Few nations can rival Argentina for the importance they place on their forwards. From the days of Bernabe Ferreyra, to those of Alfredo Di Stefano, Diego Maradona and now of Lionel Messi, Argentina have produced so many of the most exciting attackers that to list them all becomes an impossible task. Unquestionably, the most famous inside-forward trio was that of River Plate’s La Maquina side: Jose Manuel Moreno, Adolfo Pedernera and Angel Labruna. For romantics, though, there is one attacking unit even more poetic in their brilliance.
The 1958 World Cup is widely remembered for the emergence of one South American side, Brazil, as a footballing superpower. What is often overlooked is the seismic impact that the tournament had on Argentinian football. Traditionally the premier football nation in South America along with Uruguay, a 6-1 defeat at the hands of Czechoslovakia rocked the nation to its core.
For up until then, all had been well in Argentinian football. Since 1925 Argentina had won ten of the 14 Copa Americas in which they had played. Not only that, they had produced a brand of football which was made for the spectator – elegant, intricate passing combined with astonishing close control made the Argentine league as exciting of that of any country in the world.
Even by Argentine standards, the production line was churning out players as talented as anything that had been seen previously. River’s trio of the 1940s were merely the tip of the iceberg for a country who could boast an unending host of playmakers. If one of the Maquina men was absent there was always Rene Pontoni, Antonio Sastre and Herminio Masantonio.
As the greats of the 1940s aged, a new generation emerged who were more than fit to take their place. Ernesto Grillo, Jose Sanfilippo and Rodolfo Micheli soon came to prominence, but it was another trio who would become even more renowned. Antonio Angelillo, Humberto Maschio and Omar Sivori were a special triumvirate who would come to be known as the “Angels with Dirty Faces” (a reference to a 1938 gangster film starring James Cagney).
Individually, they were sensational players; together, they were world beaters. Angelillo only made his professional debut in 1955, but by the time the 1957 Copa America came around he had already earned a move to Boca Juniors and established himself as a star. Humberto Maschio had proven himself as a powerful and aggressive centre-forward with some fine performances for the national team. Sivori was, by some way, the best of the bunch. Nimble and quick, he demonstrated much of the unbridled confidence which has been a trademark of Argentina’s finest playmakers.
The 1957 Copa America demonstrated just how good this group of players were. They cantered to the title winning five of their six games, including a comfortable 3-0 win over a Brazil team featuring Didi, Djalma Santos and Zizinho. The only game they did lose – 2-1 against hosts Peru – proved academic as they were already certain of victory. The tournament not only raised the profile of the players, it also gained them a new nickname: the “trio of death”.
The performances at the Copa America also awakened the interest of European scouts. Maschio had been close to joining Juventus in 1956, though doubts about his ability against quality opposition put the Turin giants off. Nine goals in six games at the Copa put such doubts to rest. It was Sivori, though, who eventually joined Juve, while Angelillo’s eight tournament goals attracted Inter’s interest and Maschio opted for Bologna.
Just as quickly as the team had come together it fell apart. The 1958 humiliation brought on years of introspection and forced a re-evaluation of the Argentine style of play. Out went the intricacy that had been the hallmark of La Maquina, and in came the pragmatism best embodied by the Estudiantes team of the late 1960s. The prized position of the skilful forward was no more.
The transfer of the trio to Europe of course did not mark the end of their ability to delight and enchant fans, only to shift the location of their wizardry. For in Serie A, each man excelled in different ways and enhanced an already spectacular league. At the time, Italy was rivalled only by Spain as the destination for premier footballing talent.
As in Argentina, it was Sivori who made the greatest impact. His move to Juventus had made him the world’s most expensive player and he was expected to form a potent strike pairing with another new signing, John Charles. Polar opposites in both physique and style of play, the Welshman and the Argentine were the ultimate “little and large” combination and dovetailed superbly together.
Sivori embodied – perhaps more than anyone other than Maradona – the figure of the South American pibe. The cheek and impetuous nature of the lovable street urchin aligned with his willingness to attempt the impossible endeared him to the Juve fans, if not to his opponents. That of course did not bother a man with the self-confidence to nutmeg an opponent while telling him that he faced the best player in the world.
In eight seasons at Juventus, Sivori marked himself among the finest forwards to play the game. Not merely a prolific finisher, he also tormented defences with his scintillating dribbling and clever passes. Three Serie A titles were rich reward given the strength of the league, but the individualist in Sivori would have treasured the 1961 Ballon D’Or which recognised him as the premier footballer in Europe.
At just 20, one might have expected Angelillo to take some time to adapt to life in Serie A. While his first season in Milan saw him score 16 league goals, the following campaign he was a revelation. No player has since matched the incredible 33 goals that he managed in just 33 games in the 1958-9 season – a tally last managed by he great Gunnar Nordahl. That season marked the high point in Angelillo’s entire career as he was never again able to hit such prodigious heights. Spells at Roma, AC Milan, Lecco and Genoa followed, and he featured twice for the Italian national team, but his potency in front of goal was diminished.
Of the trio, Maschio was the man who suffered the most initially, and was forced to change his game in order to fully integrate into Italian football. At Bologna he had been signed to partner Yugoslav forward Bernard Vukas in attack, but never looked the part in his two years at the club. A move to Atalanta proved far more profitable for Maschio, who was gradually adapted from an out and out striker to a deep lying creative midfielder.
The three years he spent in Bergamo were proof of Maschio’s enduring quality and adaptability. Yet while his impressive performances were enough to secure a move to Inter, it appeared that Helenio Herrera had not fully recognised the Argentine’s positional conversion. For at the San Siro he was again deployed at centre-forward, and he failed to prosper. A move to Fiorentina saw him return to form, before finally taking the step of moving back to South America with Racing Club.
While the trio excelled in foreign climes, the domestic Argentine game cried out for their artistry and creativity. For fans of the traditional Argentine style, the sacrifice of such brilliance in the national team would persevere until the late 1970s and early 1980s when the high priest of “futebol arte”, Cesar Luis Menotti, would find room for Daniel Bertoni, Mario Kempes and Diego Maradona in his starting XI. Even that team, though, could look back enviously on the “angels with dirty faces”.
You can read more from Rob at his excellent blog Ademir to Zizinho