Frank LopapaComment

EL EQUIPO DE JOSE: WHEN RACING RULED THE WORLD

Frank LopapaComment

The rise and rise of a truly great Argentine side

There was a time, before being relegated to the second division in the 1980s, before "ceasing to exist" in 1999, before bankruptcy threatened their existence yet again in 2008, Racing Club de Avellaneda was unofficially the best team in the world after winning three trophies in the space of a year: the 1966 Primera División title, the 1967 Copa Libertadores, and the 1967 Intercontinental Cup, all while breaking several records in the process. How did they rise so suddenly?

What first needs to be established is the change in Argentine football during the 1960s. The albiceleste left the 1958 World Cup in embarrassment, departing from Sweden bottom of their group after a 6-1 shellacking at the hands of Czechoslovakia. Northern Ireland midfielder Jimmy McIlroy noted that the Argentines were "a lot of little fat men with stomachs, smiling at us and pointing and waiving at girls in the crowd." Football in Argentina, although professional at the time, was stuck in a time warp. Jonathan Wilson writes in Inverting the Pyramid that the dire performance in Sweden triggered sweeping changes in the way the game was viewed in Argentina; practicality and professionalism replaced romanticism and artistry. Teams started to put more energy into match day preparation, training methods, tactics, and above all, winning. The government no longer subsidized clubs and as a result were on their own, thus making results on the field even more important. Who would pay to watch a losing team all the time? Despite the more pragmatic posture of Argentine squads during the following years, Juan José Pizzuti's Racing bucked the trend by combining defensive stability and tactical nous with an aggressive, fast-paced offense.  

In September 1965, Pizzuti became manager of the club where he spent his best years as a player, scoring 118 goals in 213 total appearances for the Avellaneda side. Pizzuti's introduction quickly reversed Racing's poor form as they won his first match in charge, a 3-1 triumph over River Plate. Racing clawed back from the bottom of the table up to a respectable fifth place finish having lost only once after Pizzuti took over. This would be the start of what would become Racing's most successful period in the professional era.

Racing would continue their excellent form going into the 1966 Campeonato, going undefeated in their first 25 matches until losing 2-0 to River on September 4th; La Academia hadn't lost for 39 matches going back to the previous season, a record that would remain standing for 33 years. They would recover quickly and finish the season unbeaten, winning the championship with a record 61 points. Racing conceded a scant 24 goals in 38 matches while finishing with a stellar +46 goal difference. Much of the credit must go to a defense led by Roberto 'El Mariscal' Perfumo in the center and current Racing manager Alfio Basile at left back. Ex-Inter playmaker Humberto Maschio returned to Avellaneda playing as an enganche behind Jaime Martinoli and Juan José Rodriguez, who would finish with 18 and 16 goals respectively. What separated Racing from the rest was a style of play which according to Olé's Pedro Uzquiza and Oscar Barnade, "changed history: they promoted very dynamic play, without fixed positions, with players who were in constant movement, a precedent for the total football put forth by Holland years later." This aggressiveness was in direct contrast with the more ponderous 'la nuestra' style that dominated in previous decades. Racing represented the huge strides Argentine football made in the 1960s and were set on showing the world how far the country had come.

Racing qualified for the Copa Libertadores for only the second time in their history in 1967. The club coasted through the first group phase as they lost only once in ten matches, a defeat to 31 de Octubre in the rarified air of La Paz. La Academia finished joint top in the semifinal group, winning a playoff against Peruvian side Universitario 2-1 on the back of a Norberto Raffo brace. One hundred thousand supporters packed the Estadio Juan Domingo Peron for the first leg of the final against Nacional of Uruguay, a tight affair with the majority of chances going to Racing in a scoreless draw; the second leg in Montevideo would produce the same result. Racing emerged victorious in the replay held in Santiago, winning 2-1 on goals by Joao Cardoso and Norberto Raffo. Racing reached yet another milestone as they became only the second Argentine side to win the Copa Libertadores.

The domestic championship that year was reconfigured into two competitions, the Metropolitano and Nacional tournaments. Racing progressed through the Metropolitano easily, finishing joint top of their group alongside Estudiantes de la Plata. Racing defeated rivals Independiente 2-0 in a semifinal clasico only to lose to Estudiantes in the final 3-0. A focus on international competition meant Racing would finish a disappointing 13th in the Nacional tournament.

For Racing the most important match in their history was yet to come: the 1967 Intercontinental Cup. La Academia would face European Cup winners Celtic in what would be one of the most hotly contested and controversial finals in the competition's history. South American clubs traditionally took the tie more seriously than their European counterparts, and Racing certainly treated it as a life-or-death situation. Hampden Park hosted the first leg, with Celtic winning 1-0 on a Billy McNeil header. The second leg in Avellaneda proved to be a nightmarish affair for the Hoops, having to overcome a hostile crowd, an intimidated referee, and a pregame injury to starting 'keeper Ronnie Simpson, who was hit by a missile thrown from the stands. Racing fell behind early on a Tommy Gemmell penalty in the 21st minute; Norberto Raffo, the hero from the Libertadores semifinal and final, leveled the score ten minutes before halftime despite suspicions of offside. Midfielder José Cárdenas dramatically gave Racing the lead in the 93rd minute, forcing another decisive playoff.

The deciding game in Montevideo proved to be, as Reuters printed at the time, "a bar-room brawl with soccer skills abandoned for swinging fists, flying boots and blatant body checking." The game has been remembered more for the violence produced than the football played. Three players were sent off in the first half alone, two for Celtic (Bobby Lennox and Jimmy Johnstone) and one for Racing (Alfio Basile). The match remained scoreless until Cárdenas again came up with a clutch goal, rocketing in a shot from distance to give Racing the lead in the 56th minute. Three more players were sent off before the final whistle, Celtic's Bertie Auld, John Hughes for kicking out at Agustín Cejas, and Racing's Juan Carlos Rulli. Racing left the Estadio Centenario victorious, becoming the first Argentine club to win the Intercontinental Cup. A high point for the club no doubt, even though the methods used against Celtic are still a point of contention today.

Racing faded almost as quickly as it had emerged; the club's slow decline continued into the next decade, reaching a low point upon being relegated from the first division in 1983. After the triumph in Montevideo, La Academia failed to win another major title until the 2001 Apertura.

Prospects are beginning look up after Racing suffered another insolvency scare in 2008. The club is coming off a second place finish in the 2011 Apertura and have qualified for continental competition for the first time since 2003. Alfio Basile returns in his fourth stint as manager, with the club being regarded as one of the favorites for the Clausura title. Although winning  both the Clausura tournament and the Copa Sudamericana is a huge ask of this Racing team, it would be a fitting tribute in marking the forty-fifth anniversary of 'El Equipo de José' and all they accomplished. 

Frank writes for 'Serie A Weekly' & is on Twitter here  

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