Football as we know in its contemporary form is a game of tactical trends and impressionable attitudes that affect a contagious state as spun by television – managers and pundits chiefly – and fan media alike. Styles of play can be widely heralded or publicly maligned.
But what tends to be regarded as negative or “dirty” tactics is now synonymous with typically defensive styles as adopted by high profile managers such as Jose Mourinho or Diego Simeone. Unique terms such as “parking the bus” or “hoofball” are given pejorative meanings to degrade a team’s definable style.
A key period in football’s global evolution was the very different context “dirty” carried in the pre-modern era of the 1960’s. The term would describe opposition intimidation, crunching tackles, flying kicks and on-pitch brawls that became so prevalent of South American football in this period. No team would manifest this style more so than the successful Argentinian side Estudiantes.
Formed in 1905 by a group of university students, Estudiantes are a modest-sized club based in the beach resort of La Plata, located in the province of Buenos Aries.
Comparatively small and traditionally in the shadow of capital giants Boca Juniors and River Plate, they came to the fore in the late 1960’s with an uncompromising brand of over-zealous football that on numerous occasions boiled over to the point of plain physical warfare.
Having won the 1967 Metropolitano – the Argentine first division – they subsequently went on to claim the Copa Libertadores trophy for three consecutive seasons. Despite their success, they became identifiable for overt cynicism, and in a country that was experiencing a fast-changing national identity, they came to epitomise the tag of “anti-futbol”.
The label had already gained significant national notoriety following Argentina’s ignominious 1966 World Cup quarter-final exit at Wembley against England.
The 1-0 defeat though was not what the encountered would be remembered for – instead captain Antonio Rattin’s dismissal for persistent protests in a bad-tempered display was to leave its mark indelibly on the course of Argentine football.
England’s manager Alf Ramsey would have been forgiven for showing public elation at guiding his country to their first ever World Cup Semi Final. Instead, his comments were unmistakably scathing of the opposition post-match: “Our best football will come against the right type of opposition – a team who come to play football, and not act as animals”.
Further international exhibitions involving Argentine sides were further proof of the increasingly ultra-aggressive and brutal approach that was becoming endemic back home.
In the 1967 Intercontinental Club Cup Final between Racing Club of Buenos Aries and Glasgow Celtic two bruising encounters were played out in both cities to record equally narrow home wins.
The deciding occasion, played in Montevideo, was only played once Celtic received security guarantees and, after suffering a host of unpleasant episodes from the second leg – that included the Celtic goalkeeper being struck by a stone in the crowd, conceding a clearly offside goal that the Uruguayan referee showed no interest in disallowing and having their dressing-room water turned off at half-time – an assurance of new officials for the third game.
What followed was another example of unsavoury chaos as, yet again the referee having lost all control, Celtic lost their heads in the face of incessant provocation and were defeated 1-0 after having three players sent off.
The very same year, the team with the sharpest rise were Estudiantes, the small club who won the 1967 championship with an effective pragmatic style that served as the most potent example of the primitive and muscular mentality.
They were a team without stars who, under coach Osvaldo Zubeldia, were lauded by sports publication El Gráfico as being “young, strong, disciplined and vigorous”.
But nowhere was the darker, belligerent approach now common in Argentina starker than in this unrelenting team of aggressors.
An emphasis on set-pieces – from where they scored over half of their goals from – were rehearsed obsessively through secret signs and their disciplined man-marking approach when holding on to a lead was entirely overshadowed by the lesser tactical ploys.
Midfielder Juan Ramón Verón – father of former Lazio and Man Utd midfielder – described their method: “We tried to find out everything possible about our rivals individually, their habits, their characters, their weaknesses, and even about their private lives, so that we could goad them on the field, get them to react and risk being sent off”.
When the balance of the game was shifting in the favour of the opposition, Estudiantes were the masters of nullification. They knew how to play a subtle foul at the right time but prevent a dismissal, they could take the sting out of a match by slowing it down, or even simply time-wasting.
They won their first Copa Liberatores in 1968 following a plainly violent Semi-Final encounter with Racing to then overcome Brazilian side Palmeiras in the final, but it was the two-legged Intercontinental Cup Final against Manchester United that would serve as the biggest shock to the world.
Initial tensions were apparent before a ball was even kicked when a pre-arranged official welcome ceremony for the Manchester United squad that had the intention of reaffirming friendly relations following the international occasion of 1966 was scuppered when Estudiantes pulled out of the meeting at the last moment.
The Argentinian’s intent to unsettle their visitors had the desired effect as Estudiantes edged out the English side in an encounter that at times resembled a street fight and featured midfielder Nobby Stiles – a former member of the victorious 1966 side – being dismissed for dissent.
Further frustration was to follow for United in the return leg at Old Trafford. Estudiantes were evidently content to play to protect their lead and following a 1-1 draw that saw both George Best and Jose Medina sent off for fighting, the provincial Argentine side were declared world champions.
The reaction to the following year’s narrow victory in the 1970 Libertadores Final over Peñarol suggested the tolerance to Estudiantes’ cruel cynicism was waning – what would follow in the impending Intercontinental Club Cup would go on to showcase the nadir of the anti-futbol-violence coalescence.
Facing AC Milan, the Italian giants – masters of the “Catenaccio” style – they met their nemesis in the first leg, losing the tie 3-0 to a Gianni Rivera-inspired Milan.
Any notions the Italians might have had of going through the motions in the return leg in Argentina were dashed even before kick-off, in a truly febrile atmosphere.
Before Milan players decided to abandon their on-pitch warm-up due to the levels of abuse they were receiving, their entire team had been greeted by the fanatical home support by having hot coffee poured onto them from above as they made their way to the ground.
Once the game began, Milan’s riposte to a series of nasty early tackles was to increase their aggregate lead through their captain Rivera.
But the on-pitch encounter was becoming totally engulfed by a tirade of wilful and abhorrent violence by Estudiantes.
Milan forward Pierino Prati was knocked unconscious by two Estudiantes players. Nestor Combin left the pitch in the second-half covered in blood from an elbow from Aguirre Suarez. Goalkeeper Alberto Poletti had earlier taken out frustration on Combin with a kick to the face. Rivera also took a punch from Poletti.
The Argentine’s pulled back two goals before half-time through Marcos Conigliaro and Suarez to further inflame the Bombonera atmosphere.
The Italians though, held their nerve to win their first world title in the face of deplorably brutal opposition.
The collective reaction to Estudiantes’ conduct was one of widespread denunciation.
Punishments were subsequently handed out to multiple parties: Suarez, Eduardo Manera and Poletti were arrested by the police – the latter even receiving a life ban.
Post-1970, Estudiantes’ fortunes began to decline, and by the time Carlos Bilardo stepped out of playing retirement to move into the managerial hotseat, it was clear that the squad had peaked. They lost the following year’s Copa Libertadores Final to Nacional and did not come close to another domestic title for another five years.
But their mark had been left on football – the definitive episode in the “anti-futbol” chapter of Argentine footballing history, offering real embodiment to the idea of unsophisticated, “negative” and “dirty” football.