The Anschluss Match and the Martyrdom of Matthias Sindelar

In footballing circles, the term Anschluss Match generally refers to one of the most shameful moments in the history of the World Cup. Algeria, debutantes at the 1982 World Cup, shocked the world with a 2-1 victory over West Germany in their opening match.  Only a West Germany victory over Austria by a one or two goal margin would see Algeria eliminated in the final match of the group.  And that’s exactly what happened.  After Horst Hrubesch gave the Germans a 1-0 lead early on at the El Molinón Stadium in Gijón, both teams effectively stopped playing, content with the result.  The West German commentator lamented “What is happening here is disgraceful and has nothing to do with football.”  The match ended 1-0, and Algeria were out. Spanish newspapers denounced the match as “El Anschluss,” a reference to the unification of Germany and Austria in 1938.   In Algeria it is still known as by this name.  But forty four years prior to the Anschluss match in Gijón, the actual Anschluss occurred.  

Anschluss is a German term whose literal definition is ‘connection,’ but its political connotation exclusively refers to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938.  The idea of unifying all the German peoples into one state was not a new one.  German nationalists throughout the 19th century argued for such a state, but Otto von Bismarck, the architect of German unification, opted for a Prussia-dominated “Little Germany” solution that excluded Austria and its vast Central European lands.  But the belief that Austria and Germany should be united never died out and became fashionable once again in the interwar years.   Though unification of Germany and Austria was explicitly prohibited under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the reaction to Hitler’s increasingly assertive foreign policy was meek and non-confrontational.  The proponents of appeasement, the diplomatic trend of the day, asserted that by making concessions and avoiding conflict, Hitler’s territorial ambitions would eventually be satisfied. Therefore the reaction to the Anschluss did not exceed a mild rebuke from the international community.   

In celebration of the long-awaited unification, the German and Austrian authorities, recognizing the popular appeal of football, planned a friendly match between the two national teams.  What was supposed to be a celebratory draw turned into an unexpected victory for the Austrians and an outpouring of Austrian nationalism. One player, Mathias Sindelar, the magician at the heart of the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s, stood out in his resistance to the Nazification of Austria and its national team.  His performance in the Anschluss match and his refusal to play for the combined German national team made him an icon of Austrian defiance, and his untimely death made him a martyr of Austrian football. The story of the Anschluss Match and the defiance of Sinderlar is one that deserves to be remembered, for it serves as yet another reminder of how football transcends the boundaries of the pitch and takes on a mythical narrative of its own.

Red Vienna and Coffeehouse Football

Football first made its mark in Austria in the Styrian city of Graz, where it was introduced by a medical student named Georg August Wagner who had been “infected by the football bacillus” in his native Prague, where the sport had already attained a modest level of popularity.  Wagner organized the first football match in present day Austria in 1894 and quickly became a popular pastime amongst the city’s students.  While the game was first incorporated into the existing institutional framework provided by the city’s cycling club, the sport soon became too big and an independent football club was established in 1898.

But it was in Vienna where football would truly make its mark.  Fin de siècle Vienna was home to a sizable contingent of British diplomats, businessmen, and engineers who brought their sports with them to the continent.  The first match in the Habsburg capital took place in 1894 between members of the Vienna Cricket Club and a team of Scottish gardeners of the Rothschild estate.  In 1897 a cup competition open to all teams from the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Der Challenge Cup was created, though nearly all teams came from either Vienna, Budapest, or Prague.  The game’s popularity skyrocketed.  English clubs regularly toured the city; a 1905 match between Everton and Spurs drew a record crowd of 10,000 people.  A Viennese football league was founded in 1911, and shortly before the outbreak of the First World War 20,000 fans attended a match between Austria and Hungary.

After the war the Habsburg monarchy collapsed and the Empire was dissolved.  Vienna the capital of a vast multi-ethnic Empire, was suddenly transformed into the capital of a small nation-state populated predominantly by ethnic Germans.  The postwar years saw the rise of left wing politics in the Austrian capital.  Jakob Reumann was elected the first Social Democratic mayor of Vienna in 1921; the party would remain in control of Vienna for over a decade.  This period of Viennese history saw the construction of public housing, the expansion of youth and social services, and the implementation of a progressive tax.  During this time the city earned the moniker Rotes Wien, or Red Vienna.  The American journalist John Gunther wrote of this period:

The disequilibrium between Marxist Vienna and the clerical countryside was the dominating Motiv of Austrian politics until the rise of Hitler. Vienna was socialist, anti-clerical, and, as a municipality, fairly rich. The hinterland was poor, backward, conservative, Roman Catholic, and jealous of Vienna’s higher standard of living.”

This disequilibrium applies not just to the political atmosphere and the standard of living, but to football as well.  The popularity of the sport continued to grow at a rapid pace.  In 1914 there were 14,000 registered players in Austria.  By 1921 this number had more than doubled to 37,000, and in 1924 the first professional league outside of Britain was established.  But the vast majority of these players were from Vienna and the Austrian national team was effectively a Viennese XI.  The ‘national’ league was exclusively a Viennese league in all but name.  It was not until 1949 that a true national league was formed.  In interwar Vienna football was emblematic of the city’s exceptionalism in a wider Austrian context and “clearly stood against the ‘idiocy of rural life.'”

Vienna contained a multitude of football clubs – by 1935 no fewer than 25 professional Viennese teams competed in the top two divisions.  Austria Wien and Rapid Wien were the two of the most culturally and socially significant clubs and are representative of the wider divisions in Viennese society.  Rapid Wien was founded as Wiener Arbeiter in 1898 by the employees of a hat factory and acquired a reputation as the team of the proletariat.  Despite being forced to change their name by the authorities, they remained true to their working class roots.  Their base of support came from the Vorstädte, the newly constructed industrial suburbs populated by factory workers who, after the enactment of the eight-hour work week, suddenly found themselves with a lot of free time.  Much of that free time was dedicated to watching football as countless new clubs sprung up in every district of Vienna, though Rapid remained the archetype of the Viennese working class team.  An article from the Illustriertes Sportblatt dating from 1927 writes of Rapid:

“They have never disappointed their audience since they never give up and fight right up to the end. Their players are nearly exclusively ‘home brewed’; the management is conservative; and adventurous business politics are not their cup of tea.  Rapid has its roots within the population and it never loses contact to the home ground. The ‘Green and Whites’ constitute a suburbian club in the best sense of the word.”

Austria Wien were cut from an entirely different cloth.  They were founded as Wiener Amateur by players and officials of the Vienna Football and Cricket Club and changed their name to Austria Wien after the professionalization of football.  In stark contrast to Rapid, Austria became the team of the flourishing bourgeoisie who frequented coffeehouses to discuss politics, art, and, increasingly, football.  The same article of Illustriertes Sportblatt referenced above describes the club as playing “salary football” clouded by “dense coffeehouse smog.”  The coffeehouse was at the center of all things Austrian football and fans of all teams, not just those of the bourgeois Austria Wien, congregated in coffeehouses to socialize and discuss the affairs of their club.  But Austria epitomized this coffeehouse culture associated with the intelligentsia, and were even headquartered in various coffeehouses of the Innere Stadt, Vienna’s historic city center.

Der Papierene and the Rise of the Wunderteam

The dichotomy of the two Vienna clubs is summarized by the social scientist Roman Horak, who writes that “”If ‘SK Rapid’ stood for proletarian toughness and the suburb, then ‘Austria’ stood for the city, coffeehouse, and the liberal Jewish middle class.”  It is somewhat ironic, then, that the hero of Austria Wien and of the Viennese bourgeoisie was of decidedly proletarian stock.  Matěj Šindelář was born in 1903 in a small Moravian village into a family of modest means. His father was a bricklayer and his mother struggled to take care of their four children.  In 1905 the family moved to Vienna and settled in the Favoriten district, a heavily industrialized area.  He began playing football in the streets and quickly stood out out for his uncanny dribbling ability.  After his father was killed on the Isonzo Front during the First World War, young Matthias, as he was known by then, began an apprenticeship as a locksmith.

But his future was to lie in football, not in the gritty factories of the Vorstädte.  In 1918 Sindelar joined the youth team of ASV Hertha, whose stadium was located next to his house in Favoriten.  He played for Hertha while continuing his apprenticeship, and by the age of 18 he debuted with the senior team in the Austrian championship.  An uncharacteristic forward with a slight physique and an aversion to physical play, Sindelar quickly earned the nickname Der Papierene, the Paper Man.  In 1924 Hertha slid into a financial crisis and Sindelar signed for Austria Wien, then still known as Wiener Amateur.  Within a season he broke into the first team.  He was part of the side that won the league and cup double in 1926 and by 1927 was the club’s leading goalscorer, though Austria Wien dropped to a disappointing 7th in the league table and would not win another league title until after the Second World War.

Sindelar earned his first international cap at 23 years old and promptly scored on his debut, a 2-1 friendly victory over Czechoslovakia.  Despite playing well he soon fell out of favor with national team manager Hugo Meisl, a strict disciplinarian who, in spite of Sindelar’s obvious talents, favored a traditional center forward.  For several years Sindelar couldn’t get a cap.  Then, in 1931, a group of journalists purportedly confronted Meisl in Vienna’s Ring Café and demanded that he reinstate Sindelar into the side.  Meisl relented and Sindelar started as an unconventional center forward in Austria’s next international fixture against Scotland.  He was magnificent, and Scotland were swept aside 5-0 in a way that simply was not supposed to happen when the Home Nations went up against continental opposition.  At that moment, the Wunderteam was born.

An Illustration of the Wunderteam

With little but grainy black and white footage available, it is difficult in this day and age to form an accurate picture of Sindelar’s style. But his contemporaries were fervent in their praise of the Paper Man.  Friedrich Torberg, a mainstay in Red Vienna’s coffeehouse scene, wrote:

“He was endowed with such an unbelievable wealth of variations and ideas that one could never really be sure which manner of play was to be expected.  He had no system, to say nothing of a set pattern.  He just had… genius.”

With the unorthodox but incredibly talented Sindelar leading the line, the Austrian national team became a European footballing force.  Germany were defeated 5-0 in Berlin and 6-0 in Vienna, with Sindelar scoring a hat trick in front of the home fans.  He scored in an 8-1 victory over Switzerland and again in an 8-2 thrashing of Austria’s old imperial rival Hungary.  Their fluid play earned them the nickname “the Danubian Whirl” and in 1932 they won the second edition of the International European Cup, a Central European international competition open to Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland that was contested in a similar manner to the British Home Championship.

Their true test was to come in December 1932, when the Wunderteam traveled to London to take on the mighty England. The English national team was, despite the proclamations of the media, hardly the standard bearer of the sport and had been beaten by continental teams on numerous occasions.  But at home they retained a certain aura and were unbeaten on their own soil against foreign opposition.  England won 4-3 at Stamford Bridge, but the Times awarded the Austrians the “moral victory.”  The English papers raved about the intricate passing and fluid movement of the Wunderteam, with the Daily Mail calling their performance “a revelation.”  Though they could not break the spell of English domestic invincibility – that task would be left to their spiritual successors, the Hungarians, two decades later – they gained plenty of admirers for their style of play.  Sindelar was at the center of everything, and after the match against England he was reportedly offered a contract on the spot to sign for Arsenal, though like many of the tales surrounding the Paper Man it may well be apocryphal.

Austrofascism and the Death of Red Vienna 

Red Vienna may have been a bastion of liberalism and Social Democratic governance but it was hardly representative of the entire nation.  The Christian Social Party dominated politics at the national level; every Chancellor of Austria in the 1920s was either a member of or governed in coalition with the party.  But underneath this superficial stability the country was becoming more and more polarized.  Paramilitary forced were organized by both the right and left.  Tensions between the two escalated into a full blown crisis during the July Revolt of 1927, when a protest against the acquittal of three right-wing paramilitary members charged with the murder of a World War I veteran and a young boy resulted in the deaths of 89 people.  Violence continued to escalate, and the fragile First Austrian Republic was unceremoniously dismantled in 1933 when Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss took advantage of a loophole in the parliamentary voting procedures, dissolved the legislative assembly, and moved toward establishing a dictatorial regime.

A Fatherland Front rally in 1936

Cursory histories of twentieth century Europe focus on the Fascist triumvirate of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, ignoring similar developments elsewhere.  But interwar Europe witnessed the establishment of right-wing dictatorships in states as diverse as Portugal, Hungary, Romania, and of course Austria, which adopted its own peculiar version of the ideology that historians have since dubbed ‘Austrofascism.’  By May of 1934 Dollfuss, having emerged victorious in the Austrian Civil War, established a one-party state with all parties other than the Fatherland Front banned.  While an explicitly anti-Nazi party with close links to the Roman Catholic Church and a strong opposition to unification with Germany, the iconography and aesthetics of the Fatherland Front clearly borrowed some elements from National Socialism (see image above).  The symbolic death of Red Vienna came in the form of the destruction of the Karl Marx Hof, the public housing estate that was as a monument to the city’s socialist leanings.  Red Vienna was no more.

Political developments in Vienna inevitably affected the national selection.  As David Goldblatt writes in The Ball is Round, “it was therefore a tired and troubled Wunderteam that arrived in Italy and it showed.”  Their performances in the early matches were underwhelming.  Extra time was needed to defeat the French in the first round and a narrow victory over Hungary in the quarterfinals ensured a semifinal date with hosts Italy.  Austria was at a disadvantage before the match even kicked off. A swampy pitch following heavy rains hampered the style of the Austrians, who relied on quick, short passing. Furthermore, suspicion of referee favoritism toward the home side and even direct intervention by Mussolini himself put the integrity of the tournament into question.  The BBC documentary Football and Fascism alleges that before the match Il Duce had dinner with the Swedish referee Ivan Elkind and instructed him to ensure an Italian victory.  Elkind is said to have turned a blind eye to the blatant, incessant fouling of the Italians, and after a dismal 90 minutes during which the Austrians could barely even muster a shot on goal the Azzuri ran out 1-0 victors.

It is all too tempting to draw a direct connection between internal political developments and the disappointing results of the national team at the 1934 World Cup.  But the extent to which the tumultuous events on the home front affected their performances in Italy is an entirely speculative matter.  Perhaps, as Jonathan Wilson suggest in Inverting the Pyramid, the Wunderteam was simply past its peak by 1934.  Vittorio Pozzo’s legendary Italian side was less technical and less fluid than the Austrians but their tactical awareness and physical preparedness was second to none.  Pozzo’s decision to have Mario Monti man mark Sindelar was a stroke of genius; the Paper Man’s influence in the semifinal was negligible. Though their victory in 1934 was stained by the allegations of corruption, they proved that it was no fluke by repeating as World Cup Champions in France four years later.

But while there may be no direct link between politics and football results, the decline of the Wunderteam parallels the fate of the country.  For both the Wunderteam and independent Austria, 1934 was the beginning of the end.  After defeat against Italy in the semifinals Austria surprisingly lost 3-2 to Germany in the third place match.  Two months later Dollfuss was assassinated by Austrian Nazis in response to his crackdown against the Nazi Party, whose popularity was rapidly rising.  In the ensuing crisis, Italy’s support was essential in preventing Austria’s annexation by Germany.  After the World Cup the previously invincible Austrians suffered friendly defeats against Hungary, Italy, and Poland, and on two occasions could only muster a draw with Czechoslovakia.  A victory over England in Vienna in 1936 provided a cathartic moment, but by that points the Wunderteam, if it could even be called that, was in an irreversible decline.  In both football and geopolitics Austria was being outmaneuvered by its more powerful neighbors.

Anschluss and Resistance

On March 12, 1938, German troops triumphantly entered Austria.  Cheering crowds greeted the Nazis in Vienna, and 200,000 gathered at Vienna’s Heidenplatz on March 15 to hear Hitler proclaim the incorporation of Germany’s eastern province into the Third Reich.  This time, there would be no Italian diplomatic intervention on behalf of Austria. Fatherland Front politicians were powerless in the face of German panzers.  An independent Austrian state ceased to exist.

German troops enter Vienna

One week before the scheduled plebiscite to ratify what had already occurred, a celebration match was scheduled between the national teams of Austria and Germany before they united into one.  The ‘Anschluss Match’ has been subject to such romanticization over the years that it is impossible to discern fact from fiction.  But as the story goes, Matthias Sindelar, a committed Social Democrat, reluctantly took part in the match, which was supposed to end in a conciliatory draw.  David Goldlbatt’s description of the match brilliantly captures its mythological narrative:

“In the first half Sindelar misses a hatful of chances, some say with such exquisite touch that they could only be read as gestures of defiance.  After halftime his patience snaps and he scores.  A second goal, an audacious lob from Sesta, seals the game and Sindelar wheels away to dance before the Nazi functionaries and their Austrian satraps in the VIP box.  The crowd roar ‘Österreich! Österreich!'” 

Austria won 2-0 thanks to Sindelar’s audacious, inspirational performance in the last match Austria would play until after the war.  After the match the Reichssportführer, the Nazi official in charge of sport, expressed surprise at the patriotism of the Austrians.  Similar expressions of anti-German sentiment at the football ground continued sporadically throughout the war. Simon Kuper in his book Ajax, the Dutch, the War, recounts how “When the German club Schalke visited Vienna… the SD (the intelligence agency of the SS) reported anti-German chants, fights, stone-throwing, and fanatical support for the home team among the tens of thousands of spectators.”

But these incidents should not be interpreted as being emblematic of a wider pattern of resistance.  The Anschluss match was not the catalyst for an anti-Nazi movement, but “a swansong for the great Viennese football culture and the fragile metropolitan social ecology that had sustained it.”  99.7% of the Austrian population voted in favor of Anschluss, and though these figures are obviously inflated in general most Austrians were in favor of union with Germany.  Viennese football culture was destroyed.  Hakoah, Vienna’s Jewish club, was immediately disbanded.  Other clubs with significant numbers of Jewish members and officials, FK Austria among them, also faced the wrath of the Nazis. Though powerful in its symbolism, Sindelar’s act of defiance was a fleeting gesture, Austria’s last moment of pride before it was turned into Ostmark, the Eastern realm of the Third Reich.

A Mysterious Death

As for Sindelar himself, the Anschluss match was the last time he ever played football. Already 35 and with bad knees, he refused the entreaties of Sepp Herberger to turn out for the new, combined national team.  It is doubtful that his presence would have made much of a difference.  Herberger was under strict orders for the national team to be composed of six Germans and five Austrians or vice versa for every match.  Theoretically combining two of the best teams of the era should have yielded fantastic results, but in reality the tensions between the two sets of players and the differences in their playing styles were too much to overcome in such a short period of time.  At the 1938 World Cup in France, Germany only managed a 1-1 draw with Switzerland and was embarrassingly eliminated after a 4-2 defeat in the replay.

Sindelar in action

Sindelar quietly retired to a civilian life.  He purchased a café from a Jewish man who was forced to give it up because of the new anti-Semitic laws and settled into his new life as a coffeehouse owner. On the night of January 22, after a night of heavy drinking and gambling, Sindelar returned to his apartment with his girlfriend.  The next morning, after he was nowhere to be found, his friend Gustav Hartmann broke down his door and found him naked and dead.

The death was officially ruled an accident due to carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective heater, a theory given credence by the fact that the neighbors had been complaining of a smell in the days before Sindelar’s death.  But that version of events was not accepted by the public, 20,000 of whom turned out for his funeral.  Two days afterwards the Austrian newspaper Kroner Zeitung alleged that “everything points towards this great man having become the victim of murder through poisoning.” Sindelar’s friend Egon Ulbrich, who was with him the night before his death, claimed that the death was declared an accident only so that he could receive a state funeral.  Under Nazi law, such funerals were not allowed for those who had been murdered or committed suicide.  Suicide was touted as another possible explanation.  In his obituary of Sindelar the theater critic Alfred Polgar wrote:

“The good Sindelar loved the city, whose child and pride he was, to its death.  He was so inextricably entwined with it that he had to die when it did.  All the evidence points to suicide prompted by loyalty to his homeland.  For to live and play football in the downtrodden, broken, tormented city meant deceiving Vienna with a repulsive spectre of itself… but how can one play football like that?  And live, when a life without football is nothing?”

Whether this version is accurate, or whether it is simply a refusal to admit that someone like Sindelar could die such a mundane death, is a question whose answer is lost to history.  But the theory that he committed suicide is so cathartic, so tragically beautiful that it is no surprise that it is preferred to the explanation of death by carbon monoxide poisoning. Sindelar, the symbol of Red Vienna and its football culture, died alongside his beloved city.  He has since been named both the best Austrian footballer and the best Austrian sportsman of the 20th century.  But his enduring reputation cannot be simply explained by his prowess on the pitch.  In death, Sindelar became a martyr of the Viennese football culture that had been destroyed by the Anschluss.  As Jonathan Wilson writes, “to its end, the football of the coffeehouse remained heroically romantic.”

Sources and Recommended Reading

Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson, especially the chapter ‘How Fascism Destroyed the Coffeehouse.’

The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt

Ajax, the Dutch, the War by Simon Kuper

Football and Fascism a BBC documentary available on YouTube

The chapter ‘Germany vs. Austria: National Identity’ by Roman Horak in the book German Football edited by Alan Tomlinson and Christopher Young

‘Viennese Football Culture: Some Remarks on its History and Sociology’ by Roman Horak in Volume 5, Issue 4 of the journal Innovation in Social Sciences Research

Glorious Failures: Hungary’s Golden Team

This is part one of a three-part series.

The Glorious Failure Phenomenon

As a rule, success in football is measured by trophies.  Setting aside all ideological arguments over the merits of beauty over efficiency aside, the teams that have gone down in history are those that have won when it counts: World Cups, European Championships, European Cups, League Titles, etc.  Greatness requires victory.

And yet, there are exceptions.  A select few international sides have been able to transcend their failures on the pitch to take their place among the pantheon of greatness.  The 1954 Hungary, 1974 Holland, and 1982 Brazil sides are emblematic of this ‘glorious failure’ phenomenon.  Over the next several weeks Café Futebol will examine these three legendary sides and attempt to understand the reasons for why their reputations arguably outweigh their accomplishments.  This will not be a general history of these sides; more than enough has been written on that front.  Instead, this series will focus on why history has been so kind to these glorious losers, when so many others have been cast aside and forgotten.  We start with the Magical Magyars.

The Legend of the Aranycsapat

To anyone well-versed in footballing history, the Hungarian side of the 1950s needs no introduction. Boasting such star names as Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, and, Nándor Hidegkuti, and with the innovative Gusztáv Sebes at the helm, the Aranycsapat (Hungarian for Golden Team, as they are known) were the best team in the world in the early 1950s.  They eased to an Olympic Gold Medal in 1952 and the following year gave England a footballing lesson and shocked the English football establishment to its core.  The 6-3 victory at Wembley is considered one of the greatest performances of all time, and they followed it up with a 7-1 victory over the Three Lions in Budapest the following year.  From 1950 through 1956 they accumulated a record of 42 victories, 7 draws, and just one defeat.  That defeat, however, happened in the 1954 World Cup Final.

The Aranycsapat

Despite their failure to win when it mattered most, the Aranycsapat is widely recognized as one of the greatest teams of all time.  In his fantastic blog Football Pantheon, journalist Miguel Delaney places them 7th in his list of the greatest international teams of all time, a full 17 slots ahead of the West German side which defeated them in that fateful final.  From a purely results-oriented perspective, it is obvious that the Magical Magyars were awfully impressive; their record contains just one blemish, albeit a very prominent one.  Nevertheless, to truly understand their significance in football history and lofty reputation as one of the greatest sides of all time, we must look beyond just results.

Tactical Innovation

In stark contrast to the rigid traditionalism which hampered tactical evolution in England, footballing attitudes on the continent were much more conducive to change and experimentation.  Vienna was a hotspot for such innovation and it gave rise to what has since become known as the ‘Danubian School’ of football.  Jimmy Hogan, an expatriate Englishman who stressed the merits of passing and movement, found the Central Europeans much more receptive to his ideas than his compatriots. Hugo Meisl’s success with the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s and their exhilarating style of play reinforced the Danubians’ belief in the tenets preached by Hogan, and a tactical tradition was established. Though Meisl was essentially a conservative and a did not stray from the 2-3-5 formation, his use of Mathias Sindelar as a withdrawn centre forward proved prophetic.

Hungarian football was firmly within the Viennese sphere of influence and its coaches tended to be adherents of the Danubian School.  By the time the second World War had ended the 2-3-5 has been replaced as the dominant formation by the W-M, effectively a 3-2-2-3.  The focal point of this system was a centre forward who was usually big, powerful, and neither particularly skillful nor technical. The legendary journalist Brian Glanville characterized the classic English conception of the #9 as “the brainless bull at the gate.”

Márton Bukovi, manager of Hungarian club side MTK, lacked such a player, and thus decided to improvise.  He took one of his wing-halves, Péter Palotás, and put him in the centre forward role.  He was a centre forward in name only.  In reality, he was withdrawn into the midfield and played effectively as an attacking midfielder.  The experiment was succesful, and Palotás went on to start for the national team and was a regular for the side that won gold at the 1952 Olympic Games.  But in September of that year, Hungary manager Gusztáv Sebes made a fateful substitution.  During a friendly which Hungary was losing 2-0 to Switzerland, he brought on the 30 year old Nándor Hidegkuti to replace Palotás.  Hungary came back to win 4-2, and Hidegkuti’s performance was so impressive that he became the undisputed starter. Though often referred to as a withdrawn centre-forward, Jonathan Wilson argues in his exhaustive history of football tactics Inverting the Pyramid that “he was, in modern terminology, simply an attacking midfielder.”

The ‘invention’ of the attacking midfielder as a re-imagining of the role of the centre forward was just one of the tactical innovations pioneered by the Hungarians.  The two full backs, Mihály Lantos and Jenő Buzánszky, were given license to roam down the flanks.  In the midfield, József Bozsik advanced forward to support Hidegkuti while his midfield partner József Zakariás sat back and was played almost as an auxiliary centre back.  According to Wilson, this set up was “a hair’s breadth from 4-2-4.”  Considering that the 4-2-4 was the formation so successfully adopted by the Brazilians.  It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the early advocates of 4-2-4 in Brazil was Béla Guttman, a Hungarian manager who introduced the formation during his spell at São Paulo in 1957-58.   

It is important not to view the tactical innovations of the Magical Magyars in isolation from tactical development as a whole.  Bukovi, Sebes, and Guttman, were all heavily influenced by the Danubian School and their tactical philosophies represent a historical continuity with their predecessors, not a break with the past.  The withdrawn centre forward, after all, was not even a Hungarian invention. Hungarian managers took already existing ideas and tweaked them according to their own needs and to better suit the circumstances.  Nevertheless, few tactical developments have resonated so heavily in the world and especially in the home of football.  The impact of the Aranycsapat would have been impossible without one sterling performance at Wembley.

Glory at Wembley…

On their way to the Gold Medal at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Hungary met Sweden in the semifinals.  Sweden were supposed to be one of the favorites, but were cast aside 6-0. Stanley Rous, secretary of the FA and future FIFA President, was in attendance and extended an invitation to his Hungarian counterpart to come play a friendly at Wembley.  The game was set for November 1953.  Sebes prepared his side meticulously.  They used heavier British balls and practiced on a pitch the size of Wembley.  The world had by now taken notice of the Hungarians, but few could have expected what was to come.

England was not unbeatable, as their embarrassing defeat to the USA in the 1950 World Cup demonstrated, but still the English media were unyielding in their belief that they were the best side in the world, theirs was the right way of playing the game.  Up until 1953 England has only ever lost one match against foreign opposition, and that was to Ireland four years prior.  England’s perceived domination in that match and Ireland’s status as a former colony probably mitigated the reaction to that result.  The world had been catching up to England for a long time, but they were oblivious.  Journalist Frank Coles wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “Hungary’s superb ball-jugglers can be checked by a little firm tackling.”  Here it was, the pervasive attitude that a bit of English grit and determination was all that was needed.

Billy Wright exchanges pennants with Puskás before the famous match (source: BBC)

“How long does it take for am empire to die? How long does it take to lose a match?” asks David Goldblatt in The Ball is Round. Forty-five seconds.  That is how long it takes for the Hungarians to take the lead in a fluid passing move.  Hungary dominates the match. England’s defense has no idea how to to deal with Hidegkuti’s withdrawn position.  They are unable to keep up with their quick passing, their impeccable technique.  One moment in particular starts out. In the 24th minute, with Hungary up 2-1, Puskás collects a low ball from Zoltán Czibor at the edge of the 6-yard box.  With England captain Billy Wright bearing down, Puskás calmly drags the ball back and beats the England keeper on the near post.  Wright ends up slide tackling empty air.  The final score was 6-3, but the consensus was that the result was very flattering to the English.

No other match has so thoroughly shocked England and so upset their conception of the balance of power in world football.  The myth of English superiority was dispelled in such a convincing manner that Brian Glanville dubbed it a defeat “that gave eyes to the blind.” According to Sir Bobby Robson, “That one game alone changed our thinking. We thought we would demolish this team – England at Wembley, we are the masters, they are the pupils. It was absolutely the other way.”

It is hard to exaggerate the impact of the defeat in England.  A 7-1 result in Budapest the following year, to this day England’s worst ever result, confirmed Hungary’s superiority. Coaching methods were overhauled, archaic tactics called into question, and continental training regimens adopted. The 6-3 is perhaps the single most significant moment that explains the enduring legacy of the Aranycsapat.  Obviously they were a fantastic side, but the 6-3 demonstrated just how good they were.  Whether England were even worthy opponents is irrelevant; the shock they gave to the establishment and was enough to forever cement their place among the greatest sides of all time.

…And Tragedy in Bern

Nevertheless, as significant as the 6-3 was, it was still just a friendly result.  The World Cup the following summer would allow the Aranycsapot the opportunity to confirm what many already thought: that they were the best team in the world.  Hungary were the favorites in the tournament and started off brilliantly.  In the first round they hammered South Korea 9-0 and West Germany 8-3.   After getting past Brazil in the quarterfinals in an ugly, violent encounter that has come to be known as “The Battle of Berne,” the Hungarians defeated defending champions Uruguay 4-2 in the semifinals to set up a rematch with West Germany.

The final was supposed to be crowning moment of all of their achievements over the past two years. Everything was going according to plan, as Hungary took a 2-0 lead just eight minutes into the match.  But just ten minutes later the scores were level, and six minutes from time West Germany took the lead.  Puskás had a goal controversially disallowed for an offside and that was that.  In Germany this match is known as the “Miracle of Bern,” the match that has come to symbolize the country’s emergence from the post-war depression and its development into an economic power in the years to come. But in Hungary, it was a tragedy.

The match and the reasons for the defeat have been subject to endless analysis.  Having already beaten the Germans so easily in the opening round, they were clearly the favorites in the final.  So what went wrong?

Only five of the players who started in the 8-3 defeat for West Germany featured in the final.  As the story goes, Sepp Herberger decided to rest his players and study Hungary while not showing his hand, as he was confident of a win against Turkey in the ensuing playoff.  The veracity of this version of events is still disputed, but Herberger’s assistant Helmut Schön insists that it is true.

In the 8-3 against West Germany Puskás was tackled from behind by Werner Liebrich and was taken off injured.  He missed the next two matches with what was later revealed to be a hairline fracture.  In a book published the following year Puskás claimed that Liebrich set out deliberately to injure him, though in later years he retracted this accusation.  Whether Liebrich was trying to injure Puskás or not, when he returned for the final he was clearly not at his best.

To accomodate Puskás, Sebes was forced to switch Csibor to the right, Mihály Tóth played on the left, and Lászlo Budai was dropped.  In the subsequent inquest into Sebes’s tactical decision, some claimed that Tóth was only selected due to being the Sebes’s son-in-law, despite the fact that Sebes’s only daughter at the time was 10 and definitely not married.

West Germany celebrate their improbable victory (Source:

Though questionable tactics may have contributed to the result, ultimately Hungary were simply unlucky.  Their best player was injured.  It rained heavily in Bern the day before the final and all throughout the match; the waterlogged pitch severely impeded Hungary’s passing game.  Most importantly, Puskás’s 88th minute equalizer was disallowed by the Welsh linesman Mervyn Griffiths in what is generally believed to be the wrong decision.  “I could have murdered him,” said Puskás, “to lose the World Cup on such a decision just isn’t right.”

The Aranycsapat were denied their moment of catharsis.  The perception of their defeat as tragic and unjust has contributed to their legend.  The innovative, brilliant side that thrashed England at Wembley ended up agonizingly short of their final goal.  Perhaps the romantic idealization of the side is only possible as a result of their ultimate failure.  The narrative is made all the more alluring by the unjust and unlucky nature of the defeat to the West Germans.

The Political Aspect

Unlike the hero’s welcome they received after the 6-3 in Wembley, the reaction of the Hungarian public to the defeat in Bern was that of disappointment, anger, and violence.  The apartments of some players were ransacked, and wild allegations of the players throwing the match for a fleet of Mercedes were widely circulated.   Puskás bore the brunt of the public’s discontent and was dropped from the national team for his own safety.

The protests and demonstrations against the side that soon escalated into open discontent with the Communist regime.  According to Gyula Grosics, the goalkeeper of the Aranycsapat, “in those demonstrations… lay the seeds of the 1956 uprising.

Sebes, a trade union organizer in interwar France and thus a man with impressive socialist credentials, claimed that “if Hungary had won the football World Cup there would have been no counter revolution but a powerful thrust in the building of socialism in the country.”

It is all too tempting to conflate Hungary’s failure on the pitch with the subsequent political events of the 1950s, and such a view is a vast oversimplification of the obviously complex geopolitical situation.  Nevertheless, for better or worse the fate of the Aranycsapat and the Hungarian regime are inextricably tied together.  Grosics, a man with questionable political leanings who had a reputation as a loner and intellectual, was arrested several months after the Bern debacle and was imprisoned for 15 months.

Sebes was retained as national team manager and Hungary then went on an unbeaten streak for 18 months.  But after a string of poor results in early 1956 – a 3-1 defeat in Turkey, a 4-2 home loss to Czechoslovakia, and then throwing away a 3-1 half-time lead against Belgium – Sebes was publicly condemned by the Ministry of Sport for his bourgeois leanings and dismissed from his post.

As the national team disintegrated, so did the regime.  After Stalin’s death the reformist Imre Nagy became the Prime Minister in 1953 but just two years later he was deposed and expelled from the Communist Party, replaced by the Stalinist Mátyás Rákosi.  The hardline Stalinism of Rákosi, however, ran counter to the overall trend of de-Stalinization east of the Iron Curtain.  Rákosi was eventually removed in June of 1956 and there were popular calls for the reinstatement of Nagy.  In September the growing sense of self-determination and independence felt by the Hungarians was supplied with a footballing parallel as Hungary beat the Soviet Union for the first time ever in a friendly in Moscow.

But the Hungarian awakening would soon come to a violent end.  On October 23, 10,000 protesters met in the center of Budapest to march in solidarity with the Polish workers’ movement.  The protest soon escalated into a street battle between protesters and sympathizers against the secret police and Soviet loyalists.  A statue of Stalin was destroyed and by the 25th Nagy was reinstated as Prime Minister.

Less than two weeks later the Soviets invaded and crushed the Hungarian resistance.  Nagy was captured and eventually executed and a new puppet regime established.

During the revolution two of Hungary’s leading clubs, MTK and Honvéd, left the country and eventually embarked on tours of Western Europe and Latin America.  Most players returned home but three of the Honvéd squad: Puskás, Kocsis, Czibor, chose to remain in Western Europe and found new clubs.  Without these three players, the Aranycsapat was no more.  Though the Golden Team way have already been in decline since Bern, the Revolution ensured that there would be no renaissance.

Hungarian football has never reached the heights of the Golden Team.  As former Hungarian striker Tibor Nyilasi remarked, ‘it is as though Hungarian football is frozen at that moment, as though we have never moved on from then.”

Enduring Legacy

To return to our original question, why is Hungary’s Golden Team considered one of the best teams of all time, despite their failure to win a World Cup?  Why are they often ranked ahead of such victorious teams as the Uruguayans in 1950, the Brazilians of 1994, and even the West Germans of 1954, the team that defeated them in the final in Bern?

First and foremost, the Aranycsapat were simply a brilliant footballing side.  Their performances at the Olympics and especially at Wembley resonated throughout the footballing world.  Their tactical innovations paved the way for the legendary Brazilian sides of 1958 and beyond.  Their quality is beyond question.

But they never won the World Cup.  The juxtaposition between the glory of the 6-3 and the tragedy of Bern is what makes the Magical Magyars such a fascinating example of the glorious failure phenomenon.

Finally, the dismantling of the squad and of Hungarian football in general as a result of the Hungarian Uprising has cemented their status as the ultimate example greatness unfulfilled.  They may not have won the World Cup, but their place among the greatest sides of all time is completely understandable and justified.  Their story has everything but the catharsis of a World Cup victory.


Jonathan Wilson’s books, Inverting the Pyramid and Behind the Curtain, provided invaluable source material for this article, as did Davild Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round.

Cabeza Mágica – The King of Ecuador

When one talks about the rich history of Latin American football, it can quite safely be assumed than one is normally speaking of the disproportionate amount of influence a country as small as Uruguay has had, the speed with which the beautiful game took off in the early part of the 20th century in Argentina or of course the way Brazilian football has mesmerised us in the later part.

In the northern part of the continent, particularly in Venezuela and Ecuador, the game has never really taken off to the same extent. Indeed as Ecuador’s debut World Cup appearance came as recently as the first competition of the 21st century in Japan and South Korea, and their record at the Copa America is largely dismal, one could be forgiven for taking 2002 as a kind of year X for the quintessential banana republic.

It also follows logically to assume that Ecuador’s finest footballer would be a product of the country’s recent emergence, most likely Antonio Valencia, whose meteoric rise from playing barefoot in the humble surroundings of his dusty hometown Nueva Loja on the border with Colombia to the glitz of gracing a Champions League final against Barcelona in a Manchester United shirt has captured the imagination of his countrymen. Valencia seemingly personifies the rapid rise of Ecuadorian Football, with his tough no-nonsense style, his indefatigable work-rate and his pinpoint crosses.

Ecuadorian Football as a serious entity is indeed largely a recent phenomenon and alongside Venezuela their evolution from perennial minnows to realistic World Cup contenders in a short space of time is as admirable as it is difficult to account for.

Amazingly though, a hugely influential Ecuadorian player, not only in his own country, but throughout Latin America, began his rise to fame some half a century ago. The curious hybrid name inscribed on the Municipal Guayaquil stadium on Avenida de las Américas leaves a lasting reminder of a phenomenal athlete: Alberto Spencer.

Spencer’s mother was Ecuadorian, but his father was a Jamaican of British origin who worked in Ecuador on behalf of the Anglo-Ecuadorian Oil Company, a subsidiary of what is now known as BP, a company whose presence in Ecuador continues to cause consternation, particularly among environmentalists to this day.

The fact that many fans in the English speaking world have never heard of Spencer can be explained by two important factors: Firstly, unlike Pelé, Spencer never graced a World Cup, which of course is the greatest stage for any footballer to be seen. Secondly, like many of the great South American players of his day, he never made the trip across the Atlantic Ocean to play for Europe’s top sides. Players like Di Stefano, who starred for Real Madrid, were the exception and not the rule.

The production line of South American players has always been prolific, the fundamental difference in Spencer’s era was that holding onto the players was possible, thus creating something akin to a level playing field between the two continents. Indeed, in the 60s, the South American teams could quite easily go toe-to-toe with their European counterparts and on many occasions came out on top in the annual Intercontinental Cup games.

Spencer was born in Ancón on the Santa Elena peninsula. He began playing football as a small kid with his older brother Marcos, who years later would bring him along to Guayaquil club Everest. Everest saw Spencer’s potential and immediately gave him his debut. Spencer quickly racked up a century of goals for Everest, and was spotted by Peñarol staff while the Uruguayan club were playing on tour in Ecuador. They immediately signed him, and he became a hugely important player in Peñarol’s all-conquering sides of the 60s.

He won an amazing seven league titles with Los Carboneros (the coalmen), along with three Copa Libertadores and two memorable Intercontinental Cup victories.

He scored both at home and away as the Uruguayans dismantled Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup final of 1966. This feat didn’t go unnoticed with Europe’s top clubs, and Peñarol soon found themselves resisting the entreaties of Inter Milan. Whilst playing for Los Carboneros, Spencer went on to score an amazing 326 goals, justifying Peñarol’s stubborn refusal to sell him. Spencer holds the incredible record of being the all-time leading goalscorer in the Copa Libertadores. Spencer’s haul of 54 goals is not insurmountable, but surely to be beaten it would require an outstanding South American player to ignore the lure of Europe, with all it entails financially and in terms of prestige, to concentrate on achieving in his own continent. At this juncture that seems unlikely, though maybe in the future this may change, particularly with the emerging Brazilian economy.

A great number of fellow professionals from his era regarded him highly, with Pelé in particular alluding Spencer’s heading ability being the finest that he had ever seen. Curious then, that in the latter days of Spencer’s life (in 2004), when Pelé came to draw up (or put his name to) a list of the greatest living 100 players, Spencer was shunned in favour of a bizarre mishmash of manifestly PC selections aimed at including each of the World’s continents like El Hadji Diouf of Senegal, Hidetoshi Nakata of Japan, Hong Myong Bo of South Korea and Mia Hamm of the United States ladies team.

In time honoured gentlemanly Spencer style, when questioned about the matter, he declined to criticise the selections. This dignified response lies in stark contrast to Brazilian Gerson, who ripped up the list on Brazilian television and launched into an extraordinary rant about his exclusion.

Spencer was the first Ecuadorian player to score against England at Wembley in 1964. No mean feat considering that Ecuador’s national side have never played at Wembley. He scored the goal whilst representing Uruguay as a guest, something he did on a number of occasions in friendlies, whilst stating clearly that he would never abandon the country of his birth. He made 11 appearances for his homeland Ecuador, and continues to be revered there.

Indeed as a labour of love to his homeland, Spencer returned in 1970 to finish his career at Ecuador’s most emblematic club Barcelona of Guayaquil, where he added an Ecuadorian title to his illustrious list of honours before finally hanging up his boots. Such was the esteem in which he was held back in Montevideo, he was sent by the Ecuadorian government to remain there as honorary vice-consul at the embassy. He brought up his children in the Uruguayan capital and held the place in great affection.

A pervasive Eurocentric view (of the football world at least) is ever more difficult to resist as the economic gulf between the clubs of the two dominant football continents is more apparent than ever. Neymar’s oft-reiterated commitment to remain at Santos until the Brazil World Cup, turned out to be a hollow promise as economic reality for the Brazilian club and the lure of Barcelona for the player won out.

Equally it is sad in many ways that a player like Messi, who so clearly continues a distinguished tradition of Latin American No.10s, was uprooted and taken away from his own continent at such a young age, never representing his hometown club at senior level.

Spencer too, of course, was uprooted from his beloved homeland the moment his talent was discovered by the giants of Peñarol, but Spencer belongs in an era of more idealistic era of Latin American Football, when (Southern Cone) clubs aspired to keep their best players in order to prove their supremacy against their ex-colonial masters, rather than aspiring to supply Europe with players to ensure their own survival.

Peñarol indeed twice proved their supremacy against Real Madrid and Benfica in the 1960s, with Spencer’s goals playing a pivotal role. Little wonder then, that some four decades on, supporters of Las Manyas still hold banners and chant the name of Alberto Spencer, beyond any reasonable doubt Ecuador’s greatest ever player.

Marta and the Revolution

During the course of the twentieth century many Latin American countries experienced enormous migrations to the rapidly urbanising cities, allowing football’s popularity to grow exponentially and become a significant factor in the formation of local, regional and national identity.

In Uruguay the game is so deeply entrenched in the national psyche that the following saying is frequently heard: ‘Otros paises tienen sus historias, Uruguay tiene su futbol’ (Other countries have their history – Uruguay has its football.’)

However, the country where the juxtaposition of football and national identity is most obvious is Brazil. In 1938 eminent sociologist of the time Gilberto Freyre spoke of a mulatto Brazilian spontaneity and creativity that lay in stark contrast to the European style. Freyre sought to express ideas of national identity based upon otherness In this case the nascent individualistic football being played in Brazil provided a perfect example of this.

An important aspect of football’s influence on the formation of  identity that is often not considered is that of gender. Football, of course, in the traditional Latin American mindset, is intrinsically linked to manhood as explained succinctly by Pelé:

Toda criança do mundo que joga futebol quer ser Pelé, o que significa que tenho a responsabilidade de mostrar a eles como ser um jogador de futebol, mas também como ser um homem (Every kid around the world who plays soccer wants to be Pele. I have a great responsibility to show them not just how to be like a soccer player, but how to be a man.)’

Football has long been a foundation stone of patriarchal society in Brazil. Indeed, in 1941, football’s position as a bastion of masculinity was institutionally consolidated by a 1941 government decree ensuring that women playing football were not only frowned upon, but actually breaking Brazilian law.

Sadly, prohibition was to remain in force until 1975 meaning that when second wave feminism ushered in the professionalisation of women’s football in the early 1970s in countries like the United States, Sweden and Germany, the mere idea of a woman kicking a football remained anathema in Brazil.

Generally, success in Women’s football has largely been achieved by countries which take a progressive approach to social issues like gender equality, and thus make the corresponding effort to accommodate the development of women’s football. Such is the clamour for gender equality in countries like Norway, for example, that a law has been passed that requires a 40% quota of women in all company boardrooms. Whether or not one agrees with this type of state enforced quota system, there can be little doubt that this type of society is more conducive to the growth of professional women’s football than a society with deeply entrenched gender inequality and prejudices.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the bastion of machismo that is Latin America, Brazilian women, in fact, took to the field as early as 1921 in São Paulo. The novelty factor of the game amused locals so much that exhibition games were arranged as part of circus acts.

Crucially however, the prejudices of the Brazilian establishment ensured that the game never professionalised, a situation that remains today, despite waves of progressive social reform in other sectors of society from the populist Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) of Lula da Silva and current incumbent Dilma Rousseff.

It’s fair to say that the marginalisation of women in Sport is widespread across Latin America, and that for much of the 20th Century women playing football was certainly not a mainstream activity in any other Latin American nation.

Even in other mainstream sports which are less readily associated with masculinity, like Tennis for example, only Maria Esther Bueno, who triumphed three times at Wimbledon, comes to mind as an example of a successful Brazilian woman.

Of course, breaking into the male-dominated sporting world is not a problem exclusive to Latin America. Gabby Logan’s recent documentary exploring sexism in the UK sporting world gave an insight into the difficulties faced by women trying to establish themselves both in media positions and at boardroom level in the case of Karren Brady.

Milene Domingues in her Rayo Vallecano days

Milene Domingues in her Rayo Vallecano days

The extent of the problem was memorably highlighted by the monumental ignorance of the president of the world game, Sepp Blatter. Even by his rather high standards of buffoonery the suggestion that beautiful female players ought to ‘wear tighter shorts in order to pique people’s interest‘ was excruciatingly cringeworthy.

The presupposition in Blatter’s statement that, in his view, women’s sport will only sell by providing eye-candy for the male audience appeared, at best, rather dated and at worst, extremely offensive to many sports fans.

The Brazilian media hardly batted an eyelid at Blatter’s 2004 comment of course, instead choosing to focus on the media darling of the time: model turned keepy-uppy expert Milene Domingues. Domingues was loved by the Brazilian media for her traditional beauty pageant candidate looks and her femininity (which her website still alludes to).

Domingues, in her defence, showed more than a modicum of footballing talent, when she entered the Guinness Book of Records for the ‘keepy-uppy’ record (55,197 touches) and has played successfully in the Spanish Women’s League for a number of years. She often appeared on the front-pages of Brazilian newspapers as a model and married Brazil’s best forward of that era, Ronaldo (they are now separated). She was part of the 2003 Women’s World Cup as an unused sub, which rather belied her status of the most expensive women’s player ever at £200,000. In summary, her ‘marketing potential’ was far greater than her football talent: think Anna Kournikova, or even David Beckham. On the other hand, the media nickname ‘Mrs Ronaldo’ was symptomatic of the problems womens’ football faces.

Against this historical backdrop came the emergence of As Canarinhas (the Brazilian Women’s football team) as a serious force. Considering the societal attitudes they came up against, the lack of a professional league in their homeland and the lack of support from their own federation, their rise is simply miraculous. The Swedish, Japanese and American women’s teams, to name a few examples, have achieved success because of, or at least with the support of their respective women’s football federations’ pro-active approach, the Brazilians have achieved success in spite of the inertia of theirs.


Marta Vieira Da Silva, Latin America’s first female superstar

Brazil’s women have won five of the last six Sudamericano Femeninos, twice won Olympic Silver, finished runners-up at the 2007 World Cup in China, and their standout player Marta Vieira Da Silva has been crowned the World Player of the Year on five consecutive occasions from 2006 to 2010 inclusive, only being dethroned in 2011 by Homare Sawa of the Japanese World Cup winning side of 2011.

In many interviews Marta has spoken of her childhood in North-Eastern Brazil, in the backwater of Dois Riachos, where she used to play football with boys. The state of Alagoas is among the poorest in Brazil with one of the highest levels of illiteracy. In her infancy Marta’s older brothers warned her not to play football, fearing an adverse machista reaction from members of the local community.

According to Tereza Vieira, Marta’s mother, her brothers would go as far as hitting her to prevent her from tarring the family name by participating in what they perceived to be such an innately male activity. Only with an admirable strength of character and perseverance did Marta manage to stay in the game she loved, and eventually be spotted by Helena Pacheco. From there she went on to shine at the inaugural Women’s Football Olympic event in Atlanta 1996 and got her break in the game.

Sadly however, in order to forward her career and compete with professionals, Marta had to leave Brazil, playing for Umeå IK of Sweden (where she won four consecutive Swedish Championships and a European Cup), Los Angeles Sol, Western New York Flash and most recently back in Sweden for Tyresö FF (whom she joined this February). Marta did briefly return to her homeland to join Santos in the inaugural Copa Femenina de Futebol Brasileira and the Copa Libertadores de Futebol Feminino, however the tournament featured girls as young as 14, and lacked the kind of professionalism that a high-level player needed to be able to compete at the highest level.

The out of touch gerontocracy at the helm of the CBF are showing few signs of rewarding the rise of the national side with the professional league a country Brazil’s size deserves, as attitudes within the football federation haven’t changed an awful lot since prohibition in 1941. For the first time in history, at least, Brazil has a female leader (or more importantly a democratic political agenda that seeks to redress inequalities across Brazilian society.

In Dilma Rousseff Brazil has a leader who clearly finds herself at odds with the male-dominated oligarchy of Brazilian football. Rousseff made no secret of her disdain for discredited long-time leader Ricardo Teixeira and has made no overtures about getting involved with the new leadership of the CBF (Brazilian Football Federation). Gender inequality remains a high priority for the Rousseff administration.


The Brazil Women’s football team

Even with a progressive Brazilian government which openly acknowledges many of the errors of the country’s past it is difficult to overcome the ingrained prejudices of huge swathes of the Brazilian public overnight. It is unlikely that Gray-and-Keys-gate would ever have happened in Brazil. In fact the Brazilian sports media habitually exhibit outrageous prejudices without ever being challenged.

Despite an overall panorama that is far from ideal, a number of Brazilian women, like Cristiane, Daniela and Marta have shown millions of young Brazilian girls that the game doesn’t belong exclusively to men, and that success is possible.

At the beginning of the 20th Century Uruguay’s men triumphed in the Olympics (and World Cup) inspiring its South American neighbours to try and match them. Could we be seeing the same thing happen for Women’s football in Latin America at the beginning of the 21st Century?

This post also appears on IBWM here.

Cubillas and Peru’s Golden Generation of the 70s

The 1970s were a cataclysmic decade for South American football. World Cup triumphs for Brazil and Argentina went some way to masking the huge stylistic changes that were enforced upon the continent’s national teams by tactical development in Europe.

Brazil’s seminal class of ‘70 are often eulogised as the best side to ever step onto a football field whilst Menotti’s high-tempo version of the traditional Argentine passing game saw the host nation (literally) brought up to speed with developments in the European game.

Between these two triumphs came a transitional for the traditional powers, with the most notable lesson coming at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany where the pace and fluidity of Total Football made even Brazil realise that fundamental change was necessary.  The decade also saw an unlikely golden period for one of the continent’s perennial also-rans.


Cubillas, Sotil and Cueto playing for Alianza Lima

For most, the Peruvian side of the 1970s conjures up memories of its alleged collusion with the Argentine military junta at the 1978 World Cup (they capitulated 6-0 to Argentina in a game Argentina needed to win by 4 clear goals). Another abiding memory (particularly for Scottish fans) was the sublime outside of the boot free-kick by Teófilo Cubillas. The Peruvian’s moment of inspiration set the tone for another uphill struggle for the Tartan Army and left Ally MacLeod’s infamous boast that his team would win the World Cup then retain it look rather hollow. The rest of the Scottish campaign would pan out in familiar fashion, from the downright dreadful 1-1 draw with Iran, to the traditional glorious failure overcoming an excellent Holland side 3-2 with Archie Gemmill’s solo strike (immortalised in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting) proving decisive.

Our collective memory of old games, of course is often limited to major moments in games or to what we want to remember: a few seconds of genius, like the Cubillas free-kick, or the Gemmill wonder-strike, and failing that it tends to be distorted by petty nationalism, personal bias or bombastic media exaggeration of events.

The Peruvian side of the 70s, perhaps owing to their lack of success before and after, are subject to the latter tendency. Media hyperbole in their homeland has contributed to making them untouchables, elevated to legend status as an example of how the game should be played thus extrapolating fact from myth becomes increasingly difficult.

Fortunately for them, they left irrefutable evidence of their calibre in the 1975 Copa America triumph, defeating Brazil in Belo Horizonte along the way before finally despatching Colombia in the final at the 3rd attempt in a play-off game, bizarrely played in the then football backwater of Caracas, Venezuela.

The exploits of the 1970s Peruvian national team at the World Cup and in the Copa America both came at difficult moments for the impoverished Peruvian people.

Just days before the 1970 World Cup Peru suffered a devastating earthquake that left some 70,000 people dead and over a million homeless. Cubillas, in an interview years later, spoke of how he felt that, though trivial by comparison to the 1970 tragedy, he and his team-mates felt that they had, at least, done something to raise the spirits of his people in their darkest hour.

The Peruvian side qualified for Mexico ’70 by eliminating the Argentines in their own backyard and after cruising through the group stage went down 4-2 in an exhilarating showdown with neighbours Brazil. They proved it was no fluke in Argentina ’78 gaining a hugely creditable draw with finalists Holland on the way to the qualification for the second group phase, where they strangely capitulated against the hosts. On each occasion they reached the last eight and even the notoriously cynical Peruvian media had to concede that the team’s performance had been a success.


Teófilo Cubillas against Poland at the World Cup

In the year of the 1975 Copa America triumph Peru played against the backdrop of a right-wing military coup known as El Tacnazo (so named as it occurred in the Southern City of Tacna) with human rights looking more fragile by the day and spiralling political instability that would wind up in the emergence of a hugely contentious Maoist Guerrilla insurgency, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) by the end of the decade. The Peruvian side gave the nation something to be proud of on the international stage, and provided a much needed distraction from events in their homeland.

In the 1970s Peru had a collection of players genuinely capable of not only beating anyone on their day, but matching anyone in the style stakes too, with their eye-catching, imaginative one-touch football. Indeed the 3-1 victory over Brazil in the 1975 Copa America was achieved not with the negative style many have employed to neutralise the Verde-Amarelo, but ‘fighting fire with fire’ taking the game to the world’s most emblematic football nation.

Peru’s midfield was touted as being the best in the world at the time with Hugo Sotil, who won a La Liga title in the same team as Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, Teofilo Cubillas, the country’s all-time leading goalscorer and most loved player and finally César Cueto, known as el poeta de la zurda, which literally translated would be the left-footed poet, but perhaps more idiomatically in equally nonsensical English footballing parlance might be something like ‘he of the cultured left-foot’ (an expression we often use in English, presumably to acknowledge that the foot was fully versed in all seven volumes of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu).

Allied to this assortmentof flair players, the back line was ably marshalled by the man unpromisingly nicknamed el ciego (the blind man) so named on account of his acute myopia, (he wore contacts on the pitch, he was actually rather good) Juan Carlos Oblitas and El Capitán de America (America’s Captain, not to be confused with this Captain) Héctor Chumpitaz.

By the 1982 World Cup, held in Spain, the powers of the golden generation were beginning to dwindle. After a disappointing stalemate with Cameroon and a creditable 1-1 draw with eventual winners Italy, Peru were torn apart by the stylish and incisive Polish duo of Lato and Boniek losing 5-1 and sadly haven’t been seen at the tournament since. Cubillas remains to this day one of only two players who have scored 5 goals at two World Cups, the other being Miroslav Klose.

The fleeting nature of Peru’s success, one fears, can be linked to the desperate state of the country’s club game. It is no coincidence that none of Peru’s club sides has ever won the Copa Libertadores, and the country has only one Copa Sudamericana, won by provincial Cienciano as late as 2003.

The Peruvian League has been won three times in recent years by a university team that only formed in 2004. Universidad San Martin de Porres have recently pulled out of the Peruvian League in protest at the ineptitude of the Peruvian FA and the unchecked amassing of debts by the traditional big clubs like Alianza Lima.

The current travails in the financial administration of Peruvian club football go some way to explaining why youth development and Peru’s national team have been in stagnation for so long.

Cubillas, an increasingly influential figure in the Peruvian game, speaks highly of the technical level of the current Peruvian players, arguing that players like Farfan, Pizarro and Guerrero are every bit as good as their predecessors. However, surely the more pressing problem is the administration of the clubs, which has seen de-motivated players go unpaid for months and as an inevitable consequence the country’s clubs have become less competitive in continental competition.

Despite the complex panorama of Peruvian Football, Cubillas continues to repeat the comment he made the day he retired from the game, leaving no doubt about his national pride and summarising the spirit of his team: ‘Si volviera a nacer volvería a jugar a la pelota, empezaría en el Alianza Lima y volvería a nacer en el Perú (If I could be live my life again I wouldn’t change anything, I’d be a footballer, I’d be Peruvian, and I’d start at Alianza Lima)’. Peru’s golden generation more than merit their place in Latin American Football folklore.

Bochini y La Furia Roja de Avellaneda

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 in the Copa Libertadores.

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.

As with international competition on the continent, the first out of the blocks were the Uruguayans. Peñarol triumphed in the first two editions (1960 and 1961) of the competition and reached the final for the third consecutive time in 1962 only to be thwarted by a brace by a young man called Edson Arantes do Nascimento for Santos in a third play-off game.

Boca Juniors became the first Argentine finalists in 1963 but were found wanting in the final againstfthe 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.


Independiente – Champions of the World 1973

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.


El Bocha in action

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.


A Sardinian Summer: the Forgotten Story of the Chicago Mustangs

Cagliari Calcio are an altogether unremarkable football club.  For much of their existence they have been a yo-yo team, alternating between promotion and relegation and oftentimes languishing in the rustic depths of  the Serie C, the third tier of Italian football.  In their 93 years of existence they have conquered just one piece of silverware, a lone Scudetto won in 1970.  In those brief glory years they were led by the inspirational Gigi Riva, the all time leading goalscorer of the Italian National team. Since their latest promotion to the top flight in 2004 they have managed to stave off relegation but have been in a perpetual state of purgatory; too far off the top to the table to harbor realistic European ambitions, yet too far from the bottom to risk a return to Serie B.  Their record is, for the most part, unexceptional. Yet in a curious episode long forgotten in the annals of football history, for a brief period of time they were known as the Chicago Mustangs.  For one fleeting summer, Cagliari Calcio, the team from the picturesque Mediterranean island of Sardinia, used Comiskey Park on the South Side of Chicago as their home ground.  This is their story.

In the mid-1960s professional soccer in the United States was in disarray.  The International Soccer League, based on a model of inviting guest teams from Europe and Latin America, was founded in 1960 but folded five years later due to pressure from the United States Soccer Football Association (or USSFA, and yes, it was really called that), who viewed the upstart league and its owner, Bill Cox, with suspicion.  It seems counter-intuitive that the governing body of the sport stifled the development of a burgeoning league rather than encouraging it, but such was the pitiful state of soccer administration at the time.  The only other professional league in existence was the American Soccer League (founded 1933), which operated primarily in the Northeast.  Despite its official professional status, the league was poorly managed and in constant financial trouble.  Walter Chyzowych, top scorer and league MVP for the 1965-66 season summarized all that was wrong with it:

“The ASL was supposed to be a professional league, but I considered it amateur.  It was a higher standard of play, sure, but nobody was making any money.  It was a joke… Every two or three years, players would leave because of management problems, coaching problems. You coached yourself, really. Somebody just made out the lineup.”

The national team was not faring much better.  Following the heroic victory over England at the 1950 World Cup, the USMNT failed to qualify for the competition for the next four decades. The lone qualifying spot allocated to CONCACAF in the years 1958-78 almost inevitably went to Mexico;  the Americans were seldom even in the hunt.

And yet, in spite of this dismal state of affairs, the following year saw the creation of not just one, but two more professional leagues in the country.  Clearly past failures were not enough to discourage sporting entrepreneurs such as the aforementioned Bill Cox from attempting to rekindle interest in a sport that, with the exception of immigrant communities in urban centers, had never really caught on in the country.   In May of 1966 Cox and a consortium of baseball and American football franchise owners announced plans for an 11 team league to be known as the North American Professional Soccer League.  Shortly afterwards two other groups also disclosed their intentions to create professional leagues: the National Soccer League, led by Richard Millen, and the United Soccer Association, led by Jack Cooke.

The USSFA, under pressure from FIFA to get the new league up and running quickly, pressed the delegations to merge their respective leagues.   But the powers-that-be refused to compromise and went forward with their own projects.  In addition, USSFA’s announcement that in return for their official sanction they would demand a hefty $25,000 licensing fee from each club and a significant portion of gate receipts and television money did little to promote cooperation between the various parties.  That summer, as the controversy over which league would receive the USSFA’s seal of approval continued unabated, NBC broadcast the World Cup Final.  The financial windfall from the tournament whet the appetites of the bigwigs and only exacerbated their obstinacy.

Bill Cox and Richard Millen eventually merged their proposals to create the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) and so in 1967 two leagues, the United Soccer Association (USA) and the NPSL, began operations.  The former league had the approval of FIFA while the latter did not, and thus players who signed with NPSL clubs faced sanctions from the world governing body.  The NPSL was promoted as an ‘American’ league, though in reality only eight American citizens in total were included in the rosters of the 10 sides, and of these just three were born in the United States. Players and coaches were haphazardly recruited from European countries; with the NPSL executives in such a rush to get things started, there was little time to invest in proper club infrastructure.  The NPSL also landed a CBS television contract for a nationally televised match of the week that, despite not being particularly profitable, lent credibility to the endeavor.  On April 16, 1967, the NPSL kicked off in Baltimore, where the hometown Bays defeated the visiting Atlanta Chiefs 1-0 in front of 8,434 fans.

The USA originally planned to launch in 1968 but, wary that the NPSL had seized the momentum, decided to begin play in the same year.  Instead of dealing with the hassle of building teams from scratch, USA directors came up with a novel idea: import European and South American teams to play in the league during their offseason.  The imported teams were marketed to fans as twelve of the best teams in the world, but this was pure hyperbole. Glentoran of Northern Ireland, rebranded as the Detroit Cougars, were the only side to have finished as champions in the previous edition of their domestic championship.  Other ‘powerhouses’ include Shamrock Rovers of the Republic of Ireland (Boston Rovers), 7th in the League of Ireland; Club Atlético Cerro (New York Skyliners), 3rd in the Uruguayan Primera División; and Wolverhampton Wanderers (Los Angeles Wolves), 2nd in the English Second Division.  The world’s elite, these were not.

The Chicago Mustangs

The Chicago Mustangs 1967 Roster

Cagliari Calcio, 6th in the previous edition of Serie A, were renamed the Chicago Mustangs. Supposedly teams were allocated to cities based on their ethnic makeup, and given Chicago’s substantial Italian community in this case the decision appears logical.  The same cannot be said, however, of placing an Uruguayan team in New York or a Brazilian team in Houston.

A month before the league kicked off Chicago’s Comiskey Park hosted a friendly between Athletic Club of Bilbao and Red Star Belgrade as a sort of promotion match, though neither of these teams would feature in the league itself.  David Condon, the legendary Chicago Tribune sportswriter, reported on the match. Though his column is full of enthusiasm, it treats soccer as a curiosity, as if he were observing a demonstration of a tribal ritual at the world’s fair in Victorian Britain rather than the world’s most popular pastime:

“Thru the first half, the foreign fellows skidded over the turf and sparred around.  The Yugoslavs seemed to have the better of it in the scoreless session, and so a few bets were changed during the intermission.”

To further demonstrate the almost-satirical tone of the article, Condon also calls Athletic “the Bilbaos,” and Cagliari “the Cagliaris,” apparently oblivious to non-American team naming customs.  An Athletic Club player is referred to as the “secretario of the Spanish eleven,” and it is suggested that the fireworks display at halftime left Red Star Belgrade scrambling for cover, apparently convinced that the Russians were attacking.

On May 27, the eve of the Mustangs’ season opener at Comiskey Park, Condon once again devoted his ‘In the Wake of the News’ column to soccer.  This time he interviewed Ray Huber, a former player and an official with the Mustangs,  who explained the intricacies of the United Soccer Association:

“[The Chicago Mustangs] are the Unione Sportiva Cagliari of Sardinia, Italy, but they will arrive by plane on Friday or Saturday to wear the Chicago Mustangs colors during the United Soccer Association’s first season… It’s this way: no sponsor in the United Soccer Association felt that he could build a team in the short space of the year.  So we’ve all imported foreign teams to play as American clubs this year.”

Later in the interview, after listing off the roster of Cagliari, Huber stressed that “not all the players I named are coming to play in Chicago, we don’t know which players they’ll bring.” As it turned out, Cagliari’s star striker Gigi Riva was not one of them.  An inauspicious beginning, to say the least.

And so on May 28, Cagliari Calcio played their first ever match as the Chicago Mustangs against Dundee United (Dallas Tornado) in front of 9,872 people at Comiskey Park on the city’s South Side. The only goal of the match was scored by Dundee’s Danish striker Finn Dossing in the 64th minute, giving Dallas the 1-0 victory.

Roberto Boninsegna

Roberto Boninsegna

The opening match set the tone for the rest of the season. The Mustangs drew their next two matches and only got their first victory in their fourth fixture, a 3-2 victory over the New York Skyscrapers (Uruguay’s Club Atlético Cerro). They had blown a 2-0 halftime lead in five second half minutes, but were rescued in the 72nd minute by Roberto Boninsegna’s individual effort. Boninsegna was without a doubt the Mustangs’ star performer of the campaign.  He was the leading goalscorer of the USA with 10 goals and 1 assist, giving him 21 points in total as goals were worth double.  Two years after his stint with the Mustangs he would transfer to Internazionale and go on to feature in the 1970 World Cup, where he scored Italy’s only goal in the famous 4-1 final defeat to Brazil at the Azteca and twice finished as top scorer in Serie A.

Interest in the Mustangs steadily declined; just 3,214 were on hand to see Boninsegna’s heroics, less than a third of the attendance figures at the home openers and a drop in the ocean considering the stadium’s capacity of 46,550. Yet while the Sardinians did little to capture the hearts of Chicagoans, they continued to make headlines, albeit for the wrong reasons.  Brian Glanville, the legendary English soccer journalist and author of the World Cup Handbook, was in New York during the summer of 1967 and happened to be in attendance when the Mustangs came to visit the New York Skyscrapers.   Though the match was in New York, it is likely that the heavily Italian contingent that showed up was there to support Cagliari and not the ‘local’ Uruguayan boys.  In an article for The Times Glanville describes an incident during that match:

“Fortunately, Cagliari’s fans that sultry evening did not quite get to Leo Goldstein, the little referee who survived, just as he had survived a concentration camp. After a bad foul by a Cerro player, there was a hiatus. Then, a little, fat Italian fan climbed over the railings and, untroubled by watching police, took a kick at a linesman and then returned to his place, where policemen chatted with him. Suddenly a pack of Italian fans was chasing Goldstein across the field. He tripped over the infield, kicked out, got up and got away.”

The Mustangs in Action against the Detroit Cougars

The Mustangs in action at home against the Detroit Cougars.  Note the empty stands.

The crowd trouble in New York was a sign of things to come in Toronto just several days later.  A season-high 15,178 people showed up to the University of Toronto Stadium to witness Hibernian of Scotland, playing as Toronto City, take on the Mustangs.  Once again there were plenty of boisterous Italians in attendance.  Toronto took the lead within 40 seconds but Boninsegna equalized in the second half.  The game was becoming an increasingly violent affair.  Toronto’s Peter Cormack, in the book Summer Of ’67: Flower Power, Race Riots, Vietnam and the Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soilrecalls:

“They were tackling you around the waist.  It was brutal.  You were getting assaulted.  I got hit a couple of times and then I made up my mind that the next one that does that, I’m just going to wallop them.”

Cormack followed through on his threat and duly got sent off.  Nine minutes from time the referee totally lost control of the match.  Toronto’s Colin Grant put his side up 3-1 with a free kick, but the Mustangs protested that they were still in the process of setting up the wall.  The referee refused to order a retake, and the Chicago players walked off the field in protest.  A pitch invasion ensued, and the referee and his assistants were both brutally attacked by the fans.  According to Grant the Mustang players tried to get into the Toronto changing room.  The tiny police presence was powerless to stop the riot.  The game was abandoned, the final scored declared to be 2-1.

Little else of note happened on the football pitch.  The Mustangs finished with a final record of 3 wins, 7 draws, and 2 defeats, good enough for 3rd in the Western division but not enough to get into the final, in which the Los Angeles Wolves (Wolverhampton) defeated the Washington Whips (Aberdeen) 6-5 in extra time. The quality of play was simply not drawing fans into the stadium; the Mustangs finished with a final average attendance figure of just 4,207.   The USA’s rival, the NPSL, was not faring much better, and both leagues were losing massive amounts of money.  Abe Korsower of the Chicago Tribune sums up the problems:

“Professional soccer invaded the United States in 1967 at maximum cost with minimum effect.  The main reason for the confusion and resulting flood of red ink was that not one but two pro soccer leagues started and finished seasons thruout the country, often in direct competition with each other.”

Common sense finally won out, and the two leagues were merged in December, creating the North American Soccer League.  But by that point, the Chicago Mustangs had announced that the roster for the 1968 campaign would be entirely American.  Importing teams proved to be a failed experiment.  The Sardinian Summer was over.

The Mustangs survived for one more campaign.   In 1968, the debut season of the NASL, they finished second in their division but failed to qualify for the playoffs.  That season they once again boasted the league leading goalscorer, the Polish-born Janusz “John” Kowalik, who scored 30 goals and registered 9 assists in just 28 matches.  The following year the NASL was reduced to just 5 teams, and the Chicago Mustangs instead joined the semi-professional National Soccer League.  Not until 1975 and the founding of the Chicago Sting would the Windy City once again experience professional soccer.

The United Soccer Association and the importation of foreign teams represents a failed yet curious chapter of American soccer history.  How unlikely is it that Roberto Boninsegna, World Cup runner up and three time Serie A winner, at one point in his career plied his trade right off the Dan Ryan Expressway on the South Side of Chicago, where the White Sox used to play?  Cagliari Calcio may not have left much of a legacy in Chicago, and this episode of their history may be largely forgotten, but the sporting histories of these cities are now inextricably tied together.