It was an absurd, tragic way to die. José Luis Cuciuffo was driving a Chevrolet Blazer in Bahía San Blas, at the southern tip of Buenos Aires province, approximately 600km south-west of the capital. Cuciuffo was with friends, hunting rodents native to the area, when the pickup truck passed over a burrow, causing him to lose control of the vehicle.
A 22-calibre rifle, which was resting between his legs with the barrel facing upwards, discharged itself in the commotion. The bullet entered through Cuciuffo’s abdomen, destroying his liver and ricocheting unforgivably before eventually lodging itself in his aorta. The injured victim was treated locally, before sadly dying en route to the nearest hospital more than 100km away. The blood loss was too severe.
On a December evening in 2004, at the age of just 43, the first of Argentina’s World Cup winners – including both 1978 and 1986 – passed away. Initially, the incident was labelled as culpable homicide, his friend detained and questioned by the police. The loaded rifle was uninsured and the authorities had to ascertain whether or not it was possible for such a gun to discharge itself in the manner described.
José Luis Cuciuffo was born in Córdoba in February 1961, in the La France neighbourhood located in the north of the city. Shelving plans to study engineering, Cuchu began playing for local club Huracán de Córdoba in 1978. After a brief spell with Chaco For Ever in 1980, Cuciuffo transferred to Talleres, one of Córdoba’s two biggest clubs. His debut came in a friendly match against city rivals Belgrano, and although it proved to be an underwhelming season for the club, the youngster made 43 appearances, developing a reputation as an exceptional central defender.
In 1982, Vélez Sarsfield beat off competition from several other clubs to snatch Cuciuffo’s signature. The side from Liniers have grown to become one of Buenos Aires’ biggest clubs in recent years, claiming nine titles in the two decades between 1993 and 2013. However, the side Cuciuffo joined in 1982 was a fairly modest one, having claimed just one title back in 1968. With Cuchu marshalling the defence, El Fortín finished runner-up in the 1985 Nacional championship, just missing out on that elusive silverware after losing to Argentinos Juniors in the final.
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It was during this stellar domestic campaign that the defender caught the eye of national team manager Carlos Bilardo. Just one year later he was amongst the players selected to represent La Albiceleste at the 1986 World Cup. Cuciuffo was “a great player from Córdoba province” as described by Diego Maradona, Argentina’s captain and the undoubted star of the tournament, in his 2016 book Touched by God: How we won the Mexico ’86 World Cup.
Just two days before Argentina’s opening World Cup fixture against South Korea, the squad was still more or less in the dark as to who would play. As it transpired, Cuciuffo didn’t take to the field although his teammates made easy work of their Asian opponents, recording a comfortable 3-1 victory to kick off their campaign.
Wearing the number nine shirt, Cuchu started the second game against reigning world champions Italy and was drafted in specifically to deal with the threat of Giuseppe Galderisi, who would go on to join AC Milan after the tournament. The Italian striker wasn’t particularly prolific but was quick, short and agile, and it was thought that Cuciuffo would be able to keep him at bay. The plan succeeded, the game ending in a 1-1 stalemate.
Playing in the right full-back position, Cuchu starred in the final group game, a 2-0 victory over Bulgaria. With just four minutes on the clock, he assisted the opening goal, dispossessing two Bulgarians on their left-hand side before playing a deep cross to the far post which was met by the head of Jorge Valdano. “Cuciuffo rushed one of their full-backs and stole the ball from him,” wrote Maradona. “He looked up and kicked centre, Garrincha-style, and Valdano headed the ball in. It was incredible.”
A yellow card after 25 minutes couldn’t dampen Cuciuffo’s afternoon. The man with the closely cropped black hair had truly arrived at the 1986 World Cup, cemented his place in the team, and more importantly in the affections of his often abrasive captain who either loved or hated you. There was rarely a grey area.
In the second round fixture against rivals Uruguay in Puebla, Cuciuffo was tasked with marking Enzo Francescoli. This was no mean feat as the River Plate star was one of the most fearsome attacking players on the continent. El Príncipe, who was named South American Footballer of the Year in 1984 and became the first foreigner to win the Argentine Player of the Year award in 1985, scored 25 goals in just 32 league appearances as Los Millonarios bagged the domestic championship in the months before the World Cup. However, due to Cuchu’s attention, he drew a blank for Uruguay and Argentina progressed after a narrow 1-0 win. Francescoli joined Galderisi in Cuciuffo’s World Cup graveyard.
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Bilardo changed tack for the famous 2-1 victory over England in the quarter-finals, the pragmatic coach switching the formation to a back three. Cuciuffo, who had begun the tournament as a right-back, was now playing as the left-sided stopper alongside Óscar Ruggeri, while José Luis Brown operated as a sweeper from a slightly deeper position. Argentina would retain this shape for the remainder of the competition.
Maradona once again stole the headlines in the semi-final, downing Belgium with two expertly taken strikes. For the second goal, Cuchu intercepted a poor attempt by the besieged Belgians to get out of their own half, controlling it first with his foot and then on his chest. As the ball dropped to the floor, he drove towards the heart of the Belgian defence, taking two touches before passing the ball to Maradona.
Cuciuffo continued his run, expecting a return pass from Maradona, although El Diego had other ideas and created a goal out of nothing but his own individual brilliance. Maradona praised the defender, calling him a daredevil for his skill and subsequent decoy run. Argentina, often interpreted as a one-man team during this World Cup, were much more, a point saliently highlighted by the main man himself: “That’s why I say that I won that game with the help of my teammates (after all, any distraction comes in handy),” wrote the inspirational number 10.
Cuciuffo played the full 90 minutes once again in the final as Argentina beat West Germany 3-2 to regain the trophy they had won on home soil in 1978 and surrendered so meekly in Spain in 1982. Far from grabbing the headlines, Cuchu was a key member of the team. “Cuciuffo turned out to be a monster player, another of the cup’s surprises,” said Maradona. “He hadn’t expected to play much, but he ended up marking like Beckenbauer and kicking to centre like Zico.”
To be compared in the same breath as Garrincha, Franz Beckenbauer and Zico by someone as hard to please as Maradona is some feat. The defender’s four-year association with the national team ended in 1995, and Cuciuffo finished on 21 caps. Many players held a longer association with La Albiceleste, and many garnered more caps, but few got to reach the heights as Cuciuffo did in 1986, performing alongside a peak Maradona and lifting the World Cup trophy under the Mexican sun.
Back to domestic matters, Cuciuffo’s next move saw him transfer across the capital to Boca Juniors in 1987. Unfortunately, his three-year spell at La Bombonera proved fruitless, and Cuciuffo eventually left having fallen out with the authorities at the club. It was a fallow period for Los Xeneizes, in the middle of a 12-year spell without winning a championship and beset by financial difficulties.
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Cuciuffo crossed the Atlantic for a three-year sojourn with French side Nîmes, where he was briefly a teammate of the fiery Eric Cantona. Nîmes were promoted from the second division during Cuciuffo’s first season in Europe, before recording a 15th-place finish in Ligue 1 in the 1991/92 campaign. However, the following season, Les Crocodiles finished rock-bottom of the French top flight, prompting the Argentine to return to his native Córdoba and finish his career with Belgrano.
Following the end of his playing career, Cuciuffo held several interests and was at one point working with promising young Japanese footballers. As part of this role, the former Boca defender visited his old employers as they prepared in Tokyo for 2003’s Intercontinental Cup clash with Milan. Boca, underwhelming during Cuciuffo’s three-year spell at the end of the 1980s, were in the midst of their most successful era, beating the mighty Italians on penalties and claiming their second Intercontinental title in three years.
In the wake of Cuciuffo’s untimely death, his popularity was proven as several prominent Argentine football figures – including Bilardo, Nery Pumpido, Brown and Sergio Batista – travelled from Buenos Aires to Córdoba to attend the funeral of the well-liked and generous man who never lost his distinctive Cordobés lilt despite living outside of the city for large portions of his career.
In December 2016, 12 years after his passing, his legacy was set in stone. A bust of him was unveiled in the children’s playground of the Plaza de los Burros in the San Martín neighbourhood, the place where he first kicked a ball as a carefree youngster. The inauguration featured delegates from Córdoba’s three biggest clubs, food, and musical performances. The ceremony proved a huge source of pride for his family, especially his daughter Agostina who was in attendance and pleasantly shocked about the regard in which her father was held.
Maradona claimed that the Argentina side that won the 1986 World Cup were “touched by God.” If the phrase ‘God giveth and God taketh away’ rings true, what José Luis Cuciuffo received in 1986 by being an unlikely yet vital cog in the machinery of his national team’s triumph was prematurely taken away in 2004 when the man-marker extraordinaire was just 43-years-old.
The bullet that savaged his insides deprived his future grandchildren the chance to sit on his lap and stare wide-eyed as he regaled them with tales of 1986, of Maradona, Jorge Burruchaga and the gang. The first Argentine World Cup winner to perish may not have been a household name, and he may not have stolen headlines in 1986, but he will be remembered by his teammates and the people he touched, the bust in his childhood park a permanent reminder and celebration of his legacy.
By Dan Williamson