The Grand Griguol
How El Viejo defied accusations of boringness to inspire the golden age of Ferro Carril Oeste
Although largely unloved by the Argentinian press at the time, the Ferro Carril Oeste team that dominated domestic football in the early 1980s is now regarded as defining the era, symbolic of a move back to pragmatic footballing ideologies and proving that, under the right conditions, a 'neighbourhood' club could compete with the giants.
Admired by some for making themselves almost impossible to beat, but denigrated by most for their style of bloody-minded possession football, Ferro were a kind of joyless Barcelona of their time. El Gráfico magazine described the team as "a well-oiled machine that reached the summit with simplicity as its emblem... A resounding demonstration of how conviction and total unity can take a group to the very top."
Ferro won championships in 1982 and 1984, and missed out on several more in the early eighties by narrow margins. In terms of consistently challenging for honours, the only side close to them in the first half of the decade was Estudiantes de La Plata. The two teams had a similar outlook, one which contrasted markedly with what had come before.
The Argentinian game has forever swayed between pragmatism and lyricism. During the amateur era and in the early days of professionalism, the overwhelming preference was for highly attacking football. After the Selección's humiliation at the 1958 World Cup, however, defensive tactics became the norm. Osvaldo Zubeldía and Victorio Luis Spinetto1, both known for producing hard-working, tough-to-beat, defence-minded teams, were the dominant managers of the sixties until the tide turned again at the end of the decade and attacking teams enjoyed another heyday. Then, in the 1980s, the Estudiantes of the Zubeldía disciple Carlos Bilardo and the Ferro of the spinettista Carlos Timoteo Griguol ushered in a new era of guarded, tactical football, which culminated in the Bilardo-led Selección's consecutive World Cup final appearances in 1986 and 1990. Estudiantes already had quite a pedigree but the evolution of Ferro from modest suburban team to major player took many by surprise.
Ferro Carril Oeste, founded by rail workers in 1904 (the English translation of the name is 'Western Railway') and based in the leafy Buenos Aires suburb of Caballito, had, for most of its existence, enjoyed a cosy mediocrity. A mid-ranking side from a very middle-class neighbourhood, it had remained fairly consistently in the top division since first gaining promotion in 1912 without ever threatening to challenge the dominance of the giants. As if to emphasise how middling the club is, its Estadio Arquitecto Ricardo Etcheverri ground is located in almost the exact geographical centre of Buenos Aires. Supporters of the team, whose dark green shirts echo the verdant surroundings, are stoically devoted to the institution, though few are foaming-at-the-mouth fanatics. The sporting club, as is often the case in Argentina, is the focal point of the surrounding community. Caballito residents will stop by the club house for a friendly tennis match or a Sunday dinner, and Ferro's basketball, hockey and volleyball teams are long-established powers in their respective national leagues.
Football remains the club's raison d'être, however, and the current plight of the team is a cause of great anguish, not only for Ferro fans, but for many neutral observers who lament the disappearance of such a traditional name from the top division. Ferro nowadays compete in Argentina's second division, Nacional B, occasionally flirting with the possibility of a return to the top flight, but more often than not its supporters are gazing anxiously at the relegation averages. Since a financial meltdown in 2002, blamed on nefarious officials, the club has been in administration; struggling for survival both economically and on the pitch. Such a depressing present reality makes wistfully remembering the glory days of the early eighties the pastime of choice for elderly Ferro fans.
So how did a modest team from a laid-back inner-city neighbourhood help change the course of Argentinian football thinking? Two factors stand out: the decline of the traditional powerhouses and the ingeniously simple coaching philosophies of Griguol.
The political and economic deterioration of Argentina in the late seventies and early eighties under the military dictatorship hit the country's biggest football clubs hard. The nation was in a state of emergency. Turmoil caused by high inflation and the Falklands War led to an increase in violence at football stadiums. General unrest spread to the terraces and as the danger increased, crowd numbers dwindled.
The standard of the league was further reduced when the national coach César Luis Menotti called up his squad for the 1982 World Cup early, in order to give the team an extended preparation for the tournament. Most of the players came from the five Grandes (Boca Juniors, River Plate, Independiente, Racing and San Lorenzo), so not only were they stripped of technical ability on the pitch, the general public lost further interest in watching them play, which was another blow for attendance figures. The majority of clubs, already hobbled by poor management, were plunged into financial crisis.
Both Boca and River had overstretched themselves financially by purchasing big-name players they could not afford. In 1982, River had to return the forward Mario Kempes to Valencia when they were unable to complete payments for his transfer. So large had the debt grown that they had to offload the defender Daniel Passarella to Fiorentina as well. Boca were similarly crippled by the purchase of Diego Maradona from Argentinos Juniors in 1981. He was sold on to Barcelona after only a year at the Bombonera. Of the Grandes, only Independiente benefited from sensible management, based on a strong social function in the community, and they thus remained comparatively stable financially.
None of the Grandes made it to the quarter-finals of the 1982 Nacional tournament, a stage reached by finishing in the top two of one of four groups of eight teams. It was a time for clubs of more modest means to make an impact. Several provincial sides emerged as title contenders but it was Griguol's Ferro, with sacrifice and order as its hallmarks, which was at the vanguard of a new era for Argentinian football.
Two first division championships were played every year in Argentina until 1985: the Torneo Metropolitano, which was a home and away league, and the Campeonato Nacional, which comprised an initial group stage followed by a knock-out tournament. Ferro finished runner-up by a single point to Maradona's Boca in 1981's Metropolitano, then lost the final of the Nacional to Kempes's River. Combining the points gained in both tournaments, Ferro would have finished seven clear of Boca and 11 ahead of River over the entire season. In 1982, Griguol's side won the Nacional without losing a match, while Bilardo's Estudiantes took out the Metropolitano. Estudiantes and Independiente won championships in 1983, with Ferro once again claiming the Nacional in 1984 before finishing second to Argentinos in the Metropolitano. Ferro remained a force throughout the mid-to-late-eighties but did not win another title. For a side that had never come close to a championship before, two titles and three second-place finishes over four years was an outstanding return.
Argentina's big clubs may have been suffering through a difficult period, but to attribute Ferro's success solely to the misfortune of others would be grossly unfair.
The great Ferro team began to take shape in 1979 under Carmelo Faraone, who brought through many of the players who would reap such success later on. It was with the arrival of Griguol from Kimberley in 1980, however, that the Caballito outfit really began to emerge as a force.
'El Viejo' (The Old Man), as he was known, had spent his 13-year playing career at just two clubs, Atlanta, where he played for three years under Spinetto, and Rosario Central, where he would take up coaching after retiring in 1969. Griguol won his first championship with Central in 1973 with a team dubbed 'Los Picapiedras' (The Flintstones) because of its rustic style, before a stint in Mexico with Ámerica. On returning to Argentina he led Kimberley for only a handful of games before being called on to take charge of Ferro's project. The new coach suited club President Santiago Leyden's austere outlook perfectly. He was already known as a conservative manager and was famous for his habit of slapping players' faces before they ran onto the pitch by way of motivation. "When we first started in Ferro, after the games everybody would ask about the results of the teams who were relegation candidates," Griguol would later tell El Gráfico. "It took a year to change that attitude."
Aside from his motivational techniques, Griguol brought with him certain characteristics that would prove invaluable at Ferro. Crucially, he placed great emphasis on youth development when forming his sides. He would staunchly avoid spending money on big names, preferring to promote players from the junior teams. With no superstars in the squad, Griguol demanded hard work on all levels, until it became synonymous with both the way the club was run and the players' attitude on the pitch.
His team played a flexible 4-3-3, with an emphasis on the collective rather than the individual. The basis of the starting XI in 1982 would remain the same for several years. The goalkeeper Carlos Barisio offered a sense of calm security. He still holds the record in Argentina for the longest period without conceding a goal; 1075 minutes in total, beginning in the 1981 Metropolitano. The centre-backs complemented each other with their differing styles: Juan Domingo Rocchia was the dominant leader, the caudillo at the back, while Héctor Cúper, who had come through the club's youth system, possessed great technique on the ball and could initiate attacks. Roberto Carlos Mario Gómez, reliable and tactically intelligent, started in the right-back role in 1982, while Oscar Américo Agonil took over as first choice in 1984. Oscar Garré was one of the stars of the team on the left side of defence. Renowned for his attacking tendencies down the flank, he would win the World Cup with Argentina in 1986.
The midfield three were extremely disciplined tactically and could be relied on to run non-stop. Carlos Arregui on the right and Gerónimo Saccardi in the middle had also emerged from the club's junior ranks. Saccardi's tenacity and technical ability made him a key component of the side. He, like Rocchia, had played under Griguol's mentor Victorio Spinetto in Ferro's 1974 surprise title challenge. The Paraguayan Adolfino Cañete, who was the creative spark in midfield, was usually to be found on the left.
The right-sided forward was Claudio Crocco, a speedy dribbler with an eye for goal. Miguel Ángel Juárez played on the left of the front three. He was initially brought to the club in 1981 as a back-up striker but ended up being top scorer in the championship winning campaign in 1982 with 20 goals. Julio César Jimenez would alternate with Alberto 'Beto' Márcico who went on to become a club legend at both Ferro and Boca, in the centre-forward position. Both would habitually drop back into an attacking midfield role.
The 4-3-3 on paper would adapt easily to whatever circumstances on the pitch required. If, for example, the opposition midfield was proving a handful, Ferro's central midfielder Saccardi would drop back to join the defence, allowing it to fan out wider across the back. Another modification was to form a kind of square formation in the middle of the pitch, with Saccardi and Arregui as its base and Cañete alongside a withdrawn striker, Juárez or Márcico , slightly further forward. At the same time, the full-backs would push forward and convert into dangerous attacking threats.
Griguol also worked closely with the legendary Ferro basketball coach León Najnudel. He attended training sessions, exchanged ideas and watched videos of the basketball team with the aim of transferring movements and plays to the football pitch. Griguol's system, with its quick interchanging of positions, meant it was very rare for the team to be caught out numerically, especially when players not originally designated as defenders would suddenly appear in a defensive capacity.
When opponents had the ball, Ferro pressed vigorously and constantly in all areas of the field. Once such pressing resulted in a turnover of possession, tight passing triangles were initiated to advance the ball away, regardless of which sector of the pitch they were in. This kind of aggressive defending was likened to that of a Menotti team, supposedly at the opposite end of the footballing spectrum, and could even draw comparisons to modern-day Barcelona's off-the-ball play.
Such movement, both with and without the ball, required superb physical conditioning. Much credit was given to Ferro's trainer, Luis María Bonini, recently seen assisting Marcelo Bielsa at Athletic Bilbao. Bonini had the players working extremely hard in pre-season, and ensured they kept up fitness levels throughout the year.
In an El Grafico article in 1984, Natalio Gorin pointed out that in the Griguol era, no Ferro player had forced an opponent to leave the field injured, despite the tenacious defensive tactics. "It is not a team that aims to hurt opponents," he said, "they play hard but fair." Nor did Griguol's teams ever man mark an opponent. They defended zonally, even against the likes of Maradona and Independiente's brilliant playmaker, Ricardo Bochini.
The same article showed a large diagram of Ferro passing the ball all the way along the back four, then back to the keeper, under the headline, "Are Ferro a Boring Team?". The author concluded that "since football has been football, only teams who play well win."
Sure enough, Ferro were experts at sucking the life out of a game after taking an early lead. "Stingier than Griguol's Ferro," was an expression used at the time to criticise overly defensive sides. The players would famously rotate possession at a leisurely rate, changing shape fluidly, frustratingly, with or without the ball, content to put the onus on opponents to come up with a way of catching them out. Certainly, there were no superstars in the team either. Saccardi, Garré and Márcico may have been adored in Caballito, but they were not players to set pulses racing like Maradona, Kempes or Bochini.
It was a solid, hardworking and tactically impeccable side. Griguol described it thus: "The group was very strong, respectful and had a great deal of heart. For us it was normal to run and keep playing for 90 minutes. For other teams it was a sacrifice to play against Ferro. To that you have to add that if the rest of the teams focused on one wide area, running up and down the wing, we would look to the middle. If you reinforced the flanks, I would play through the centre, and vice versa."
In the 1982 Nacional tournament, which was secured over a two-legged final with a 2-0 aggregate victory against Quilmes, Ferro's record reads: 22 games, 16 wins, six draws and no losses with 50 goals scored and only 13 conceded. The 1983 campaigns were punctuated by the side throwing away numerous 1-0 leads in the final 10 minutes of games while chasing more impressive scorelines — perhaps the criticisms of stodgy play had hit home. The 1984 Nacional triumph, however, was just as impressive as the undefeated 1982 campaign. Griguol's side only lost one game, the away leg to Huracán in the first knock-out stage, on their way to the final against the River Plate of Norberto Alonso and Enzo Francescoli. The first leg was held in River's Monumental and saw perhaps Ferro's finest performance, a 3-0 victory. In the second leg, the Caballito side took an early lead through Cañete, and River fans were so enraged at the humiliation their team was being subjected to that they attempted to burn down the wooden stands of Ferro's stadium. The match was suspended with 20 minutes to go, but the result stood, and Griguol and his team had their second title to cap a golden era.
By this stage, the national sporting press had grudgingly acknowledged Ferro as a team worthy of recognition. The 1982 triumph had been overshadowed in the press by the World Cup in Spain and events off the pitch, most notably the tumultuous economic situation and the Falklands War. Consistently strong showings over following tournaments led to a level of respect, and even some praise amid the barbs about dull play.
There may have been limited admiration for Griguol's Ferro while the side was at its peak, but its place in the history of Argentinian football is indisputable.
Griguol showed that a side with a small budget and little brilliance could consistently trump more vaunted opponents through industry and tactical precision. In recent years, as the Grandes have once again found themselves in trouble due to poor directorship, 'neighbourhood' clubs like Lanús, Banfield and Arsenal de Sarandí have followed Ferro's lead by winning championships on tiny budgets, while other well-run clubs like Vélez and Estudiantes have thrived as richer, better-supported teams such as River, Independiente and San Lorenzo have floundered.
Many of Griguol's team went on to become coaches themselves. Cúper, Garré, Gomez and Saccardi all became managers, as did others who later played under El Viejo. All of them remained faithful to his pragmatic, compact style.
Most importantly, the success of Ferro in the 1980s gave, and continues to give, ammunition to those in Argentina who argue that cautious, defensive football remains the most effective path to silverware. The overriding philosophy at the moment seems once again to favour a demure approach. Boca Juniors pulled themselves out of a three-year lean spell by trusting in the grim but effective playing style of Julio Falcioni, winning the apertura in 2011-12 while the Argentina national team is being led towards the next World Cup finals by the highly pragmatic Alejandro Sabella, a Bilardo disciple. The sands will no doubt shift again and the debate will carry on. The lyricists will forever bring up the likes of Menotti in 1978 and River's La Máquina of the 1940s, while the pragmatists can always point to Zubeldía's Estudiantes, Bilardo's Argentina and Timoteo Griguol's humble Ferro side who carved their own niche in history by turning dreariness into a virtue and simplicity into an art form.