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Estudiantes — A 90 minute man hunt

While European teams focused on technique and tactics, Estudiantes had a different game plan altogether. A period in the late 1960s saw the Argentine club shed light on a different form of ‘dirty’ football. Joseph Solomon dwells into the past to talk about Estudiantes, a force to be intimidated by.

A beautiful game manifested by the array of sportsmanship, leadership, brotherhood, honor and code, football as it stands, is a game which unites and seldom divides. The bright side of football is always cherished and focused upon, even rightly so, because the dark side of it, has scars which could haunt ardent fans for a lifetime.

Apart from all the last minutes or penalty shootout heartbreaks, which take a mental toll on players and fans alike, football can be utterly and purely ‘dirty’. Stuck to teams which rue football’s beauty by their cynicism and their antics, ‘Dirt’ was already there in football, waiting to be exploited and capitalized to pure genius.

Life is all about one’s way of seeing things, and ‘Dirty’ could be seen as opportunistic, pragmatic and even subtle for some rare fans – which value results more than the techniques used. Now apart from all the ‘defensive’, ‘committing men behind the ball’, ‘parking the bus’ and ‘boring’ dirty there were was a type of dirty which plagued football, long before the modern. A dirty which included crunching tackles, flying kicks, intimidation and aggression, and its prime harbinger was an Argentinian side called Estudiantes.

Formed in 1905, Estudiantes even though boasting the golden crop of ‘Los Profesores’, which included the star studded attacking lineup of Miguel Ángel Lauri, Alejandro Scopelli, Alberto Zozaya, Manuel Ferreira and Enrique Guaita, is always remembered for its infamous team of the late 1960s.

Led by Osvaldo Zubeldía in the late 1960s (1965-1970), Estudiantes became infamous for techniques alien to the European crop of teams, which included Manchester United and AC Milan. Divided by the Atlantic, South American Teams rarely clashed sword against European teams, and style of play even though carried the basic W-M, varied in operation and utility.

Estudiantes however, used a style unknown to almost all European Teams. A style which prioritized intimidation, aggression, violence and chaos on the pitch, rather than the flair, finesse and skill of the traditional South American game. In 1968 and 1969, Estudiantes reached the finals of the coveted Intercontinental Cup, and even won (1968) against Sir Matt Busby’s Manchester United, but Argentine performances in these two finals recreated scenes out of a snuff film, which ultimately led to the Intercontinental cup being boycotted by European Teams, most notably Liverpool in 1977 and 1978 and Nottingham Forest in 1979.

George Best On The Ground, Tralalalala?

Upon Manchester United’s arrival in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, the Red Devils revived a warm and affectionate welcome by Estudiantes. An official reception was organised for the United team, which manager Matt Busby took his team along to with the intention of establishing good relations with their Argentine counterparts, given the frail relation these two countries suffered after England defeated Argentina in the 1966 World Cup; however, the Estudiantes side pulled out at the last minute, causing Busby much irritation.

Prior to the kick-off, a bomb went off inside the stadium, releasing red smoke and setting tone for a brutal and horrific match. Playing with a motive to harass and harry their opposition, Estudiantes reverted to cynical fouls, atrocious tackles and naughty antics. A particularly violent member of the Estudiantes side was their midfielder Carlos Bilardo, whose conduct caused Busby to later comment that “holding the ball out there put you in danger of your life”.

Estudiantes’s prime target was United’s Nobby Stiles, who won the 1966 World Cup with England and was also at the thick of controversial statements made from some Argentine supporters, while Benfica’s coach dubbed him as an ‘assassin’. Nobby Stiles was targeted with sheer Estudiantes violence as their players reverted to punch, kicks and even head-butts to cause Stiles, trouble. Surprisingly, even the referees seemed to be against Stiles and at one point, the linesman reported Stiles to the referee apparently for simply standing too close to Estudiantes’s Bilardo. United’s golden boy Bobby Charlton was another victim of an Estudiantes barrage, as Charlton suffered severe head wound. “Estudiantes’ way to success: intimidate and destroy” read The Guardian’s headline, after horrific scenes in Argentina led Estudiantes to a 1-0 victory against United.

Although the first leg did not surpass the second in terms of horrific scenarios, it had its fair share of controversy and painstaking moments. A disgusting spectacle which saw Estudiantes’s player partake in head-butting, biting and even spitting at the opposing players, reached its zenith in the 75th minute when Manchester United’s George Best punched Medina in the face and pushed Néstor Togneri to the ground in the Argentine half of the field. The referee sent off Best and Medina, following which Best spat at Medina. The British crowd already irked by the petty antics of the South American team prevented Medina from going to his locker room by hurling coins. Manchester United’s then manager Matt Busby insisted that “The Argentinians should be banned from all competitive football. FIFA should really step in”. Although Estudiantes ran away with the title, their moment of celebration was marked with an angry United home support, throwing objects on the Argentinian team, disgusted at their ‘petty’ play.

Catenaccio faces its equal

Perhaps the pinnacle of cynical play for Europeans was Italy’s dreaded formation, the Catenaccio. Although the catenaccio was a highly defensive setup, it did include acts of cynical fouling and aggression. Nero Rocco, one of the pioneers of Catenaccio met his equals in a naughty Estudiantes side, hell bent on winning its second Intercontinental Cup in 1969, after showcasing ‘all that is bad in football’ against Manchester United a year earlier.

Although AC Milan won the 1969 title on aggregate, over two legs, both matches were marked by scenes full of blood and ruckus. The first leg in Milan did not feature any ‘antics’ by Estudiantes’ players. The match went on and Milan showcased their varied talents in a 3-0 win, led by their Golden boy Gianni Rivera.

The second leg was an eye candy for every snuff film fanatic. Even before the match had kicked off Estudiantes’ players hoofed balls at the AC Milan team gearing up for a training session. If that wasn’t enough Estudiantes’ fans indulged in a medieval activity which still sends chills down anyone’s spine – pouring hot oil. Although ‘hot oil’ was not poured by the fanatic home support, they used an alternative in ‘hot coffee’ which was poured on the Milan team as it made its way to the ground.

After what could loosely be dubbed as a match did kick off, a Milan player accused his Argentine opponent of using a needle to attack and irk him. After only 18 minutes Milan’s forward Prati was knocked unconscious by two Estudiantes players. Nestor Combin, an Argentine playing for Milan, who was also dubbed as a ‘traitor’, was the next in line for treatment. Nestor received an elbow from Aguirre Suarez, and left the pitch covered in blood. Surprisingly, Combin was arrested the very next minute, for evading country service as he lay soaked in blood and sweat on a makeshift supporter.

AC Milan’s golden boy Gianni Rivera also received stern punches from goalkeeper Alberto Polletti and as Giovanni Lodetti puts it “When you had the ball, someone would arrive and hit you.” Later, Polletti was arrested and slapped with a life ban.

Italian paper Gazzetta dello Sport labeled it, “Ninety minutes of a man-hunt”. Even the Argentinean press did not attempt to safeguard the atrocities committed, and one paper splashed with “The English were right” – a reference to Sir Alf Ramsey’s famous description of the Argentina national side, which he dubbed as “animals” during the 1966 World Cup.

A team in which, 2010 World Cup Final’s kungfu kick agitator van Bommel , would rarely feature on the sidelines, Estudiantes’ team of 1968 and 1969 is arguably one of the most notorious teams witnessed by the annals of global football.

Special mention to Tom Adams

Written by Joseph Solomon 

Joseph Solomon
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