Osvaldo Zubeldía: the gambler, pragmatist, villain and innovator

Osvaldo Zubeldía: the gambler, pragmatist, villain and innovator

When many speak of Osvaldo Zubeldía, the obvious answer is to look at him with reverence. After all, he was a passionate man who died doing something that he was deeply passionate about. After leaving his home, the Hotel Nutibara in the posh area of downtown Medellín, he went to fulfil his daily ritual at the race track. As soon as he finished placing a bet on one of the races, he suffered a heart attack and died on the spot, doing what he loved most.

His life was poetic in its end but mystical in its conception. He became somewhat of a demigod figure, tasting the sciences of good and evil in order to improve both the beautiful game as well as the dark arts behind them

During his almost six years in Medellín, Zubeldía lived out of the Nutibara, owned then by Nacional president Hernán Botero Moreno. He constantly referred to the hotel staff as “his second family”.  He was a rock star in the town as Nacional fans revered him and Medellín rivals showed respect towards him. In addition to the race track, he also frequented the bars that would play tango non-stop from the early morning until the break of dawn. That’s the affinity he had towards the City of Eternal Spring.

As a human being, many knew that they lost a great deal when he passed away. As a coach, he left behind a legacy that was forever embossed in the South American football cultured for completely different reasons.  Then again, there was a reason why he was nicknamed the Fox. 


The Gambler


Osvaldo Zubeldía was appointed as manager of Atlético Nacional in 1976, becoming one of the biggest coups pulled off by any team since the days of the pirate league in late-1940s and early-1950s. “I revolutionised Colombian football because I ended the siestas,” said the Argentine in an interview back in 1980, two years before his death. “I ended the big breakfasts and the extended lunches. They have to be on the pitch. They have to work day and night.” 

The demand was much higher for players and the competitive level of the league overall went on the upswing. Unfortunately, that time also coincided with the beginning of drug lords within the game, an era known as narco-fútbol.

Colombian journalist Hector Montoya recalled that moment in an article he wrote as a homage to the great Argentine coach on the 30th anniversary of his death. At the time, Montoya was an 11-year-old kid going to the local store and the shop owner informed him of Zubeldía’s passing moments before. For him, it seemed like bad joke, until he saw people surrounding radio transistors around the neighbourhood hearing the same story.

Tears streamed from people’s eyes regardless of what colours flowed through their veins. Whether they were green – those that root for Nacional – or red – those that support Independiente – or even those that were called sandías – watermelons, referring to those that were green on the outside but red on the inside – everyone felt a tremendous sadness on that day. What made it even more surreal was that he had led Nacional to the league title just three weeks before. 

“I believe in the offside because it crushes the opponent morally; the forward that ends up in offside five times ends up being afraid of going into the area” Osvaldo Zubeldía

At the time, the Colombian league was one of the longest and most gruelling tournaments in the world where the regular season and playoffs would end up being nearly 60 rounds. Zubeldía brought a style and an organisation to Colombian football unseen before, and his disciples marked future generations.

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He’s been anointed by many football revisionist historians as the father of Carlos Bilardo and the grandfather of Diego Simeone. He was also a major influence on coaches like Alejandro Sabella and became the main school of thought in South American football. If you analyse the current Argentine coaches that have been successful with teams and national sides, many are Argentine. Many are also influenced greatly by Zubeldía’s teachings.

During the 1974 World Cup, Rinus Michels was asked about the origins of Total Football and he responded confidently, as he was always known for doing: “You ask me about Total Football, that was invented by Osvaldo Zubeldía over at Estudiantes six years ago.” Michels’ mentioning of Zubeldía was both a compliment as well as a strange reference towards a person who spawned Total Football’s evil twin brother – anti-fútbol. Michels did refer to him in that concept but he also understood that what Zubeldía’s concepts and insights led to were on the field battles that would wear out his opposition. 

That comment helps individuals gain a better picture of a man who was both an innovator of the game as well as a master pragmatist who ended up building one of the most dastardly teams in football history.


The Communicator and Innovator


When Zubeldía took over at Estudiantes 50 years ago, he was taking over a team that was on the verge of relegation. For him, it was a chance to prove himself after being denied a chance to coach the Argentine national team in the 1966 World Cup due to differences with the football association.

He was a master communicator and his messages were often extremely poignant. There were several reports from that era that Zubeldía, when the squad was having some problems in buying the philosophy he was looking to implement, had them come one day to practice at 4 o’clock in the morning. Instead of training, he loaded the team onto a bus and took them to the local train station. When they arrived an hour later, Zubeldía told them to just sit and observe the people that were on their way to work. “I did this so you can see how fortunate you are, because you are paid to what you love to do most, play football.”

“Play every match as if it was your debut. Fans will always forgive one bad play, but they will never forgive that you don’t give your all on the pitch” Osvaldo Zubeldía

Moments like these helped them gain a better understanding of their careers as well as their lives post-football. Carlos Bilardo was a primary example. Zubeldía’s main coaching protegé stayed in school and became a practising doctor a year after he retired as a player.

Yet while he was a great motivator, he was also a major proponent of accountability and reprimanded his players for any mistake they made. During matches, where some even rumoured he smoked up to a pack of cigarettes per match, he would tell players of their errors and spend hours remedying them on the training pitch. He was unforgiving in his meticulous approach and only the right personality could improve and handle his methods.


The Villain


If one were to go to Manchester United’s museum, Zubeldía’s influence is wonderfully felt. In one of the corners of the Red Devils’ history lies a little board with notes that Zubeldía wrote, where he would have all the main talking points that he wanted to send across to his team. On the board there was a quote that stood out: “You don’t achieve glory by walking through a rosy path.” That quote was his rallying cry to his team as they were about to embark on a series of matches that saw them reach glory as well as infamy. That phrase embodied the ethos of his team.

That year they faced the legendary Manchester United side of Bobby Charlton and George Best at the height of their powers. That series of matches was known more as a battle royale than actual football, but it was Estudiantes that found a way to neutralise Best with extremely physical play. So great was his lack of influence that the Northern Ireland star ended up getting sent off and United would miss him for the remainder of the tie.

Each ball was a battle; each play was a series of scenarios that were practised and conditioned into the players repeatedly by their Argentine mentor.

Read  |  Carlos Bilardo, anti-fútbol and the pragmatic heart of Argentina

Much of Zubeldía’s philosophy can be traced back to the years after he retired as a player in 1960. He debuted with Buenos Aires side Atlanta the following year. Over the following two years, the neighbourhood of Villa Crespo became a mad science lab where some of the most modern footballing concepts were forged, which many might overlook with the passing of time.

In order for his team to better understand the concepts that he wanted to implement, Zubeldía had his teams practice twice a day. His team was not one of the most talented of the era, but in that 1961 season Atlanta ended up in fourth place. At the time, the game was still not professional enough to implement those types of schedules with players. This was something that was not done anywhere else in the world.

One of the secrets of his success was the use of set-pieces. One of the cornerstones of that Atlanta side and even the glorious Estudiantes squads later on that decade was the work done on corners and free-kicks.

“No. I don’t wish you good luck. I know it’s a way of being amicable towards your opponent, but I need that luck to win” Osvaldo Zubeldía

In his book published back in 1965, Tactics And Strategy In Football, Zubeldía talked about set-pieces being most effective when they are done with “quickness” and when they “prevent opponents from reorganising”. He knew that there were moments where it was not possible to simply find a player in the box and that the difference was being able to exploit space and use deflections to react quickly and pounce on the loose ball. 

He talked about having set-piece routines established prior to the game and even improvised in an effort to take advantage of their opponent’s defensive weaknesses. He was also a major proponent of finding synchronisation within his team: “Goals might come on occasion, but set-pieces work to develop a sense association that is part of football.” 

In these types of plays, he saw the advantage in going to the near post in order to beat the defenders to the ball and flick it on – something common in the modern game. It was also a means off enabling players of smaller stature to become threats on goal. With that option in place, it enabled other situations to evolve, most notably a scramble in the box and the goalkeeper being caught in no man’s land.

In his book, Zubeldía closely observed the 4-2-4 that Brazil used to brilliantly in their back-to-back World Cup triumphs in 1958 and 1962. In his observations, he saw that Brazil’s midfield was mostly about creation and quick transition into attack. Zubeldía noticed that the Brazilian midfielders did not defend, but that their possession kept their opponent’s at bay. 

For hours on end, Zubeldía would show his team a video of Santos. While his players initially thought it was to highlight the importance of possession, Zubeldía didn’t show it to teach them to emulate that style; he did so in order to find a way to counter it. “We are not convinced by the Brazilian disdain towards the middle of the pitch,” said Zubeldía in his book. He believed that he had found a weakness in possession that could be exploited by fast countering.

Zubeldía also talked about his version of the 4-2-4, with the difference being that his formation required that players in the middle had to press and not allow the opposition to create and move the ball around. Between the change in spacing that opposing teams had when they played a Zubeldía side, there was also a change in the strategic setup of his back line.

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During that time, he implemented the stopper. Although that position is obsolete in today’s game, the stopper had the vital role of being able to mark the most effective forward and also to serve as a relay for the entire backline. 

That would give birth to one of the most frustrating defensive movements in football history – the offside trap. “This play (offside trap) came into being because of an explanation of a collaborator. The Czechs used it and I decided to look at some videos to further analyse it. The players told me that if the Czechs can do it, so can we.”


The Pragmatist


Zubeldía remains one of the most pioneering, respected and admired coaching minds of the last 70 years in South America. He is also seen as one of the most disdained. Zubeldía marked a transition in Argentina as they departed from La Nuestra, the socio-football cultural change that helped the game in the River Plate become the most dominant in the world during the early part of the 20th century. During the 1960s and ’70s they looked to use picardía (malice) as a means to outsmart opponents. Zubeldía’s aggressive, brutal but innovative Estudiantes team were the greatest proponents of this aggressive style, helping themselves to 

Zubeldía’s aggressive, brutal but innovative Estudiantes team were the greatest proponents of this aggressive style, helping themselves to staggering success in the form of three Copa Libertadores titles and an Intercontinental Cup between 1965 and 1970.

While Zubeldía’s teams are often remembered for their aggression, they should be remembered for how they pioneered the use of video technology and studying their opponents to gain an advantage. Coaches like Carlos Bilardo and Gabriel Ochoa Uribe used film sessions ad nauseum to achieve unprecedented success in the game.

Zubeldía, an awkward Argentine who came with a mystique of greatness and the look of an ageing Italian mobster, enamoured Colombian fans and divided hearts in Argentina.He was the viejo macanudo (cool old man) who would talk incessantly about football to people that knew him. He would constantly frequent Medellín and, famously, it was over his milanesas (breaded meat fillet) where he constantly told his players to believe in themselves.  

During the run-in of their memorable 1976 league triumph, in his first season with Nacional, Zubeldía told his central defender Francisco Maturana – later a successful coach himself who implemented many of the Argentine’s teaching – that he was the best central defender in the world. He also told opposing coaches that “Maturana was going to win every ball”. That’s exactly what happened; he knew what to say to motivate and demotivate in equal measure.

Maturana, in helping Nacional to glory and buying into Zubeldía’s demanding philosophy, helped his mentor “live again”. Zubeldía would say after their title win: “I’ve found myself once again. I left very bitterly from Argentina because no one believed in me. I don’t speak about the titles of the past because they aren’t won today.”

Osvaldo Zubeldía means many things to many people. He’s the master pragmatist and a genius of football offence to some. By hiring referees to gain a better grasp of football rules, he was perceived as a manager always looking for the verge of legality. All of this is what saw a man of humble upbringing from the same city that gave birth to Eva Perón and Luis Ángel Firpo lead a life filled with tall tales and polarising stances.

By Juan Arango @JuanG_Arango

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