The art and controversy of Daniel Passarella, Argentina’s greatest defender

The art and controversy of Daniel Passarella, Argentina’s greatest defender

THIS SUMMER MARKS the 40th anniversary of when Argentina first won the World Cup, a triumph shrouded in controversy from a time that cast a shadow over South America’s second largest country.

Winning the World Cup is the pinnacle of any player’s career. For Argentina, it has been lifted twice, both times by legends of the game and two of Buenos Aires’ favourite sons, heroes of River and Boca. Although a mutual respect exists between Daniel Passarella and Diego Maradona, they have always been at opposite ends of the football spectrum.

The first man to lift the hallowed trophy, Passarella – El Gran Capitán – personified Argentine football in the late 1970s and early 80s. An intimidating leader in the mould of Antonio Rattín, his goalscoring record of 134 goals in 451 games as a defender is only bettered by Ronald Koeman at the highest level. The five foot eight inch central defender was a consummate penalty taker and described by Maradona as the best header of the ball he had seen. His regimented style brought success to club and country yet a win at all costs mentality didn’t necessarily endear him to football fans around the world. 

Passarella was born in Chacabuco, a backwater, Buenos Aires province. He made his way in football with third division Club Atlético Sarmiento before leaving the hometown of former first lady Eva Perón to join River Plate. Raised as a Boca Juniors fan, a young Passarella never dreamed of wearing the red-sashed shirts of River. He remarked to his grandmother that he would one day “thrash the Gallinas” yet El Monumental would become his home in 1974 and begin a 40-year association with Los Millonarios.   

Despite his size, the diminutive Passarella caught the eye of River coach Néstor Rossi. Despite playing as a central defender, he scored nine goals in 36 games for the Sarmiento. The man known as ‘Pipo’ took the youngster to the capital and gave him his debut in the pre-season Centennial Cup against eternal enemies Boca. The 20-year-old made his league debut that season as they looked to put a decade to forget behind them.

The return of all-time record scorer Ángel Labruna as coach a year later saw a sea change in the fortunes of the Buenos Aires giants as they ended their championship drought of 18 years. Passarella, along with Roberto Perfumo, Reinaldo Merlo and legendary goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol, formed the backbone of the team’s success. The addition of striker Leopoldo Luque from Club Atlético Unión fired Los Millonarios to their 17th Metropolitano title. As a result, with a home World Cup on the horizon, five River stars featured in the squad. Passarella donned the armband as the natural leader of a national team for a far from united country.

The death of President Juan Perón in July 1974 added to an increasingly hostile time for the Argentine people. Perón’s third wife and vice president, Isabel, replaced him in power but social unrest and growing economic problems led to the formation of a military junta in what would become the darkest period in the nation’s history. Within two years a coup d’état led by senior army commander Jorge Videla seized control of the country and so began a nine-year reign of state terrorism that became known as the Dirty War with an estimated 8,000 people murdered or ‘disappeared’ by the regime. 

La Albiceleste were pitted against France, Italy and Hungary in the first group stage and the host nation got off to a sluggish start with a close 2-1 victory over the Magyars in their opening game. Defeat against Italy left France desperate for a win to advance to the second group stage. Swiss referee Jean Dubach was at the centre of the action, awarding a controversial penalty to Argentina for handball when Les Bleus defender Marius Trésor slipped onto the ball shortly before half-time.

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Passarella stepped up and smashed his left-footed shot past Jean-Paul Bertrand-Demanes. Despite a Michel Platini equaliser on the hour mark, Luque settled matters in the 73rd minute when he volleyed a beautifully measured shot past the error-prone goalkeeper and gave the hosts a less than convincing win in front of over 70,000 fans at El Monumental.

In the final group game against Italy, a Roberto Bettega strike settled the tie, which saw Argentina qualify, but as runners-up in the group. This, however, was a blessing in disguise as the host nation moved 300km away from the glare of Buenos Aires to the more sedate port city of Rosario.

The second group stage pitted Argentina against rivals Brazil, with the hosts eager for revenge after they suffered a 2-1 defeat during the previous World Cup. First up, however, was Poland. The move away from the capital invigorated Mario Kempes who had removed all traces of facial hair in an attempt to rediscover his goalscoring touch. His two goals gave Argentina a 2-0 win as Passarella’s commanding defence registered their first clean sheet of the tournament.

A tense goalless draw with Brazil meant Argentina needed to better O Seleção result in the last group game to make it through to a final against the Johan Cruyff-less Netherlands. Brazil romped to a 3-1 victory over Poland, which meant Argentina would need to beat Peru by four clear goals in a packed Estadio Gigante de Arroyito.

The fixture would go down as one of the most controversial in World Cup history. The 6-0 rout and collapse from Peru have led to multiple allegations over the years, most notably from their former senator Genaro Ledesma. The allegations centred around shipments of grain, the return of political prisoners, and the interference of Jorge Videla. Either way, the hosts topped the group and the Netherlands awaited in the final to be played back in Buenos Aires.

A nation expected. The team bus was followed through the streets as locals waved rosary beads at the windows and prayed to their heroes. Fans forgot about the deprivation and poverty in the country in that moment – exactly what the government hoped for. Not everyone had, though, and a mysterious black tape had appeared around the base of the goalposts. It was an apparent protest at the regime and the treatment of their own people; a black armband of remembrance for the disappeared.

Before the final, nothing was left to chance, and Passarella even complained to the referee about Rene van de Kerkhof’s plaster cast on his right hand. Despite wearing it throughout the tournament, the Dutch winger was made to remove it. The gamesmanship caused a delay which ramped the tension up even more in El Monumental. Kempes scored his fifth goal of the tournament on 37 minutes, taking the ball in his stride before sliding it under Jan Jongbloed as the Dutch defence scrambled back. 

Kempes squandered a chance early in the second half as the Dutch pressed for an equaliser. When Dick Nanninga replaced the influential but injured Johnny Rep, it looked as though the Netherlands’ chances had gone. It was Nanninga, however, who rose highest to finally breach Fillol’s resistance and send the game into extra-time.

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A largely uneventful first half of extra time was broken when Kempes surged through the Dutch defence, and, with the aid of some deflections and ricochets, he reached the ball ahead of two defenders to stab home. Argentina benefited from further good fortune 10 minutes later as Daniel Bertoni rifled the third and final goal past Jongbloed to ensure La Albiceleste’s victory. Videla awaited Passarella, a grin spread across the dictator’s face as he handed the trophy to the triumphant captain. In a chilling juxtaposition, the crowd’s cheers were heard by the prisoners in the ESMA torture camp, a few blocks away from the stadium.

Passarella’s success continued domestically as River won more titles before the decade was out. However, their cross-city rivals, Boca, pulled off a major coup when they snatched Diego Maradona from under their rival’s noses. Maradona’s time at Boca was short but sweet as he won a league championship in his first season there, but financial problems had crippled Argentine football and El Diego moved to Barcelona in the summer of 1982. With a World Cup to defend in Spain, the football-obsessed country had a new hero to worship.

There would be no repeat of their previous success, however. Passarella remained captain for in César Luis Menotti’s squad, which this time blended youth and experience. An opening defeat to Belgium was treated as a hiccup as the comfortable disposal of Hungary and El Salvador followed. La Albiceleste qualified for the second group stage where they would face Itay and Brazil.

Throughout the tournament, opponents’ tactics against the new star of Argentine football were brutal, and the clear aim to kick Maradona out of the game was no better witnessed than in the defeat to Italy. Back-to-back losses saw Argentina head home as Maradona saw red in the final game against Brazil, finally lashing out after two weeks of knee-high tackles and elbows galore. 

Despite the early exit from the World Cup, Passarella’s reputation as the dependable leader at the back with an eye for goal continued with him scoring from the spot against El Salvador and giving his nation hope with a late goal against the Azzurri in the 2-1 defeat. The man-marking and resolute defending from eventual winners Italy caught Passarella’s eye. Football in Serie A seemed to suit his style of play; catenaccio was back and the regimented defences of the major clubs were met with a desire to attract some of the game’s best players.

After the disappointment of Spain, Passarella bid farewell to Buenos Aires, and with over 200 appearances and 90 goals for River, he joined the likes of Zico, Falcão, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Michel Platini in Italy.

El Gran Capitán headed for Tuscany where he joined a fellow South American in Sócrates. Together they secured UEFA Cup qualification for Fiorentina, Passarella contributing 15 goals, which was quite the achievement as the team only scored a mere 29 all season. A move to Internazionale followed where they finished runners-up, Passarella again impressing with eight goals from defence. His sophomore season with Inter ended in a non-descript fifth-place finish, 15 points behind their city rivals. 

In between his spells with La Viola and the Nerazzurri, there was the small matter of another World Cup. Menotti had vacated his position as manager after the frustrations in Spain. Former Estudiantes player and manager Carlos Bilardo took over the role and had big plans. These plans primarily involved Maradona, now at Napoli, which represented a huge shift in the hierarchy of the national team and resulted in the end of Passarella’s international career. Not only did Bilardo plan to build his side around the new hero of the Partenopei, he also wanted him to lead it. 

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The choice of Maradona as captain was unsurprising as he had already worn the armband at both Argentinos and Boca Juniors, yet he respected Passarella’s leadership. Maradona, however, was a notorious hothead, his genius on the pitch fuelled by a desire to be the best, to face head on whatever the opposition defenders brought his way. Passarella, on the other hand, was a role model and leader, commanding the respect of teammates and management alike. Off the pitch, he was a notoriously private person while Maradona was open to all that fame and fortune offered.

In modern football, the role of captain is regularly questioned. Does it have the same importance as it does in other sports or is it merely a symbolic gesture? In 1980s Argentina, it was headline news. Passarella gave an interview to magazine El Gráfico in which he took the loss of the armband personally; “Either I’m first choice or I’m not playing,” he threatened in a manner belying his usually composed manner.

With home and away wins over Venezuela and Colombia, qualification for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico looked to be a formality, but defeat away to Peru suddenly left their spot at the top of the group in jeopardy. A point at El Monumental was needed to stave off a four-team playoff.

With the clock ticking down, Peru led 2-1 courtesy of first-half goals from José Velásquez and Gerónimo Barbadillo. Argentina mounted an attack, winning a corner in the process. Passarella made his usual sojourn up the field, and when the ball was only half cleared, he was neatly positioned in the Peru penalty area. He chested the ball down and slid it under the goalkeeper and against the post, where Ricardo Gareca bundled it over the line.

Qualification was secured and Maradona called a press conference where he requested unity with the World Cup a little over six months away. By the time the squad reached its training camp in Mexico City, however, it had divided into two camps. Passarella, alongside veterans Jorge Valdano and Ricardo Bochini, eyed the new captain with suspicion. The temperature within the squad had risen and, following several poor performances in friendlies, it reached boiling point. After one such disappointment, Passarella seized his moment and pounced on Maradona when he arrived 15 minutes late for a team meeting, where he questioned why the captain was late. 

The stern, stickler for rules asked whether Maradona’s rumoured drug-taking had caused the tardiness. In his autobiography, Maradona confessed to being a regular cocaine user during this time but was adamant he was clean in Mexico. The new captain saw this as an attempt by Passarella to belittle him in front of the squad and a way of gaining control over the group once again. The allegations continued as senior members backed Passarella with some insinuating that Maradona had tempted the younger players into using.

The respected Valdano snapped and confronted Maradona, who had some revelations of his own. Word had spread around the Italian league that Passarella regularly jetted off to Monaco for illicit meetings with a national teammate’s wife, something he would brag about on his return to Fiorentina. A 2000-peso phone bill also went unclaimed with the squad made to pay it between them. Maradona revealed the itemised bill, showing that it was Passarella who had run it so high by calling his paramours, and that despite earnings of $2m a year, he was happy to stay silent and let his teammates foot the bill.

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Shortly after this, Passarella left the squad, a bout of enterocolitis leaving him bedridden and unable to train. Ironically it would his replacement, José Luis Brown, who would open the scoring in the 1986 final for Argentina as Maradona lifted their second World Cup in eight years. The controversy of this victory was restricted purely to the field this time with Maradona’s Hand of God goal in the quarter-finals still maddening England fans 32 years later.

In 1988, Passarella, now 35, felt the call of home and returned to River for a second spell. His time spent in Italy was deemed somewhat of a success despite several controversial incidents, which included kicking a ball boy, headbutting an opposition team’s physio, and rumoured bad blood between the Argentine and the chain-smoking doctor from Brazil.

The resignation of Reinaldo Merlo in December 1989 saw River fans and management look to Passarella to transition to the touchline. Despite his lack of experience, he was a natural leader and, with him at the helm, the club laid a foundation for a decade of domination. 

Passarella took over with River trailing Independiente at the halfway stage of the 1989/90 Primera División, yet by the season’s end they had won the league by seven points. This was a team built in the same mould as its manager. El Gráfico described them as “cold, accurate, clinical and no-nonsense”. Hard-pressing midfielders Leonardo Astrada and Gustavo Zapata typified this approach as the Buenos Aires giants won the Torneo Apertura in the following two seasons.

A defeat to Romania in the first knockout stages of the World Cup in 1994 saw Argentina abruptly exit proceedings. It also brought the curtain down on Maradona’s international career, a failed drug test seeing his Argentina career end in shame. Alfio Basile was also out as manager, with the Argentine Football Association eager to restore some pride to the national ranks. In stepped Passarella having left behind a resurgent River.

Perhaps boosted by the success at club level and the gravitas of being a World Cup-winning captain, Passarella instantly attempted to put his stamp on the squad. He refused to call up Gabriel Batistuta and Fernando Redondo despite their impressive club form and undoubted talent. Strict squad rules of no earrings or homosexuals were implemented as well as a ban on long hair. Passarella obviously forgot that without the hirsute Kempes in 1978, he would never have lifted the World Cup. 

Batistuta returned 10 months later having had a moderate trim, but Redondo and Claudio Caniggia refused to buckle and made themselves unavailable for as long as Passarella was in charge. A 3-0 defeat to the USA in the 1995 Copa América gave Argentina a severe reality check having won their first two games. Passarella rested players and the sloppy display resulted in a second-place finish in the group and a meeting with Brazil in the quarter-finals. A controversial handball in the build-up to a goal from Túlio saw the game go to penalties where the 10-man Seleção came out on top in the shootout. Defeat in the knockout stages at the hands of Peru two years later led to further Copa América frustration for La Albiceleste

The true test came in 1998 with the World Cup in France. Argentina tore through the typically arduous CONMEBOL qualifying group, Passarella using 46 players in the process. The strict, disciplined approach that he experienced in Italy paid off with Argentina unafraid to win ugly. Passarella created a siege mentality within the squad and limited access to journalists, one television channel resorting to paying a petrol station to rent its roof to get a better view of their L’Étrat training camp. Any questions raised over the manager picking players with links to River and favouring the likes of Ariel Ortega were forgotten with three victories in the group stage, all with clean sheets.

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After England self-destructed in the next round to help Argentina advance, they would be the architects of their own downfall in the quarter-finals against the Netherlands. Unable to take advantage of the Dutch being reduced to 10 men, Ortega was himself red carded for a headbutt on Edwin van der Sar before a moment of magic from Dennis Bergkamp in the 89th minute ended La Albiceleste’s quest for their third World Cup.

The irony of Argentina imploding under their stringent taskmaster was not lost on the man known as El Kaiser, and he resigned shortly afterwards. Passarella ruled through fear with his approach most effective when working with younger players, something he preferred throughout his managerial career. Short spells with Uruguay and Parma followed before he captured a Mexican league title in 2003 with Monterrey. A final stint with River in 2006 brought an end to his coaching career as Passarella eyed the presidency at El Monumental.

As River suffered both financial and on-field problems, Passarella swept to victory in the 2009 election where he replaced José María Aguilar as president. However, they finished bottom of the 2008 Torneo Apertura and their poor form continued throughout the next three seasons, leaving the Buenos Aires giants staring down the barrel of an unthinkable relegation.

AFA president Julio Grondona devised a plan to halt this by attempting to merge the top two divisions, an idea that was shouted down by the other clubs. This was after another safety valve for the top sides was implemented by the AFA: relegation based on an average point total over three seasons. Despite this the unthinkable happened and River were relegated for the first time in their 110-year history. Belgrano defeated Los Millonarios 2-0 at home before a 1-1 draw at El Monumental in a game marred by rioting fans.

Manager Juan José López instantly resigned as ‘RiBer’ graffiti sprung up around Buenos Aires in reference to their place in the Primera B Nacional. Leonardo Ponzio returned to his former club in their hour of need and, alongside David Trezeguet, secured promotion back to the top flight at the first time of asking. The drama wasn’t over for Passarella, though – in 2013 an investigation uncovered serious financial mismanagement on his part.

He was charged with multiple accounts of fraudulent administration which dated back to the previous year. A complex system of ticket resales and alleged illegal payments to the barra bravas were on the list of charges. With an annual 12m pesos deficit and debts of over 387m pesos, Passarella’s position was untenable. He declined to run for office that year and left in disgrace.

The murky end to his career with River perhaps casts a shadow over the way in which Passarella is held in the hearts and minds of Argentine football fans when compared with the other World Cup-winning captain. Is Passarella’s strict, hard-nosed captaincy tied to the Videla regime, whilst Maradona represents the freedom and democracy of the new Argentina?

Maybe it’s something less political and more spiritual as the enganche has always been a difficult role to master, not least appreciate, while the romance of Maradona lives forever, easily appreciable in clips of his genius long after his retirement. Either way, despite Passarella’s flaws, the untucked shirt and rolled down socks of Maradona are the antithesis of the neat side-parted appearance which reflected the spirit and discipline of Argentina’s greatest defender. 

By Matthew Evans  

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