SIXTY YEARS AGO, Guillermo Stábile’s awesome Argentina team crowned themselves the kings of South America in style. The 1957 South American Championship, forerunner to the Copa América, was won with a 3-0 drubbing of Brazil on 3 April of that year, the fifth match of a round-robin tournament that served as a final for the two leading teams.
The result held little disgrace for the vanquished Brazilians. Though they would go on to lift the World Cup in emphatic fashion just 12 months later, boosted by the talents of Garrincha and a 17-year-old Pelé – who had been absent the previous year in Lima, Peru – there was nothing the Seleção could do against one of the most formidable sides Argentina have ever sent out to a football pitch.
In defence, José Dellachea and Néstor Rossi stopped anything in their way, funnelling the ball up to a forward line that aficionados know simply by its members’ surnames: from right to left, Corbatta, Maschio, Angelillo, Sívori, Cruz. The three central components of that wonderful quintet, Omar Sívori, Humberto Maschio and Antonio Angelillo were the ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, the street urchins from Buenos Aires’ sprawling, impoverished suburbs that, by the end of 1957, were starring at Italy’s most renowned clubs.
Osvaldo Cruz, the elder statesman of that youthful attack at 26, was a legend at Independiente and later featured for Brazil’s Palmeiras before returning to his boyhood idols in Avellaneda and enjoying a sedate retirement in Santiago, Chile with Unión Española. But one of those players more than any other typified the makeshift brilliance and eccentricity of those golden years of Argentine football: Oreste Omar Corbatta, Racing Club’s illiterate, alcoholic right winger who is considered one of the greatest in history, on the same level as that other troubled genius, Garrincha.
Born in the agricultural town of Daireaux in March 1936, Corbatta was one of eight children raised by Italian immigrant Gerónimo and his wife, Isabel Fernández. When Osmar was just five his father passed away, and Isabel moved the entire clan to La Plata in order to escape the grinding poverty of the countryside.
At first, their tiny home in the capital of Buenos Aires did not even have a door, and when the young Corbatta was not selling fruit in the street or collecting old bottles to contribute to the family’s meagre finances, he could be found playing football barefoot on the dirt roads surrounding his house. This left little time for an education: he never progressed past the second grade and throughout his life was unable to read and write.
Ashamed of this fact, he would later carry a newspaper under his arm to hide his secret from journalists and all but his closest friends; those in on his Achilles heel would read back favourable match reports where Corbatta was mentioned, much to his delight.
El Loco, as he was known, first trialled for Estudiantes, and formed part of their youth ranks until he was let go in mysterious circumstances – he alleged that a serious ankle injury ended his time there, while journalist Alejandro Wall, who in 2016 released a biography of the star, heard from former team-mates that he was forced to go over an alleged boot robbery.
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In any case, Corbatta continued to hone his trade in regional football until, in 1955, a scout brought him to Racing Club. He arrived at the Avellaneda team clad in an old checkered shirt, ragged trousers and alpargata slippers. “Your suitcase, Corbatta?” a Racing official asked, as he prepared to welcome the winger and settle him into lodgings. “What suitcase?” came the reply. Those tattered clothes were his only belongings in the world.
What little video survives of El Loco depicts a tiny wisp of a player, dwarfed by the burly defenders tasked with blocking his path. At just five foot four inches and bearing an apparently painfully undernourished frame, Corbatta did not look the part as a professional footballer. In his first appearance at Racing, a friendly against Atlético Tucumán, that was certainly the prevailing sentiment. “Fuck, look how low we’ve sunk here. Look at who we have just given the shirt to,” a fan was overheard saying on that inauspicious debut, where he replaced club idol, the all-action Mario Boyé.
Racing Magazine was similarly pessimistic, casting doubt on the “sickly, dishevelled wretch brought in from the countryside; the anti-athlete”. Luckily for the 19-year-old – and for Racing, for that matter – those first impressions proved to be incorrect. Corbatta slotted almost instantly into the Academia first team, where his incredible dribbling skills and brutal shot made him a favourite at the club and delivered two Primera División titles during his seven years in the first team.
With so little surviving in terms of concrete evidence of his playing career outside of grainy newsreel and the living testaments provided by Racing Magazine and the eternal Gráfico, what endures to the present day is the Corbatta legend. His childlike innocence and, on a darker note, his prodigious drinking, punctuate the stories involving El Loco. On one occasion, Corbatta was slightly the worse for wear. “Don’t pass it to me, I cannot even see,” the bleary-eyed winger told his colleague, Raúl Belén, shortly before kicking off a Primera División match against Estudiantes de la Plata, themselves no mean team.
Ninety tough minutes of football lay ahead for Racing Club, even with one of the greatest forward lines in their history. But their right winger seemed to have more immediate problems. He had been out all night drinking and sneaked into Racing’s Cilindro stadium still in an advanced state of inebriation
Corbatta, however, had a guardian angel. Tita Mattiussi had grown up inside the club and worked there her entire life as kit lady, cleaner and mentor to the young stars living in the pension maintained for prospects, and she had an unorthodox manner of bringing her wayward charge back to his senses. That day, the resourceful matriarch obliged with a bucket of cold water over Orestes’ head. This sharp shock managed to alleviate the worst of his drunkenness, but Corbatta must have still appeared in no fit state to participate in that day’s clash.
Coach José Della Torre briefed his charges on the game ahead, but his star could barely pay attention, as he continued inebriated despite Tita’s best efforts to flush the alcohol out of his system. There was no question, however, of the winger sitting out the game. This was 1959; even allowing for his dalliances, Corbatta was at the height of his powers, a talent unknown in Argentine football. Drunk or not, the swaying genius would occupy his habitual role on the right flank.
That faith was well-placed. Despite the obvious handicap of not seeing the ball, the star went on to score two goals to sink the La Plata club and inspire the club to a rousing 6-1 victory. On another occasion, again with a mortal hangover, Corbatta languished along the right touchline barely involved in play. His behaviour caught the attention of a nearby photographer. “Come on, Corbatta, play a bit and I’ll take your photo.” Roused from his accidie, El Loco assented. The winger picked up the ball, dribbled effortlessly past three defenders and scored. “Did you get the photo,” he asked. “No,” came the reply, “I have only just put the film in.” Corbatta cursed the photographer and refused to take any further part in the game from his refuge on the flank.
A kinder portrayal of the young, scatter-brained star is provided by Mundo Deportivo. The magazine’s October 1956 edition featured the smiling, fresh-faced 20-year-old, his hair slicked back into a parting and a gold medallion hanging from his neck. An impressive performance against Boca Juniors had helped Racing take a 1-0 victory, despite a Cilindro pitch clogged with mud which hardly suited the youngster’s dribbling style. But it is in Tiempo Suplementario, in a section of the magazine dedicated to reporting football’s curiosities – surely a column in which Corbatta soon became accustomed to seeing his name – which yields a gem.
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“Needed up until the last minute to talk with the radio and sent off with an ovation from the Racing press, Corbata (sic) did not notice that he had mistakenly gone down to the Boca dressing room,” the diarist notes. “The laughter which this inspired was tiny next to the cackles released by the discomfort with which Corbata went back on himself to reach the home tunnel.” Be it for his inability to read the dressing room signs, or simple self-absorption, the youngster had walked straight into enemy territory without realising.
That was the same year Corbatta received a brutal introduction to the world of international football. The youngster, barely out of his teenage years, was selected for the Argentine national team to participate in a friendly against Río de la Plata arch-rivals Uruguay. It should go without saying that the match, as ever, was a friendly in name only; neither side would pass up the chance to humiliate their counterparts from the other side of the estuary, and the promise of making himself a favourite back in Buenos Aires seems to have influenced Corbatta’s actions that day as he pulled off a wonderful but provocative piece of individual skill.
The winger was clearly revelling in torturing the Uruguayans. Pepe ‘El Duro’ Sasia, the fearsome defender, was the principal butt of the joke, until he finally snapped. On one occasion, Corbatta received the ball and proceeded to loop the ball over Sasia’s head with a trademark sombrero. Not content with beating him once, the youngster waited for Sasia to find his bearings and come back at him, and neatly slotted the ball through his legs. Now with his back turned, he awaited Sasia’s approach once more – and knocked it back through the defender’s legs, performing the cheekiest of nutmegs with his back turned to the fuming rival.
A team-mate soon obliged El Duro; the next action saw Corbatta sent sprawling on the turf of the legendary Estadio Centenario, where the first World Cup winners in 1930 were being embarrassed by this quick-footed upstart. Feigning concern, Sasia walked over to his prostrate torturer-in-chief, ostensibly to see how he was after that ferocious tackle. But the defender was not going to pass up his chance now he had finally caught up with his man; Corbatta was greeted not with an outstretched hand to help him back on his feet, but a tremendous haymaker which knocked out two of his front teeth. For the rest of his life, the star would carry around that reminder of what happened when his talents ran out of control, proving that his innocence off the pitch would not excuse any excesses on it.
Not that he paid much heed. Corbatta continued to torment defenders the length and breadth of South America for the entirety of his professional career, even in his final days when, ravaged by drink, he was a shadow of his former self. And in 1957 that impudent, virtuoso talent found its zenith when coupled with the rest of the ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ in Lima. The winger scored two of the 25 goals Guillermo Stábile’s Albiceleste stars pilfered in just six games, winning the first five to build up an unassailable advantage before losing a dead rubber to the hosts in what, in retrospect, appears a nod to continental diplomacy as well as certain excesses in celebrating the title.
Maschio, top scorer with nine, fired the goals home, but they were supplied by the prodigious right foot of his Racing team-mate who led the tournament in a merry dance. “Oreste and Enrique Omar Sívori were the great forwards of the age and the team that won in Lima over March and April earned a place in history,” he told Télam years later.
Even Life magazine, that doyen of US journalism, recognised Corbatta’s achievements. Later that same year, in a World Cup qualifier against Chile, El Loco scored a goal that was so memorable it made the pages of Life as a second-by-second montage. Gráfico, in which the sequence originally appeared, describes it thus: “The play was in the Argentine half, all the Chile team pushing forward, when a clearance put the ball at the feet of Corbatta, unmarked by Astorga, whom he left trailing in a rapid sprint to the opposition goal. He could have shot earlier, but his inspiration led him to conceive something even more spectacular and picturesque: he wait for Salazar to arrive, held up the ball, and the defender went hurtling past. Corbatta moved into the area, stood in front of Quitral, waited for the goalkeeper to try and come out and with a ‘slap’ buried the ball.”
Despite still possessing those dizzying skills that so enraptured the editors of Life, Corbatta was already leading an Argentina in chronic decline. Maschio, Angelillo and Sívori followed that match from across the Atlantic in Italy, where they had been lured by Serie A’s promise of riches following the extravaganza they protagonised in Lima and where each went on to enjoy brilliant careers.
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Angelillo, the youngest of the quintet at 19, fled his home nation to avoid mandatory national service and endured 20 years of exile before finally being allowed to return. In their absence, Corbatta and Cruz were joined by Ángel Labruna for the 1958 World Cup, called up in desperation well past his peak. The result was a national disaster, as despite three goals from the winger, La Albiceleste were dumped out in the first round.
The following year, on home soil they managed to retain their South American title, but they laboured to victory with a draw over Brazil in the final game, and it was the effervescent Pelé rather than Corbatta who took all the plaudits. The authorities turned to pragmatism over fantasy as the means of restoring the reputation shattered in Sweden, and while Corbatta did participate in the qualifiers for Chile 1962, he was left at home for the tournament itself. His Argentina career was over, and from that point onwards El Loco entered in a steady downward decline.
In his biography, Wall points out that wingers are the prizefighters of football. Solitary creatures, they must rely on their own wits to outfox their adversaries, and more than any other position rely on a dose of madness in their trade. In both professions, tragedy often awaits.
Garrincha died penniless and alone at the age of 49, consumed by his demons and by the drink. A similar fate befell George Best, Northern Ireland’s wing wizard, while the hero of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup victory, René Houseman, battled for years with alcoholism and lived on the streets and in shanty towns before finally breaking his addiction. In the boxing world, Argentine folk hero José María Gatica, a contemporary of Corbatta’s in the 1950s and also illiterate, was crushed by the military dictatorship that ousted Juan Domingo Perón for his political views and, almost a cripple, died outside Independiente’s stadium at just 38 after being hit by a bus. Corbatta, meanwhile, was left bankrupt by a string of failed marriages, which his alcoholism and chronic unreliability surely helped to destroy one time and another.
In 1963, still an idol, he moved to Boca Juniors for the then-astronomic fee of 12 million pesos (US$85,000). But he played just 18 times for the Xeneize in two years, scoring seven goals before moving to Colombia with Independiente Medellín. That adventure ended in familiar fashion: brief moments of magic which have preserved his folk-hero status with Medellín supporters up to the present day, punctuated by late-night benders, missed training sessions and disputes with coaches and directors, until finally in 1970 he returned to Argentina.
At 34, Corbatta wiled out the remainder of his career at a succession of lower league and amateur clubs, ending in the wilds of Patagonia where he literally played for his next meal. In the 1980s, ravaged by alcohol-related illness, Racing took pity on their former star and offered him a tiny room under the away stand of El Cilindro. He became a virtual hermit, only venturing out of his sanctuary to frequent the bars immediately adjacent to the stadium.
On 6 December 1955, he passed away from throat cancer, three months shy of his 56th birthday. “Death has crossed the line,” Página 12 wrote in its obituary, while La Nación mourned the “architect of a football that moved you”. The tiny alley that runs parallel to the away end in El Cilindro was later renamed Pasaje Corbatta in his memory; the only recognisable landmark is a restaurant run by octogenarian proprietors Susi and Lalo, where in this writer’s opinion they prepare the most delicious milanesa sandwiches in Buenos Aires.
Novelist Federico Levin wrote of that strangest of football breeds, the winger: “They share aesthetically the clumsy beauty of their movements, their faintly chaplinesque monstrosity. Ethically they assent to dismantle the logic of indulgence, to experience it as a necessity: one dribble or trick too many is ‘too many’ precisely because it exceeds the plain economic calculation in the quest for success.”
Corbatta, like his tragic peers on the flank, sought to play football as he did on the bumpy wastelands of La Plata, the potrero, where life was simple and the only imperative was to streak past one’s marker. His reign at the pinnacle of football was all-too brief, curtailed by off-field issues as much as the game’s own loss of innocence as the glorious 1950s came to a close. But he remains an all-time idol of the Argentine game, a reminder that even the scrawny waif that turns up to training with just the clothes on his back can go on to conquer the world.
By Daniel Edwards @DanEdwardsGoal