The story of Ricardo Bochini – Diego Maradona’s idol – and Independiente’s golden era

The story of Ricardo Bochini – Diego Maradona’s idol – and Independiente’s golden era

THERE IS AN ADAGE in sport that success is easier to attain than it is to maintain. Keeping the motivation and hunger to get up every day and repeat the process once you’ve reached the pinnacle is difficult when you trade in the challenger mentality for that of a champion, an attribute reserved for only a select few sports stars and teams. 

South America’s premier club cup competition, the Copa Libertadores, has proved ultra-competitive; consecutive winners being the exception rather than the norm. A brutally effective Estudiantes side won three-in-a-row in the late 1960s and would’ve added a fourth had they not lost the 1971 final. More recently, Boca Juniors won three titles in four years at the start of the new millennium, an impressive achievement given the cyclical nature of modern Argentine football.

And then there was Club Atlético Independiente, who lifted the Copa Libertadores on four successive occasions between 1972 and 1975, the only side to date to have achieved such a feat. This all-conquering side also beat Juventus in the Intercontinental Cup – a precursor to the FIFA Club World Cup – in 1973. A key player for Los Diablos Rojos during this golden, dominant era was a man named Ricardo Bochini, a figure so mesmerising that he was idolised by an adolescent Diego Maradona.

Ricardo Enrique Bochini was born in January 1954 in Zárate, Buenos Aires province, 56 miles north of the capital. After starring for his hometown club, and unsuccessful trials with fellow grandes San Lorenzo and Boca Juniors, Bochini joined Avellaneda outfit Independiente as a 17-year-old, swiftly rising through the ranks. In May 1972 Independiente lifted their third Copa Libertadores – and first for seven years – after besting Lima’s Universitario over two legs, but failed to follow that up with an Intercontinental Cup victory after losing 4-1 on aggregate to Dutch giants Ajax.

A month after the 1972 Libertadores triumph, an 18-year-old Bochini made his full debut for Independiente, emerging from the bench at El Monumental in a narrow 1-0 defeat to River Plate. By 1973 the popular youngster was entrenched in the first team squad, as the defending champions embarked upon yet another quest for continental glory. Santiago de Chile’s Colo-Colo awaited El Rojo in the final, with the first leg taking place in May 1973 in Avellaneda. The tie was level at 1-1 after 180 minutes of football and, instead of going to penalties, and before the introduction of the away goals rule, a playoff on neutral soil was required.

Independiente travelled across the Rio de la Plata to neighbouring Uruguay for the fixture in Montevideo’s legendary Estadio Centenario, famed for hosting the inaugural World Cup final in 1930. Mario Mendoza opened the scoring for Independiente after 25 minutes, with Carlos Caszely equalising for the Chileans on 39 minutes with a sublime lob. A goalless second half led to extra time, and the introduction of Bochini swung the tie in the favour of the Argentines, with fellow substitute Miguel Ángel Giachello grabbing the winner after 107 minutes. The gruelling slog of a tie saw Independiente and Colo-Colo go head-to-head in three countries, sharing the pitch for more than five hours before a winner could be crowned.

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Independiente were unable to exact revenge over Ajax in the 1973 Intercontinental Cup, with the European champions declining to participate. Officially, financial issues were cited as the reason, although the rough-house tactics Independiente subjected them to during the 1972 tie will no doubt have contributed to the Dutchmen’s lack of desire in making another long trip across the Atlantic. Beaten European Cup finalists Juventus replaced Ajax, and a one-off fixture was arranged in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico for November 1973.

Independiente, playing in an all-red strip, were greeted by a hostile chorus of boos and whistles, although a small pocket of flag and confetti wielding fans supported their travelling heroes. After 80 minutes, with the game goalless, Bochini came to life, linking up with Daniel Bertoni, with whom he shared a superb, almost telepathic partnership. The young duo played a series of one-twos, cutting through a notoriously mean defence as if it wasn’t there, until Bochini found himself face-to-face with the imposing figure of legendary Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff. Rather than wilting under the pressure, Bochini calmly scooped the ball over Zoff and into the net, immortalising his name in Independiente folklore.

Having vanquished Peruvian and Chilean opposition in the previous two versions, it was the turn of Brazilian side São Paulo to try and stop Independiente in the 1974 Copa Libertadores final. The Argentine side travelled to Brazil for the first leg in the Estádio do Pacaembu, leaving empty-handed after a 2-1 defeat. Four days later, the two sides faced off in Avellaneda and, after only 34 minutes, Bochini levelled the tie on aggregate, before Agustín Balbuena grabbed the second to make it 2-0 on the night and 3-2 to the Argentines, who won the third match in Chile’s Estadio Nacional by one goal to nil.

Unfortunately, Independiente were unable to retain their Intercontinental Cup title despite holding a slender 1-0 lead from the first leg. Atlético Madrid weren’t so forgiving on Spanish soil, cancelling out Balbuena’s goal with a 2-0 win in front of more than 65,000 fanatical Madrileños.

Independiente qualified for the final of the 1975 Copa Libertadores by the tightest of margins, with their bid to become tetracampeón almost falling at the first hurdle. A superior goal difference of just one led them to face unheralded Chilean side Unión Española – who could only count on four domestic league titles in almost 80 years of existence – in the final. The Chileans won the first leg in Santiago’s Estadio Nacional, 1-0, although Independiente emphatically gained revenge with a 3-1 victory in La Doble Visera. The third match, in Paraguay’s capital Asunción, was also won by a two-goal margin, with Independiente winning 2-0 and therefore 5-2 on aggregate. Bochini’s partner in crime, Daniel Bertoni, netted in both of those victories.

Off the field, 1975 was a strange year for Bochini. He was called to perform military service although he was treated differently to most of the other conscripts due to his status as one of the country’s best and most successful footballers. After just two months the rules were relaxed for Bochini, meaning he was able to fit his schedule around training and matches for Independiente. Towards the end of his stint he was attending just twice a month.

The 1976 Copa Libertadores campaign, ironically, saw Independiente knocked out of the final group phase on goal difference with River Plate progressing. The unprecedented four-year run was over, but over the next two years, domestic success would act as a consolation.

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In the final of 1977’s Nacional, only Córdoba’s Talleres stood in the way of Independiente’s first domestic title since the 1971 Metropolitano. After two games and six goals between them, the sides had to be separated by the away goals rule, with Independiente’s double in La Boutique proving decisive. Bochini, once again displaying an aptitude for the big occasion, bagged one of his side’s three goals in the tie, a relatively simple tap-in from eight yards following a neat one-two with Bertoni.

Independiente retained their Nacional championship in 1978 after beating River Plate over two legs in the final, but they would have to wait another six years before claiming further continental glory. In what was a tight affair, the only goal of the tie against Grêmio in the 1984 Copa Libertadores final came in the 24th minute of the first leg, in Porto Alegre. Independiente pounced on slack play by the hosts with the ball finding its way to Bochini approximately 25 yards from goal. The playmaker displayed a perfect example of La Pausa, the art of pausing and delaying the pass, before deftly rolling it into the path of a teammate. This was a move that Bochini would become synonymous with, and on this occasion the grateful beneficiary was Jorge Burruchaga, who ran onto the pass before dinking the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper.

Independiente headed to Tokyo to face European champions Liverpool in what was only the fifth time the Intercontinental Cup had been held in the Japanese capital. It was also the first clash between English and Argentine football teams since the two nations had fought a brief but bloody war in 1982. With Independiente in all red and Liverpool in their changed yellow kit, the first tackle, with less than 30 seconds on the clock, hinted at a war-like approach to the game. The only goal came after just six minutes when teenaged man-of-the-match José Percudani sprung the offside trap to beat Bruce Grobbelaar from close range, the balding Bochini pulling the strings from deep throughout.

The 1988/89 Primera División would prove to be Bochini’s final honour, with Independiente winning the championship, finishing eight points clear of nearest rivals Boca Juniors. Bochini’s final game for El Rojo came in May 1991 in front of his adoring fans versus Estudiantes. By the time he hung up his boots he had clocked up more than 600 appearances in the league, second only to eccentric Boca Juniors goalkeeper Hugo Gatti in the all-time rankings.

He scored 105 goals in all competitions in his career, and although clocking a century is a commendable achievement, finding the net wasn’t what he was noted for. For a striker, to play with Bochini was almost akin to guaranteeing goals. The attacking midfielder was a tricky customer, able to deceive opponents before skipping past them with the ball. His vision was superb, enabling him to create countless chances for others with his right foot, his precise through-balls so legendary that they even spawned their own description in the lexicon of Argentine football: the pase bochinesco.

A rarity in Argentine football, Bochini spent his whole career with one club. Such a feat is usually praised in England but compatriot Ricky Villa – who signed for Tottenham Hotspur in 1978 – once labelled it “boring” and “in some quarters seen as lacking prestige”. However, there is much to be admired about a man who won nine major trophies during his 19-year spell as a player with Independiente, whose dominance in the early 1970s was not affected by a rapid turnover of coaches. As well as team success, Bochini was decorated with several prestigious individual awards, such as the Argentine Footballer of the Year in 1983, Bronze Award for South American Footballer of the Year in 1984, and being named in the 1989 South American Team of the Year.

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His exploits for Independiente perhaps didn’t quite translate into a stellar international career. Bochini debuted for La Albiceleste in 1973, yet he never really seemed like part of the furniture and made only 28 appearances during 13 years with the national team. He was overlooked by César Luis Menotti for the World Cup in 1978. Menotti may have felt vindicated for not selecting Bochini given that Argentina went on to win the tournament held on home soil, yet it was a bizarre exclusion. Bochini enjoyed a fruitful partnership at club level with Daniel Bertoni, the forward who scored the third goal in the final to put the final nail in the Netherlands’ coffin, and there is no reason to think that their link-up play could not have been replicated at international level.

He was once again overlooked by Menotti for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, yet made the cut for the 1986 tournament in Mexico, despite being 32 and arguably past his peak. A place in the squad didn’t guarantee minutes on the field, with Bochini only spending five on the pitch during the whole tournament. Towards the end of the quarter-final against Belgium coach Carlos Bilardo sent him on, ironically to replace Jorge Burruchaga whom he’d assisted for the winning goal in the 1984 Copa Libertadores final.

“When he came on against Belgium in the World Cup, the first thing I did was look for him and pass him the ball,” wrote Diego Maradona, who idolised Bochini as a youngster, in his 2004 autobiography El Diego. “I remember I said: it was like playing a one-two with God.”

Those few minutes against Belgium would prove to be his only World Cup appearance during his international career, scant reward for a man of his ability. Watching the majority of the tournament from the bench left Bochini feeling detached, and as his teammates celebrated after victoriously lifting the trophy, he later admitted to feeling like a spare part, a bittersweet way to end an underwhelming international career.

Ricardo Bochini might be relatively unknown in Europe, and his international career never truly took off, but his impact on Independiente and the Copa Libertadores cannot be ignored. A one-club legend, El Bocha starred in one of the most dominant club sides the South American game has ever seen, and is so revered by the red half of Avellaneda that he has a stand, and indeed a street leading up to the stadium, named after him. At just five feet six inches tall, and not particularly athletic, he was perhaps aesthetically not the archetypal football legend. But then again, neither was Maradona.

Without taking anything away from Independiente’s unprecedented, and still not repeated success, their path to the latter three finals was relatively short, facing only three opponents each time. In the modern era, all clubs enter at the first group phase and have to negotiate many more obstacles. Argentine football is also nowhere near as strong now as it was then, mirroring the economic situation of the country as a whole, which virtually rules out their record of four successive Copa Libertadores’ ever being equalled or indeed topped. Despite that their achievements are still remarkable, even more so considering it was secured without one singular figure in the dugout, rather a revolving door of managers, and during a period of severe political instability in the wider context of Argentine society.

This Independiente side were incredibly talented, and whilst they were capable of brutality it would be lazy to believe they relied on pure physicality alone. They were able to mix brains and brawn, a potent cocktail that allowed them to be so successful during the first half of the 1970s. Bochini and Bertoni were the cherry on the icing of a solid cake. Rather than letting success go to their head, Independiente’s star players were able to retain their hunger, and kept climbing the mountain year after year. For their exploits in the early 1970s and beyond, the men from Avellaneda undoubtedly deserve the title of Rey de Copas – King of Cups. 

By Dan Williamson

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