As Jorge Sampaoli prepares for a must-win game away in the altitude of Ecuador with Argentina’s World Cup hopes in the balance, questions arise of what his team must do to get to Russia. Sampaoli’s name was built on exciting football at Chile and Sevilla, but should he be willing to forego that and simply get a win by hook or by crook to have a shot at glory?
There’s few countries with as polarised a footballing culture as Argentina, born from a back-and-forth between the successes of their most beautiful football and the successes of those who cared little for aesthetics when the stylish failed.
The first real shift occurred after they were dumped out bottom of their group at the 1958 World Cup, thrashed 6-1 by Czechoslovakia. Argentina’s traditional patient, creative style known as la nuestra had grown in the isolation of Juan Peron’s government and success at the 1957 Copa America had them confident they could emerge as champions in Sweden – instead, they went home feeling as if the world had left them behind. The shock could be partly explained due to a weakened squad after several of the 1957 side switched allegiances to different countries, but in the wake of this failure, league attendances fell with many feeling disillusioned with their traditional game, giving opportunity for a far more pragmatic style to take hold.
Tomas Abraham noted, “it was then that European discipline appeared. That was the way that modernity, which implies discipline, physical training, hygiene, health, professionalism, sacrifice, all the Fordism entered Argentinian football. There came these methods for physical preparation that gave importance to the defence – and who cared about defence before?”
In seeking to play catch-up to the professionalism that had developed in the European game, many Argentinian sides ending up surpassing them in how seriously they took the sport. Celtic were exposed to the new era of Argentinian football with a kicking at the hands of Racing Club in the 1967 Intercontinental Cup, but it was Osvaldo Zubeldia’s Estudiantes de la Plata who really raised (or lowered, depending on your view) the bar. In 1967 they became the first club from outside Buenos Aires to win the Argentine league in decades, innovating with a pressing game and high offside trap previously unseen in Argentina yet also with a level of brutality, cruelty and time-wasting that meant they won fewer hearts than minds. “You don’t arrive at glory through a path of roses”, stated Zubeldia. Nevertheless, they won the Copa Libertadores the following year and brawled their way past Manchester United to the Intercontinental Cup months later.
They followed these victories with another two Copa Libertadores titles, however the tide was starting to turn against them, with detractors coining the term antifutbol for their methods. Despite their South American victories, AC Milan and Feyenoord both emerged victorious from their Intercontinental Cup finals and the gamesmanship of Estudiantes was starting to become an embarrassment to Argentinians, with president Juan Carlos Ongania sentencing Aguirre Suarez, Alberto Poletti and Eduardo Manera to stints in jail for their assault of the Italian opponents.
As the country began to long for la nuestra, Cesar Luis Menotti fed their romanticism. It wasn’t a true return to the days of old – the game had moved on – but his league-winning 1973 Huracan side played the technical, attacking game that had been sorely missed (“gambetas, one-touch moves, nutmegs, sombreros, one-twos, overlaps” recalls forward Carlos Babington) and he was appointed head coach of the national team after their failure at the 1974 World Cup. Leading the team to victory on home soil in 1978, he paid homage to those traditions: “our victory is a tribute to the old and glorious Argentinian football”.
Menottismo harked back to la nuestra, and met a similar fate when the team went to defend its championship four years later. They snuck through the first round behind Belgium with victories over Hungary and El Salvador, but then finished bottom of their group in the second round after losing to both Italy and Brazil.
Menotti left his post having rekindled the romance amongst Argentinian football fans, only to be replaced by the poster boy for the dark arts of Zubeldia’s Estudiantes. For Carlos Bilardo “football is winning and nothing else“. As a midfielder under Zubeldia he was rumoured to take pins out onto the pitch to stab opponents, drew on his contacts as a qualified doctor to taunt opponents over their families’ medical issues and congratulated a goalkeeper on “finally kill[ing] your mother” after she had died in the wake of a marriage she had disapproved of. “Bilardo was sneaky,” Antonio Rattin said. “He was always up to something. Tricky. He’d pull your shirt, pretend to be hit, anything.”
Now, fresh from winning the Metropolitano with his Estudiantes team, Bilardo was in control of the national team. The team went from Menotti’s philosophy of “you can lose a game, but what you cannot lose is the dignity earned by playing good football” to Bilardo’s “the match has to be won, and that’s the end of it.”
Not that they initially did much winning: Argentina won just three of Bilardo’s first fifteen games in charge, eliminated in the first round of the 1983 Copa America. Bilardo was under heavy pressure but results turned around when he switched to a 3-5-2 formation he had been working on for the previous two years – the press initially believing he was so incompetent he had made a mistake on his team sheet. Bilardo’s reasoning was that in the absence of wingers, the full-backs weren’t needed and could instead be used to strengthen the midfield. Finally put into practice in late 1984, they won each game on a European tour and topped their World Cup qualifying group. Still, having enjoyed the splendour of Menotti, Bilardo’s defensiveness was unpopular and losses against France and Norway in the run-up to the World Cup didn’t bolster confidence.
The change in managers caused friction off the pitch too. Daniel Passarella had been captain under Menotti, lifting the World Cup in 1978, yet Bilardo gave the armband to Diego Maradona. The star had been left out of the 1978 squad and sent off against Brazil in 1982, but Bilardo recognised his talent and wanted to make clear his importance to the team: “people said, ‘Maradona failed in the national team, why do you trust him?’, but I trusted him because he was going to be the best player at the World Cup. It was my time to coach and I trusted Maradona. I believed that with him, if he was really fit, we could tip the balance in games.”
Passarella was unimpressed by his demotion, stating in an interview “either I’m first choice or I’m not playing for Argentina” in October 1985. Passarella continued to play but the team went into the tournament divided: “Daniel Passarella could never accept the fact that I was the only certain starter and the captain of Bilardo’s team, never. So he started to put on pressure,” Maradona recalled. “We had a heated meeting in Mexico where we really had a go at each other, getting everything out in the open, telling it like it was… I arrived at the meeting fifteen minutes late, together with the other ‘rebels’ (that’s what we were according to Passarella) [Pedro] Pasculli, [Sergio] Batista, [Luis] Islas… we were fifteen minutes late, hardly late at all by Argentinian standards. So we had to swallow a lecture by Passarella, with his dictator-like style: how could the captain arrive late, this that and the other. I let him go on, I let him go on. Finally I said, ‘have you finished? Okay, so now let’s talk about you’. And I told them, the whole squad, everything he was, everything he’d done, everything I knew about him. And the ensuing mess was big, big, big!”
Passarella made claims about Maradona’s drug use and insinuated he was leading the younger players astray, while Maradona retorted with an unpaid phone bill for the squad Passarella had failed to own up to and his boasts about an affair with a teammate’s wife. “And then [Jorge] Valdano jumped up: ‘You’re a shit!’ he shouted at Passarella. That’s when all hell broke loose.” Fortunately, Passarella had to leave the camp before the tournament started after being struck down with enterocolitis, meaning that the squad was no longer split into two camps as they began their games. “The only truth is that Passarella wanted to win the group over like that, by sowing discord, making things up, putting spokes into the works. He wanted to win them back ever since he’d lost the captaincy and the leadership; it had really stuck in his throat. He’d been a good captain, yes, and I always said so. But I was the one who displaced him: the great captain, the true great captain, was, is and always will be me.”
The responsibility galvanised Maradona. “Diego woke up before everybody else,” says Jose Luis Brown. “He took the lead in our practice sessions, and when we were all gone, he would stay to practice. He set an example in all respects and that’s why we were proud to have him as captain. We had great players in that side but when you have the best player in the world, and he is going through the best stage of his career, we revolved around him. There is no doubt about that in my mind.”
“Maradona was always the voice of command, the voice that said how things were going to be,” explained Jorge Burruchaga. “He set a daily example for us and gave us his advice.”
With all the criticism from back home and the issues in the camp before the tournament had even kicked off, the team, and Maradona in particular, had a point to prove. “Some of our players had zero approval from fans, journalists and from football leaders,” Brown said. “Bilardo was the only one who trusted us. We had to leave a month early for the World Cup, because rumours had it that the secretary for sport would have Bilardo fired.”
“We trusted, we trusted, but we had not yet had a single positive result to build on,” Maradona stated. “But the truth is we left the dressing room with conviction. We believed we could take on anybody. All Bilardo’s meticulous plans, all his tactics, his obsession with positions, suddenly it all fell into place, and we were putting it into practice against Korea.”
Argentina started in a 4-3-1-2 rather than the 3-5-2, with Jose Luis Brown sweeping behind Oscar Ruggeri, and Pedro Pasculli partnering Jorge Valdano up front. Maradona ran the show of course – the South Koreans tried to stop the captain by hacking him down constantly, only for him to set up Valdano and Ruggeri for the first two goals from the resulting set-pieces, then dribbling to the byline past two defenders, sending in a low cross for Valdano’s second: an easy tap-in.
Although Park Chang-Sun thundered home a late consolation goal, the South Koreans, in their first World Cup since 1954, weren’t a challenge for Argentina. The next game, against reigning champions Italy, was a far greater test so Bilardo returned to the 3-5-2 used before the tournament: striker Pasculli removed so Jose Luis Cuciuffo could shore up the defence, marking Giuseppe Galderisi while Ruggeri tracked Alessandro Altobelli and Brown swept up behind. Claudio Borghi replaced Nestor Clausen, with Ricardo Giusti moving out to right wing-back.
They were a little unlucky to go behind early on, conceding a penalty after Oscar Garre’s block of a Bruno Conti cross jumped up to hit Jorge Burruchaga on the arm. Nevertheless, Maradona was well up for the challenge. Marked out of the same fixture by Claudio Gentile four years earlier, he was playing at double the speed of everyone else on the pitch, even snapping at Italian heels in defence. Coming up against a typically strong Italian defence, he struggled to find space, but still got the equaliser: Valdano chipping the ball behind the defence and Maradona racing in front of Gaetano Scirea to hit first time, lightly guiding it towards the opposite post from a difficult angle. Many players would have waited longer, allowing Scirea to catch up or Giovanni Galli to close down the angle, yet Maradona was so sharp all he needed was one little opportunity.
Particularly congested, the match dwindled out but Bilardo seemed to have settled on his system. Cuciuffo and Ruggeri were strong enough stoppers to repel opposition attacks, especially with the safety net of Brown moving across to double up with them, while Garre was the only player on the pitch looking to provide real width, although this outlet was rarely used and he got forward less in the second game, preoccupied by Conti. Sergio Batista was weak technically, frequently giving the ball away when he showed any attacking ambition, but shielded the defence well and mostly played short passes into the feet of his more talented colleagues. Clausen had tucked in alongside Batista competently in the first game, staying narrow rather than hugging the touchline as Garre had, but the addition of Borghi in his place was a good attacking change: Burruchaga and Giusti were the ones to roam around and get the ball forward, however having Borghi there meant Burruchaga was able to stay back more often and make use of his passing range instead of constantly racing back and forth.
Borghi’s inclusion also meant there was another midfielder to occupy opposition defenders, meaning one less eye on Maradona – Clausen was fine yet didn’t really need to be tracked. Giusti was also a good passer, albeit not quite as capable over a long range as Burruchaga, and his ability to pop up anywhere in support of his teammates (frequently appearing on the left flank despite being the nominal right wing-back) made it easy for Argentina to move the ball forward.
Even though he wasn’t necessarily needed to move the ball forward from deep, Maradona would often drift back to find some space on the left. From there, he could turn and pick out anyone ahead of him with a pass or carry the ball forward himself. When Maradona dropped back into his space, Burruchaga would push forward in support of Valdano. Although left alone with Pasculli on the bench, Valdano didn’t struggle – he pulled out to the right to isolate the defender, so he could receive the ball into his feet from deep and hold the ball up as those behind him joined the attack. Many forwards would simply stand and hold off defenders by shielding the ball with their body, but Valdano’s ability with his feet meant he would move the ball backwards and forwards, from foot to foot, while doing so, ensuring that defenders couldn’t be too aggressive in trying to win the ball back unless he twisted past them – that fear buying the midfielders more time to get forward.
Their positional shifts were more organised than you would expect from a national team, likely due to Bilardo, who visited his overseas stars in preparation, showing them videos and borrowing their club teammates to rehearse moves. “Burruchaga crosses in Nantes and Valdano heads it in Madrid,” as Bilardo put it.
“The team was based on a very solid architecture and, in the midst, a genius who was granted the privilege of freedom,” explained Valdano. “The influence of Maradona was so significant it seemed to spread to the entire team, yet the team was very structured from a tactical viewpoint, and each one of us had very precise obligations.”
“We understood each other instinctively,” Maradona said. “I had a perfect understanding with Valdano. If he went back, I’d stay forward and vice versa, and Burruchaga made his darting runs exactly when he needed to. Carlos had drilled that into our heads and things happened without us needing to say anything, like a carbon copy of the training sessions.”
The team eased past a defensive Bulgaria to top the group, facing Uruguay in the next round. Pasculli returned to the line-up in place of Borghi, allowing Argentina to play more directly, sending longs balls over the top towards the centre forward, and Valdano to drop off the front line to help in build-up, yet the addition of another attacker meant the midfield was less fluid, with Giusti staying deeper near Batista rather than roaming. Like many of the teams at the tournament, Uruguay’s focus on defending meant that they didn’t have any reply once they went behind, although they at least put up more of a fight than South Korea and Bulgaria
Pasculli had scored the only goal in their win over Uruguay, but Bilardo dropped him for the quarter-final – “you can’t play against the English with a pure centre-forward. They’d devour him, and the extra man in midfield will give Maradona more room.” That extra midfielder was Hector Enrique rather than Borghi, while Garre was replaced by the more attacking Julio Olarticoechea.
Argentina dominated possession yet rarely threatened in a bitter atmosphere set by the war over the Malvinas islands. Enrique brought balance to the midfield and was a neat passer, able to link play in the middle, yet he was less creative than Borghi and provided less attacking thrust than Giusti could – the wing-back again curbing his movements forward in the knock-out phases to support Batista instead.
England were more open than most of Argentina’s opponents, which allowed Maradona to pick up the ball between the lines and get running at England’s backline, but they struggled to put together those final moves to carve out a proper chance.
It required a poor clearance from Steve Hodge and some slow reactions from Peter Shilton to break the deadlock – the ball volleyed up into the air and coming back down in the net, with a little help from the Argentina captain’s hand. It may have been illegitimate but the goal stood all the same, and it was hardly a shock that a team coached by Zubeldia disciple Bilardo would engage in gamesmanship.
“There isn’t a single Argentine willing to say to the referee, ‘Look, it wasn’t a goal’,” said Valdano. “We’ve been brought up to celebrate cheekiness and cunning. Perhaps many of the social and economic problems in Argentina would have been solved if we could understand that what we call viveza is in other countries regarded as crime. Viveza is deeply rooted in the Argentine psyche, and when you get away with it, you celebrate.”
Whereas his first goal had caused fury, the second could only inspire amazement. England’s open midfield had gifted Maradona space before but here he created it himself, dancing away from Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid with his first two touches then leaving them in his wake as he pushed forward toward goal. A feint past Terry Butcher, then Terry Fenwick, then Shilton, rolling it away from the goalkeeper enough to evade his grasp but not so much as to let the recovering Butcher back in, slowing down only to invite challenges then skipping past them. Although their tormentor later described them as “noble”, the English could just as easily be called naive – other teams chopped Maradona down whenever he started to pick up steam yet he regularly got the opportunity to spring forward unscathed against England, which built until arguably the greatest player in the history of the game scored arguably its greatest individual goal.
Needing to make up a two goal deficit, Bobby Robson introduced Chris Waddle and then John Barnes five minutes later. The move highlighted the weaknesses in Argentina’s system: they had struggled against counter-attacks throughout the tournament, ending them with cynical tactical fouls that showcased FIFA’s need to revamp the rules, but the addition of wingers exposed them further. Bilardo’s reasoning for switching to a 3-5-2 was that the full-backs were unnecessary in the absence of wingers – if wingers were present, that logic goes out the window.
With ten minutes to go, Barnes jinked past Enrique and Giusti to get to the byline and cross for Gary Lineker to finish. He then evaded Enrique again to send in another cross as the clock counted down, Lineker this time unable to convert at the far post. Too little, too late.
England had given Argentina their first real scare of the tournament, but their semi-final opponents Belgium didn’t have the widemen to pose the same threat. Maradona got another two to seal Argentina’s place in the final – first lobbing Jean Marie Pfaff first time with the outside of his left foot, running onto a perfect Burruchaga through ball despite two hapless defenders marking him, then dribbling straight into the penalty area with little opposition to finish for his second.
Bilardo had also finally settled upon his starting eleven, keeping the same line-up that had beaten England and maintaining it in the final against West Germany. The Germans had developed their own 3-5-2 system yet it didn’t give them the same strength in midfield that Argentina had. Lothar Matthaus man-marked Maradona, keeping him quiet by stopping him from turning, but the Argentinian captain dragged him deep into the defence, forming a back four that only had him and Valdano to mark. Norbert Eder was primarily a defensive player, shielding the backline, so Felix Magath was left alone in the midfield to create.
With Maradona nullified, his teammates had attacking responsibility thrust upon them. The midfield moved the ball quickly, Olarticoechea pushed forward on the left and Burruchaga stepped up his game, sending raking passes from deep and constantly attacking space in the final third. Brown scored the opener, heading home a free-kick, then Valdano finished off a counter-attack for the second.
Now desperately needing goals, Matthaus was released from his marking duties, giving West Germany more of a footing in midfield. They pushed further and further forward in search of goals and, making a mockery of Bilardo’s obsession with set-pieces, got level through two corners.
However, rather than ease off, West Germany pushed on in search of a winner. Argentina had never ceded their threat, almost killing off the German momentum with an extra goal of their own a few times, getting in behind the tiring German defenders. Just three minutes after West Germany had equalised, Maradona, now free from the shackles of Matthaus, looped a through ball on the volley into the path of Burruchaga. The midfielder stormed in behind, Hans-Peter Briegel unable to get close enough to stop him sliding the ball under Harald Schumacher to win the game and with it the trophy.
The team’s success is often written off as merely the greatness of Maradona, yet the final rubbished the idea of a one man team. The rest of the side provided the defensive platform necessary to give their captain the freedom he had to work his magic, but he wasn’t alone in attack either. Valdano and Burruchaga were stars in their own right, while Giusti and Borghi had shown themselves to be more than capable support acts earlier in the tournament, and Enrique and Olarticoechea had their uses.
This dismissal also doesn’t do justice to the foresight Bilardo had. Maradona was recognised as a special talent but also an unreliable one. He had been left out of the 1978 squad, sent off at the 1982 tournament, and his injury plagued stint at Barcelona was widely considered a failure. He was getting back on track at Napoli, although they had finished just seventh and third in his first two seasons there, yet Bilardo’s choice to not only focus the entire team around him, but also give him the captaincy at the considerable risk of enraging Passarella and dividing the squad’s loyalty, was not as obvious as it seems in hindsight. “They said to me, ‘Bochini is better than Maradona’, and I didn’t respond,” Bilardo recalls. “Diego himself said to me, ‘we’re on our own.’ And look what happened then.”
The responsibility given to him and the faith Bilardo showed inspired Maradona to some of his greatest performances despite a toxic atmosphere in their homeland. “Bilardo had been rubbished, destroyed, and he didn’t bear a grudge,” Maradona remembers. “He wasn’t shouting for revenge. He was the World Champion, he’d won everything, and he felt no resentment, no anger. It’s a great memory I have of Bilardo, that image.”
“Winning a World Cup is reaching the top of the world,” the man himself explained. “As they say, ‘You can argue, but when the man shows up with the World Cup, you shut your mouth’.”