“The day that we go onto the pitch for kick-off [intending] to play violently, we will lose everything, because the origin of Brazilian football is another. We know how to play and [know] very well. We have skill and technique.” 

Telê Santana

“The possible is already done. We are doing the impossible. Miracles require time.” 

Marcelo Bielsa

June 1992. Julio Zamora slumped down onto the tiles in the dressing room, put head into his hands and sobbed. It was more than the loss, more than the manner of it even; he knew that this was the end of an era. A photo of him, sitting there on the cold, hard floor of the Morumbi stadium in São Paulo, was published in the next issue of El Gráfico, the famous Argentinian football magazine. Above the picture, the headline: “The Night of a Thousand and One Tears.” Underneath it, the words of the Newell’s Old Boys president Walter Cattaneo: “I’ve seen a lot of dressing rooms… But like this, never. When I saw El Negro [Fernando Gamboa] cry like that – him, who is always above the good and the bad – I understood all of the emotion.”

As Zamora and his Newell’s Old Boys teammates wept, awaiting their long, painful journey back to Rosario, the pitch outside had been submerged under a collective paroxysm of joy. Tens of thousands of São Paulo fans annexed the grass after their goalkeeper Zetti saved the final penalty of the night to give the Tricolor their first ever continental crown. The players who had not managed to escape to the safety of the tunnel were stripped down to their y-fronts by supporters looking for souvenirs. The police just about managed to escort the tall, bulbous, silver trophy into the centre circle and hand it to the captain Raí, before accompanying him off the field to join the celebrations.

It had been the tensest of nights. After two legs, two of the boldest teams in South America had cancelled each other out and the destination of the trophy and fate of two clubs was decided from 12 yards. For São Paulo and their manager Telê Santana, it was the beginning of a magnificent shared chapter in their respective stories. For Marcelo Bielsa and his Newell’s team, a glorious cycle was coming to a close.

Until the 1990s, the Copa Libertadores had been the preserve of clubs from three cities on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, the vast estuary that separates Uruguay from Argentina. Buenos Aires, La Plata and Montevideo supplied 35 of 60 finalists in the 30 editions of the tournament up to 1989 and took 22 titles.

Brazil, whose population was far greater than Argentina and Uruguay combined, had only provided four different champions, winning five titles between them, in the same period. Whether the lack of success bred indifference or indifference bred a lack of success, the continental competition was looked at as a second or even third priority behind the national and state titles by Brazilian managers, club directors and fans. Libertadores campaigns were physically and emotionally taxing and there was a deep-seated fear of the rioplatense teams’ reputation for excessive violence.

Yet at the beginning of the nineties, São Paulo and Telê saw the potential benefit of giving their all to become the fifth Brazilian club to lift the trophy. São Paulo had won everything that there was to win domestically in the 1980s and, after the arrival of the ex-Seleção boss, the state and national double in 1991. The Libertadores was the logical next step and, more importantly, would give them a shot at the champions of Europe and the much-coveted Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo. For Telê himself, an international title with São Paulo would also serve as a small slice of personal redemption after the failures (for in Brazil they were perceived as such by many) of his Seleção teams in 1982 and 1986.

For Newell’s, the Libertadores was likewise of utmost importance. In the highly centralised world of Argentinian football, la Lepra (the Lepers) were the only club from outside Buenos Aires province to have reached a final of the tournament, in 1988, led by their manager José Yudica and star playmaker Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino. They had won the 1987-88 Primera División title to qualify for the continental competition and wiggled through the rounds but were defeated comfortably by Nacional in the second leg of the final, succumbing 3-1 on aggregate. That near miss and the potential to muscle in on a select group of Argentinian sides to have won the competition (only Independiente, Boca Juniors, River Plate, Estudiantes, Racing and Argentinos Juniors had done so before) served as powerful sources of motivation.

Bielsa, who previously worked as a reserve and youth team coach at Newell’s, had taken over from Yudica in 1990, bringing with him a new style that combined the two prevalent schools of thought in Argentine football: menottisme and bilardisme. The former, based on the ideas of 1978 World Cup winning coach César Luis Menotti, preached an attacking, free-flowing game. The latter, constructed around the ideals of his successor and 1986 World Cup champion Carlos Bilardo, prioritised victory at all costs. The two were diametrically opposed, yet the studious Bielsa saw merits in both and wanted his teams to retain defensive organisation whilst attacking at every opportunity with speed and purpose. The way he found to combine the two was the fervent but meticulously coordinated press that has had such an influence on the modern game.

It was a departure from what had come before. Newell’s had a reputation for being a slick, attractive team that lacked courage at decisive moments. “This institution,” said Bielsa, “carried on its shoulders an unfair label. For us it was very important to rid ourselves of it. This squad deserves to be spoken of in terms of its ‘garra’, its fierceness.” Garra literally translates as ‘claw’ but refers in this context to the grit and willpower that defines rioplatense football. 

With that newfound tenacity, his team won the Primera División in his first season in charge. The tournament was split into two halves, with the winner of the Apertura taking on the winner of the Clausura in a play-off. After securing first place on the final day of the Apertura, Bielsa emerged for the celebrations carried on his players’ shoulders and let out a crazed shout that has become an iconic moment in the club’s history: “Newell’s, carajo [fuck]! This is what matters.”

They won the title play-off against Boca Juniors in July; a 3-1 shoot-out triumph after winning the first leg 1-0 in Rosario and losing 0-1 at the Bombonera. But with nothing to play for in the second half of the season, their form had already suffered a dip. The results worsened further in the first half of the 1991-92 season, and by the time the Libertadores started in March 1992 Bielsa was under intense scrutiny. But the team, which included several players from the 1988 final, felt they were ready.

They would kick off their Libertadores campaign against San Lorenzo at home. It was a difficult fixture, but nobody could have predicted what was to come. Newell’s young centre-back partnership of Mauricio Pochettino and Fernando Gamboa was torn apart and the goalkeeper Norberto Scoponi, a wild-haired terrace hero, was forced to pick the ball out of his net six times. “We had prepared to win that Copa,” Tata Martino told El Gráfico in 2007, “and in the first game they stick six past us. It was a terrible blow.”

A group of barrabravas, the organised criminal element of the fan base, pitched up at Bielsa’s house to demand his resignation. Legend has it that Bielsa confronted them with a grenade in his hand and screamed, “If you don’t leave, I’ll pull the pin and throw it.” Whether apocryphal or not, the tale earned him the nickname ‘el Loco’. Despite that supposed bullishness, Bielsa was deeply hurt. He locked himself in a hotel room for two days, curtains drawn and lights off, considering whether death may be favourable to the predicament in which he found himself. “I suffered as a professional and as a fan,” he later said.

Yet, instead of backing down or compromising, he decided to take his tactical innovation a step further. For the next game he introduced the 3-3-1-3 formation for which he would become renowned. Newell’s drew 0-0 with Santa Fe, but it was the first step in a run that would see them go 26 games unbeaten, including a 1-0 win over San Lorenzo in their return game in the group stage, a 5-0 away victory at River Plate, and, to top it all off, a vengeance-laced 4-0 thrashing of San Lorenzo in the second leg of their Libertadores quarter-final.

Argentina broke out into a full-blown Newell’s fever. El Gráfico ran two consecutive issues with Newell’s as its lead story. The first read, “The Country Talks of Newell’s”. The second, “The Newell’s Way”. A few weeks later, there was another edition featuring a tracksuited, shouting, wildly gesticulating Bielsa on the cover. According to Martino, who was voted the club’s greatest ever player, “Although Newell’s provoked a break in the football that was played, most of all because of the pressing that they imposed, the greatest impact was on the relationship with the people. Newell’s fans felt that in addition to playing well, the team had garra. Until then all the Newell’s teams in history were characterised by good football but did not have garra. That’s what Bielsa generated. That was the greatest achievement of that team, more important than the titles.”

At that time, São Paulo were the most powerful club in Brazil, boasting a 105,000-capacity stadium and a state-of-the-art training facility and Telê and his coaching staff took advantage of the resources on offer to prepare their team immaculately. They scouted all their potential opponents in person and put special measures in place when they were drawn two Bolivian clubs, Bolívar and San José, in the group stage. Both clubs play their home games in stadiums more than 3,600m above sea level, so, to simulate the effects of that altitude, physical preparation specialist Moraci Sant’Anna set up a room at the training ground where the players could do fitness work with reduced oxygen.

But, like Newell’s, they were forced to recover after a poor start. With the Libertadores squeezed into the three and a half months between early March and mid-June and the Brazilian championship played from January to July, Telê’s team had to compete with a mind-boggling schedule of games. The opening Libertadores fixture against Criciúma was scheduled for a Friday, with a league game versus Palmeiras on the Sunday. In all in that period, they would play eight times in 15 days.

As a result, Telê decided to send a reserve team to face the second division Criciúma, who had qualified for the continental competition via a shock Copa do Brasil win in 1991, under the guidance of their promising young manager Luiz Felipe Scolari. São Paulo were beaten 3-0, but it was a calculated risk to give the likes of Raí, Cafu and Palhinha, their star players, some rest. After three wins and two draws from their remaining Libertadores group games, the rewards of their planning were eventually reaped. Nacional of Montevideo were dispatched 3-0 on aggregate in the round of 16, before São Paulo squeezed past Criciúma in the quarters, with a 1-0 victory at home and 1-1 draw in Santa Catarina.

In the semi-finals, both São Paulo and Newell’s faced long journeys to the north-west of South America. Bielsa’s side would take on América de Cali, a Colombian club funded by the ‘hot money’ of drug baron Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela. São Paulo would face Barcelona, from the hot, humid Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil.

The Brazilians won their first leg at the Morumbi 3-0 with the goals all coming in a devastating first-half display of one-touch attacking football. Upon arrival in Guayaquil for the return fixture, the São Paulo president was warned by directors of Emelec, Barcelona’s local rivals, of their hosts’ habit of poisoning visitors’ food in the hotel before the game. So, after a quick detour for an unannounced lunch stop at another establishment in the city, São Paulo arrived for the game with their bowels in full working order. Still, they made hard work of holding onto a comfortable lead, conceding twice in the second half, the second a result of an embarrassing mistake from the goalkeeper Zetti. Despite some late chances for Barcelona, they hung on for the aggregate victory and a place in the Libertadores final for the first time since 1974.

Newell’s, playing the first leg at their Estadio El Coloso del Parque, went behind to an early Ántony de Ávila goal. But, after the break, they fought back and levelled late on through the Paraguayan centre-forward Alfredo Mendoza. The trip to Cali was about as intimidating as away matches get, played in front of a fervent crowd at El Pascual. Yet after just four minutes Pochettino rose to meet a Julio Zamora free-kick and head Newell’s in front. Bielsa’s men held on in the face of a Colombian onslaught in the second half, but with one minute to go, Julio Saldaña gave away a penalty that was converted by Jorge da Silva. The game would be decided by a shoot-out.

The first 12 had all been converted when Pochettino stepped up. A long run-up and a bizarre, both-feet-off-the-floor shot sent the ball sailing towards the mountains that provide a stunning backdrop to the ground. Eduardo Berizzo consoled his young teammate, saying that Scoponi would save from Jorge Bermúdez. Scoponi obliged but Cristian Domizzi gave America another chance by shooting over the bar. The second match point fell to the Argentinian defender Jorge Balbis, a supporter and ex-player of Rosario Central, the local rivals of Newell’s. But he too missed the target, sending the ball past Scoponi’s left post. Nine more successful spot kicks followed before Scoponi leapt to his left to push the 26th and final effort around the post. 2-2 on aggregate and 11-10 from 12 yards, Newell’s had set up a final between two of the most exciting teams on the continent.

The first game would be played in Rosario seven days after the two second legs, but as the Coloso del Parque was not big enough for Conmebol regulations, they would have to play at the stadium of Rosario Central. São Paulo, worried about travel, enlisted the help of their former goalkeeper, the Rosario-born José Poy, who helped them find a suitable hotel. Unlike in Barcelona, there were no issues with food and the only fan violence, fighting between the barras of Newell’s and Rosario Central that saw 250 people arrested, took place far enough away not to be of great concern. The only thing Telê had to worry about was a group of models who were staying in the same hotel for a fashion show. He requested that the women be accommodated on the third floor and his team on the fifth, placing club security guards on the staircases all night to avoid any unwanted attention.

São Paulo’s goalkeeping coach Valdir de Moraes had been the club’s opposition scout throughout the Libertadores and had been to Cali to watch Newell’s in the semi-final. He noted that they were very strong in the air defensively, so recommended São Paulo should try to keep the ball on the floor. Newell’s dominated the opening exchanges, trying to attack the space behind Cafu with passes down the line. São Paulo steadily improved and the vision of their elegant, commanding captain Raí created two good chances for Palhinha, who pulled the first wide and saw the second saved by Scoponi.

In the 39th minute, with the game finely balanced, the ball was kicked at the left arm of Ronaldão in the São Paulo penalty area. His hand was by his side and it came at him from no more than two yards, but the referee pointed to the spot. Ronaldão later told Estado de S Paulo, “The referee gave it because of the shout, giving in to the pressure and confirming that South American referees lack character.” Protests from the São Paulo players were vociferous but futile. Eduardo Berizzo tucked the kick into the bottom corner and the packed stands burst into chants of, “Olé, olé, olé, olé, Newell’s, Newell’s”.

The game temporarily opened up and before half-time Tata Martino and Raí had both had fine volleys saved. But after the break Newell’s looked content to hold onto the result, the only other chance coming in the shape of a Pochettino header from a Martino free kick. 1-0 in Rosario; the same result Newell’s achieved in their 1988 Libertadores final first leg. “I expected a little more aggression in the second half,” Bielsa told El Gráfico afterwards. “We started with the idea of extending our lead, but, after 75 minutes, we preferred to secure the result.” Telê, meanwhile, lamented his side’s wastefulness in front of goal: “We continue to make the error that has pursued us for some time, missing chances.” But, given the small margin of defeat, the Brazilians remained confident. “Our team will massacre them at the Morumbi,” proffered Cafu.

The weekend between the two legs saw São Paulo travel to Rio de Janeiro to play Flamengo, who would go on to win that year’s Serie A title. Eight reserve teamers came into the side, but Telê decided to stick with first-choice keeper Zetti. Just like in Guayaquil, he made an error, getting down slowly to a long-range free-kick that proved the difference between the teams. In the week of such a big game, their No.1’s form was worrying. 

Newell’s did not have a league fixture, so decided to travel to São Paulo on Sunday, three days before the game. Whilst Telê organised a training camp at a secluded hotel in Atibaia, an hour north of São Paulo, away from the spotlight of the media and pressure of the fans, Bielsa’s team chose to stay in a hotel near the stadium. 

On their first night in Brazil, Newell’s had arranged to train under floodlights on the pitch at the Morumbi. Or that, at least, is how they understood it. When they arrived, the stadium was dark and the doors closed. The Morumbi’s administrator had gone home and only a few security guards remained. Bielsa was furious, as Alexandre Giesbrecht writes in his book on São Paulo’s 1992 Libertadores campaign. “If there is nobody to turn on the lights,” El Loco shouted, “I’ll break the door down. I have dollars and I can pay for the damage.” Kalef João Francisco, São Paulo’s director of football, arrived to resolve the situation, telling Bielsa that “there is no way we can turn the lights on” as the electrician had gone home. When Bielsa offered to go and retrieve him, Kalef laughed. “Then you go alone. He lives in the favela and I’m not going in.” Newell’s trained in the dark, doing only some light physical work. After their frustrating evening, the Lepers spent Monday and Tuesday going through their plans for the game. But for reasons that are not clear, Bielsa did not let the Newell’s players practise penalties.

“At the start of 1992,” Raí would later claim in Placar magazine, “I said the best way to win the Libertadores was to outplay [rather than outfight] our rivals.” And that is what Telê’s men planned to do. In training they practised pressing high up the pitch and attacking with quick, one-touch interchanges. As they did so at their countryside base, the tension in the city grew. Fans queued around the block to buy one of the 105,185 tickets for the game. It would be the largest crowd ever recorded for a Libertadores game.

The bare concrete structure of the Morumbi literally rocks when it is full and as the players ran out onto the pitch, the São Paulo fans went through their usual pre-match routine of shouting the names of each of the starting XI, one by one. “Getting to a stadium as full as that makes you feel everything at once,” the Tricolor midfielder Pintado told UOL Esporte. “It makes you anxious, confident and happy. Telê was never a sentimental guy, but he had never won a title of that importance. So, we felt that in him there was also a great anxiety.”

Tata Martino won the toss and elected to kick off. And in the opening exchanges, that nervousness was apparent. A slew of lunging challenges flew in and there were just as many mistakes on the ball. As the game wore on the influence of Raí, Palhinha and in particular Cafu started to be felt, with the future Seleção captain flying up the wing time after time and sending a volley narrowly wide after 15 minutes. But the first clear-cut chance fell to Newell’s. A long kick from Zetti was intercepted in midfield and played forward to Julio Zamora, who burst in behind Iván and smashed the ball onto the upright. The rebound went back into the middle of the box but whizzed past the waiting Alfredo Mendoza, who, if it had bounced kindly, would have had the net at his mercy. “When [Zamora] ran through with the ball, we could only hope that he missed,” Antônio Carlos remembered. “We lost concentration a bit for that one, but we were controlling the game.”

Moments later, the São Paulo centre-forward Müller was put through himself, but swung his right leg and found only thin air. The bounce gave him another chance, but he cut across the ball with his left and sent his shot dribbling out for a goal-kick. A chance for Raí flew over the goal. Palhinha hit the bar from 22 yards. Bielsa paced up and down. Müller fluffed another shot from the corner of the six-yard box. Müller had a reputation for freezing on the biggest stage. He had played in Brazil’s eliminations to France and Argentina in the World Cups in Mexico and Italy. The noise from the terraces became more nervous murmur than guttural roar. The whistle went. 0-0 at half time.

The second half started with both teams on edge, arguments broke out and more fouls were committed, expurgating any quality or intricate passing from the game. For Newell’s, that was fine. Llop, Gamboa and Pochettino held firm. Zamora broke down the right wing again after São Paulo had peppered the Newell’s box with a sequence of set-pieces, this time forcing Zetti to get down and push the ball away at his near post.

“Müller’s anonymous,” said Galvão Bueno on Brazilian television. Macedo, the reserve striker, went to warm up and, he recalled years later, “The fans started to shout my name… My friends on the bench started looking at me. It seemed like a divine light, you know?” Müller’s number went up and the Morumbi crowd, among Brazil’s most demanding and disagreeable, whistled and booed. “Go, boy,” Telê told Macedo. “The fans are asking for you. Now, it is with you.” His first touch came to nothing, but the second time he got the ball, from Palhinha in the middle of the penalty area, he dug it out of his feet and shaped to shoot. Gamboa came in, pulled his shirt and Macedo threw himself to the ground. Just like in the first leg, the home team would have the chance to score from the spot. Macedo described what happened to Estado de S Paulo: “I was tugged and I dived. It was more or less a penalty. If I hadn’t done it, the referee wouldn’t have given it.”

“When the referee blew,” Raí told UOL, “100,000 people shouted, my teammates celebrated, it was only me that did not. The sensation I have is that I put myself into a bubble to… switch off from my surroundings.” He stood still, hands on hips. “It was me, the goalkeeper and the destiny of a club,” he wrote in an article for Globoesporte.com 20 years later. Raí sent Scoponi the wrong way; São Paulo were level in the tie. Bielsa’s rage at the decision got the better of him and he was sent to the dressing room by the fourth official.

From there, Newell’s, uncharacteristically, played to waste time, clearly feeling a shoot-out was their best chance, and São Paulo were not willing to take the risks necessary to break down the solid back three. With a few seconds to go the Argentinians tried to introduce the wing-back Gustavo Raggio, who had scored both his penalties in Cali, but the referee blew the whistle before the change could be made.

Berizzo, usually so reliable from the spot, hit the post with the first kick. Raí converted to make it 1-0. Zamora scored, as did Iván. Llop hit his into the top corner, then Scoponi stayed upright for Ronaldão’s kick, the big centre-back blasting it right into his clenched fists. Mendoza had the chance to put Newell’s ahead, but blasted over the bar. Cafu scored and it was all down to Zetti. With 100,000 people chanting his name, the goalkeeper heard the instructions given by Valdir de Moraes, who had witnessed Gamboa’s penalty in the semi-final. “When I saw Gamboa, I was calm,” said Zetti to Folha, “I knew I would save it.” Gamboa shot towards the same corner Cafu had just put the ball into, but Zetti leapt to his left and pushed it away. His mistakes against Barcelona and Flamengo were expunged; Zetti had made São Paulo champions of Latin America.    

More than a trophy, it proved a turning point in the history of São Paulo and, to some extent, the Libertadores. The Tricolor Paulista would go on to beat Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ twice in the second half of 1992, first a 4-0 friendly win in August and then in the Intercontinental Cup final, in which Raí scored twice in 2-1 victory. In Tokyo, Cruyff was magnanimous in defeat and full of praise for Telê’s team. “If you are going to get run over, it may as well be by a Ferrari,” he said. São Paulo would repeat the feat, winning the Libertadores and Intercontinental double again in 1993. Back in Japan for the second time in 12 months, they squeezed past AC Milan 3-2 with a last-minute goal from Müller. Between 1993 and 2019, 27 editions of the Copa Libertadores, a Brazilian side has won the trophy on 12 occasions, a marked shift from what came before if still a long way from total domination.

Newell’s went on to win the 1992 Clausura by two points from Vélez Sarsfield but Bielsa, exhausted, would resign shortly afterwards. La Lepra were beaten 4-2 by São Paulo in the round of 16 of the 1993 Libertadores and subsequently went into decline, often battling to avoid relegation. Eduardo López took over as club president in 1994 and stayed in power for 14 years, with Newell’s winning just one Apertura title on his watch. In 2009, after club elections in which Bielsa urged socios not to vote for López, a new man was selected and the stadium was renamed the Estadio Marcelo A Bielsa in his honour. Their rivals Rosario Central reached the semi-final of the Copa Libertadores in 2001, as did Newell’s in 2013, but no Argentinian team from outside Buenos Aires province has been to the final of the competition in the 27 years since.