The trailblazing brilliance of Argentine legend Hugo Gatti

The trailblazing brilliance of Argentine legend Hugo Gatti

FOR MANY, 11 September conjures up memories of infamous moments that have been seared into modern history. In the USA, in 2001, the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center; in Chile, in 1973, Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government was ousted in a CIA-backed coup. For Hugo Gatti, the date is significant for two events which took place exactly eight years apart, both of which were to shape his career significantly.

On 11 September 1988, the eccentric Boca Juniors goalkeeper Hugo Gatti was in goal as Deportivo Armenio arrived at La Bombonera for the opening day of the 1988-89 season. Armenio, having recently won promotion from the second tier, were competing at the top-level of Argentine football for the second and ultimately last time. Halfway through the opening period the visitors scored what would prove to be the only goal of the game.

Attacking down the left, just inside the Boca Juniors half, Deportivo Armenio centred the ball. Hugo Gatti rushed from his goal-line to meet the attacker on the edge of the penalty area, but completely misjudged the ball. A grateful Silviano Maciel was then able to roll the ball into the empty net and silence the shocked crowd. Following the error Gatti was dropped by coach José Omar Pastoriza, replaced by Carlos Fernando Navarro Montoya, and would never pull on a pair of gloves again professionally.

Hugo Orlando Gatti was born on 19 August 1944 in Carlos Tejedor, a small town with only a few thousand inhabitants, in the north-west corner of Buenos Aires province, over 400 kilometres from the capital. Whilst war raged in Europe and the Pacific in the early 1940s, Argentina remained reasonably unaffected on the international scene as, despite international pressure, the country remained neutral during the Second World War.

However, the political situation was a little more colourful on the home front. After years of internal upheaval, not helped by a failing economy, Juan Domingo Perón would win the election and become Argentine president less than a year after Gatti’s birth. Perón would usher in a new era, and his legacy still dominates Argentine politics to this day. Little did anyone know that a seed had been sewn in the small town of Carlos Tejedor, one that would have a profound effect on the future of goalkeeping.

Gatti joined Club Atlético Atlanta in the Villa Crespo district of Buenos Aires at the age of 16. He would make his debut in 1962 at the age of 18, before making almost 40 appearances for Los Bohemios during a two-year spell. Allegedly he played outfield as a youngster, which is where he learnt to play with the ball at his feet, but his style was really to be shaped by a man from whom he would take several traits: River Plate goalkeeper Amadeo Carrizo.

Carizzo, considered by many to be one of the best Argentine goalkeepers of all-time, was a pioneer, the first to wear gloves and one of the first to regularly leave his penalty area. The late Eduardo Galeano, the great Uruguayan author, described Carrizo as having “magnetic hands” and having the audacity to dribble, leave the penalty area and lead the attack. Galeano credits Carizzo with directly influencing a raft of eccentric South American goalkeepers including the Colombian René Higuita, famed for his scorpion kick against England at Wembley, Paraguayan goal-scoring ‘keeper José Luis Chilavert, and one Hugo Orlando Gatti.

Gatti, living up to his nickname El Loco, would also leave the penalty area and was a real showman with the ball at his feet, often taking on opponents and venturing upfield. He would also quickly leave his line and close forwards down, narrowing their space and forcing them into rushed decisions that often worked in his favour, a technique known as achique. Wearing his trademark headband to keep his eyes free of his thick black locks, Gatti was also adept at stopping penalties, saving more than 25 during the course of his career.

In 1964 Gatti followed in the footsteps of his hero by signing for River Plate, and he would go on to compete with his idol for the number one shirt at El MonumentalGatti would make a respectable 77 appearances in four years for Los Millonarios and it was during his time with River Plate that he would make his debut for the national team, with whom he would go on to win 18 caps.

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Gatti made the Argentina squad for the 1966 World Cup but found himself behind Antonio Roma in the pecking order. Roma, nicknamed Tarzan due to the unorthodox way he would throw himself at the ball, was a Boca Juniors legend, making over 300 appearances during a 12-year spell at the club. Argentina failed to qualify for the 1970 World Cup and Gatti was left out of the squad altogether for the 1974 competition.

By the time the 1978 World Cup came around – to be held in Argentina under the auspicious eye of a brutal military regime – another great goalkeeper had emerged to keep Gatti in the shadows. Ubaldo Fillol, a club legend at River Plate, took on the number one mantle and was later described by Maradona as his favourite ever goalkeeper.

In another interesting example of their intertwining careers, Gatti would be in goal for Argentina when Maradona made his debut for La Albiceleste in a 5-1 friendly victory over Hungary in February 1977. Three months later Gatti would keep goal for the last time for his national team, whereas Maradona would begin the journey that would see him lift the World Cup in 1986 and become the country’s most venerated player.

Following his spell at River Plate, Gatti joined  Gimnasia in 1969. He would go on to make over 200 appearances for the club in a five-year spell before joining Club Atlético Unión in the city of Santa Fe, where he would spend a year. Aged 31, Gatti was about to make the move that would solidify his legendary status.

Despite previously playing for Boca Juniors’ great rivals River Plate, Gatti would go on to become a club legend between the Bombonera sticks. After making his debut in February 1976, the stopper would make over 400 appearances during a 12-year spell, a stint that now sees him occupy second place in the all-time list of appearance holders for the club.

Gatti’s arrival heralded a golden spell for the club. In his first year Boca won the 1976 Metropolitano (effectively the Buenos Aires championship), conceding less than a goal per game, and this triumph qualified Boca for the Nacional championship. Boca won their group after a play-off against Quilmes, conceding only 11 goals in 17 games. Banfield and Huracán were then eliminated, in the quarter and semi-finals respectively, before River Plate were vanquished 1-0 in the final, thanks in no small part to a Gatti clean sheet.

Two championships in the first year was a good start for Gatti’s Boca career, but it was to get even sweeter the following season. In the 1977 Copa Libertadores, Boca eased through the group stage, remaining unbeaten and conceding zero goals in six matches. A second group stage saw Boca pitted against Deportivo Cali of Colombia and Libertad of Paraguay. Boca retained their unbeaten record, although their goal was breached twice, and won the group leading to a showdown with defending champions Cruzeiro from Brazil.

Cruzeiro and Boca couldn’t be separated after two legs, with both winning their home games 1-0, leading to a third, deciding match to take place in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario. Showing just how close a tie this was, open play in this third match still couldn’t produce a winner and the tie went to the lottery of a penalty shoot-out.

Boca led the penalties 5-4 on when Cruzeiro’s Vanderley stepped up. A strange, staggered, run-up by the Brazilian was followed by a weak penalty to Gatti’s left. El Loco palmed the ball away with two hands before being mobbed by his delighted team-mates and writing himself into Boca Juniors folklore as the club lifted its first ever Copa Libertadores.

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Victory in the Libertadores gave Boca the chance to face the European champions for the Intercontinental Cup, a competition that has generally always been held in high regard in South American footballing circles. The opponents were Borussia Mönchengladbach, the German side competing after champions Liverpool declined the invitation.

The first leg, in March 1978, took place on home soil. Gatti didn’t play and Boca conceded two goals, drawing the match 2-2. Boca travelled to Germany for the second leg, which took place five months later in August 1978. With Gatti back in goal and keeping a clean sheet, Los Xeneizes won 3-0 and conquered the world.

Boca began the defence of the Copa Libertadores the following year in the semi-final group stage, having been given a bye for the first round. This time they were joined in Group A by River Plate and Atlético Mineiro of Brazil. In four games, Boca won three and drew one, conceding only two goals.

This led to a final against Deportivo Cali, a team they had beaten on the way to winning the trophy the previous year. Boca played out a goalless draw in the first leg in Colombia, although Gatti did not play. He was back between the sticks for the second leg, keeping a clean sheet as Boca recorded a convincing 4-0 win at La Bombonera. Boca were once again champions of the continent and Gatti had now won five major trophies in his first two years at the club.

On 11 September 1980, exactly eight years prior to the game that would ultimately end his professional career, Hugo Gatti had to pick the ball out of the net five times as Boca Juniors lost 5-3 to Argentinos Juniors in the Torneo Nacional. Four of the Argentinos goals that day were scored by a certain Diego Maradona.

Normally this would be no shame, however before the game Gatti had upset the fiery Maradona when in an interview he said that El Diego was a gifted player but perhaps a little overhyped, adding that he was “a little fatty”. Baiting a player as gifted as Maradona is akin to sticking a sugar-coated hand into a wasp’s nest, and he responded as viciously as expected. Maradona remarked to the press that Gatti was jealous, that he had been a great goalie but was now “a nobody”.

The first of the four duels between the two came from the penalty spot following a handball. Maradona took a fairly straight run up before opening up his body at the last moment and striking the ball with his magic wand of a left foot. Gatti barely moved, falling to his knees as the ball nestled in the bottom-right corner of his net.

The second of Maradona’s four goals came in the 42nd minute of the first half. Maradona was felled deep into enemy territory, approximately 10 yards from the by-line and halfway between the penalty area and touch line. Displaying the quick-thinking that would become a hallmark of his career, Maradona rose quickly to his feet and took the free-kick immediately, surprising the Boca defence, lofting the ball towards the goal. It sailed over the head of the scrambling Gatti, hitting the far post and going in.

The hat-trick goal, and the only one to come in open play, was perhaps the most sublime. A ball over the top was beautifully controlled on Maradona’s chest approximately 10 yards outside of the penalty box. As the ball dropped Maradona deftly flicked it with his left foot past the advancing Gatti.


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The fourth and final Maradona goal came from another free-kick, this time from an almost central position on the edge of the penalty area. Despite a wall and a packed box, Maradona smashed the ball into the top left corner, giving Gatti no chance whatsoever.

Maradona predicted before the game that he would score four and he was as good as his word. His team progressed to the next phase of the championship, whilst Gatti’s was eliminated. More importantly, Maradona had won the battle of wills and proven his point emphatically.

As so often happens in football and other sports, adversaries become friends as mutual respect builds up after duals. Gatti and Maradona would eventually become team-mates and play together for a year at Boca Juniors after El Diego joined from Argentinos Juniors, spending a year at La Bombonera before departing for FC Barcelona in Spain.

Boca won the 1981 Metropolitano title with Gatti and Maradona in the same side, although they were defeated in the quarter-finals of the Nacional at the hands of Vélez Sarsfield. In a crucial match against Ferro, one of the standout sides from that campaign, Gatti “made some unbelievable saves” according to Maradona and was the man of the match. Despite their initial differences, this title victory would go some way to healing the wounds. Maradona later said of Gatti: “He turned out to be a great guy, always by my side.”

If Gatti’s first five years at Boca were the feast then the ultimate seven would prove to be the famine. In fact, after the Metropolitano, Boca wouldn’t win a major trophy after 1981 until claiming the league title 11 years later. Alberto J. Armando, the man whose name officially adorns the club’s stadium, retired as president in 1980 following a failed land purchase, the club’s financial situation deteriorating just as rapidly as the on-field fortunes. Armando failed with a bid in 1986 to become president for the third time and passed away two years later.

On a personal note, 1982 was a great year for Gatti as he was crowned Argentine Footballer of the Year. He was in esteemed company; the award had been won for the previous three years by Diego Maradona, his nemesis-turned-team-mate. When the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) produced lists of the greatest players of all time, Hugo Gatti was ranked third of all the Argentine goalkeepers, behind Amadeo Carizzo and Ubaldo Fillol.

Gatti hasn’t been forgotten by the club where he made his name, either. His handprint can be found on Boca Junior’s Walk of Fame and while all the other players have impressions of their feet, his entry bucks the trend and personifies his uniqueness.

Gatti’s legacy, and those of other ‘keepers with similar styles, continues today. Pep Guardiola’s use of Victor Valdés at Barcelona and later Manuel Neuer at Bayern Munich, mimics the style of goalkeepers adept with the ball at their feet and comfortable leaving the relatively safety of their penalty area to push the team further up the pitch and influence play beyond the confines of the 18-yard box. Talking to Argentine newspaper Clarín in 2014, Gatti waxed lyrical about Neuer’s performance for the eventual World Cup winners Germany. “For me Neuer was the best because he makes saves and plays, improving a team that was already good,” remarked Gatti.

His style, which made him so iconic, would ultimately prove to be his downfall as it was racing to the edge of his box that would cause the mistake in what would ultimately be his final game. Sport can be a cruel game, where a player can grow old overnight, but having played professionally until the age of 44, Gatti can at least say he had a good innings and be confident that his legacy will clearly endure, wherever a goalkeeper leaves his penalty area and breaks the norm.

If fortune does indeed favour the brave, there were few more courageous than Hugo Orlando Gatti.

By Dan Williamson

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