The final whistle blew after an exhilarating 120 minutes in the Argentine capital, ecstatic roars escaping from El Monumental’s roofless bowl into the dusk of the Buenos Aires sky. La Albiceleste were world champions for the very first time, on their own turf no less. The trophy was paraded around the running track encircling the pitch as ticker tape rained down from the stands, inundating the celebrating players, fans, press and members of Argentina’s military regime.
Córdoba’s favourite son, Mario Kempes, and Daniel Bertoni grabbed the headlines with their goals, as did captain Daniel Passarella. However, the architect of the triumph was the man in the dugout, César Luis Menotti, the wispy-haired, chain-smoking romantic with the slender frame.
As has become a well-known tale, Argentina’s World Cup victory was won against the backdrop of a brutal military regime, which disappeared 30,000 of its own people during a seven-year reign of terror. Because of the political climate, the triumph would prove bittersweet for a man with left-leaning political views at odds with the ruling government. Professionally, however, attempting to win the World Cup was a no-brainer for the coach. The fact that it also pleased the military regime, allowing them to attempt to legitimise their existence, was a by-product Menotti would have to learn to live with.
The victory briefly united the country, but proved a mere band aid on a deep wound, the regime collapsing in disgrace within five years. For Menotti, it would also prove to be the high point of his managerial career, despite the fact that he continued to coach in club and international football for almost three decades. Despite his future globe-trotting exploits, it was in Buenos Aires’ Parque Patricios neighbourhood, just 15 kilometres south-east of where the World Cup triumph took place, that Menotti would make his name.
Menotti was born in Rosario – the port city on the banks of the Paraná which would later gift the world Lionel Messi – in November 1938. Menotti the player, who would create a reputation as an elegant midfielder, debuted for Rosario Central in 1960, the hometown club he watched from the terraces as a youngster.
All 11 of Menotti’s international caps came during his three-year stint at the atmospheric Gigante de Arroyito, and he would later play for Racing and Boca in Argentina, as well as enjoying short spells in the USA and Brazil. He hung up his boots towards the end of the 1960s before moving into management, where he would really make a name for himself and eclipse his achievements on the other side of the white line.
In 1970 the budding coach travelled to Mexico for the World Cup. Mário Zagallo’s Brazil, arguably the most dominant side in the history of international football, famously swept all before them during this tournament. Pelé and his teammates were majestic, none more so than in their 4-1 destruction of Italy in the final, Carlos Alberto’s fourth goal the finishing touch of a dream tournament for the Brazilians. Menotti was mesmerised by the attacking flair of the Verde-amarela, this experience undoubtedly helping form the attractive style his teams would later adopt.
El Flaco’s friendship with former Central teammate Miguel Antonio Juárez would also prove pivotal in shaping his future career. El Gitano, managing Central’s cross-city rivals Newell’s Old Boys, invited Menotti to watch training sessions. However, the partnership blossomed and Menotti, who began advising and coaching, effectively became Newell’s unofficial joint manager.
In May 1971, the president of Club Atlético Huracán, Luis Seijo, travelled the 300km to Rosario to offer the manager’s job to Menotti, which he duly accepted. Huracán were founded in 1908, the iconic badge and nickname of El Globo in honour of Jorge Newbery, an Argentine aviator and engineer who crossed the River Plate to Uruguay in a balloon in 1907. He broke records with further balloon trips in 1909 in one called El Huracán, which is where the club’s official title comes from. His name also adorns Buenos Aires’ secondary airport, one that handles domestic flights and short ones to neighbouring South American countries.
Los Quemeros had a productive spell during the 1920s, when they won four titles before the dawn of the professional era. One of the key characters during this period was centre-forward Guillermo Stábile, who would go on to play in France and Italy, as well as managing the national team for over two decades during its golden La Nuestra period.
In the late 1940s the club moved into its current home, the Estadio Tomás Adolfo Ducó, named after the former president who acquired the lands upon which the stadium would later be built. The iconic structure, which features a recognisable art deco tower, was memorably featured in Oscar-winning 2009 movie El Secreto de Sus Ojos.
There is no doubt that Huracán were a modest outfit before the arrival of Menotti, kept firmly in the shade by Buenos Aires’ biggest clubs. However, the appointment of El Flaco saw their profile, and standard of football, raise almost immediately.
The timing of his ascent in the coaching world proved pivotal. Prior to the 1960s, the Argentine game was synonymous with free-flowing, attacking football, the professional league awash with goals. However, a crushing 6-1 defeat at the hands of Czechoslovakia at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden left the national team, and the wider Argentine game reeling. The isolation that proved so fertile to the growth of La Nuestra would also be its undoing; the defeat at the hands of the Czech’s proved how far Argentina had fallen behind the rest of the world.
The result was a period where, with results now prioritised over attractive football, negative tactics became the norm. Formations evolved with a focus on stopping the opposition, rather than attacking them, and a quick Google search will highlight several high-profile flashpoints replete with thuggery and disgusting behaviour. Menotti had been raised on La Nuestra, but his whole professional career took place in the 1960s, therefore he witnessed both ends of the spectrum first-hand. His style would become the ultimate antithesis of pragmatism.
The acquisition of René Houseman in 1973 would prove pivotal in the history of Huracán but also of the trajectory of Menotti’s career, the two later linking up for the 1978 World Cup. El Loco was a skilful right-winger, regarded as one of the best the country has ever produced. In Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson talks of his “erratic brilliance”. Maradona also had gushing words for Houseman in his autobiography, El Diego, describing him as “the greatest I ever saw in terms of skill, dribbling, inventiveness.”
Houseman passed away in March 2018, aged 64, following a lifelong battle with alcoholism, and a shorter one with tongue cancer. However, in 1973, he belonged to Huracán and is undoubtedly revered as the club’s biggest icon.
The mainstays of the defence, usually as part of a back four, during the 1973 season were Alfio Basile and Jorge Carrascosa. Basile, formerly of Racing, was a midfielder-turned-centre-half who later went on to have two spells in charge of the national team, including at the 1994 World Cup. Carrascosa, who featured at left-back, started his career at Banfield before winning a league title with Menotti’s first love, Rosario Central, in 1971. Unlike his coach, however, El Lobo retired from international football prematurely due to his opposition to the regime, despite Menotti’s promise that he’d be a key player for La Albiceleste.
Francisco Russo was often deployed as the defensive midfielder – or cinco in Argentine football parlance – to protect the back four. This formation was en vogue post-1958 but Menotti’s interpretation wasn’t necessarily designed to stifle the opposition; rather it was meant to give his attacking talents a solid foundation upon which to flourish. The idea was to win the ball back as close to the opposition goal as possible and – win, lose or draw – Menotti gave his players the ultimate freedom to express themselves.
The talent in the attacking positions was phenomenal, featuring players adept at dribbling, tricksters who could play one-twos and befuddle opponents. Omar Larrosa had won the Nacional title with Boca Juniors in 1970, and linked up with Menotti again for the 1978 World Cup, coming off the bench in the final. Carlos Babington, nicknamed El Inglés due his ancestry, would spend eight years with the club over two spells, scoring well over a hundred goals. Solidifying his legendary status, he would later manage the club and even become its president.
And then there was Miguel Ángel Brindisi, whose performances in 1973 would earn him the Argentine Footballer of the Year award. The attacking midfielder would later transfer to Boca and win another championship, this time alongside the precocious talent of Diego Maradona. Brindisi scored more or less a goal every other game in over 300 appearances for Huracán.
Given the array of talent on display, and Menotti’s methods, it’s no surprise that El Globo started the season like a proverbial house on fire. Six straight wins, featuring 22 goals, saw Huracán top the table and set a blistering pace. The concession of only four goals, including three clean sheets, suggested that offence was indeed the best form of defence. It also hinted that although Menotti’s side was more La Nuestra than anti-fútbol, his team would not be naive at the back. The phenomenal run included a 2-0 victory against Newell’s, the club he had spent time with during his formative coaching days.
Defeat wasn’t tasted until the ninth round, when a 1-0 reverse against River Plate at El Monumental – another ground that would become synonymous with Menotti – was suffered. However, El Globo bounced back with five straight wins. The next defeat came in round 17 at the hands of the other half of the Superclásico, Boca Juniors. The 4-1 trouncing was followed up by another stellar run, this time four straight wins.
Menotti had instilled a belief in his players that each game should be treated in isolation, rather than as part of a bigger picture of a league campaign. It’s a cliché often trotted out by modern players, trained to handle the media within an inch of their lives, but for the Huracán players it rang true, and their ability to remain calm and react so positively to sapping defeats as they did to those against River and Boca would prove crucial.
River would complete the double over Huracán with another 1-0 victory in round 26, and El Globo would limp over the finish line with only two wins from the final eight games. However, the fast start proved enough. Despite losing 2-1 to Gimnasia on 16 September 1973, Huracán were crowned Metropolitano champions due to Boca’s defeat against Vélez Sársfield.
The final table showed Boca four points behind in second place – and Huracán boasted the meanest defence in the league, with just 30 goals conceded in 32 games. The style of the title win was hugely symbolic, marking a turning point in Argentina’s style. Even opposition fans applauded Huracán’s players off the pitch.
The team from Parque Patricios fared reasonably well in the subsequent Nacional championship, finishing third out of 15 in their group, but missed out on progressing to the finals by a single point. Mirroring their high voltage start to the Metropolitano campaign, it was the faltering finish that proved decisive, and one win in the last four games this time resulted in elimination.
Huracán produced strong displays in both the Metropolitano and Nacional of 1974, although they failed to reach the glorious heights of the previous year. Menotti also attempted to take his charges continent-wide in 1974’s Copa Libertadores campaign. Los Quemeros topped their group in the first group phase, dumping out Rosario and Chilean duo Colo-Colo and Unión Española.
The second phase featured the five group winners, alongside the formidable Independiente, who would go on to win the Copa Libertadores for the third time in succession that year, before adding a fourth in 1975; a remarkable feat that has yet to be repeated, and is highly unlikely to be given the cyclical nature of modern Argentine football.
Huracán can perhaps count themselves unlucky to have been drawn against El Rojo, who ultimately topped the group and were fresher having received a bye through the first phase. Huracán failed to win a game in a group also boasting Uruguayan heavyweights Peñarol.
Whatever magic had created the 1973 side had clearly evaporated, yet Menotti was destined for greater things. In October 1974 he was appointed as the manager of Argentina’s national team, the decks cleared for La Albiceleste level following a disappointing World Cup campaign that included a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands.
Menotti was Argentina’s head coach for eight years, bowing out after an uninspiring campaign in 1982, although he did win the 1979 Under-20 World Cup in Tokyo, unleashing a frustrated Maradona – whom Menotti had upset by leaving out of the victorious World Cup campaign – on his age-group peers who had no business being on the same pitch as him.
Menotti won three trophies – although not the league title or European Cup – during a season in charge of Barcelona in 1983, before undertaking assignments with Boca Juniors, Atlético Madrid, River Plate, Peñarol, the Mexico national team, Independiente, Sampdoria, and his beloved Rosario Central, before finishing his managerial career with two club assignments in Mexico. Surprisingly, following his short spell in the Catalan capital, the storied coach only won one other honour in a managerial career that spanned 37 years. However, his legacy is set in stone.
The arrival of Menotti’s Huracán drew a line in the sand of Argentine football, closing an era of brutality that had characterised the 1960s and early-70s following the watershed moment in Sweden in 1958. The beauty of El Globo’s play evoked images of Argentina’s golden La Nuestra period and proved a breath of fresh air in an age of anti-fútbol. The World Cup triumph of 1978 provided a window of positivity in what was a dark, depressing period in Argentine society, yet it is perhaps unfair that for those involved in the football set-up, the tainted victory will somehow always be tied to the regime.
That night in El Monumental put Argentina, a country that had never competed to such an extent on a global scale, on the world football map. La Albiceleste have pretty much been a top-tier side ever since and it was Menotti who gave them that initial credibility. El Flaco gave Huracán the first and only title in their history and his name will forever live on in Argentine coaching discussions, juxtaposed with the style of his ideological nemesis Carlos Bilardo.
By Dan Williamson