Jorge Valdano. Gabriel Batistuta. Mauricio Pochettino, Gerardo Martino. Maxi Rodríguez. Walter Samuel. Gabriel Heinze. Carlos Tévez. Fabricio Coloccini. Éver Banega. Fernando Gago. Besides going on to achieve great things in world football, each of these players has something else in common. They were all developed by the great Jorge Bernardo Griffa, the most successful man in Argentine youth development.
There are many alumni from the School of Griffa. His graduates populated a significant chunk of the Argentine first division for decades and there was a particularly strong Griffa core at Newell’s Old Boys, the club he dedicated most of his career too, transforming the institution.
But his and Newell’s story could have been very different. He very nearly signed for their city rivals Rosario Central as a young boy, only for Adolfo Celli at Newell’s to see the tall and muscly centre-back and to convince him to sign up with Los Rojinegros.
The kid nicknamed ‘Oily’ because of his excessive hair gel grew up and lived in Casilda, a town around 60km outside of Rosario, and he displayed commendable commitment as he took his first steps in football, often not arriving home from matches until 2am, having had to hitch a ride on the milk trucks of the night, as well as running part of the road from the big city to his hometown. On occasion, he’d sleep in a church in Rosario where he uncle worked.
Following his progression through the youth categories, Griffa debuted against Independiente, the team he had supported as a child. He was asked to play at full-back that day and they lost 3-0, with the man he was marking scoring a hat-trick, but another chance came his way against Racing Club de Avellaneda, this time in his natural position of centre-back, and he never gave up his spot.
Following five years of top-level football in Argentina, the defender made the move to Atlético Madrid in 1959 at the age of 24, at a time when very few Argentine footballers took their talents to Europe. It was a bold decision, but it worked out well for both the player and the Spanish club.
Griffa was a fine central defender, who devoured opposition strikers. He was of the ‘a grapple a day keeps the doctor away’ mindset and he even caused problems for some of his own attacking teammates, often being sent off during training sessions, so ferociously did he approach the game. “When I went to header the ball, I never lost the aerial battle,” he boasted years after his retirement. “Not even when I was obstructed.”
The Argentine always had more up his sleeve than just his arm; he was a player who had grit packed into his six-foot frame. As incredible as it sounds, he claimed he even spent the majority of his career playing through the pain of torn ligaments in his right knee. “I tore them when I was 21 years old and playing at San Lorenzo’s stadium,” he explained after his retirement in an interview with El Gráfico. “Since it was difficult to have an operation back then, I carried on. To have an operation on the cruciate ligaments at that time basically meant having to quit football. Of course, it hurt and I would spend each Monday with ice wrapped on the leg. I would wrap bandages below my knee when I played, which prevented me from stretching it too much.”
That kind of commitment to his craft, combined with his immense talent, even saw him earn a handful of caps for his national team. He almost went to the 1966 World Cup in England with Argentina, although Juan Carlos Lorenzo didn’t call him up in the end, even though the coach had persuaded Griffa to reject Spain’s calls for him to switch allegiances. The ever-cynical Griffa believes Lorenzo only intervened because Argentina were in Spain’s group.
Nevertheless, Griffa achieved enough success at club level to satisfy his winning itch, claiming three Copa del Reys, one LaLiga title and one Cup Winners’ Cup. Atleti legend Luis Aragonés stated that Griffa was the one who changed the club’s mentality for the better, as the Argentine was a born winner and enjoyed nothing less than coming out on top and celebrating a victory. One victory celebration even landed him in prison, police arresting him for grabbing his crotch and gesticulating at rival supporters in Bilbao after one Atlético win at San Mamés.
Given all he did for the capital city club, Griffa was given a testimonial eight years after his arrival, two years before these ceremonial matches were usually organised for players. This exhibition match against Benfica in 1967 was the first time the Estadio Manzanares – which later became the Vicente Calderón – sold out, which was welcome news for Griffa since the gate receipts were heading into his bank account.
In 1969, his time in Madrid came to an end and he spent two final years in Spain – where two of his children were born – at second-tier Espanyol, who he helped win promotion back up to LaLiga. Then, in 1971, after that last waltz and after 334 matches in Spain, he retired from professional football. Griffa’s career, though, was only just getting started. He hadn’t even discovered his true calling yet.
There was no way Griffa was going to spend his post-playing days sitting by a pool with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other. He had always worked and wasn’t going to stop. As a teenager, he had combined his footballing apprenticeship with a job as a telegraphist, while he even had a part-time job selling wine while playing for the Newell’s first team. After training, he and his teammate Pichulo would load up a van and drive around the local neighbourhoods selling alcohol to various stores. Only when he arrived in Spain did he focus solely on football, but even then he was training every day and competing several times a week. He needed employment like a fly needs a human to pester.
As such, he returned to Argentina after his time at Espanyol came to an end and he started looking for work, asking for and taking up a coaching role with Newell’s. Very quickly, he realised that training senior players wasn’t for him. Instead, he vowed to dedicate his time to scouting, developing and promoting youth prospects.
“Training youth was something I felt,” he told El Gráfico. “When I started, they taught instinct ahead of knowledge. I thought there was a need to train them so that instinct became an old story. I started to teach and to learn, and to learn and to teach. There is a need to totally commit to it and to not view youth development as a stepping stone towards coaching a first division team.” Nobody could doubt his commitment, given that he spent the next several decades working from 7.30am to 10pm, totally married to the profession and counting on the support of his wife and family.
From the very start, Griffa saw inefficiencies everywhere and, having never been a conformist, he wanted to overhaul the set-up at the Rosario club. Newell’s had never been a massive institution. They had no first division titles to their name when he took over the running of the youth system and they’d even spent three of the years since he departed for Spain in the second tier of Argentine football. There was no way they could compete with the Buenos Aires giants unless they tried something innovative.
“To compete with River, Boca, Independiente, San Lorenzo and, at that time, Huracán, we had to come up with an idea,” he later explained in an interview with Conclusión. “So I decided to go and to look for players, instead of waiting for them. The other teams waited for players to emerge, while we went to look for them. That’s how we made a great team.”
He also launched a series of partnerships with smaller clubs, rather than simply taking players away and not rewarding their local team. These agreements proved successful, with the ‘you scratch my back and I scratch your back’ approach mutually beneficial. “My reasoning was that instead of making enemies with clubs through plucking away their players, we should make friends,” he added in another interview with El Grafico.
He started touring the country looking for kids to introduce to the petri dish of his academy, later doing so alongside Marcelo Bielsa, who was working in the youth department as part of his preparation for taking over the first team. The famous story of Bielsa’s 2am visit to Mauricio Pochettino’s house and bedroom to recruit the current Tottenham manager has Griffa in the background. He had been Bielsa’s travelling companion in the car.
Griffa’s project was often difficult, with the club frequently short of money. There were years when he wouldn’t be paid for his work, but his bigger concern was finding footballs to train the kids with and persuading the Newell’s’ board to buy the land for the sports centre they now have at Bella Vista. He really was that determined to see his project prosper.
Little by little, the youngsters started to make it into the first team and Newell’s started to win things. Important things. They’d lifted a league championship just a couple of years after Griffa took over, during the days of the Metropolitano-split format, before Newell’s teams packed with youth won championships in 1988, 1991 and 1992.
Jorge Valdano, one of the players who came through under Griffa and who lifted a national title, is clear that the former Atlético and Espanyol player deserves so much of the credit for these successes. “I think the essential thing was the football school created and led by Griffa, one of the development gurus in Argentina,” he told Jot Down when speaking of Newell’s’ golden age. “This placed Newell’s in an honorary sphere when it came to developing players.”
Forgetting the silverware, perhaps the biggest recognition of Griffa’s skill came in 1976, when Argentina national team coach César Luis Menotti called the Newell’s youth director and asked for a favour. “Jorge, I need the Newell’s B team to represent us at the Olympic Games qualifying tournament in Brazil,” Menotti said. The whole team? Yes, Menotti trusted Griffa’s work so much that he wanted his Albiceleste Olympic outfit to be represented entirely by Newell’s youth players. Although they only had 10 days to prepare, they came third of all the South American nations, impressive for a club side even if it wasn’t enough to qualify for the Montreal tournament.
By every possible measure, Griffa’s time in charge of Newell’s youth set-up was a success. But all good things must come to an end and, in 1995, he left the club after failing to see eye-to-eye with president Eduardo López.
He wasn’t unemployed for long as former Boca Juniors president and current president of the nation Mauricio Macri called Griffa and asked him to take over the Buenos Aires’ side’s youth programme the following year, which he did. He worked there until 2004, enjoying similar success to that which he’d brought to Newell’s. In fact, he oversaw greater success in the Argentine capital, given the greater resources at his disposal, meaning he could bring in promising teenagers who had already made something a name for themselves at other clubs.
The stated goal was to have nine members of the starting line-up coming from the academy and, although this was never achieved, Griffa jokes that it’s because Macri cashed in on so many talents before they were first-team age. In terms of trophies, the period was a profitable one, with Boca winning two Intercontinental Cups during Griffa’s stint at La Bombonera, one in 2000 and another in 2003.
Griffa held a number of other posts after leaving Boca in 2004, from teaching youth development basics to the Mexican FA to roles within the directorships at Necaxa and Independiente. He even wrote a book called 39 Years in the Youth Divisions, which was published in 2011. There really isn’t much in youth development that he hasn’t done, although he admits he’d have liked to have returned to Atlético in the past to overhaul their youth system, only for the opportunity to never come up.
The opportunity to take charge of the Argentine FA’s youth programme did come up, but Griffa turned down former federation president Julio Grondona in 1982, before Grondona then rejected Griffa in 1994, when he was finally willing to take on the job. One has to wonder what state the country’s centralised youth development programmes would be in nowadays had this guru gotten his hands on the control panel in the 1980s or 1990s, but it simply wasn’t meant to be.
Through his work at Newell’s and Boca, the former in particular, Jorge Griffa made a significant mark on late 20th century Argentine football anyway. His work deserves to be discussed more than it is, both inside and outside Argentine borders.
By Euan McTear @emctear