It may not have been the greatest game of football in history and it is light years from being among the most attractive, but for controversy and polemic, few fixtures can compare with the impact of Racing Club’s 1967 Intercontinental Cup clash with Jock Stein’s Celtic. Scottish fans still rail against what they perceive as the injustice of that play-off defeat in the Uruguayan capital after the first two legs finished tied, but the real story of what happened in the game later dubbed “The Battle of Montevideo” is far from black and white.
In any sport, the right to be “champions of the world” should be the pinnacle of achievement. It is a sign that a team or individual is the very best on the planet and has beaten all comers in order to earn the most prestigious of titles.
While in football this tag has often been undervalued by clubs from Europe — especially in the last 20 years, when the influence of limitless money and overwhelming commercial exposure has made the Champions League more important than the European Cup ever was — it remains the biggest honour imaginable for teams on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The venerable Intercontinental Cup competition was the only opportunity that the best clubs from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay had to prove they were equal to their European cousins, which made for some ferocious encounters.
A historical grudge played and continues to play a vital role in the fomenting of this continental rivalry. It began in the 1930s, when an Italy side driven by a will to win at all costs started repatriating the sons and grandsons of those impoverished immigrants who fled to the new world seeking a new life and an escape from the rigid landlord-peasant dynamic of southern Italy. The 1934 and 1938 World Cup-winning sides boasted talents such as Raimundo Orsi, born in Argentina but a goalscorer for the azzurri in the 1934 final, as well as Luis Monti, whose record of playing in two World Cup finals for two different teams is unique in football history. From these auspicious beginnings developed the outward flow of talent from South America, which is now a billion-dollar business for agents, clubs and players.
Omar Sivori, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Alcides Ghiggia: just a handful of the legendary stars who made their names away from their home nations, building resentment. All this and more made victory over European rivals a powerful incentive for the continent’s best teams, an obsession reflected in the results of the earliest Intercontinental clashes.
The Montevideo side Peñarol contested the first two tournaments on behalf of South America, first holding the mighty Real Madrid to a tie in the Estadio Centenario before being destroyed 5-1 in the Bernabéu; a double from Ferenc Puskás and goals from Di Stéfano and Francisco Gento firing them to success. There was revenge for the Uruguayans the following year, though, as Eusébio’s Benfica were beaten in a tie-break after a win each. The match in Montevideo resulted in a 5-0 demolition thanks to two goals from one of football’s unforgettable personalities, Alberto Spencer. An Ecuadorian born of a Jamaican-British father, the forward earned the nickname Cabeza magica (magic head) for his ability to steer the heavy leather ball into the back of the net and he would later be named amongst the 20 best South American footballers of all time by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics.
1962 and 1963 belonged to Santos, as Pelé, Pepe and Coutinho blew past Benfica and AC Milan to become the first team to win consecutive titles, a feat only matched by São Paulo, Internazionale and AC Milan in the history of the competition. Argentinian teams, meanwhile, struggled in those pioneering days of transatlantic travel and international play. Independiente went down two years in a row to Helenio Herrera’s Inter meaning that, while Peñarol and Santos celebrated their status as world champions, Argentina still lacked a standard-bearer of their own.
It was in this context that Racing Club entered the 1967 edition of the Intercontinental Cup. The club based in the industrial suburb of Avellaneda, a stone’s throw from Buenos Aires and the home of the monstrous port complex of Dock Sud, had been one of the strongest sides of the amateur era, but with the advent of professionalism in 1931 they had struggled to replicate their prodigious early success. Then Juan José Pizzuti took his place on the bench.
Pizzuti was a prolific goalscorer as a player, netting 182 times in 349 games and winning three domestic titles with Racing and Boca Juniors. He retired at La Bombonera in 1963 and two years later, at 38 years old, he found himself back in Avellaneda with La Academia. Racing had not won the league since he left, but just a year after taking over the novice coach was leading a lap of honour, having taken La Academia to the 1966 Primera Division title. “That team was put together to save us from relegation,” the striker Humberto Maschio recalled. “The situation was not good, but José put his faith in the kids, who later showed they had lots of character. Add to that the arrival of some great players, like me, and we ended up creating a brilliant team.”
A fresh thinker and an accomplished technician despite his lack of experience, Pizzuti quickly set about creating what became known as El Equipo de José. He modified the W-M formation that most teams still played, edging towards a total-footballing model.
Contemporary observers agree that the team set out in Avellaneda during the mid-sixties, in an age in which catenaccio and safety-first play were beginning to prevail over the gung-ho tactics of the sport’s early days, was like a preview of the wonderful Ajax side led by Johan Cruyff which so enchanted the world in the early seventies. These comparisons can become embellished and exaggerated over time, of course, and the defining characteristics of Pizzutti’s team were its solidity and tenacious defence. What is certainly true, though, is that there were no fixed positions in Pezzutti’s team; every player was expected to defend and attack, to run and to tackle, to contribute to a flowing style of play. In an age in which a player’s position was still very much defined by the shirt number on his back, the team can be said to be, if not revolutionary, at least part of football’s evolution into the fluid game seen in the 1970s.
Of course, to put such a style of play into practice you need footballers with the talent and intelligence to make the coach’s diagrams and scribbles come to life, and the 1967 Racing team had them in droves. There was Roberto Perfumo, the defender from just down the road in Sarandí who came through the youth ranks into the first team, and who is now considered one of the finest centre-backs in the history of Argentine football. There was Alfio Basile, who in later years would be known for his gravelly voice as coach of the national team and who returned in December 2011 for a fourth spell as coach of the club that made him an idol as a player. ‘El Coco’ came to the club as a youngster from Bella Vista of Bahia Blanca and excelled alongside Perfumo, forming a partnership in the middle of defence that would yield just 36 goals in a 60-game stretch that covered winning the league in 1966 and the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup campaigns in 1967. Up front, and soon to make himself an eternal idol for Racing fans, was Juan Carlos ‘Chango’ Cardenas.
Born in the impoverished northern province of Santiago del Estero, Chango moved to the capital as a teenager and by the age of 19, after just one season in the second flight with Nuevo Chicago, was in the Racing team. He was to play in La Academia for nine years in total, scoring 81 goals in 287 appearances; but one strike in particular, in that Intercontinental triumph, would go down in history. Still recognised as one of the greatest figures in Racing history, Cardenas revels in the memories of 1967 and what it meant to the club and its fans. “It makes me so proud that what we achieved is still remembered,” he reflected years later. “And with that goal that was such a beauty! The most important thing about that moment is that it was the one that made us the first Argentinian world champions and that is what most fills us with pride.”
Racing walked the 1966 Primera campaign, losing just one game to finish five points clear of River Plate. In the Copa Libertadores the following season they suffered just two defeats in the 16-game marathon needed to reach a final against the Montevideo titans Nacional. An incredible 290,000 spectators are estimated to have been present at the three clashes it took to settle the tie.
Both legs ended 0-0, so a tie-break was arranged in Chile’s Estadio Monumental. A massive movement of Argentinian and Uruguayan fans across the breadth of the continent filled the 100,000 capacity stadium to bursting point, and that crowd watched Racing clinch their first international title with a 2-1 victory. The midfielder João Cardoso opened the scoring, before Norberto Raffo made it 2-0 to La Academia just before half-time. Milton Viera pulled one back for the Uruguayans late in the second half, but Racing held on to lift the trophy, setting up their meeting with Celtic.
Just like their Argentinian opponents, the Celtic team of the day has since gone down in legend. Under the tutelage of Jock Stein, the Bhoys had won two consecutive Scottish League titles by 1967, a run that had extended to an incredible nine when their eternal rivals Rangers finally broke it in 1975. Players like Jimmy Johnstone, Bobby Lennox, Tommy Gemmell and the lion-hearted defender Billy McNeill are considered some of the greatest players ever to come out of Scotland, but what made that team even more remarkable was the fact that, like Racing, they had been pulled together from a tight radius around the team’s home.
Few managers have received as much acclaim as Stein. The journalist Hugh McIlvaney called him “the greatest manager in the history of the game”, Bwhile ill Shankly summed up the thoughts of all Celtic fans after that 1967 European Cup win by telling his countryman, “You’re immortal now.” His most celebrated attribute, though, was his ability to motivate a team to show no fear and to give 100% whether on the pitch or, as Bobby Murdoch remembers, even in a training session. “Quite often,” he said, “I would go home from training at Barrowfield with bumps and bruises. Training under Big Jock was competitive.”
Every single player in that team was born within 30 miles of Parkhead and their camaraderie and unity was legendary even in that age in which footballers still mingled with fans. Even so, this team was not supposed to win the European Cup in 1967. They were playing Inter, the iconic catenaccio side of the Argentina-born Helenio Herrera, made up of stars like Sandro Mazzola, Armando Picchi and Giacinto Facchetti. Inter had won two European Cups in the previous three years and as they lined up against Stein’s plucky underdogs in Lisbon defeat seemed unthinkable.
Even more so when, after just seven minutes, Mazzola slotted home a penalty to give the Italians the lead. This was playing exactly into Herrera’s hands; one up, the team could then shut down into defensive mode and squeeze the life out of their opponents. It was a game plan that had worked countless times before, but Stein was not going to play by the script. Total attack overwhelmed total defence. Celtic recorded an incredible 39 shots in the match, and after nearly an hour of constant pressure the Scots finally broke through, Tommy Gemmell firing in from just outside the box. With seven minutes left the winning goal finally arrived, Gemmell laying the ball off to Bobby Murdoch, whose long shot was deflected in by Stevie Chalmers. It was the first time a northern European club had won the title.
This is an exclusive extract offered to South American Football by the collective of writers at The Blizzard. To read the full article download Issue Four of The Blizzard which is out now on a pay-what-you-like basis in print and digital formats. Find out more here.