The Battle of Montevideo: Celtic, Racing and the brutal 1967 Intercontinental Cup

The Battle of Montevideo: Celtic, Racing and the brutal 1967 Intercontinental Cup

In the early 1950s, a journalist called Gabriel Hanot, working for the French sports periodical L’Equipe, gathered together a number of representatives from Europe’s top sides to meet in Paris to discuss his concept for a new competition. The champions of each European country would compete against each other in a two-legged knock-out competition with a one-game final played at a neutral ground. With the support of UEFA, the first European Cup was organized for the 1955/56 season with 16 clubs participating. Europe’s most prestigious club competition was born.

Although the South American equivalent of UEFA – CONMEBOL – had been founded nearly 50 years earlier in 1916, they had yet to establish their own international club competition. A preliminary attempt had taken place in 1948, with Brazil’s Vasco da Gama winning a tournament which involved seven teams from seven countries playing over a period of six weeks in Santiago, although it was a commercial disaster and was duly shelved.

The success of the European Cup had impressed many in South America and there was a growing demand for an equivalent to be staged on the continent, using the same format of a two-legged knockout competition. Eventually, in 1959, despite an objection from Uruguay, the other nations came to an agreement and the first international club competition for South America was established.

This would be the first time that the Pacific clubs – the supposed minnows – would be able to test themselves against their more prestigious Atlantic neighbours from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. It was decided to call the new competition the Copa Libertadores de America in honour of those such as Simón Bolívar, who had fought for the continent to be freed from the shackles of European Colonialism.

There was an added incentive for the winners of the inaugural cup as the champions would face a two-legged final against the holders of the European Cup to decide which was the best side in the world! This had been a long-standing wish of Henri Delaunay, UEFA secretary and one of the brains behind the first ever World Cup. He died in 1955 before the idea came to fruition but Delauney’s son Pierre and future FIFA President João Havelange were eager to establish the new competition.

An agreement was concluded which allowed the first final to be held between the respective winners of the 1960 tournaments in autumn that year. Officially, the contest was called the Intercontinental Cup.

The first final in 1960 matched Peñarol of Uruguay against a Real Madrid side featuring Alfrédo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskás. The Madrileños won 5-1 over two legs. The first seven finals resulted in four wins for South America and three for Europe. Santos, with Pelé in the side, had won twice playing an exhilarating brand of football, while Internazionale, with their Catenaccio system, had also won twice.

A simmering undercurrent of violence was also starting to attach itself to the Cup. In 196 , two players were sent off in the playoff decider and in 1965, several of the Inter side were struck by stones thrown from the crowd. The venue for the second leg was rotated between the continents each year, which would have serious implications for Celtic in 1967.

 

Glasgow gets ready

 

Celtic had defeated Inter in the final of the European Cup in Lisbon to be crowned champions in 1967. They had enjoyed a season their fans could never have dreamed of by winning the European Cup, the league, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Glasgow Cup. Now was Jock Stein’s chance to prove that his side was the best in the World.

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The national team, fresh from their victory over England at Wembley in 1967, boasted that they were now the world champions and if Celtic could win the Intercontinental Cup, then Scotland could proudly boast that they were champions both at club and country level. Stein shared that ambition.

Racing Club de Avellaneda, based on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, had won the Copa Libertadores by overcoming Nacional of Montevideo in a playoff in Santiago after two goalless draws. Peñarol had brought the Intercontinental Cup back to South America by beating Real Madrid the previous season so there was considerable pressure on Racing to do the same.

In addition, as the first ever Argentine winners of the competition, there was a burden on Racing to become the world champions, especially after Argentina considered themselves to have been mistreated in the previous year’s World Cup by the Europeans – more precisely, the British.

 

The aftermath of 1966

 

It is an understatement to say that Argentina felt aggrieved by the authorities during the 1966 World Cup. In their second match against West Germany, which was an ill-tempered affair littered with fouls, defender Rafael Albrecht was sent off when any number of opposition players merited a similar sanction. Albrecht was even kicked as he lay on the pitch injured but no action was taken.

Argentina were dismayed that a German referee was appointed to take charge of their quarter-final against England, while another European – an Englishman – had overseen their West Germany game. The sense of injustice grew when they were not permitted to practice on the Wembley pitch the day before as there was a greyhound meeting being held.

The England-Argentina game is famous for the dismissal of Antonio Rattín for reasons that have never been fully understood and merely increased the sense of conspiracy and injustice in the Argentine media. When the quarter-finals had concluded, three South American players had been dismissed by two European referees, one English and the other West German, and Argentina and Uruguay were on their way home. It is hard, even now, to argue that this was purely coincidental.

It was unfortunate that after England’s victory, which was being broadcast to a worldwide audience, the normally ultra-cautious Alf Ramsey brandished the Argentina team as “animals” and refused to let his players exchange shirts. Argentina fumed at his words as anti-British sentiment grew.

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Although England’s World Cup victory was treated with equal disdain on the streets of Glasgow, the Argentine press made little reference to this. Throughout the World Cup it had been the Union Jack that was unfurled, not the cross of St. George, and therefore all members of the United Kingdom were equally to blame. The precise distinctions between the English and the Scottish held no relevance for the Argentine masses.

 

The first leg

 

On 18 October 1967, a crowd of 83,437 packed into Hampden Park to watch Celtic take on Racing; the biggest club game that had ever taken place in Scotland. As Hampden had a larger capacity than Celtic Park, the club had sometimes switched to the venue for European fixtures. Racing were allowed to choose the match official from a list of three, while Celtic were given the same option for the second leg. Unsurprisingly, Racing selected a Spanish-speaking referee, Juan Gardeazábal.

Racing, like every club in South America, regarded winning the Intercontinental Cup as the Holy Grail. In preparation for the tie they virtually gave up on their domestic campaign, winning only two of 15 games prior to the match.

Celtic were remarkably deficient in their knowledge of their opponents, having failed to send anybody to watch them. The management from Racing, however, arrived early in Glasgow for the encounter and had the luxury of watching their opponents in two league fixtures. Stein was still not quite cognizant of what to expect from the Argentines, urging his players “let the world see how to win the Celtic way”. Being crowned world champions meant everything to Jock, and he left his players in no doubt about what he expected.

From the start, Racing had identified Jimmy Johnstone as the threat to be nullified, and he was the victim of scything challenges from the first minute onwards, which the match official failed to deal with. Celtic players were not used to being spat on, having their shirts constantly pulled and being body checked relentlessly, and were unprepared for this version of anti-fûtbol.

Nevertheless, in the 55th minute, John Hughes took a corner for Celtic and centre-half and captain Billy McNeill managed to escape his marker in a packed penalty area to head home the only goal of the game. The media praised the gutsy performance from Celtic, although the Evening Herald headline the next day neatly summed up the state of the tie: ‘Victorious Celtic Face Harder Task In Buenos Aires’.

Celtic chairman Sir Robert Kelly had been so upset with the antics of the Racing team that he was prepared for Celtic not to travel to Buenos Aires to defend their lead, stating, with an eerily prescient sense of foreboding: “If they want the trophy that badly, let’s just let them have it.”

Jock Stein, however, was having none of it. He knew his Celtic side were just 90 minutes away from being heralded as the greatest club side in the world. He wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip from his grasp. Bill Shankly had famously said to Stein after Celtic had won the European Cup, “Jock, you’re immortal now.” Stein wanted to go one better.

 

The second leg

 

On 1 November, an estimated crowd of 120,000 were crammed into the Estadio El Cilindro to watch the return leg. There was a tense, hostile atmosphere that enveloped the arena as Racing strove to become the first Argentine side to be crowned the best in the world. They were left in no doubt by the periodistas in the sports pages that the prestige of the nation depended on them winning the trophy.

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Celtic were the first team from the British Isles to set foot on Argentine soil since the 1966 World Cup and were viewed by the press and the population as English in all but name. For many, this was Argentina’s chance for revenge. As they arrived at the stadium, the players were shocked to see the masses of armed riot police patrolling the perimeter.

In June 1966, President Arturo Illia was overthrown in a military coup and power now lay in the hands of a military junta led by General Juan Carlos Onganía, whose aim was to rid Argentina of the twin evils of communism and democracy. There was an increased pressure to uphold the honour of the nation – and that burden was to fall on Racing.

Bizarrely, the atmosphere in the stadium was heightened by a contingent of Uruguayan fans from Nacional, the team that had lost to Racing in the final of the Copa Libertadores. Buenos Aires was only a two-hour boat ride from Montevideo and the Nacional fans were there to support Celtic.

Just before kick-off, Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson was checking the goal nets when he was felled by an object thrown from the terraces. He thought it was a bottle, but many witnesses stated that it was a large stone fired from a catapult. The game had not even begun and Simpson was in no fit state to continue. Celtic had lost a key player. It didn’t bode well.

John Fallon, who was an experienced custodian, took Simpson’s place at kick-off after a delay of 15 minutes. Some of the Celtic hierarchy were tempted to have the team walk off at that moment but they were fearful of the consequences both short and long-term. Incredibly, there was no UEFA nor FIFA official present at the match to stand their corner.

The game was a more open affair than the tie in Glasgow and Celtic were awarded a penalty after 22 minutes as Johnstone beat three defenders and was pulled down by the Racing goalkeeper. As Tommy Gemmell stepped up to take the penalty, a group of match photographers started gesticulating behind the goal in an attempt to intimidate him. It didn’t faze Gemmell and he duly converted the kick. Celtic were in the lead and winning 2-0 on aggregate.

The home crowd urged their team on and 10minutes before half-time, Norberto Raffo ghosted behind the Celtic defence to head home the equaliser off a cross from winger Humberto Maschio. Celtic appealed for an offside decision but to no avail. The goal stood.

Just as the start of the first half had been delayed, so too was the start of the second. Celtic went to their changing rooms at the interval only to find that the water had been turned off, meaning nobody could have a drink or a shower. The players refused to resume the match until the water supply was reinstated as the half-time interval lasted 26 minutes.

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Three minutes after the restart, Celtic, perhaps still disorientated by the water fiasco, allowed striker Juan Cárdenas to slip through the defence to fire a shot past Fallon. It was 2-1 to Racing and the game was now level on aggregate. It says much about the mentality that Stein had installed into his team that they held on without conceding the decisive goal. At the end of 90 minutes, Racing striker Cárdenas summarised the state of affairs by stating: “We deserved to win here, they deserved to win there.”

Most neutral observers felt that the match official, Esteban Marino from Uruguay, had refereed firmly but the Celtic players were incensed with the cynical tactics of Racing, believing that they had not received sufficient protection. That said, even the partisan Glasgow Herald reported that the referee had kept a firm control of the game.

Celtic’s travails continued after the match. As they left the stadium, the team coach was surrounded by a contingent of baying Racing hinchas, who started rocking the vehicle from side to side as the military police officers charged with their security looked on. Jim Craig remembered one of his teammates pleading: “Boss, for God’s sake, just give them the cup.” Inside the stadium, things were not much better as the Nacional fans who came to support Celtic clashed with Racing’s.

 

The playoff

 

The concept of away goals counting double had been used in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1965/66 and, under this regulation Celtic, by virtue of their goal in Argentina, would have been crowned champions. Sadly, the rule didn’t apply to the Intercontinental Cup so a playoff would be required. The legislation of the competition required that such a game had to take place in a neutral country but on the same continent as the venue for the second leg. Celtic were going to have to extend their stay in South America.

The Celtic board, appalled at the treatment of their players, were in favour of forfeiting the game, sensing correctly that a further match would descend into mayhem and violence. Jock Stein, again, was having none of it. He was determined that Celtic were going to be crowned champions. For such an astute man, he demonstrated a degree of naivety as to how events would unfold. He assumed that because the match would be played at a neutral ground that Racing would behave better and allow Celtic to play. It was an unfortunate miscalculation. Jock had also failed to understand the degree to which his players had not wanted to prolong their stay in South America to participate in the decider.

The neutral venue actually turned out to be the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo. For Racing, it was like another home leg. Estimates vary but something like 25,000 Racing fans descended on the city to support their team. However, a significant number of the local support were there to back Celtic against their hated neighbours from across the river.

The Glaswegians had suffered a setback even before a ball had been kicked. They had asked for Esteban Marino to take charge of the game again but they were denied and a 29-year-old Paraguayan official, Rodolfo Osorio, was appointed.

It was a proud boast of the Celtic team that they had all been born within 25 miles of Glasgow. Most of them had endured an upbringing where poverty was the norm and you had to be prepared to defend yourself. The team had been restrained so far, accepting Stein’s warnings to play football and not to respond to any attempts at provocation, but this time they entered the arena determined to get their retribution in before they received any punishment.

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A crowd of 65,000 witnessed a tetchy opening to the game in which a number of cynical challenges, particularly from the Racing defenders – determined to nullify the threat of Jimmy Johnstone – went unpunished. The first 30 minutes of the game were characterised by Racing players body checking, pulling shirts, spitting and hacking the opposition – only this time, the Celtic players responded to this intimidation by throwing punches and chasing after their assailants. They were not going to be intimidated anymore.

The referee could feel his control of the match slipping away and, in an attempt to impose his authority, he called over the two captains, Billy McNeill and Oscar Martín, and told them that another incident would result in both Bobby Lennox and Alfio Basile being dismissed, seemingly irrespective of who was involved.

Within a minute, Basile scythed down Lennox and darted away from the incident with an enraged John Clark running after him. The police had to enter the centre circle to restore order as fists were flying from both sides. The referee sent Basile off but, in a clear case of mistaken identity, also dismissed the victim of the tackle, Bobby Lennox.

The bewildered Celtic player walked off the pitch only for his manager, an outraged Jock Stei,n to send him back on again. The referee intervened and made Lennox leave again; Stein sent him back on. Referee Osorio ordered him off for the third time and a military police officer brandishing a sword in front of Lennox ensured he wouldn’t return. At half-time the scores were level and both sides had been reduced to 10 men

Next, on 48 minutes, Johnstone attempted to escape from his marker. The Racing team employed a rotation system with each defender taking turns to kick him, but after his shirt had been grabbed as he made his way forward, ‘Jinky’ had endured enough and he lashed out with his arm. The defender Juan Carlos Rulli rolled on the ground in unimaginable agony. Jinky was the second Celt to be dismissed. A French journalist noted: “For my part, I have never seen such a staggering decision.”

Seven minutes later, in one of the few examples of true footballing skill seen in the match, Cárdenas advanced through the Celtic half and from 30 yards out hit a stunning left-footed shot that soared into the top left-hand corner of Fallon’s goal. It was a goal that defined his career and ensured his place in Argentine football history. A goal behind and a man down, Celtic could sense the trophy slipping from their grasp. They needed to maintain their composure to stay in the contest. They didn’t.

On 74 minutes, Celtic forward John Hughes, chasing after a back pass, decided to kick Racing goalkeeper Agustín Cejas on the ankle, and as he lay on the ground he kicked him again in the stomach. The red mist had descended on Hughes whose thinking had become so blinded with anger that he was duly dismissed. Racing’s two-man advantage only lasted a few minutes. Rulli had spent most of the match kicking Celtic players and after one assault too many, the referee finally summed up the courage to send him off.

With two minutes remaining, Celtic midfielder Bertie Auld was blatantly body checked by his opposing number, Juan José Rodríguez. Auld responded by running after him and punching him. Still furious, he then grabbed him by the neck and wrestled him to the ground. The referee immediately expelled Auld from the pitch. He refused to leave, playing dumb and calmly replying back to the official: “I don’t understand what you are saying.”

As Auld continued to resolutely stand his ground, another mass brawl broke out and the Uruguayan police intervened with batons to break up the squabbling players. Whilst this mayhem spiralled out of control, Tommy Gemmell saw an opportunity to enact his own form of retribution. Minutes before, Racing winger Maschio had spat in his face; whilst everyone else was distracted by the melee near the touchline, Gemmell calmly strode over to Maschio and delivered a perfectly aimed left-footer into his testicles and walked coolly away, leaving his victim emitting a series of eldritch screams as he collapsed in excruciating pain.

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When order was finally restored, the referee restarted the game with a free-kick to Celtic. Auld was still on the pitch. He later described it as a key example of how Osorio had lost control of the game. Unsurprisingly, when the final whistle blew, there were no handshakes or exchanging of shirts, and the Celtic players headed for the sanctuary of the dressing room. Racing had won 1-0 but a total of six players had been dismissed; four from Celtic and two from Racing.

Racing received the trophy at the end of the match but their victory didn’t go down well with the majority of the Uruguayan crowd. The team undertook a lap of honour which had to be curtailed as fans started to hurl missiles and broken chairs at them. After the match, the police had to disperse a large contingent of local fans who were trying to attack the team. Outside the stadium, there were running street battles between Racing and Nacional supporters.

If the Celtic players thought that Jock Stein would offer tea and sympathy they were severely mistaken. The players couldn’t recall ever seeing their manager so irate. Exploding with unrestrained anger, he bellowed: “You have all let down Celtic. You have brought shame on this club.” Chairman Sir Robert Kelly shared his manger’s frustration and made the decision to fine every player £250 regardless of their involvement in the events.

By the time the team arrived at the British Embassy that evening for a reception, Stein was in a more conciliatory mood and told his hosts: “I would not bring a team back here for all the money in the world.”

 

Aftermath

 

There a was a further consequence of the game which only came to light 40 years later. Sir Matt Busby was knighted following Manchester United’s victory in the European Cup in 1968. Some commentators at the time remarked that it was somewhat incongruous that the first British manager to achieve this feat had not been commemorated in a similar fashion.

Government papers released in 2007 revealed that Stein had been nominated for the award in the 1968 New Year’s Honours List but because his players had been involved in the violent brawls on the pitch in Montevideo, the Home Office mandarins blocked him from being knighted. It was a remarkable feat of stupidity.

There was also an unforeseen consequence for Racing as well. Whilst they were celebrating their victory, fans of their nearby rivals, Independiente, broke into their stadium to place a curse on Racing. They buried the corpses of seven black cats around the stadium. For the next 34 years Racing failed to win their national championship. The club tried desperately to locate the feline skeletons but only six were ever found.

An exorcism was performed in the stadium in 1999 in front of over 100,000 desperate fans to lift the curse but to no effect, and the trophy drought continued. In early 2001, Racing appointed Reinaldo Merlo as manager. Merlo was a firm believer in the darker rites and ordered a comprehensive search of the stadium. As part of this process, a moat was excavated which had previously been concreted over. They discovered the remains of the missing feline. That same season Racing won the league for the first time since 1967.

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

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