The incredible story of Vélez Sarsfield’s Rául Gamez: saviour, hooligan, president and winner

The incredible story of Vélez Sarsfield’s Rául Gamez: saviour, hooligan, president and winner

LINIERS DIDN’T CHANGE much on 1 July 1943.  Crowded trains still carried exhausted workers from the grimy, industrial barrio into the centre of Buenos Aires. The San Cayetano church still welcomed worshippers through its yawning doors, and the newly-formed government of Pedro Pablo Ramírez was still limiting civic freedoms and repressing opponents. 

It was on that day, however, that one of Liniers’ most famous sons was born. At that time, Rául Gamez couldn’t have known that his neighbourhood played host to the world’s largest cattle market, with 84 acres set aside for beef and butchers every Thursday. He couldn’t have known about Club Atlético Vélez Sarsfield either, the football team that would define his entire life. 

Raúl’s father, like many of the working-class men from the barrio, was a diehard Fortinero. From an early age, he would take his son to games at the Estadio José Amalfitani, holding him aloft as Juan José Ferraro and Osvaldo Zubeldía dazzled the home crowds. For the boy raised in Boquerón and Montiel, it was love at first sight.

School was a tougher sell, with Gámez leaving his studies in the sixth grade to focus on supporting Vélez full-time. As a young man, he became involved with one of the club’s agrupaciones, or internal political groups. The Circulo El Fortín was formed in response to what its members perceived as a lack of focus on football matters by the club’s then-chairman, José Amalfitani. ‘Don Pepe’ had been in charge for 30 years, but he was a self-confessed Institucionalista. Vélez had a football team, but they also competed in several other sports as well as organising classes in the local neighbourhood. Focusing on one activity would, he felt, detract from the club’s wider community focus.

The Circulo, however, thought he was just being tight, avoiding the kind of investments necessary to make the squad competitive. With Amalfitani refusing to buy players or offer improved contracts, Vélez’s success in the 1950s owed much to their legendary coach Victorio Spinetto, who led them to second place in the Primera División in 1953.

With no transfer kitty to speak of, Spinetto relied on a talented crop of inferiores from the youth teams, imposing an anti-fútbol style that laid the foundations for Carlos Bilardo’s 1986 World Cup winners.  Vélez, with their high-pressing and combative marking, fought and kicked their way to a first domestic title in 1968, thanks largely to the playmaking of Daniel Willington and a supporting cast of Miguel Marín, José Luis Luna, José Solorzano and Eduardo Zóttola.

Throughout this period, Gámez’s prominence in the Circulo grew, and the group became one of Amalfitani’s most vocal critics. One famous anecdote suggests that, after its members demanded that the club invest in a winger and an attacking midfielder, the Velez chairman guffawed, “A seven and an eight? Why not get a nine too, and you’d have a full house.”

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Amalfitani could not, however, belittle their influence for much longer. The Circulo began fielding candidates in the presidential elections, with Gámez weaving himself successfully into the club’s internal politics. When Amalfitani died in 1968, he was a necessary ally for any prospective president, but it wasn’t his diplomacy that made him valuable.

Gámez was a no-nonsense communicator, but on matchdays he was also a committed barra who led from the frontline in fights with rival fans. “We fought with a clean fist, without weapons, without drugs and alcohol” he recalled in an interview with El Gráfico in 2007. “The fans came together to fight to protect the club’s colours, nothing more.”

Today, barrabravas are a riotous scourge in the Argentine game, associated with everything from drug trafficking to violent intimidation. “The president of the Republic says that those who stand on the terraces are good lads,” Gámez said in 2016, in response to remarks made by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. “We were good lads 50 years ago when society was different”.

Occasionally, however, even the good lads turned bad. “I did six months in prison for attacking the police and smashing up the place,” he admitted in an interview with Olé“I was a bit crazy in those days.”

The violence wasn’t just reserved for the stadium. On 2 April 1978, Gámez had been incensed by the manner of Vélez’s performance in a game against Colón at the Gasómetro. What started as a simple discussion ended with him aggressively threatening manager Carlos Cavagnaro, with anecdotal reports suggesting that his hand ended up around the coach’s throat.

He was used to using his hands, having been installed as the goalkeeper of Vélez’s unofficial barrabrava team. Only supporters and club members were eligible for selection, with one of their players even drafted into the professional first team, appearing for both sides simultaneously. Rodolfo Hernández – who still talks to Gámez to this day – eventually went on to have a successful career as a player and coach in Portugal.

In 1980, Gámez’s popularity soared. He was installed as the head of the club’s football department by president Ricardo Petracca, lasting barely a year before returning to his place amongst the barrabravas. That year had brought the club unqualified success, as they knocked River Plate out of the Copa Libertadores thanks to the performances of Carlos Ischia, Jorge José González, Julio Falcioni and Osvaldo Piazza. 

That progress had been a relief to Gamez. Before his arrival, the triumvirate of Alfredo Bermúdez, Antonio Cielinsky and Juan Carlos Montano had graduated from the youth side to lead Vélez to a runners-up medal in the Metropolitano, as well as a semi-final finish in the NacionalFor Gamez, however, their achievements mattered little. He shunted all three without ceremony, appointing Jorge Solari in their stead. In the end, only Internacional could eliminate El Indio’s side from the semi-finals of South America’s premier competition. Gamez’s decision to hire him had been vindicated.

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Despite his limited tenure, Gámez’s reputation amongst Fortineros was unassailable. Here was a man who crossed the divide between barrabrava and boardoom with ease, who was as adept at managing a street battle as he was a football team. In 12 short months, he’d demonstrated how to bring a club success, only to return triumphantly to the stands.  

By the time England lined-up to face Argentina at the 1986 World Cup, Gámez was one of the most renowned figures in the Argentine game. He had travelled to Mexico as part of his country’s official delegation, finding himself in the stands of the Azteca Stadium as the quarter-final match kicked off on 22 June. 

As Diego Maradona mesmerised the English defence on the pitch, sporadic fighting broke out between rival supporters off it. Inevitably, Gámez was ensconced in the middle of the action, with his shirt long-discarded as he traded blows with what looked like the cast of a Shane Meadows drama. “Ugly, vicious and frightening,” was how one commentator described it. Punches and kicks rained down on both sides, but amongst the melee, an intrepid photographer captured the image that would solidify Gámez’s reputation. 

The picture shows him, taut and muscled, readying a blow for a pudgy blonde Englishman while his friend sits petrified in the background. It was the perfect image of masculinity, a snapshot of a virile country fighting back after the humiliation of defeat in the Falklands War four years earlier.

As they advanced through the crowd, the barras snatched an assortment of English and British flags. Some were burned, and others were kept as gruesome momentos. Maradona might have scored the most controversial goal in World Cup history that day, but he wasn’t the only one to leave the bowels of the stadium as an anti-hero.  

With his stock at an all-time high, Gámez could be forgiven for basking in his newfound fame. When Argentina went on to win the trophy, he was invited to join the official celebrations back in Buenos Aires, sharing the platform at La Rosada with the squad. Events, however, would soon conspire to see him return to Vélez.

In 1992, the club were in serious financial trouble. Riccardo Petracca returned as president, installing Gamez as his deputy. Combining his duties with an overall responsibility for the football department, Gámez presided over Eduardo Manera’s brief but successful tenure, with the club finishing second in the 1991/92 Clausura before another respectable finish in the Apertura a year later. When Manera departed, Gámez searched for his successor, eventually deciding on a man with an already-iconic status at El Fortín

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Carlos Bianchi had scored a bagful for the club before journeying to France, but he was a managerial greenhorn. Gámez, not for the first time in his administrative career, was taking a big risk. It was one he seemed especially loathe to take. “Gámez didn’t really want Bianchi as Vélez coach,” says Argentine football and Vélez historian Esteban Bekerman, from the footballing cultural exchange Entre Tiempos“He reluctantly accepted the recommendation from Juan Carlos González, the leading member of the Cruzada Renovadora, another one of the club’s agrupaciones.

The recommendation paid off. Bianchi’s side conceded just seven goals on the way to a stunning Clausura title in 1993, with their reward being a place in the 1994 Copa Libertadores. Defensor Sporting, Minervén and Atlético Junior offered scant resistance to Vélez’s progress to the final against São Paulo that August. Telê Santana’s side were a different proposition though, abetted by luminaries like Cafú, Euller and Palhinha.

After Omar Assad had given Vélez the lead in the first leg, Süo Paulo responded through an early Müller strike, before the game went to penalties. José Luis Chilavert had been tremendous all evening, and after he saved marvellously from Palhinha’s penalty, it was left to Roberto Pompei to score the goal that would make Vélez history.

Gámez had made his own presence felt during the match. At half-time, he’d punched down the referee’s door, exclaiming: “Let me speak to you; you’re the first Uruguayan coward I know!” In his mind, Ernesto Filippi has been less than impartial to his team. In the second half, the referee thought twice before blowing his whistle.

Further titles followed, including a clean sweep in 1996. By that time, Gámez had finally been elected president, carried to power in an election the same year. What, his campaign literature had said, had Vélez been before his arrival?

It was a hard argument to counter, especially as the trophies continued to flow – an Inter-American Cup and Super Copa were won in 1996, with the Copa Sudamericana following a season later. It would be wrong, however, to ascribe Vélez’s success to Gámez alone. “Before Gámez’s presidency, Vélez had been governed by a coalition of all of its agrupaciones, including the José Amalfitani, Unidad Velezana, Círculo El Fortín and Cruzada Renovadora factions,” says Bekerman. “In 1994, Héctor Gaudio from the Unidad Velezana replaced Petracca as chairman. Having to include members of all four agrupaciones really was key in Vélez’s success at the time. Consensus was needed from each faction before any meaningful decisions were made.”

Gámez’s charisma, therefore, was counterbalanced effectively by a committee of decision-makers and planners. He was a crucial influence, but he wasn’t the only voice. With his election in 1996, however, he became the first Circulo member to be elected president of Vélez. Finally, he was in charge. 

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Throughout his career, Gámez strived to present himself as different from the suits at superclubs like River and Boca. “We kept agents out,” he admitted to Jonathan Wilson for the book Angels with Dirty Faces. “It’s very simple to be an honest man, but to prove it in a football club … that’s way too complicated.”

In the 90s, his transition from the terrace to the boardroom had finally been completed. He eschewed his normal seat with La Pandilla, allowing younger, angrier men to take his place in the bear pit.

With his election in 1996, he installed Circulo members in key positions, intent on running the entire club in the same manner with which he’d governed the football department. Carlos Moussuead, a candidate backed by the agrupacion, succeeded him for a brief three-year stint in 2002, before Gámez was re-elected to finish the job . 

In his second term, Gámez underwent the kind of transformation that would have had Don Pepe smirking in his grave. Vélez, he said, needed to win the “economic championship”, with severe budgetary problems forcing him to impose stringent financial controls and field youngsters in the starting squad. Funds for transfers and contracts dried up, but the impressive performances continued, with a team of largely homegrown players winning the 2005 Clausura. Gámez, in his second stint as club president, had brought renewed trophies and success, but his financial acumen was being scrutinised more closely than ever.

Whilst the club flourished on the pitch, Gámez’s personal life suffered. “I went into Vélez from eight in the morning to 12 at night,” he would later tell reporters. “I didn’t make any money.”

He was forced into debt, selling his house to pay his creditors, whilst his relationships with family and friends began to deteriorate. In 2013, he was kidnapped by armed men, who bundled him into a waiting Ford Focus as he walked with his wife in the Floresta neighbourhood. Butting Gámez several times with a rifle, the kidnappers insisted that the former president of Vélez was bound to be a millionaire. They didn’t believe his heartfelt protestations. A few miles down the road, a chance presented itself. Gámez threw himself from the car and onto the road, with his wife released minutes later. 

Gámez, then, was never far from the headlines, but sometimes they were of his own making. AFA president Julio Grondona was a regular target for his ire, labelled “perverse” and “diseased with power”. To Gámez, Grondona was a crook who hoarded television money for himself and the capital’s big two.

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Often, his was the only dissenting voice at the AFA board. Unlike his counterparts, Gámez was unafraid of challenging Grondona directly, speaking truth to power as though he were just another barra on the street. Even Argentina’s president wasn’t immune from a pasting, with Gamez railing: “Mauricio Macri believes corporations are good for football. I do not.”

Gamez’s anti-establishment streak was at least part of the reason why he was linked so strongly with being Grondona’s successor at the AFA after his death, with Maradona anointing him as his favoured candidate. His intransigence didn’t subside with the death of his old enemy, though.

In December 2014, Vélez were forced to play a one-off game against Boca Juniors to qualify for the Copa Libertadores. Both sides had finished level on points, with Vélez arguing that their superior goal difference should have seen them qualify. The AFA refused, however, with Los Xeniezes winning the subsequent game 1-0. Gámez would later refer to Boca president Daniel Angelici as “garbage with power”.

Perhaps motivated by his anger, Gámez was re-elected as Vélez president in 2015. In truth, he’d never been completely divorced from the club, with a succession of Circulo candidates keeping the seat warm until he returned. Over 65 percent of the vote saw him beat out the challenge of the Unidad Velezana candidate Osvaldo Segade. “It’s difficult to talk,” an emotional Gámez told reporters at his re-election. “We are not Barcelona or Madrid, we are a great club, the best in this country.”

Gamez’s charisma was irresistible, but Vélez found themselves again at the mercy of a president who paid short shrift to modern management methods. He abhorred technology, which meant that members of the board often found it difficult to reach him. His penchant for outbursts, coupled with a belief that the only realistic way of improving Vélez’s finances was a firesale of its talent, meant that Gámez’s administration finally ended in late 2017.

For the first time in over 20 years, the Circulo de Fortín are not represented in the halls of the Estadio José Amalfitani, ousted by the Cruzada Renovadora. Led by Sergio Rapisarda, their mandate promised investment in the playing squad and more ambition on the pitch – something that Gámez himself had promised all those years ago as an angry, passionate barra.

After being linked so intrinsically with the club for the best part of his life, Gámez suddenly found himself at a loose end. He has struggled with several businesses on the side, opening a medialunas shop where patrons could enjoy tales of boardroom intrigue as they tucked into their flaky pastries. Now, though, his future looks uncertain.

Gámez has devoted his entire life to the betterment of El Fortín, and it is thanks to him that they made history on both a domestic and continental level. Even at 74, only a fool would think he’ll walk peacefully into the sunset. 

By Christopher Weir  

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