The First Bilardista
How Victorio Spinetto pioneered pragmatism in Argentinian football
For Argentinian football, the Fall came in 1958. Before that was the age of innocence, the days of la nuestra when skill held sway, goalless draws were a rarity and vast crowds celebrated the achievements of great individuals. Then came Helsingborg, and a 6-1 defeat to Czechoslovakia at the World Cup. Until then, Argentinian football had been blithely convinced of its own excellence, sheltered by Perónist isolationism: "we went in thinking it would be easy for us," said the goalkeeper Amadeo Carrizo, "but we ended up making it easy for everybody else."
Three of the 'Angels with Dirty Faces' side that had swaggered to the Copa América title a year earlier — Humberto Maschio, Antonio Angelillo, Omar Sívori — had defected to Italy, severely weakening Argentina's forward line, but that did little to lessen the tactical shock. "We were used to playing really slowly, and they were fast," said José Ramos Delgado, who was in the squad for the tournament but didn't play. "We hadn't played international football for a long time, so when we went out there we thought we were really talented, but we found we hadn't followed the pace of the rest of the world. We had been left behind. The European teams played simply. They were precise. Argentina were good on the ball, but we didn't go forwards."
The players were pelted with coins and vegetables on their return to Buenos Aires and the coach, Guillermo Stábile, who had been in charge since 1941, was dismissed. "The national team had to be modified," Delgado said. "A different kind of player was looked for, players who were more about sacrifice than play. Football became less of an art after that."
It became obvious that the tactical system used in Argentina at the time had to change. Most of the rest of the world had already moved to the W-M — the centre-half as a defender, the inside-forwards operating as midfielders — and beyond; Brazil's use of a back four in winning that World Cup had revolutionised tactical thinking. Argentina had switched uncertainly to three at the back, although by withdrawing one of the wing-halves rather than the centre-half, which meant there was no figure as overtly defensive as the English style centre-half. Given the supposedly defensive midfielders were rarely content to sit deep, that meant Argentinian sides tended to be extremely open.
The backlash, though, was at least as much about style as it was about formation. Crowds for league matches fell sharply, partly because of a sense of disillusionment, and partly because the growing middle-class began watching games on television rather than at the stadiums. Clubs, which had enjoyed state support under Perón, lost their subsidies. Many turned to foreign talent in an attempt to woo back spectators with exoticism, further diluting the culture of la nuestra, but, most crucially of all, the ethos changed. With the financial stakes raised, football became less about the spectacle than about winning, or at least, not losing.
In the wake of the humiliation of Helsingborg, Argentina turned to a triumvirate of coaches to see them through the 1959 Copa — José Della Torre, José Barreiro and, crucially, Victorio Spinetto. In the world of la nuestra, Spinetto had always stood out. Perhaps it would be unfair to say he was not a romantic, for in his own way he was, but his romanticism took a very different form from that of most of his contemporaries. His passion was not to create a spectacle, or to prove his sides more capable of artistry than others; what he cared about was his Vélez Sarsfield, and about winning.
Spinetto was born on 3 June 1910 in the barrio of Flores. He lived there for the first years of his life, and studied at El Nacional de Buenos Aires, a fabled school, until the third year. "I was a boy from a good family, posh," he recalled in an interview with Osvaldo Ardizzone in El Gráfico in 1971. "My grandparents had money, but my father liked living as well, and he spent the money that would have been my inheritance. I remember that when I was 13 or 14 years old we all went to live in a house of my grandmother in the Barrancas de Belgrano — a big house, like they used to build."
He was far from a diligent student, preferring sport to books, which didn't just mean football. "I was well developed for my age, and I liked displays in which strength and boldness mattered," he said. "A boys' thing, you see? Every afternoon I got locked in fights typical of boys of that age. It was about struggling, not about punches... a vanity to see who was the strongest. But I liked football, do you understand? And that was not the preferred sport of the barra, so I went every afternoon to the car-park that is still in front of Belgrano station. And at about four or five in the afternoon, all the boys who were awaiting the arrival of the newspapers met up... the newsboys... I was the posh-boy that they let join in the kick-abouts maybe because I was capable of giving a kick and because I never refused an invitation to a fight."
Spinetto's family moved to Quilmes, where he joined a formal club for the first time, Honor y Patria de Bernal, who played in the intermediate division. There his toughness found a more practical purpose. "What a struggle!" he said. "Today you see the protection that stadiums offer. But then those little fields offered no defence. You got out on foot, without buses, without anything... and the rows of opposing fans..."
He left there when his family returned to the west of Buenos Aires. "This time we went to live in La Paternal," he said. "And so I went to play for a team that was also called La Paternal and was also in the intermediate division." Professionalism arrived in 1931 and, a year later, as a highly promising centre-half, Spinetto joined Platense. They already had two fine central midfielders, though, in Roberto Devoto and the Paraguayan Manuel Fleitas Solich (who would himself go on to be a highly successful pioneering coach in Brazil). Finding first-team opportunities limited, Spinetto's six months there were frustrating.
Devoto had been a Vélez player but, for all his talent, he was deemed to lack the necessary charisma by fans still mourning the retirement of José Luis Boffi, who in 1921 had become the first Vélez player to win an international cap. The two main Vélez directors, José Amaltafini and Francisco Pizza, wondered if the aggressive but unproven Spinetto might be the man at last to step into his role as a commanding No 5 (after the No 10, the most revered and romantic position in the Argentinian game).
At Platense Spinetto was earning 250 pesos a month, with a 200-peso win bonus. Vélez could match his basic salary, but offered a win bonus of only 30 pesos. Spinetto, desperate for regular football, eagerly accepted. "Vélez Sarsfield was the club that became my life," he said. "There is always one club in the career of a player even if he changes his jersey only by chance, as happened to me."
In Liniers, Spinetto soon became known for his spirit and his ability to score goals. He was the centre-half as caudillo, a term that could translate as 'leader' or 'governor' but is often used of warlords and encapsulates the Argentinian ideal of the No 5, a tough, ruthless figure and yet rather more than a brute — somebody with both ability and an uncompromising outlook. "I was a centre-half who ran at everybody — I didn't go easy on anyone," he said in an interview with Súper Fútbol in 1988. "I never liked losing and I never gave up a game as lost before the 90 minutes were up. I always gave my all, for the people, for the club and for my teammates. And I played hard, yes, but I was not alone. I was always open and loyal and I respected all my opponents. But do not think these things are easy. Before things were not as they are today, when all the kicks given and received during the game are lost to the memory. In my era, if you played dirty, the matter did not end with the whistle of the referee; they came to search for you at your house... You had to be honest with your use of force, because if not..."
In six seasons, Spinetto played 172 games for Vélez , scoring 31 goals. In 1938, he joined Independiente, twice amateur champions, and runners-up four times in the first seven years of the professional league, for 12,000 pesos plus the midfielder Juan Alonso. He never settled in Avallaneda, though, despite playing 16 times as Independiente won their first professional championship. "What could I do there?" he asked Ardizzone. "Do you know who they had then? They were geniuses." A year later he returned to Vélez for 6000 pesos.
That next season he scored 11 goals in 24 games, three of them penalties and one while playing as a centre-forward against Atlanta. That experiment lasted just two matches; Vélez needed his drive from the back of midfield. Theirs, though, was a team on the decline, and they were relegated in 1940 — for the only time in their history — consigned to the second flight after Atlanta beat Independiente 6-4 on the final day of the season. Spinetto was devastated, and effectively retired, aged 30, although he did play a handful of times for Acassuso in the second division in 1942. "I remember Victorio on the day that Vélez were relegated in 1940," said Pablo Policastro, a socio vitalicio of Vélez , at a conference on Vélez's history in 2006. "I was eight years old and it still makes me emotional. I saw him walking on la calle Escalada and I realised that he was crying."
It was a blow Spinetto had to rectify, and in 1942 he was given his opportunity, as Amaltafini and Pizza offered him the position of coach. "They told me that I was stuck with what I had, that I had to cope with the players and the money that was there," Spinetto said in 1980. "It was a conversation similar to that of 1932, when they came to sign me as a player. This time they sold me the future and this time they sold it more easily, because I was already a socio protector of the club, and I could not let them down."
Spinetto immediately began promoting young players. The likes of Miguel Rugilo, Armando Ovide, Juan José Ferraro and Alfredo Bermúdez all came through in Spinetto's first full season as coach as Vélez won promotion back to the Primera. Many years later, Policastro went to watch Spinetto laying a plaque at Floresta station to mark the site where Vélez were founded. "I saw you relegated with Vélez in 1940," Policastro said nervously to him. A "half-angry", Spinetto replied, "'and they were promoted with me in 1943.'"
Ten years after that, Vélez finished as runners-up behind River Plate, and so became the first side from outside the traditional Big Five (Boca Juniors, River Plate, San Lorenzo, Independiente and Racing) to break into the top two (Huracán had finished level with River in second in 1939, but the second-leg of their play-off for silver never took place). Spinetto's reign, though, was less about league position than about style. He gave Vélez a sense of self-esteem that would ultimately make them a club of similar stature to Racing and San Lorenzo, and imbued them with garra — literally 'claw' — that semi-mythical combination of spirit, toughness and streetwiseness so prized in platense football.
Spinetto became famous for the way he lived the game on the touchline, in a way no coach had previously in Argentina. In his first years as a manager he wore a tracksuit, a towel draped over his shoulder; later he graduated to a blue jacket, with a T — for técnico — marked on the pocket in adhesive tape. Always he would stand with his right foot raised, his right elbow resting on his knee and chin supported on his right palm. He would rage in his booming, hoarse voice, attacking his players, the opposition and the referee, and frequently being sent from the touchline because of it. "The players loved him very much, but they were killed by him," said Adolfo Mogilevsky, who worked with Spinetto at Atlanta and then with the national team. "He had a reputation for being hard, but he was always warm and would stress human values."
There are countless anecdotes about Spinetto's toughness. He would motivate his players at half-time by asking what their mothers would think of them if they lost. "A player who doesn't go on to the field to defend his position fearing disgrace shouldn't be on the field," he would say. "Football is a game for men."
At the 2006 conference, Antonio Settino, another socio vitalico, recalled a game at Lanús in which Vélez trailed 2-0 at half-time. "Don José Amalfitani went to the dressing-room and said to the players, 'Boys, look after your legs, a player is worth a lot,' he said. He wanted them to take it easy. Barely had Don José gone when Spinetto shouted, 'Queers! We have to win this game!' And Vélez won, and the players had to wait until about 10pm to leave the ground because the fans wanted to beat them. Don Victorio won this game, and that demonstrated the toughness and the passion for Vélez he had."
When Argentina beat Northern Ireland at the 1958 World Cup, Jimmy McIlroy described them as "a lot of fat little men with stomachs" who spent most of the game "waving at girls in the crowd" and "taking the mickey". That attitude was just what Spinetto abhorred. "Of course it matters whether a player is technically gifted or not," he told el Gráfico in 1971, "but if he doesn't have fibra [toughness, stamina, determination], he cannot become a great. Take the case of Carlos Bianchi. He was a man since he was a kid... and that's why he gives his all on the field. You know which are the most generous players on the pitch? Those who are men in the full sense of sacrifice. Together with their talent they give everything that they have inside... Because they have shame and they don't like to leave the field defeated. With this type of players who feel themselves men you can win in any place and against any rival." Bianchi, who went on to be Vélez 's most successful manager, returned the affection. "Don Victorio was an eternal perfectionist," he said, "and that was something that stayed with me forever and which I employed in the future."
Spinetto's players remember him as a great motivator. "He was a man who worked a lot with the players on psychology, because a player has to be a little bit aggressive," said the attacking midfielder Norberto Conde. "If he's cold, if he's slow, or if he doesn't give everything, he doesn't have the purpose that others have." He delighted in being unpredictable. "More than once when I'd played badly," remembered the forward Ernesto Sansone, "he'd applaud me as if I'd done very well, but when I had played well, and I knew I'd played well, he'd hammer me as if I'd played badly."
Spinetto hated losing, but the right-back Oscar Huss described how defeats rarely brought any explosion of rage. "He always shook us by the hand and told us, 'We lost though bad luck... The next game we must win,'" he said. "And in the following fixture we went out and we had to win. He had this mastery of knowing how to talk. He would talk to us calmly. When we'd got to the ground, he would tell us, 'You have to give what you have as men, and you have to win this game because we have to win it!'"
Perhaps his greatest gift was his ability to lift his side if they trailed at half-time. There was a game against River in which Vélez trailed 3-0 at half-time, with the goalkeeper Miguel Rugilo having been responsible for two of the goals. At half-time, he lay exhausted in the bath, so Spinetto took Huss, Ángel Allegri and Armando Ovide to one side. "Look at how Miguel is," he said. "If you are his friends you have to play for him." Vélez were level within 20 minutes, and the centre-forward Osvaldo Bottini even missed a fine chance to win the game at the end.
Spinetto's principal legacy, though, was not what he did for Vélez , great though that was; it was the foundations he laid for anti-fútbol, the sense he left that football was about more than just skill. To call him a tactical revolutionary is perhaps too strong, for his ideas look basic by comparison with what was going on in Europe or in Brazil at the same time, and yet the very fact he thought about tactics made him a radical in the Argentina of the late forties.
The first coach to challenge the prevailing system — essentially a 2-3-5, although with the inside-forwards a little withdrawn — had been Renato Cesarini, one of the original oriundi who had left Argentina for Italy in the early thirties. He had been used as a man-marker at Juventus, and on being appointed at River in 1939 similarly began to use the right-half as a defensive player. Over time, the right-half became a right-back. Spinetto never played for Cesarini, but he was open in his praise for him, admiring the way he challenged prevailing assumptions.
Spinetto was equally prepared to amend the traditional roles, eschewing the tradition of neat technical moves threaded down the centre of the pitch, using the inside-forwards as creative fulcrums. "I demand teams with fibra," he said. "Defenders who defend, forwards who attack... but you know for me what is a team? It's the sum of players who hand out work and those who get down and look for it. And you have to attack by the wings... always by the wings... Parading through the middle may be very pretty, but how often do they try and how often do they deliver? Set yourself the task of recording the statistics of the game. Do you know what is attacking for me? To get behind the defenders. A forward must look to get behind his marker and at the same time his teammate must try to give him the pass to hit the space behind the defender. And that must be done through the wings."
Where Argentinian forwards traditionally confined themselves to attacking, Spinetto encouraged them to play a more all-round role. His most conspicuous success was with Osvaldo Zubeldía, a player with a notably enquiring mind. He was nominally a No 10, an attacking inside-left, but in that 1953 season, when Vélez finished as runners-up, Spinetto had him tracking back, working the length of the pitch like a modern midfielder. Whether that was Spinetto's idea or Zubeldía's it's impossible at this remove to know: better perhaps to see it as a symbiosis between the intelligence of the player and the willingness of the coach to try something different.
It was Zubeldía, of course, who brought anti-fútbol into the mainstream with his great but violent Estudiantes side of the late sixties, which won three successive Copas Libertadores. And it is that, as the Argentinian football historian Esteban Bekerman notes, that is probably Spinetto's greatest achievement. Spinetto coached and inspired not only Zubeldía, but also Carlos Griguol, who won Nacional championships with Rosario Central and Ferril Carro Oeste (twice) and a Copa Interamericana with River Plate, and Bianchi, who with Vélez won three championships, the Libertadores, the Copa Interamericana and the Intercontinental Cup, and then went to Boca and had even greater success, claiming four championships, three Libertadores and two Intercontinental titles. Griguol and Bianchi's teams were never as overtly cynical as those of Zubeldía, but both preferred an aggressive, disciplined game, one that favoured pragmatism over beauty.
Then, of course, there are the disciples of Spinetto's disciples. Griguol begat Héctor Cúper and Mario Gómez; Bianchi begat Diego Cagna and Omar Asad; and Zubeldía begat Eduardo Manera and, most famously, Carlos Bilardo. Bilardo himself now has followers — the likes of Miguel Angel Russo, who won the Clausura with Vélez in 2005 and the Libertadores with Boca in 2007, and Alejandro Sabella, who led Estudiantes to the Libertadores in 2009 and the Apertura title in 2010 — and whose name has become synonymous with the whole philosophy of anti-fútbol.
It is often said that from the late seventies onwards Argentina football has been divided between menottistas — those who follow César Luis Menotti, who inspired the backlash against anti-fútbol — and bilardistas, but once the divide was Spinetto and the rest. It would be wrong to portray him as the inventor of anti-fútbol, but he was the man who opened the eyes of his players to the ideas that would become anti-fútbol; less the father of the movement, perhaps, than its grandfather. And through his toughness, his determination and his vision he not only got Argentina over the shock of Helsingborg, but prepared the groundwork for a whole new conception of the game.