To Argentinians, I'inchas who follow their favourite club week after week, football is an art.
Producing many of the world's finest players, they've been content to live in the past, constantly claiming to be the leading football nation and in splendid isolation refusing to keep in step with developments elsewhere.
If 1963 marks the end of Argentinian failures, historians will perhaps point to their success in the Four Nations Tournament staged in Brazil where Argentina beat Brazil, England and Portugal without conceding a goal, but in fact it was Independiente, the 1962 champions, who led the way.
Throwing off their traditional handicaps, over elaborate ball play, outmoded tactics, poor discipline and pointless training methods, Independiente went on after clinching the league title to complete a run of forty games without defeat that included thirty-three consecutive victories.
To fully understand the revolution which Independiente effected it is necessary to know something of life in Buenos Aires, and the vital role played by futbol. The people know no other sport, Buenos Aires is futbol-crazy, and while the country's struggling economy ensures that a poor man will always remain poor, he consoles himself by joining the club of his choice.
He becomes a socio, gets half price match tickets and lives from game to game. Now he belongs. He has a way of life.
Every touch of the ball is analysed, every move applauded, and every star idolised. With the emphasis on ball play, team work was practically unknown, good defenders almost impossible to find. Just as the matador is judged more by his skill with the cape than the sword, Argentinian players were judged by the number of tricks in their repertoire rather than by the goals they scored.
Against this background it was impossible for a team to be developed, for the first essential is method, and the second teamwork. This could only come from a strong manager or coach, and in Argentina the players have always been far more important than the trainer.
Had the 1939-45 war not prevented the staging of the World Cup, in 1942 it is more than likely that Argentina would have won it, for throughout the 'forties they had a host of great players headed by River Plate's Adolfo Pedernera.
First the war, and then the regime of President Juan Peron, who barred international contacts and prohibited Argentina from entering the 1950 and 1954 series. In splendid isolation, the Argentinians refused to acknowledge the changes being effected elsewhere, and continued to idolise the individual as an artist. When they did reappear in world football, they still stuck to the attacking centre-half game, rejected in Europe thirty years earlier and against better prepared opponents and well organised defences they faltered. Only when River Plate's Nestor Rossi, the last of the great Argentinian attacking centre-halves retired, did they begin to think afresh but still the critics and the fans continued to demand ball play above all else.
Just when the final nail was driven into the coffin of the old game is difficult to decide, but perhaps it was the day in 1961 when Russia beat Argentina in Buenos Aires 2-1. With relaxed man for man marking in defence, the backs lying square and without cover, the Russian machine did for the Argentinians what the Hungarians in 1953 failed to do for England. They made them change their approach.
lndependiente's part in the modernisation of Argentinian football is easy to trace. Throughout the 'forties, they rated fourth place, behind River Plate, Boca Juniors and Racing, and though usually in the top five had been champions only four times since the professional league was formed. Soon after the start of the 1963 championship, manager Armando Renganeschi was dismissed and replaced by Manuel Giudice, a modernist with a tough approach and a River star from the 1920s. He laid down the blueprint for the modern game based on the contraataque defensivo and rationing their opponents to less than one goal a game they stormed to the title.
During the second half of the campaign lndependiente were unbeaten, and pulled in crowds which averaged 47,125 - second only to River Plate! At the end of the season Independiente went on tour meeting and beating the best that South America could offer. Santos were hammered 5-1, Penarol 5-0, and well into the 1964 campaign they remained undefeated. Boca Juniors brought their forty match run to an end, but by then it was clear lndependiente were resting their key men to concentrate on the South American championship, the Taca de los Libertadores.
The critics of Los muchachos de Avellaneda claim they were lucky, and certainly their opponents were hit by a series of unfortunate setbacks. Alianza Lima, the first to face Independiente, were forced to play their home match in Buenos Aires following the 300-death match in Peru but they were well beaten (4-1) in the first leg. Next came the Millonarios of Bogota who were outlawed by F.I.F.A. at the request of the Colombia F.A. a few days before their second leg, but they too were all but out after losing 5-1 in Buenos Aires. Against Santos, winners of the two previous series, and World champions in 1962 and 1963, Independiente didn't meet Pelé or Coutinho (both unfit) but winning both legs by the odd goal qualified to meet Uruguayan champions Nacional in the Final. Nacional too were struck down by a body blow ten days before their home match when Jose Sanfilippo, ace goal-getter from San Lorenzo and Boca Juniors who had been bought specially for the 'Taca', broke his leg during a friendly match with Vasco da Gama. After a goalless draw in Montevideo, inside left Mario Rodriguez scored the only goal of the second leg to make Independiente South American Champions, and take the title to Argentina for the first time.
By now almost everyone was convinced that the game had to be modernised. The national team had succeeded in Brazil with defensive tactics, and with Independiente preparing for the summit meeting with Internazionale, the other Buenos Aires clubs were following the lead of the 'maquina roja'. The tactical plans of Senor Giudice were simply an exact copy of the Italians' catenaccio, incorporating a free back--the captain Ruben Navarre, who plays behind the stopper leftback Tomas Rolan, an import from Uruguay and the only "foreigner" in the side. On the flanks are the wing-halves Ferreiro and Maldonado, who are allowed more licenCe than their European counterparts, while in midfield are Acevedo, Inside right Mura, a brilliant player who grafts continuously, and centre-forward Luis Suarez who also withdraws. Numerically, 1:3:3:3 and varying little in theory with the old fashioned Argentinian system in which the backs played together in the centre, with the wing halves on the opposing wingers. The difference in defence is one of emphasis on the free back or extra cover, and the extra weight in midfield achieved by withdrawing two forwards.
The stage was now set for the clash with Inter and though it seemed that fate had finally turned her back on Independiente when they were forced to play without Navarro nursing a fractured leg, luck didn't desert them completely. In Buenos Aires, Inter were clearly seeking a draw, and when after half-an hour Rolan was injured to take no further part in the clash, and Independiente were left with only ten men, a fortunate goal put the issue in the balance. Rodriguez leapt to a centre from Prospitti, but his header was stopped on the line by Sarti, who got both hands to it, and then dropped it ... over the line. For Inter, left-winger Corso hit the Independiente crossbar, but that was the closest they came to scoring.
A fortnight later at San Siro, the roles were reversed for a draw would be enough to make lndependiente World Champions. With Guzman standing in for Navarre in the covering role for Independiente, and Inter for once forced to look for goals it was from an entertainment point of view perhaps the best of the three games. After only nine minutes, Mazzola scored for Inter, and on the half-hour Corso got a second. From then on Independiente dictated the play, but with Inter packing their goal the Argentinians failed to score, and the teams moved on to the Chamartin stadium in Madrid for the clincher three days later.
Under the strange rules of this series, a draw was once more all that Inter needed, for if the teams were still level after an extra half-hour had been played goal average counts, and Inter 2-1 ahead on aggregate were satisfied to defend. Independiente hit them with everything they had, won the support of almost the entire Spanish crowd of 45,000 who whistled Inter off at the finish. Five minutes from the end of ninety minutes, right winger Bernao broke through the Italian net to score, but the referee ruled offside, and in extra time a goal right out of the blue from Corso settled the issue in Inter's favour. A draw would have been enough, but Corso clinched it. Though the left winger had played well, he enraged the crowd and the Argentinians by indulging in a time-wasting episode with goalkeeper Sarti who threw the ball to him, only for Corso to hold it, then give it back and then take the throw again ... repeatedly.
Now it seems clear that Independiente have ushered in the "modern era" to the Argentinian game, and having tasted success in the Rio Tournament, and seen their champions beaten for the World title by the narrowest of margins, the rest of the country will surely follow.
Manuel Giudice knows that there is still much to be done, particularly in improving the heading and tackling generally and the physical condition of all the players. Tougher training schedules, wider experience against European teams, who generally are better in the air and more determined in the tackle, will bring lndependiente to their peak.
There are already plans for a lengthy trip to Europe next spring--before the national side's tour, and if these physical qualities can be developed and allied to their inherent ability for the arts and graces of soccer then it will not be long before Argentina produces a World Class team, instead of producing top class players for export.
This article appeared in the November 1964 edition of World Soccer magazine. Subscribe here.