The Phantom Team
When Argentina sent a squad to prepare at altitude, then stopped funding them
It is the type of photo synonymous with any successful football tour. Packed tightly in the dressing-room, the neatly pressed suits of the handful of directors contrast with the sky-blue and white stripes and black boots of the Argentina players as the side sits beaming in front of two trophies. But the picture taken of the Albiceleste contains one rather curious element: every member of the party has concealed their face with a white hood. What the photograph shows is not the first meeting of a putative South American branch of the Ku Klux Klan, but rather a group of men exasperated to the point of desperation by the Argentinian Football Association (AFA), who essentially abandoned them thousands of feet above sea level and left both players and staff to fend for themselves.
They were the Selección Fantasma, the ‘ghost squad’, of 1973 and that photo ensured their place in history.
“They did it as a protest, there is no doubt about that,” explains Federico Vazza, speaking from the corner of a bar decked in football memorabilia in the university city of La Plata, which slumbers in the month of February as students and teachers alike enjoy their summer holidays. A professor of journalism at La Plata National University and Estudiantes fanatic, Federico has spent the last three years investigating the Selección Fantasma, retracing their steps to the north of Argentina and beyond to find out the truth behind a story that represents a footnote in the annals of Argentinian football.
Playing at extreme altitude has always posed a conundrum for South American teams, be it at club or international level. Accustomed to the sea-level comfort of Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires or Montevideo, the continent’s biggest-hitters regularly slip up when they are forced to scale the heights of the Andes into the altiplano, an immense, arid territory thousands of feet up in the heavens. And while Ecuador’s sub-tropical capital Quito, standing at almost 3,000m, is just as daunting a venue, the nation’s relative weakness as a football power until the 21st century meant that for decades woes at altitude were more closely associated with one particular city: Bolivia’s La Paz, a sprawling, chaotic metropolis whose Estadio Hernando Siles, 3,600m above sea level, snatches the oxygen out of the lungs of unsuspecting visitors.
Bolivia have entered all but three of the twenty World Cup tournaments to date. On just one occasion, however, in 1994, has the nation managed to navigate the tortuous South American qualifying process and make the finals, with further appearances in 1930 and 1950 having come without the need to earn a spot. The Verde are yet to win a World Cup game, having lost five and drawn just one of their six encounters, scoring once and conceding 20 in the process. But this mediocre history hides a formidable record when playing at home, as Diego Maradona’s Argentina famously found out in 2009 when they were on the wrong end of a humiliating 6-1 drubbing.
The coach tasked with succeeding in the Bolivian capital in 1973 was Enrique Omar Sívori. The ex-River man enjoyed an impeccable football pedigree, having starred as one of the Albiceleste’s Angels with Dirty Faces in the late 1950s along the likes of Omar Corbatta, Humberto Maschio and Antonio Angelillo before being lured by the lira and moving to Italy in 1958. Ignored by his homeland for playing abroad, Sívori took up Italian citizenship and went on to score eight goals in nine games and play the 1962 World Cup in Azzurri colours. The dynamic forward also lifted three Scudetti with Juventus, cementing his name as one of the Turin club’s all-time idols in a glorious eight-year spell. It was to Sívori, who had spent more than a decade in Europe, that the AFA turned in order to seal qualification for the 1974 World Cup – a tournament that had become vital for the nation.
“Argentina had missed out on the 1970 World Cup due to a defeat in La Paz,” Vazza noted, referring to a 3-1 reverse suffered in the Bolivian capital a year previously. The result did not actually end their chances of making the finals in Mexico; a win in their final game, against Peru in Boca Juniors’ Bombonera home, would have sealed passage. But Argentina were frustrated, held 2-2 and forced to watch as their bitter rivals Brazil, inspired by the veteran Pelé, lit up the Estadio Azteca in glorious technicolour and took their third world title. Adolfo Pedernera, star of River’s La Máquina and one of the greatest Argentinian footballers of all time, was unceremoniously fired as coach for his part in the debacle. But if failure in 1970 had been humiliating, a repeat four years later was unthinkable. “By that time Argentina had already been named the hosts in 1978,” Vazza added. “But if they failed to qualify in 1974, that tournament would have been stripped from their hands.” That year, in the old group system used prior to the 1990s, Argentina would have to battle Bolivia – again – and Paraguay to make the finals. An easy opening win against the Andean nation on September 9 was followed by a 1-1 draw against Paraguay in their second fixture a week later, leaving Argentina and the Guarani deadlocked on three points with just two games left to play. The third match, in La Paz on September 23, would once again be pivotal for the Albiceleste and wary of a repeat of 1969, Sívori and his assistant Miguel Ignomiriello had come up with a novel way to reduce the effects of altitude.
Ignomiriello’s La Plata home is a shrine to a lifetime in football. At 89 years old the former coach is in enviable health and his eyes light up as he shows the fruits of a coaching career that spanned almost 50 years and continues today, in a consulting role for Estudiantes. A physical education instructor by trade, he started coaching at the age of 15 with Gimnasia and came to prominence in 1963 when he took over the reserve divisions of Estudiantes. The “killer reserves”, as they came to be known, gained fame with a flawless championship-winning campaign two years later and the backbone of that team – Juan Ramón Verón (father of Sebastián), Eduardo Flores, Carlos Pachamé and many others – went on to be crowned champions of the world in 1968 with their Intercontinental Cup victory over Manchester United. A copy of the tactics board used by Osvaldo Zubeldía to frustrate George Best, Denis Law and the rest of Sir Matt Busby’s Red Devils hangs over Ignomiriello’s doorway, a gift from the club in recognition of his work in forming that champions side, along with newspaper clippings, framed photographs – pride of place, of course, is bestowed on the Fantasmas – and official distinctions. It was that track record with young stars that Sívori sought when he called Ignomiriello up to his coaching staff in 1973, having that year coached Argentina’s Under-19s to an unbeaten campaign in a youth tournament held in Cannes, France.
In order to tackle the Bolivia challenge, at the start of July the coaches decided to split their forces. Sívori took the bulk of the senior Argentina team to Spain to play a series of warm-up friendlies in preparation for the torrent of qualifying matches – in those days, the entire campaign took place over the space of a month – while Ignomiriello was tasked with taking a squad of inexperienced players up into the heights of the Andes, preparing solely for the game at altitude. There, with two months of intense training and match preparation under their belts, the core of that side would be in peak condition to play Bolivia at their own game. Those who accompanied Ignomiriello to Jujuy, Cuzco and La Paz were unfamiliar names at the time, but many would go on to become idols: the River Plate duo Reinaldo Merlo and Juan José López, the Rosario Central tyke Mario Kempes, Independiente’s Ricardo Bochini and a promising Quilmes goalkeeper by the name of Ubaldo Fillol. One of the few established players on the trip was Central’s Aldo Pedro Poy, author of possibly the most famous diving header in Argentine football history, the goal that downed their Rosario rivals Newell’s Old Boys in the semi-final of the Metropolitano in 1971, and now a councillor and living legend in his native city.
In total the Selección Fantasma spent 70 days away from home, slogging from hotel to hotel. The tour’s problems began right at its inception. In an earlier visit to the province of Jujuy, Ignomiriello had identified La Quiaca, a town on the Bolivia border at the same altitude as La Paz, as the ideal base for operations. “But when I got to La Quiaca I found that the international hotel, the only hotel there, was closed for repairs,” he recalled. The team was forced to lodge in the dusty village of Tilcara and cover daily the 400km round trip through the spectacular scenery of the Quebrada de Humahuaca in order to train. Picturesque though the multi-coloured canyons of the region may be, it took a heavy toll on those involved. “There are kids here who need the money to take home and that is why we put up with everything, but I swear that if it was not for that everyone would speak out and say what they were thinking,” Fillol told El Gráfico in August 1973, as the team was preparing to leave Jujuy and strike out for Cuzco. “Our morale has fallen through the floor because of how this has all been managed and how we have been left to one side without anybody caring about us, except for the coaching staff here.”
Rubén Glaría, another Fantasma who had already won three of his four league titles with San Lorenzo and went on to play at the 1974 World Cup in Germany, echoed his goalkeeper’s complaints: “The silent nights of Tilcara are driving us crazy. When we played for a while in Humahuaca my head weighed a ton. Everything is being juggled in the air and nobody is straight with us.” Oswaldo ‘Baby’ Cortés’s discontent, meanwhile, was at least rooted in footballing reasons. A natural right-back, the Atlanta player was shunted over to the left when Ignomiriello saw his first choice, the naturalised Paraguayan Heriberto Correa, go to Spain with Sívori. Correa, who passed away at the start of 2017, is the only foreign-born player ever to represent the Albiceleste, and his absence left Cortés with a stiff learning curve. “I have never played on the left, I am seeing the whole pitch upside down,” he said. “I do not mind being a substitute but it would be logical to play someone there who always does. I think we are all harmed otherwise.” ‘Baby’ eventually did adapt to his new role and started there in La Paz for the qualifier.
The team’s next stop was Jujuy where they played a friendly against a provincial XI. The game finished 0-0, with Alfredo González smashing a penalty over Fillol’s crossbar for the hosts and missing another golden chance to down the national team. Ignomiriello’s team were booed off the pitch by a capacity crowd and testimony of that clash is damning: “This team is a disaster, we will never qualify like this.” All the while, it was becoming clear that back in Buenos Aires the AFA was content to leave the youngsters to their own devices. The Gráfico journalist José María Otero, who had been with the team in Jujuy and enjoyed a close relationship with the coach, was tasked with obtaining some sort of response. “Otero went to the AFA later to get answers, he went several times,” Ignomiriello explained. “But nobody could even tell him where we were, they did not care. He was the person who first named us, with an article titled ‘The Selección Fantasma: Nobody knows where they are.’”
Ignomiriello had foreseen problems prior to leaving for Jujuy, within the group at least if not from the governing body. Alongside Carlos Cancela, the team’s fitness trainer and assistant to the coach, Horacio Escudero had been drafted in to act as psychologist to the young group during the almost three months they spent away from home. The vast majority of those called up came from the metropolises of Buenos Aires and Rosario and many had barely travelled away from home for any prolonged period of time. As Glaría hints above, the silence of the barren Quebrada posed almost as big a culture shock as the altitude itself. Miguel maintains that it was the first – and last – time an Argentina squad used a full-time psychologist. “That was hard to implement because people still do not understand, when a footballer goes to a psychologist it makes them nervous,” he says. “What’s more, doctors see them as the enemy because they end up losing their place inside the team. I was unsure what the biggest problem was: the altitude or the psychological side. And I am a football coach: any coach who tells you they are the therapist in the dressing-room is wrong, psychology is a profession. Thanks to my experience I can watch a person, how they come to training, how they leave, their weights, their family, friends, and predict how they will perform. But it is not psychology.”
And if the closed atmosphere of modern football is not wholly conducive to frank psychological analysis, in the Argentina of the 1960s and 70s it was even more difficult. 21st-century Buenos Aires is supposedly the city with most psychologists per capita in the entire world; but 40 years ago, especially in sporting circles, superstition and cábalas, obsessive pre-match good luck rituals, ruled the dressing-room. Ignomiriello recalls his spell at Rosario Central prior to picking up the reins of the national team and upon his arrival finding a witchdoctor on the payroll. “I told him that I would not be renewing his contract at the end of the year, as I did not believe in all that,” he laughs. “The witchdoctor turned round and told me it would be a bad move: that he would cross the city to work for Newell’s and damage Central’s chances. I told him I was not concerned and wished him the best of luck.”
Escudero had a delicate job on his hands. His charges had an average age of just 21 and suffered greatly from homesickness and other maladies. “There are some boys who have been affected by the prolonged stay and what is worse, when they complain they spread their problems through the others or make it worse. The altitude problems are just one more difficulty,” he told Otero in El Gráfico. Two members of the Fantasmas, the River Plate midfield duo Reinaldo ‘Mostaza’ Merlo and Juan José ‘JJ’ López eventually returned home, disillusioned by the trip and craving the big city. Ignomiriello believes that Merlo and JJ’s status as relative stars – at the time of the tour they were fixtures for the Millonarios in the middle of the pitch, two of the few players in the squad who regularly featured in the Primera – if anything hindered them in Jujuy. Merlo for one believed he should have travelled with the first team under Sívori to Europe, and said so to El Gráfico: “Sívori behaved very badly with me and I began to lose hope. We then went to Tilcara and sadness engulfed me; the other day we were training and when we went to bathe there was no hot water.” Escudero prepared a report pointing to signs of depression in Merlo and he soon returned to Buenos Aires. He would never become a full Argentina international while JJ, who was later filmed at Ezeiza airport seeing off his Fantasma teammates on their way to Cuzco after being cut from the squad, played just a handful of fixtures, small return for a pair regarded alongside Beto Alonso as the best midfield trio in River history.
Conditions only worsened for the team as they struck out of Argentina and flew to Peru, with the briefest of stopovers back in Buenos Aires where López discovered his omission. Their final destination was Cuzco. The Andean city is a hub for travellers eager to discover the mysteries of nearby Machu Picchu and caused yet another headache for Ignomiriello and his team. “When I returned from Tilcara I went on to Cuzco looking for hotels, but I had another big problem: the food,” he said. “I made a list of items we needed shipped over from Argentina: cooking oil, which was far superior to that in Peru at the time, pasta, beef, ham and cheese. Argentine planes made regular stopovers in Lima and from there we had two flights a day to Cuzco, so it was easier to send it that way,” he recalls. “But tickets to Cuzco are very hard to come by, with all the international visitors you need to book six months in advance. I had taken that into account. Coming back from Tilcara I spent a day and a half in Buenos Aires, and went to the AFA to ask for foodstuffs and some money. But there I found out there was nothing, not even clothing, very little money and absolutely no food.
“I went back to Lima with no plane tickets; we had to send out groups of two or three players at a time to Cuzco, with the help of some Argentinians living in the city. We paid for the first night at the hotel in Cuzco and were out of money, and from there we had to play games in order to pay our hotel bills.”
That imposed self-sufficiency is one of the most intriguing parts of the Fantasmas’ story. Cut off by the AFA, the next month was spent travelling at a hectic pace around Peru and Bolivia, organising as many games as possible to keep players fed and with a roof over their heads. While this was happening the AFA was also going through troubled times. Raúl D’Onofrio, father of current River president Rodolfo, had been in charge of the governing body on a contingency basis as an unelected overseer since 1971, and was responsible for appointing both Sívori and Ignomiriello to their posts. Just months later, however, the election of the Peronist president Héctor Cámpora marked the return of the Justicialist Party to power after 18 years of proscription; on September 23 – coincidentally the same day as Argentina’s clash with Bolivia in La Paz – Juan Domingo Perón himself, after almost two decades of exile in Francoist Spain, was elected for his third term as the country’s head of state. D’Onofrio was removed in the upheaval and replaced by Baldomero Manuel Gigan, a man closely linked with the Welfare Minister and the creator of the AAA death squads that ran as a precursor to Argentina’s last blood-soaked dictatorship, José López Rega. “The overseers came and went depending on who was in the presidency, it was a time of constant change,” Vazza explained.
Ignomiriello, however, insists that the AFA’s deficiencies cannot be explained away by the turbulent politics of the era. “It had nothing to do with that and everything to do with the directors’ total inability to control a subject as complex as the AFA,” he said. “Look at Julio Humberto Grondona, despite all his critics he was the only one to back the national team, I have seen Argentinian football before and after him and he was the only one. Look how many youth titles we won with Julio, two Olympics, with [Marcelo] Bielsa [in 2004] and [Sergio] Batista [in 2008]… he was the one who built the training complex in Ezeiza for Argentina, it’s fantastic, it looks like something you would find in England. When I was in charge of the youth team we did not have a place to train. If the clubs would not let us use their pitches we used to go to the woods in Palermo, Buenos Aires and train there, it was the only place we could go.” Whatever the reasoning behind the chaos in the AFA, a scene all too reminiscent of the turmoil currently faced by the Association post-Grondona, the youngsters’ predicament in the Andes was clear. Their only source of income was the bonuses paid for winning a series of friendlies originally scheduled with the purpose of adapting to altitude at mind. If they did not win their matches, they would not be paid a cent.
Somehow the likes of Kempes, Fillol, Bochini and the rest of the squad continued to triumph, ensuring there would be food on the table and a warm bed at the end of another hard day’s training. Or food, at least. Their first days in Cuzco coincided with a 48-hour general strike that included the entire hotel staff, leaving the kitchen unmanned. With the help of a friendly physiotherapist who was a decent cook, the team would venture out into the market and buy food for the day, bringing it back to the hotel to have their meals prepared. Argentine staples like beef, milk and cheese were scarce and the food was desperately unfamiliar: “We would throw the mashed potato up in the air and it stuck to the roof; the meat was hard… I lost seven or eight kilos on the trip,” Kempes recalled in a later interview. Ramón Fornari, the hero in La Paz with the match-winning strike, confirmed his story. “We did not have beef, milk nor sometimes even bread,” he told El Gráfico in a 1997 interview, when Daniel Passarella’s Argentina were preparing for their own game at altitude. “The day we got back from Bolivia our food finally arrived there. We couldn’t believe it. We travelled in an ancient Fokker airplane that looked like a cargo jet, we slept in rooms with three or even four bunks.”
Cienciano were nevertheless dispatched in Cuzco 1-0 with a single goal from “El Matador” Kempes. With a squad of just 13 players following Merlo and López’s withdrawal, the run of success at altitude and almost without substitutes is a testament to the hard work done by the coaching staff and players in those long months in Jujuy. Moving on to Arequipa in southern Peru, where the local champions were run by an Argentinian who had taken pity on Ignomiriello’s beleaguered troops and organised a match, they prevailed once more thanks to Kempes. “I had to tell the president in Arequipa, ‘send us the tickets to travel or we cannot play,’” Ignomiriello said. “There were constant, constant problems, of every kind.”
One apparent stroke of luck came on the team’s arrival in La Paz. The Italian car giants Fiat had recently branched out into Bolivia and offered the newly arrived Argentinians four vehicles to use for a trip to Oruro in return for participation in an advertising campaign. But their good fortune quickly turned sour. Upon arriving for the next game Ignomiriello became embroiled in a bitter dispute over which balls to use: the Pintier, used in the Argentinian top flight for more than 25 years, or a local version pushed by the rival coach. “It was like a basketball, it never stopped bouncing,” he said. “That side managed to score a goal through Fillol’s legs – Fillol!” At half-time and 1-0 down the Selección decided to take matters into their own hands. Every time the ball appeared on the field of play, an Argentina player would launch it as far away from the stadium as humanly possible and the Pintier would come into play during the search. The strategy paid off handsomely, as in spite of Glaria’s sending off for the flagrant use of gamesmanship Argentina ran out comfortable winners. At a price: the local crowd, enraged by the defeat and how it came about, pelted the team with rocks, damaging the brand-new Fiats that had taken them to Oruro. “The engines still worked and some of the windows were intact, and we got them back to La Paz, but I don’t think they were ever used again,” Ignomiriello said.
In other games of the tour Argentina were forced to prove they were even an official national team, with unscrupulous local associations arguing the authentic Albiceleste were in Spain with Sívori as an excuse to cut their match fees. But the moment that would come to define the Fantasmas occurred just days before the World Cup qualifier, with the senior coach and his reinforcements from Europe on their way to Bolivia. “On the Tuesday or Wednesday before the game we said, OK, we have to say goodbye as the Selección Fantasma,” Ignomiriello explained. “Professor Cancela went out to look for some balaclavas, but since he could not find 15 or 16 for the whole group he brought some sheets of card and cut out the ghost hoods.” The photo was taken by a Bolivian photographer who sold his snap to the local daily Hoy, who in turn sold the print on to El Gráfico, where it appeared for the first time in Argentina alongside the match report from La Paz. “The AFA thought it was a campaign of mine against them because D’Onofrio had hired me,” Ignomiriello said. “For that reason I was never paid any bonuses for the tour, nor did I receive my wages for October, November and December of 1973.”
Suffice to say, when Sívori did finally arrive in La Paz accompanied by several of his first-teamers he was met with some resistance by those veterans of Andean conditions. “Do not worry, everything is taken care of,” had been the ex-River man’s words to the young charges before embarking for Jujuy, a promise that had been categorically disproved by the events of the intervening 70 days. Daniel Tagliani complained that “Barguitas [Ángel Bargas, who had accompanied Sívori to Spain, the opening qualifiers and later La Paz] told me they asked him many times about us. ‘Maestro, did you call the kids up at altitude?’ And he would always reply, ‘Ah, yes, I am going to call right now.’ Of course, the phone never even rang.” An unnamed player went even further: “Who does he think he is, the king of Persia? He walked right by us and did not even say hello or shake our hands, for him it is like we are the enemy.”
“Enrique [Sivori], since he had been a great player and was proud like all superstars, was a difficult man,” Ignomiriello said. “He did not accept much dialogue, nor did it concern him overly.” Other new arrivals, on the other hand, attempted to mend the broken bridges. Quique Wolff did much to ease the tension with a letter sent to the Fantasmas prior to landing in La Paz. Ultimately the team that took the pitch against Bolivia at the Estadio Hernando Siles days later would be a composite of both squads, put together by Sívori on the advice of the coach of the altitude team. Three outfielders joined the spine of Ignomiriello’s team; Bargas, the captain Roberto Telch and Rubén ‘Ratón’ Ayala, while in goal Chacarita Juniors’ Daniel Carnevali took over from Fillol. The eventual starting XI lined up: Carnevali; Rubén Glaría, Bargas, Daniel Tagliani, Osvaldo Cortés; Roberto Telch, Rubén Galván, Aldo Poy; Oscar Fornari, Rubén Ayala, Mario Kempes. Ricardo Bochini and Marcelo Trobbiani, fellow Fantasmas, came on in the second half for Kempes and Telch respectively. Both were debutants and it meant that the 18-year-old Trobbiani became a full international before he’d even played a match for the Boca reserves.
According to Ignomiriello the only controversy in the selection came between the posts, as Fillol was left in tears of rage by the decision to promote Carnevali ahead of him. “The goalkeeper should have been Fillol, but it was Carnevali,” Ignomiriello said. “It was on a whim. This created a problem for us because the keeper was Fillol. Who was the goalkeeper who won the World Cup? Who is the goalkeeper who went down in history as the best of all time? Fillol. I was not wrong, Enrique was.”
The match itself was far from a classic. Argentina’s exhaustive preparations paid off as they measured their efforts across a tense 90 minutes against a Bolivia side who had upped their work-rate following an insipid defeat against Paraguay in La Paz three weeks previously. Cortés, the man who “saw the pitch upside down” in Jujuy, was singled out as the best player on the pitch by El Gráfico’s Otero in his match report. The game’s single, decisive goal came with 18 minutes gone from the head of Oscar Fornari. “I scored something like 200 goals in my career, but none like that,” he recalled. “I can describe it from memory. There was a defender called Costa who had got violent and was hitting out far too much. Until he struck me with his knee and I had to leave the field for a few minutes.
“I asked permission to re-enter and went running into the area, just as Glaría was taking a throw-in for Poy to chip in from the right. When the cross came in, the goalkeeper came out to claim, but was impeded by a teammate; the ball passed through to the other flank, Ratón Ayala returned it with a low cross, I flew in with a diving header and scored.” It was Fornari’s first and only taste of international action; called up later that year for the final qualifying fixture against Paraguay, the then-Gimnasia forward failed to make the bench and was never picked again.
Ayala could have doubled the lead just before half-time, seeing a shot rebound off the crossbar and out of play, but the final 45 minutes were a matter of holding on and defending that precious advantage. But Bolivia were a shadow of that team which had humbled the Albiceleste three years earlier and, aside from a handful of uncomfortable moments in the air for Carnevali, Sívori’s side rode out the challenge to win 1-0. All those sacrifices, all of the problems suffered along the way by Ignomiriello and his Fantasmas had paid off. Celebrations for the coaching pair were short-lived, however. Sívori was unceremoniously dumped as Argentina coach before the year was out, as those overseeing the AFA preferred the ex-Racing Club and River player Vladislao Cap. Ignomiriello was offered the chance to stay on by the new man but grew frustrated as Cap, still nominally in charge of Colombia’s Deportivo Cali until the end of 1973, failed for months to give him a clear answer over his future. “One day I picked up my things and left for Montevideo, where Nacional had offered me a job. When Cap finally arrived in Buenos Aires and called I was already committed to Nacional.”
What, then, was the true significance of the tour? It certainly did not lead to glory in 1974. Having sealed qualification at the end of the year by beating Paraguay 3-1, an Argentina squad led by Cap crashed out in the second round in West Germany, losing to Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands and Brazil before a draw with East Germany in a dead rubber. Nor did it lead to new lessons being learned in the AFA, although Carlos Bilardo repeated the trip to Tilcara in preparation for the Mexico World Cup of 1986, this time with far superior organisation and support backed by Grondona. “Prior to organising the trip Bilardo met with Ignomiriello and asked for his advice; he was Miguel’s golden boy,” Vazza said. But the Fantasmas fulfilled their objective: qualification for the World Cup was achieved, guaranteeing an ultimately successful tilt on home soil four years later and the first ever title for the nation.
A quick glance at the team sheet for Bolivia is also telling. It is notoriously difficult to identify the stars of tomorrow, with many shining figures at Under-19, 20 or 21 levels eventually going on to mediocre professional careers. But Ignomiriello’s makeshift squad went on to yield four members of the 1974 squad, in Kempes, Fillol, Glaría and Poy. Kempes, Fillol and Rubén Galván would go on to be the stars of the 1978 World Cup-winning team under César Luis Menotti, while eight years down the line Bochini and Trobbiani, the two men who came on in the second half in La Paz, tasted glory with Bilardo. Of the 13 players who stayed long enough to don the hoods in that famous photo, five would be world champions – a number that is testament both to their own talent and the guiding hand of Ignomiriello and his tireless technical team.
The Selección Fantasma won 14 of the 15 games they played in Jujuy, Peru and Bolivia. Those wins paid hotel bills and plane tickets and ensured those involved would at least have a plate of food, even if it was not always to their taste. Their story is one of survival, unity and a battle against the odds, responding to the neglect of their directors with defiance and a determination that belied their youth. “No matter how many times I tell this story, people are captivated, that must mean something,” Vazza says. “You might think these types of situations are consigned to the past, with a more professional football and better organisation, but it keeps happening. Throughout the filming of the documentary what struck me was the spirit of the group, in such adverse conditions they kept up their camaraderie and became so united and strong a team.”
The Selección Fantasma can easily be read as a fable about the deficiencies of the Argentinian football authorities, as valid now in 2017, with the AFA overseen by an outside advisory body and incompetent once again, as it was 44 years ago. But at its heart it is an uplifting tale, the misadventures of a group of kids who had no idea what the future held. That future, both for the Albiceleste and for many of the Fantasmas themselves proved to be filled with glory and prestige, and the first steps of that golden decade in the nation’s football history can be traced back to the cardboard hoods and penuries of a team that simply refused to be defeated.