Years after the 1978 World Cup, Ruud Krol would recall the psychological toll it took on the Dutch squad while they travelled to El Monumental to play the in the final. Their bus was deliberately taken through a winding route and at one point was stuck for almost half an hour while the crowd around it banged and chanted "Argentina, Argentina". His teammate Johnny Rep described atmosphere inside the stadium with one word "boiling". The final was preceded by controversy but it is also remembered thanks to some of the most iconic moments in the history of World Cup which included a 1970s rock star-esque Mario Kempes celebrating in a sea of ticker tapes as the men in orange shirt slumped around him. In some ways, both events encompass the unique characteristics of football in Buenos Aires - where cheerful chaos and eternal volatility go hand in hand with passion and impossibly colourful, animated stands.
In terms of cities which are indelibly linked with the beautiful game, Buenos Aires is right up there among the elites. The city and districts around it, known as Greater Buenos Aires houses dozens of football clubs. In terms of both domestic and international silverware, no other city can boast a prolific record as that of La Reina del Plata. Not Madrid, not Milan, not Rio de Janeiro. The array of clubs that has grown in and around Buenos Aires is truly staggering. On one hand, there is the "big five" - Boca Juniors, River Plate, Independiente, Racing and San Lorenzo where success and silverware are vital parts of glorious histories. On the other hand, there are smaller clubs with fiercely loyal fan bases, some of whom have sparked off great underdog sagas. One such Cinderella story cropped up in 1969 thanks to the meteoric rise of a minnow - Chacarita Juniors.
To understand the enormity of Chacarita Juniors' success one must consider the way Argentine football operated since the 1930s. In 1931 the professional first division was started and a few years later Argentina had a proper multi-tiered professional system in place. It also signalled the start of an era of unparalleled dominance for the big five. In 1934 amateur side Estudiantil Porteno won the Primera & would remain the last non-big five team to win the title until 1966.
In 1967, the Argentine Football Association decided to change the league format, splitting it into two halves - Campeonato Metropolitano, containing teams from former first division and Campeonato Nacional, which assimilated teams from the top division along with those from regional leagues. Almost instantaneously the status quo of Argentine football went for a toss and the grip of big five was broken. Estudiantes de La Plata won the Metropolitano in 1967 while Velez Sarsfield lifted their first major title by winning Campeonato Nacional in 1968. These two clubs were not traditional powerhouses, they were also not minnows. Estudiantes had become Argentine champions back in 1913 and Velez had finished third three times between 1965 and 1968. The great Cinderella story was just around the corner.
Chacarita Juniors was founded on May 1, 1906, near the Villa Crespo & Chacarita neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires. Among its founding members were brothers Manuel, Maximino and Alfredo Lema. Some members had socialist connections which led to red being adopted as one of the colours in their club strip. After initial wobbles, the club was reformed in 1919 by a group led by Nicolás Caputo. Proximity to La Chacarita Cemetery earned them the nickname, Funebreros - meaning ‘Undertakers’. In 1924 they won the Division Intermedia and the following year Chacarita Juniors made their debut in the top flight, finishing a creditable fourth. One of the stars that emerged from Chacarita during this era was Renato Cesarini, who would later go on to become an important part of a legendary Juventus team that won five consecutive Serie A titles in the 1930s.
For most of the time between 1930 and 1960 Chacarita continued to be a club which oscillated between the top two tiers. Following their Primera B win in 1959 Funebreros began one of their longer stays in the top division. They became a regular fixture but were strictly restricted in the zone between mid-table and the bottom. Their best finish during this phase came in 1962 - fifth but they also finished rock bottom in 1963, 1965 and 1966, only saved from the drop because the league had no relegation system. During the inaugural season of the Metropolitano in 1967 Chacarita yet again finished bottom of their group and went into the Reclasificatorio which determined which of the bottom teams would remain in the division. They eventually saved themselves from relegation by just two points. Tired of flirtations with relegation, the Chacarita board decided to employ a man who had made a name for himself in Argentine football with his tactical innovation and eccentricity. The new coach, Argentino Geronazzo, was about to change the club's fortunes.
Born on 1st January 1931, Geronazzo was one of the great tactical innovators in Argentine football. A close friend of Osvaldo Zubeldia, Geronazzo collaborated with him to author books on football tactics, which helped shaped the mentality of the next generation of coaches. He also focused on assessing his opponents' weaknesses, going to the extent of secretly spying on them. He was infamous for his eccentricity. At one point during his career he decided that he needed to take regular naps in between his work schedule, so he drew a map which covered a radius of 30 blocks from his own apartment. Whenever a new club approached him, he first consulted his map before taking up the job. In the 1970s he was once approached by the AFA to take up the post for the national team. Receiving the call at afternoon Geronazzo replied that he was preparing for his siesta and couldn't talk with the official. He never received another call from AFA. His eccentric behaviour coupled with a professor like obsession with tactics earned him a nickname that would also be attributed to a certain Marcelo Bielsa decades later - El Loco- the mad one.
El Loco brought in tactical discipline into the squad and made strategic tweaks, employing a 4-3-3 formation which also emphasised on attacking wingers dropping down into midfield to spawn a 4-5-1 formation without the ball. Results somewhat improved and Funebreros finished sixth in their Metropolitano group. Argentino Geronazzo had done the groundwork to stabilise Chacarita but would soon depart the club, after falling out with the board for demanding a salary increase. He was replaced by Federico Pizarro, a former defender who played over 200 games for Chacarita between 1947 and 1954. Pizarro was a pragmatic coach who didn't tamper with Geronazzo's tactical template but he infused the squad with a winning mentality. In 2004 El Grafico assembled some of the team members for a special interview. Horacio Neumann, a crucial part of that team summed up the impact of both coaches said: "Geronazzo was a scholar and taught us many things that were strategically important" Neumann continued, "And Federico Pizarro was a technician who gave us great confidence". Despite an improvement in 1968, Chacarita's main target in 1969 was still to stave off relegation. To achieve this target they bolstered their squad with Juan Carlos Puntorero from Newell's Old Boys, Rodolfo Uribe from Estudiantes and Abel Pérez from Boca Juniors.
In goal, Chacarita had Eliseo Jorge Petrocelli. Agile and quick off the line, Petrocelli played every single match in the Metropolitano campaign. Central defender Abel Perez provided steel with his formidable physique. Jorge Alberto “Nene” Gómez was not the fastest or most skilful but he was a tight marker which helped in Chacarita's pressing game. Right back Angel Hugo Bargas was an epitome of consistency and one of Chaca’s star players. His performance with Chacarita eventually won him an Argentine player of the year award in 1972, the only time a Funebreros player has won it. On the left side of defence young Franco Frassoldati combined defensive solidity with timely overlaps and an eye for goals. He would finish his career in the Argentine top division with a creditable 36 goals in 396 matches despite mostly playing as a defender.
The three-man midfield usually started with Leonardo Luis Recúpero on one side. Recúpero spent seven seasons in Chacarita, scoring 20 times in 248 matches and had a penchant for nicking crucial goals. Juan Carlos Puntorero was a relentless ball-winner and equally revered by rivals Atlanta and Chacarita. Alberto Raúl Poncio played or Chacarita between 1967 and 1973 and was one of the more technically gifted players in the team.
Ángel Alberto Marcos was the captain and focal point of the attacking trident and the most clinical finisher in Funebreros squad. Horacio Neumann had joined Chacarita in 1966 as a 20-year-old and steadily developed into one of the most potent midfielders in the league. With a stocky and strong build, Neumann could combine deceptive pace with his physique on the left side to stay true to his nickname - the Tank. Rodolfo Orife provided strong support to Marcos and would become Chaca’s second highest scorer in 1969 Metropolitano.
Ernesto Duchini played for Chacarita from 1928 until 1938 and would come back as a coach between 1939 and 1943. Over the next two decades, he would become a well-known coach at youth level, working several clubs as well as the national team. A well-connected man, he convinced numerous players to join the club between 1966 and 1968. Thanks to Geronazzo and Duchini, Chacarita Juniors had one of their strongest ever squads but were still not considered even remotely to fight for the title. Not surprising, considering the depth of quality of the League in one of it's most competitive eras which had seen Argentine clubs lift five of the six previous Copa Libertadores titles.
The Superclasico giants had lost a bit of their aura in the second half of the 1960s. Boca Juniors' last League title came in 1965 but for River Plate, the drought stretched back to 1957. Eager to revive their ailing fortunes, both clubs employed high-profile managers - Boca had Alfredo di Stefano while La Maquina legend Angel Labruna sat on River’s bench. San Lorenzo created history in 1968 by winning the Metropolitano without losing a single match. With the prolific Rodolfo “the wolf” Fisher leading lines they had a settled squad which many considered best in the League.
Defending Nacional winners Velez Sarsfield had one of the most consistent teams in Argentina in the second half of the 1960s. Racing Club blunted Celtic's all-conquering Lisbon Lions in the Intercontinental Cup of 1967 and possessed one of the strongest defensive lines in the League thanks to the brilliant Roberto Perfumo, Alfio Basile, Ruben Diaz and ‘keeper Augustin Cejas. Local rivals Independiente captured the Nacional in 1967 and had in their ranks the legendary Ricardo Pavoni, Anibal Tarabini and future European Golden Boot winner Hector Yazalde.
Last but not least was Zubeldia’s infamous Estudiantes team who were on the verge of becoming the kings of South America for third consecutive time. In 1968 they had also defeated Matt Busby’s Manchester United after two violent Intercontinental Cup ties.
Chacarita was placed in Group A alongside strong teams like Boca, Velez, Independiente, Rosario Central & San Lorenzo. They started their campaign on February 23, picking up a 2-1 away victory against Platense. The next round was a rude awakening which saw them slump to an embarrassing 7-1 defeat versus Lanus. Desperate to bounce back, Chacarita pumped five goals past a hapless Colon de Santa Fe thanks to braces from Recúpero & Marcos.
Chacarita’s bid to stave off relegation received a shot in the arm during rounds 4 and 5 when they picked up an encouraging 2-2 draw at Velez before defeating Independiente at home through a solitary goal. The derby against Atlanta ended in a 1-1 draw and was followed by Chaca defence frustrating Boca in Villa Mapu in a 0-0 stalemate. Pizarro's team continued to pick up points and after a while, it was clear that bigger targets than saving relegation could be achieved.
Between rounds 15 and 18 Chacarita notched up results which would go on to define their campaign. The run started with a 2-1 victory over Velez, a direct rival in Chaca’s quest for progression. Velez took an early lead but Neumann equalised on 38th minute and Marcos scored the winner 12 minutes from regulation time. Two weeks later Chaca squeezed past Atlanta in the derby, winning 1-0.
When they played Boca Juniors on June 5, 1969, Chacarita sealed one of their greatest victories ever. Playing in front 20,000 partisan crowd at La Bombonera, a stadium where they had not won in years, Chaca took a first half lead through their captain - and with Boca laying siege to the goal the defenders then pulled off a memorable rearguard action to seal an invaluable victory.
As the group stage ended Chacarita had already surprised experts, finishing second, level on points with Boca and comfortably ahead of rest of the pack. Their enterprising brand of football was also drawing praise in a country weary of anti-football antics. “If you want to see good football, go see Chacarita” ran a headline from El Grafico. “Chacarita run, bite, sweat, give, sacrifice but they also play football” suggested another report. Eminent journalist Diego Lucero went one step further, describing them as “the poets and the last romantic of soccer”.
Chacarita’s opponents in the semi-final were arguably the most in-form team in Metropolitano. With Brazilian striker Walter Machado da Silva scoring 13 times & their famed defence leaking just 16 goals in 22 matches, Racing had sailed through the group stage effortlessly after losing just one match. Their league form meant that they started with an advantage in the semi even before the match had started. The rules stated that in case of a draw, the team with superior group record would reach the final. Anything other than a victory would sound the death knell for Chaca’s campaign. Staying true to their position, Racing played a conservative game and Funebreros struggled to break them down. With the clock ticking away a desperate low cross was swung in from the right side by Marcos. Recupero found himself unmarked in the box and dived to meet it - his header squirming in through the near post. Jolted, Racing tried to react in the seven remaining minutes, to no avail - Chacarita were in final.
Before the semi-final, Pizarro had left and on Geronazzo’s recommendation, was replaced by Victor Rodriguez. The other semi-final was a Superclasico which ended in a stalemate ensuring River Plate’s place in the final thanks to a superior group stage record.
6th July, 1969, over 64,000 spectators, 30,000 of them Chacarita fans, had crammed into the Racing Stadium to witness a memorable day in the history of Argentine football. River were clear favourites, so much so that the magazine Goles had already prepared a story and cover to glorify River’s achievements.
The match didn't quite live up to the David against Goliath billing. Right from kickoff, it was clear that River players were carrying a mountain of pressure on their shoulders. They looked nervy and kept making mistakes and misplacing passes. Chacarita on the other hand were effervescent and played with great energy. They kept pressing River midfielders high up the pitch, harrying them and exploiting every mistake. River struggled to create chances in a midfield crowded by Chaca’s 4-5-1 formation. The fluidity of their forwards with Neumann and Marcos frequently changing positions also caused problems to the River defence. During the 1974 World Cup Argentina was shell shocked by Dutch total football, losing 4-0. It would be hyperbole to use the same term for Chacarita but they did follow some of the patterns of total football and just like Argentina five years later, River with their slow, individualistic style had no answer to this dynamism.
After early domination, Chacarita deservedly led on the 12th minute when Neumann took advantage of a penalty box melee. River equalised six minutes later after of a lapse in concentration of Chaca defence as Oscar Mas rolled in a low pass from the left wing for Juan Trebucq to bundle in. Despite the scoreline, River were still on the ropes and things took turn for worse when hardman Eduardo Dreyer got sent off at the half hour mark. It took Chaca just six minutes to restore their lead. A weak clearance bounced kindly for Neumann and the Tank thumped an unstoppable volley past Hugh Carballo.
Just minutes into the second half, Chaca had one hand on the trophy. A through ball opened up the River defence and released Marcos. With his first touch Chaca’s captain got past the last defender, his second touch saw him sidestep an onrushing Carballo. Marcos then calmly threaded the ball past three sliding River players to score his tenth goal of the campaign. On the 56th minute Frassoldati ended River’s misery by scoring Chacarita’s fourth. They could have added more goals but missed a few easy chances.
As the final whistle went off, few could believe the scoreboard. Chacarita Juniors 4-1 River Plate. For the next few days, every Chaca player became a star and was invited to radio and television shows. Fans, mostly based in the poor neighbourhood of San Martin Partido could scarcely believe the magnitude of their team's victory. In a league brimming with attacking talent, Ángel Alberto Marcos was hailed as the best player. Even journalists in Goles were in shock as their pre-emptive cover on River victory went on sale with “Chacarita Champions" headline but with a picture of River players!
Funebreros continued their strong form in 1970 when they topped their Nacional group but fell to Boca in the semi-final. The following season they put in another spirited title challenge in the Metropolitano, eventually finishing third, four points behind winners Independiente. Their rising profile ensured an invitation to the prestigious pre-season tournament Trofeo Gamper, alongside luminaries like Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Budapest Honved. On August 24, 1971, they pulled off another miracle, a 2-0 victory over a Bayern side containing Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer, Paul Breitner and Gerd Müller. They also put up a tough resistance against hosts Barcelona in the final, before losing 1-0.
Chacarita’s tightly coupled team gradually disintegrated into the 1970s as the modest club was unable to retain its stars. Angel Marcos moved to France where he would score 72 goals and win a League title with Nantes. Angel Bargas joined Marcos in Nantes, winning the League together and adding another title in 1977. Neumann became one of the first Argentine players to join a Bundesliga club when he signed for FC Koln in 1972. Franco Frassoldati eventually moved to Estudiantes and Abel Perez had a productive spell with Real Murcia in Spain.
Their star soon fell, returning to mid-table finishes and an inevitable relegation in 1979. In the four and half decades since 1969 Chacarita has not come remotely close to winning a major trophy or even enjoying a prolonged spell in the top division. The status of the club before and after their Metropolitano triumph perhaps magnifies the incredulity of their achievement. Many neutrals still cherish the memories of an underdog going on a flabbergasting giant killing spree. And doing it with style.