Each year from 1963 to 1980 at least one Argentine team contested the final of the Copa Libertadores. At no time was the Argentine stranglehold on the competition more evident than the golden years of Independiente from 1972 to 1975. In the same way, arguably, no one player has made as profound an impact on the competition (before or after) as El Bocha, Ricardo Bochini.
Outside Independiente’s newly renovated home Estadio de los Libertadores de America a street carries the name of the great man. As we speak they are working on the Bochini Stand at the stadium, in between worrying about the ignominy of life outside the top flight for the first time in their history.
The man they knew as el duende rojo was every inch an unlikely hero. Jorge Valdano, stumbling for an appropriate phrase to describe such a unique talent, famously described him as ‘Woody Allen playing football’. Bochini certainly wasn’t the most athletic specimen to grace a football pitch, nor was he the fastest of players. Clearly his strength lay in his cerebral brilliance in the middle of the park measuring inch perfect slide rule passes into the front men, and slaloming gracefully past players as if they weren’t there.
Whilst the legend of El Bocha is, alas, largely unknown outside Argentina, you would be hard pressed to find an Independiente fan, or indeed any reasonable minded Argentine fan, who would exclude the influential enganche from the canon of Argentina’s all-time greats.
Bochini was a one club man who achieved all he could dream of and more besides in two glorious decades with one of Argentina’s proudest clubs. His pomp, clearly, was in the early 70s, when Independiente swept all before them in the years of Argentine dominance.
As many Argentines would tell you, particularly those from Avellaneda, Independiente were the first Argentine team to really make their mark on the competition, and remain the one club that is truly defined by its Libertadores success. Boca were beaten finalists in 1963, failing to shackle the genius of Pelé and Coutinho. Independiente would go one better a year later.
They ended the two-year reign of the Santos of Pelé and Coutinho, knocking them out in the Semi-Final stage before defeating Montevideo’s Nacional in the final. They went on to retain it the following year against Nacional’s great city rivals Peñarol, and in doing so, opened the way for the exploits of Avellaneda rivals Racing Club and the provincial world conquerors Estudiantes La Plata later in the decade.
Indeed, under the highly controversial leadership of Osvaldo Zubeldia, employing a maddening mix of legal and illegal destructive tactics to thwart their opponents (that would soon be labelled ‘anti-futbol’),
Estudiantes de La Plata won an incredible hat-trick of Libertadores victories and an Intercontinental Cup victory over Manchester United at the end of the 1970s.
As with the ‘Dirty Leeds’ side of the 70s in England, the collective memory of media coverage has perhaps done a disservice to a team not lacking in merit, but there is little doubt they were not averse to the uglier side of the game.
Though Independiente’s breakthrough victories (worthy of a post in their own right) came in the sixties, their zenith was clearly their four consecutive victories in the 1970s. It seems inevitable that one day Boca Juniors will better Independiente’s record seven Libertadores victories; the one record that may elude them for some time is that of winning four consecutive Libertadores trophies (or even Estudiantes three for that matter). Of all the truly emblematic Copa Libertadores teams, Independiente are also the only one that has never lost a final, triumphing seven times without defeat.
From an Anglo-speaking world perspective, it may seem reasonable, especially with Alex Ferguson’s retirement fresh in the mind, to ask which manager led the Independiente dynasty of remarkable triumphs over the rest of the continent. In reality, much like Real Madrid’s triumphs in the early years of the European Cup, there was no Fergiesque dynasty of continuity to explain the team’s success. Independiente’s South American consecutive champion-winning sides, incredibly, were managed by three different men.
There achievements are all the more impressive when you consider that the lack of stability on the field was matched by political instability as a period of military dictatorship was met with growing unrest by the urban proletariat who yearned for that very Argentine panacea: a return to Peronism. A conflictive atmosphere reigned as successive military dictatorships came and went. The success of Independiente provided a release valve in a highly charged (and disturbingly increasingly violent) society
The first of Independiente’s four consecutive Libertadores came in 1972, when Pedro Dellacha oversaw a narrow 2-1 victory over surprise package Universitario of Peru (who had made the final at the expense of much fancied Peñarol and Nacional). Eduardo Maglioni scored a crucial double in the return game in Avellaneda after a tense stalemate in Lima. A year later the same player would bag a record-winning hat-trick in one minute and fifty one seconds on the third week of the Torneo Metropolitano against Gimnasia La Plata.
In the intercontinental games against the champions of Europe, Los Diablos Rojos went on to draw with the imperious Ajax of Cruyff, Neeskens and Keizer, before finally succumbing to genius as a young Johnny Rep came off the bench to bag a brace in a comfortable 3-0 victory in front of a spellbound crowd at Amsterdam’s Olympic Arena.
As popular unrest grew the following year (1973) populist ex-President Juan Perón saw his opportunity to return from exile in Spain, though he was technically barred from participating in the election, which the military had begrudgingly allowed, to find a new president. He returned to a complex panorama of left and right-wing Peronists jostling for power within the movement.
The complex but characteristically Latin American cult-of-personality that he (and his wife) had spawned saw thousands of Argentines of diverse political persuasions gather at Ezeiza airport to greet his return.
Unfortunately camouflaged right-wing factions of the Peronist movement opened fire on Montoneros (left-wing Peronists) and members of the Peronist youth leaving an unknown number dead, in an incident that as yet has not been fully investigated.
The premeditated attack proved effective in de-stabilising the moderate left-wing administration of recently elected Héctor Cámpora, who had recently taken power. So just eleven days after a CIA-supported coup had ousted elected left-wing leader Salvador Allende in neighbouring Chile, a new set of elections would have to be held after foul-play in Argentina.
The tragedy was symptomatic of a dark period in Argentine history, which ironically coincided with some of the country’s finest moments on the football field. A nationalistic inward-looking mentality prevailed, making Argentina a hostile place to visit for opposing teams.
Amidst the off-field turbulence, Independiente regrouped and thrived to retain the Libertadores trophy the following year.
In order to do so they would first meet a side from Chile, which was also deeply divided by the highly controversial Pinochet coup. The series of three games put on by the two sides produced one of the most memorable and tense finals in Libertadores history. In the days before the now ubiquitous penalty shoot-out was viewed as a necessary evil to decide drawn games, Independiente finally saw off a spirited Colo Colo outfit in a play-off game, played in neutral Montevideo after two fiercely contested games watched by volatile crowds in Argentina and Chile failed to separate the sides.
Independiente, then, would represent the continent against Europe’s finest once again. This Intercontinental Cup Final game provided the moment that the team is most remembered for on both sides of the Atlantic. La Roja came up against European runners-up Juventus. Ajax, the champions of Europe, had pulled out citing economic difficulties, which some believe were a pretext for their distaste for both the brusqueness of the Argentine football and the political situation within the country. This would be a precursor for Johan Cruyff’s non-participation in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, as the political situation spiralled out of control.
Star players Ricardo Bochini and Daniel Bertoni expertly exchanged three one-twos which left the experienced Italian defenders standing before Bochini, slotted away the goal that saw Independiente crowned champions of the world for the first time. Independiente triumphed narrowly by a goal to nil, leaving Rome’s Olympic Stadium in shock. The Argentine press christened the goal ‘la pared que cautivó al mundo (the one-two that captivated the world) and the orchestrators of the goal ensured their place in history.
Such was the esteem in which el duende rojo (the red elf) was (and still is) held in Argentina, a precise and incisive through ball has come to be known as a ‘pase bochinesco’ (a Bochini-pass), and no less than Boca Juniors diehard Diego Maradona gushes with admiration in his autobiography yo soy El Diego:
‘En aquel tiempo, mientras me iba formando como jugador, estaba enamorado de Bochini. Me enamoré terriblemente y confieso que era de Independiente en la Copa Libertadores, a principios de los setenta, ¡Bochini me sedujo tanto! Bochini. y Bertoni. Las paredes que tiraban Bochini y Bertoni eran una cosa que me quedó tan grabada que yo las elegiría como las jugadas maestras de la historia del fútbol.’ (Back then, in my formative years as a player, I was in love with Bochini, and I confess I was an Independiente fan when they played in the Libertadores, at the beginning of the seventies, Bochini(‘s style) seduced me! The one-twos that Bochini and Bertoni played stuck in my mind, and I’d put them amongst the greatest pieces of play in the game’.
El Bocha’s foil right-winger Bertoni went on the shine in Cesar Luis Menotti’s cavalier crowd-pleasing 1978 World Champions scoring the third goal against Holland in the final to ensure Argentina’s first World Cup triumph at River Plates’s Estadio Monumental.
Bochini, on the other hand, along with a young Diego Maradona were surprisingly overlooked. For that reason, years later when Bochini was finally given his chance in the dying minutes of 1986 World Cup Semi Final against Belgium, Maradona remembered his idol’s 1978 torment and warmly welcomed him onto the field ‘Maestro, lo estábamos esperando’ (Teacher, we were waiting for you). When a Boca fan as partisan as Maradona recognises a player from a rival team, it is with good reason.
Bochini, however, when questioned about the 1986 triumph told El Gráfico that he hardly felt like a champion of the world for the following reason:
Porque jugué tan pocos minutos que no puedo sentirme campeón. Eso lo deben sentir los muchachos que jugaron casi todos los partidos y que realmente hicieron méritos para lograr el título. Yo estoy acostumbrado a los torneos que ganamos con Independiente, donde sí tuve una participación más decisiva (because I played so few minutes that I cannot feel like a champion. That is what the players who played almost all the games must feel and really they deserve it. I am used to the titles that I won with Independiente, in which I did participate decisively).
Mutual admiration and respect has always existed between Maradona and Bochini, but in the eyes of Independiente’s fans, their longest serving player will always be the most special. Julio el Gran Diablo, a famous Independiente fan sums up the differences between student and teacher in the following statement: ‘Maradona es un solista, Bochini un director de orquesta’ (Maradona is a soloist, Bochini an orquestra director’.)
The frontman of Argentine rock-band Bersuit Vergarabat (catchy name? they are good honestly) likens Bochini’s nimble style to that of a dancer and assured El Grafico that: ‘Bochini es un verbo para mí, bochinear es pensar antes que los demás. No hubo un tipo en el mundo con esa velocidad mental.’ (Bochini is a verb for me, bochinear is to think before everyone else. There’s never been anyone in this world with his mental speed). He goes on to add that Javier Pastore knows how to bochinear at times. High praise indeed.
Argentine football has always been subject to crude dichotomisation between its artistic, aesthetic side and its uglier more pragmatic characteristics, between the same amateur spirit that prizes entertaining the masses over the win at all costs mentality. Argentina’s two World Cup winning coaches achieved their great successes playing the game in the way they saw fit, and in doing so provided the framework for the Menottismo and Bilardismo, once again carrying the names of those who supposedly personify a distinct ideology worthy of being followed by the masses.
In his own words in a 1994 interview, el bocha clearly positioned himself in the Menottisti camp (see my other post Futebol Arte vs Futebol Força: The Great Latin American Football Debate), to his eternal credit showing no bitterness towards the man who overlooked him for the 1978 World Cup. Considering the historical style of Argentine football and the style of the great Independiente sides, it is perhaps inevitable that Bochini, ever the purist, laments the shift towards pragmatism:
‘Argentina siempre se adhirió al jugador de toque y de gambeta, por eso la gente tuvo como ídolos a los jugadores de esa calidad. Eso se está perdiendo ahora porque el periodismo hace que la gente joven se conforme con un resultado y aunque el equipo juegue mal (Argentina always developed the short, sharp passer who could dribble, that is why people here have so many idols of such quality. That is being lost now, as journalism makes people believe that the result is all-important, even if the team plays badly.)
This kind of thinking, in some quarters, is increasingly seen as antiquated, mawkish or unrealistic, as the pragmatism of Bilardismo is evident in many of the games great coaches like Mourinho, and in many of the young breed of Argentine coaches like Simeone. Argentine writer Roman Iucht, however, sets about the considerable task of examining ‘el ultimo romantico’ (the last romantic) in a fascinating biography of Marcelo Bielsa.
It has to be said of course, that Bielsa has a number of disciples operating in the game now, and that the classic Argentine style has had a profound influence on no less than Pep Guardiola, who looks to continue where he left off with Barcelona on his new adventure in Bavaria.
Returning to the exploits of Los Diablos Rojos of Avellaneda, the team continued from the Juventus triumph under Roberto Ferreiro, again reaching the final in 1974, defeating São Paulo. After a narrow defeat Independiente forced another play-off game after victory after winning at their Avellaneda fortress.
This time, the play-off game was played in Chile, against the backdrop of the infamous Pinochet coup the year before. In Santiago’s national stadium, Uruguayan left-back Ricardo ‘El Chivo’ Pavoni netted the only goal, to seal a third consecutive Libertadores triumph.
The popular Uruguayan summed up the prevailing mood in the following statement: ‘En la década del 70, Independiente era más famoso aún que el Santos de Pelé. Nos reconocían en todos lados’ (In the 70s Independiente were even more famous than the Santos of Pelé, they recognised us everywhere.)
In 1975 Independiente once again faced a trip to Santiago’s National Stadium, to face Union Española, a game they lost, only to force yet another play-off with a comfortable victory in Buenos Aires. The historic 4th consecutive Libertadores was secured, once again on neutral territory in the hostile surroundings of Asunción’s Estadio Defensores del Chaco. Paraguayans have a long-running grievance with Argentines, dating back to a loss of territory in the Battle of the Triple Alliance in the 1800s. Daniel Bertoni and Ricardo Ruiz Moreno netted to silence a largely pro-Chilean crowd of 55,000 spectators.
Critics of Independiente’s golden period correctly point out that, as defending champions, la roja benefitted from the privilege of entering the Libertadores at the semi-final stage. It is certainly worthy of mention, but surely the criticism falls squarely at the door of football’s authorities rather than as any kind of denigration of the achievements of a great side.
Equally it would be difficult to argue that the current seeding systems used in many club and national competitions are anything other a transparent measure to protect commercial interests and ensure the participation of the big guns in the final rounds, guaranteeing high television audiences and all the lucrative spin-offs.
For good measure Independiente added narrow victories over Olimpia of Honduras (1973), Deportivo Municipal of Guatemala and finally Atletico Español of Mexico (1976) in the now defunct Copa Interamericana, a celebration of Inter-American solidarity that was brought to an abrupt end by being embarrassingly gate-crashed by a gringo victory in the shape of DC United in 1998.
Bochini would go on to finally win Argentine player of the year in 1983 and to star in Tokyo in the Intercontinental Cup final of 1984 against Joe Fagan’s Liverpool. By then under the stewardship of Pastoriza, the Independiente line-up would boast a number of International players including Giusti, Burrachaga and Pedro Monzón. Jose Percudani beat Bruce Grobelaar to notch the only goal of the game, winning another famous victory.
For reasons too numerous to name, one side triumphing year-on-year in this way seems a near impossibility in the modern game. Only maybe the Real Madrid of Puskas and Di Stefano have achieved a similar feat in European football, and in comparison to the modern day greats, even the imperious Barcelona of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, with their tiki-taka possession-dominating, have never managed to retain the Champions League.
The Independiente of El Bocha, Bertoni and Pastoriza will always be fondly remembered in Avellaneda and beyond, and may always hold some small bragging rights over their big city rivals. They have had a pivotal role in the rich history in Argentine football, from Raimundo Orsi (one of the infamous oriundi), through to Sergio ‘Kun’ Agüero’s debut in the Argentine top flight at the tender age of 15. They played ‘tiki-taka’ decades before some daft Spanish commentator coined the phrase, and even held the affections of an impressionable young shantytown dweller called Diego for a while.
Bochini goes some way to explaining his relative anonymity outside his homeland with the following statement made during an interview with Argentine television, ‘Si hubiera hecho en Boca lo que hice en Independiente, la popularidad hubiera sido el doble’ (If I’d done with Boca what I did with Independiente, my popularity would have been double.) Whilst there is a hint of hyperbole to the maestro’s statement, he articulates the frustrations of millions of Argentines tired of an ever increasingly Boca-centric view of national football, perhaps by extension of fans in other countries where mass media tends to focus on a couple of sides. Such is the all-consuming passion/media hype surrounding the Xeneizes, few would even notice that to this day the most successful side in the Libertadores remains the Red Devils of Avellaneda.