Enrique Tolcachier, was sacked after demanding that the club repay the 84 thousand pesos they owed him in unpaid wages, while youth sports were downsized significantly.
Relegation from the top flight meant a significant loss in TV money, much like in England. In 1999, as Ferro played in the top flight, the club raked in 1.8 million pesos a year due to broadcasting. The next season, in the second flight, they saw just 69,000 pesos. After dropping to the third division the next year, they saw no broadcasting money. Ferro luckily only spent a year there before bouncing back to the second, where they remain to this day.
The journey back to la Primera
The road to recovery from the financial losses of the early 21st century and the relegations that Ferro faced is long and they are still fighting through them. Unlike the 1980’s, Caballito is no longer Ferro’s green. More and more youth are seen walking around with the colors of Argentina’s bigger teams and Europe’s elite.
In the golden years, Ferro boasted 47,000 active members. Relegation to the third tier in 2001 saw those numbers reduced to 12,000. By 2014, there was only 8,000, and the club’s swelling debt forced reluctant fans to put their club into administration. As painful as it was, administration saved Ferro from the extinction and bankruptcy.
From the ashes of a club almost burned to the ground by corruption and carelessness, a new Ferro is rising. On 23 December, 2014, Judge Mariana Braga had a call to make. The club’s administration days had expired, and Ferro would either be returned to its members or it would be dissolved altogether. Braga signed the court document to return the club to the fans. Ferro is now reborn and the reconstruction begins.
Today, the club is regaining membership. The number of socios has doubled since their rebirth and the community sports facilities are filling up again. 95% of socios are now participating in activity at the club every two weeks, as reported by club president Daniel Pandolfi in an interview with “La Nacion” in June 2017. The boost in community activity is an important source of revenue that is helping the club bolster itself.
Financial responsibility is the focus now. Ex-Ferro player Marcos Acuña’s sale to Racing Club brought in much-needed revenue, financing half of the construction of new multi-sport facilities for training.
Another source of recent growth for Ferro has come from the basketball team. In 2016, they made it to the finals of the National League tournament. Revenue is up for the basketball squad and fueling the reconstruction of much of the club.
The football team now is finally dreaming of a return to Primera. With an experienced squad and a top-half finish in 2017, promotion feels realer than it has since 2000. Oh, what Ferro once was! Oh, what Ferro may one day be again! They finally seem poised for a renaissance in Caballito.
Header image credit goes fully to Beatrice Murch.