This feature is part of The Masterminds series
In 1974, Argentine football had unquestionably seen more prosperous days. The national side had just been dumped out of the World Cup in Germany having been comfortably outclassed and outplayed by the emerging football concept at the time, Totaalvoetbal.
Vladislao Cap’s side had been thumped 4-0 in Gelsenkirchen by Rinus Michels’ sleek and wonderfully efficient Dutch side, getting a bleak appraisal of their current standing in the global game thanks to the superiority of Johan Cruyff and co. If you were Argentine at that time, you had every right to be disgruntled.
Argentina, at that time, weren’t an aesthetically pleasing side. They were tough, physical and excelled in gamesmanship, not showmanship. Guided yet hindered by the Osvaldo Zubeldía school of thought, emerging from his influential stint as Estudiantes coach in the late 1960s, Argentina were uninspired and bereft of a response when they were exposed to a relentless, ruthless attacking machine like the Netherlands.
Quite simply, they needed a change.
That revolutionary force came in the shape of César Luis Menotti, the exotic, brilliant idealist of a man who engineered a blistering resurgence in Argentine football. El Flaco (The Slim One) was something refreshing and daring. If he was sitting across from you on the train, you’d probably think Menotti was that rare breed of university lecturer; intellectual but not pompous, aloof but not wholly ignorant.
He could have easily been 20 minutes late, but you would never have known, his expression remaining distinctively phlegmatic as he unearthed yet another cigarette from his coat pocket. His wavy black hair, sideburns and striking blue eyes were not a deceptive design to most, though. Those inside football knew him as a metaphysical presence; he didn’t possess a towering physical presence, but he communicated with his players not through overt remonstrations, but radical and reasoned thought. He was football as a thinker, a part-romantic and a tactical scholar who believed, inherently, in football played with an attacking emphasis.
It just so happened to work for him, too. Menotti became the first man to deliver the World Cup to Argentina and he did it playing attractive, attacking football. Four years after being humbled and hammered by the Dutch, Menotti’s Argentina stood on top of the world, defeating their tormentors from ’74 in Buenos Aires. In four years, Menotti had taken Argentina from despairing depths to sitting pretty once again, looking down on the rest and restoring a belief that they genuinely belonged in the middle of the Estadio Monumental hoisting the Jules Rimet trophy aloft, not catching an early plane home after being steamrolled by a vastly superior European rival.
Menotti did not emerge from nowhere. He had been a revered and influential coach in home country for several years before accepting the national team job, and had an unadorned playing career before retiring in 1969.
Just a year later, the budding tactician travelled to Mexico for the 1970 World Cup. There, it was a different South American nation whose football he fell in love with: Brazil. Yes, that glisteningly brilliant Seleção side captured the imagination of a deep-thinking Menotti, shaping his ideology and contriving an approach to coaching that would serve him well.
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Read | The politicised history of Argentine football
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Led by Pelé, who Menotti considered to be the greatest player of all time, Brazil established an envious blueprint of how football should be played in Mexico, culminating with that masterclass of a performance in the final, defeating Italy 4-1 – and it struck a chord with Menotti who, like so many, believed this is where his country should have been.
Menotti’s quantum leap to the tactical high table came in 1973, when his Huracán side won the Metropolitano championship in Argentina. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in his excellent tribute to El Flaco, they were a team so delightful and elegant that they were applauded by opposing fans, like when they thumped Rosario Central 5-0.
“There were gambetas, one-touch moves, nutmegs, sombreros, one-twos, overlaps,” forward Carlos Babington is quoted as saying in that Wilson piece. Those aren’t the empty words of a football set to interview auto-pilot. No, Menotti’s Huracán were an epicurean quantity; they indulged in the fineries of football. Skill, beautiful passing and forward-thinking – these were the hallmarks of Menotti’s side that shook Argentine football in 1973, going against the prevailing methodology which has been coined ‘anti-futbol’.
Menotti preferred the term ‘right-wing football’, which he viewed as a struggle and a sacrifice, saying: “Right-wing football wants us to believe that life is struggle. It demands sacrifices. We have to become steel and win by any methods.”
Menotti’s football was a Louis van Gaal wet dream, an intoxicating and enrapturing blend of philosophy and artistry. His essential quote, the Descartes of football if you will, is that a “team above all is an idea”. With that spirit of cogitation, Menotti garnered a dedicated and adoring group of followers: the Menottistas.
Menotti believed in football as the extension of dreams. A footballer was, to Menotti, in a privileged position. He had the ability not only to delight and dazzle thousands of spectators with the mere swivelling of his boots, but he possessed a unique quality in being able to interpret feelings and dreams. The Argentine fans dreamed of glory, and the players offered their interpretation of that dream.
With that unbending philosophy, Menotti took on the job of reviving a crestfallen South American giant who had been swept aside in 1974. More than winning – and he certainly cared about that – Menotti was preoccupied in executing an upheaval in Argentine football. He wanted to his players to embrace football as a spectacle. And with that, they set off in search of the turnaround.
• • “I maintain that a team is above all an idea, and more than an idea it is a commitment, and more than a commitment it is the clear convictions that a coach must transmit to his players to defend that idea. So my concern is that we coaches don’t arrogate to ourselves the right to remove from the spectacle the synonym of festival, in favour of a philosophical reading that cannot be sustained, which is to avoid taking risks. And in football there are risks because the only way you can avoid taking risks in any game is by not playing.” César Luis Menotti • •
Menotti’s attacking style manifested itself in a direct 4-3-3. Argentina were not short on direct, hard-running attackers in the form of Mario Kempes, Leopoldo Luque and Oscar Ortiz. This, coupled with the midfield brilliance of Ossie Ardiles and the searing pace of René Houseman, meant that Menotti’s Argentina were an exhilarating creation. Menotti’s message was not to win the match, but simply play good football.
At the 1978 World Cup, they certainly fulfilled that objective. They played at that tournament without a 17-year-old rising superstar. That player was none other than Diego Maradona. Anointed as the next superstar in Argentina, Menotti found himself under immense pressure to include the teenager in his squad. Indeed, Menotti had handed Maradona his full international debut, but felt that his squad was already complete. As such, he did not take Maradona, but it ultimately mattered not one bit.
Argentina proceeded to play blistering football at the ’78 World Cup. They topped their first group stage before coming up against a formidable challenge in the second, including a showdown with their bitter rivals Brazil. After a 2-0 win over Poland and a dreary 0-0 with Brazil, Menotti’s men needed a win to progress against Peru. Not only that, but they needed to win by four clear goals.
Coincidentally, that World Cup was played against the backdrop of the right-wing military dictatorship in Argentina, led by Jorge Videla. The story goes that Peru deliberately threw the match to let their hosts reach the final. Videla is accused of an agreement with the Peruvian dictatorship that saw 13 Peruvian citizens transferred to Argentina as part of the Condor Plan, designed to repress political dissidents. Videla supposedly agreed to take the prisoners only if Peru agreed to lose the match.
Whether that’s true or not, Argentina won 6-0, paving the way for them to meet Holland in the final. With that ‘agreement’, Argentina’s World Cup win has always been looked upon with suspicion, but not through any fault of Menotti’s. As Jonathan Wilson notes, the evidence against Argentina is inconclusive and to watch the match was “to see a team with nothing to play for slowly being overwhelmed by highly motivated opponents in a ferocious atmosphere.”
What can be levelled at Menotti is that he instilled a gamesmanship in his side. Although he had nothing to do with the Netherlands team bus taking the ‘scenic’ route to the Monumental ahead of the final, he deliberately delayed his players arriving on the pitch. Regardless of the Dutch state of mind, Menotti had insisted that his squad portray the same style and attacking intent they had illustrated throughout the tournament. Thanks to that, Argentina triumphed.
With the scores locked at 1-1 after 90 minutes, Kempes and Daniel Bertoni both struck in extra-time to hand the victory to Menotti’s men. Indeed, that victory may always be inextricably linked with the reported activities of the military junta, but the success of Menotti should be viewed as the expression of the more stylistic history of Argentina’s national team.
Menotti’s school of footballing thought centred on bringing the joy back to the Argentine football, and he did just that. He was concerned with establishing a style and swagger in a team that had been woefully underperforming prior to his arrival and he did just that. Indeed, his football washed the bad taste out of Argentinian mouths by offering the exact antithesis of the anti-futbol way.
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Read | The obsession of Marcelo Bielsa
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Of course, to talk about Menotti is to talk about what came after him. When he left the Albiceleste job in 1982, he had left a shimmering legacy, but not one that was upheld. In 1983, the anti-Menotti was appointed in Carlos Bilardo, who had been shaped by the teachings of Osvaldo Zubeldía at Estudiantes. From that point, Bilardo helped construct the ultimate narrative in Argentine football; Menottisme and Bilardisme.
Whereas Menottistas would do anything they could to make football look good while doing it, the Bilardo argument was do anything to win. It was as simple as that. The influence of Zubeldía was indelible and it helped Bilardo defiantly change the Argentine way to “football is winning and nothing else”. When Bilardo took charge, you could almost hear Menotti coughing in disgust through his cigarette smoke. Of course, Bilardo’s pragmatism ironically became synonymous with the unstoppable rise of Maradona, who guided the country to their second World Cup success in 1986.
Indeed, the influence of both men can still be clearly distinguished in the modern game. Diego Simeone, Atlético Madrid’s La Liga-winning manager, is a direct disciple of Bilardo, whom he played under. Simeone has built an admirable legacy at Atleti, but not one that would be celebrated by Menotti anytime soon. His side aren’t easy on the eye. They are, in a sense, street-fighting ruffians of the Vicente Calderón battlefield, very much in the Bilardo mould.
Conversely, Jorge Sampaoli came to embody many of Menotti’s ideals and principles during his impressive four-year stint with Chile. La Roja have earned many admirers at the last two World Cups for embracing the spectacle-driven side of football, deploying an erratic attacking formation which combines elements of Marcelo Bielsa and Menotti.
It can be argued that Menotti’s career was not as trophy-laden as some of his fellow countrymen, but his career symbolises the style of football over the decoration. He built his managerial career on fluid ball-movement and slick passing. Passing was the key. Menotti would tell his players that a goal was merely another pass into the net and it’s a formula that brought highs and lows.
His reputation and importance towers above the depth of his trophy cabinet, much like Arrigo Sacchi. Both of these men have shaped the modern game greatly and it speaks volumes that their opinions have often been heard during their times out of work. Later in his career, Menotti became a respected pundit and commentator for Argentine television, putting his advanced knowledge of the game to good use and offering astute opinions on the current state of the national team.
Yes, Menotti’s career may not have gifted him endless successes following the ’78 World Cup win, but that was never his motivation. His motivation was to make Argentina breathe once more. As he saw it, they had been strangled by the anti-futbol that preceded his reign and sought to rectify that. Through his tremendous motivational techniques and uncompromising commitment to football as both rhythmical and picturesque, Menotti managed to both entertain and deliver the holy grail of football in the process.
We call it ‘the beautiful game’ and, with that, there should always be a place for a Menotti figure. For every hard-nosed pragmatist, there is the free-flowing idealist who dares to visualise a way of playing without scrutinising ever blade of grass on the pitch.
Yes, a manager would not be allowed to have a cigarette ubiquitously obtruding from every orifice because of the blanket smoking ban, nor would a thick gold chain really be in keeping with modern fashion, but let it be known – football needs figures like César Luis Menotti. There is always room for ideas in the game.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11