The Thwarted Revolutionary
Béla Guttmann was hugely influential but Peñarol remained resistant to his methods
Béla Guttmann arrived in Uruguay on 7 July 1962. He was received on the tarmac of Montevideo airport by the Peñarol president Gastón Güelfi and the official Washington Cataldi, both of whom were visibly nervous but clearly ecstatic with what they had achieved. For the Uruguayans, this was a huge coup. Guttmann’s record spoke for itself. He had just won a second successive European Cup with Benfica. But after falling out with the Portuguese club, the Hungarian was back in South America, a region he had so influenced in the late 1950s with São Paulo.
Peñarol were aiming for immortality. The Uruguayan giants were looking for a third straight Copa Libertadores and a second consecutive Intercontinental Cup. Domestically, they were one league championship away from a feat that only their traditional rivals Nacional had achieved – a Quinquenio, five consecutive league titles. With the great Hungarian wanderer, Peñarol had “the signing they needed” according to one of Montevideo’s dailies, which lauded the “magnificent conquest” by the club’s directors.
British in its origins, Peñarol – and Uruguay by extension – had always looked to the foreigner. While the English introduced the game to Uruguay, a Scot taught them how to play it . With his elegant, short-passing game, the Glasgow-born centre-half John Harley captained and coached Peñarol, revolutionising the national game. The former Sunderland player Randolph Galloway then briefly took the helm in 1948, before a players’ strike suspended football mid-season.
Like the rest of the world, the Uruguayans embraced the next great innovators of world football – the Hungarians. Emérico [Imre] Hirschl took control of Peñarol the year after Galloway, winning the Uruguayan league title in 1949 and 1951. Building on the work of his Scottish predecessor, Hirschl’s 1949 team was a true machine. Boasting legends like Obdulio Varela, Óscar Míguez, Juan Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia, La Máquina was unstoppable and would go on to make the core of the Uruguay team that achieved the impossible at the Maracanã the following year, beating Brazil to win the World Cup. Peñarol weren’t the only Uruguayan club to seek out Hungarian and Scottish expertise, however, with Nacional hiring Américo Szigeti (1933-1934) and William Reaside (1939) to lead the club to glory. Indeed, until 1962 only Uruguayans, Scots and Hungarians were deemed worthy of leading the country’s two biggest clubs.
Guttmann was no stranger to Uruguay. He had been in Montevideo the previous year with Benfica, who were beaten twice in three days by Peñarol as the Uruguayan side won the Intercontinental Cup. Back then, Guttmann was hounded by local journalists eager for his opinion on the Uruguayan game. He first recalled Nacional’s 1927 tour of the United States, where he played for New York Giants, admiring “the style and initiative of the great number of brilliant footballers”. The Benfica coach then turned interviewer and asked a question of the press, asking the whereabouts of the former Peñarol captain Lorenzo Fernández. The two had met on Guttmann’s first visit to Uruguay in 1930, when he captained the Hakoah All-Stars in a friendly against Peñarol at the Centenario, just weeks after the inaugural World Cup.
Offered a lucrative contract and the chance to leave behind his recent experience in Portugal, Guttmann leapt at the new challenge. The move was facilitated by the Montevidean merchant Desiderio Berger and his brother José, who urged Guttmann to make Uruguay his next stop. Desiderio and Béla had been friends for decades, their relationship formed on the football pitch. Using his old friend as an interpreter, Guttmann gave his first press conference as head coach of Peñarol.
As in the previous year, Guttmann was first quizzed on Uruguay, the local press forever desperate to remain relevant in world football opinion. Guttmann first saw the Uruguayans when he represented Hungary at the 1924 Olympic Games, instantly recalling “Zibechi, Andrade, Scarone, Nasazzi”. He remembered the South Americans causing a stir in the Olympic Village when they chose not only to bring their own cook to Paris, but also a musician to connect their young players to home.
The biggest shock for Guttmann, however, was on the football pitch. The Uruguayans had caused “a sensation because they played a modern football. [Héctor] Scarone would track back and help the defensive line, the same way an inside-right does now.” He also spoke of the influence of Uruguay’s distinctive style on the Europeans, saying that “from the beginning [of the tournament] we all tried to take in the best lessons.”
He went on, “The greatest player I have ever seen is Uruguayan: Juan Alberto Schiaffino.” Guttmann had coached the former Peñarol star at AC Milan, Schiaffino the most expensive player in the world at the time. What impressed the Hungarian most was Schiaffino’s footballing brain, with the playmaker possessing “an intuition which allowed him to move into the position where he was needed in one second.” And with the ball? “A maestro … what a player! I’ve never seen anyone close.”
Guttmann was then pressed for some initial impressions of his new team. He had inherited an amazing squad at Peñarol, which boasted foreigners like the Ecuadorian Alberto Spencer, the Peruvian Juan Joya and the Paraguayan Juan Vicente Lezcano, in addition to the local stars José Sasía, Luis Maidana and Néstor Gonçalvez. Despite losing Luis Cubilla to Barcelona, the Uruguayans regained a matured and much improved Julio Abbadie after a five year stint in Italy, while the youngsters Roberto Matosas and Pedro Rocha had debuted the previous year. They would all go on to be Peñarol legends.
According to Guttmann, his players were experts in “how to treat the ball, and were very capable in possession … but they were not physically prepared.” When asked if Uruguay needed to emulate European tactics and preparations, Guttmann rejected such a proposition. “Not at all,” he replied. “When I arrived in Brazil to coach São Paulo [in 1957], I found players who were true artists. I understood that there was nothing to teach them, but merely correct any flaws.”
The locals were sceptical. With Peñarol already a dominant force and Guttmann’s reputation for shaking things up wherever he went, the Montevideo press grew increasingly suspicious of any potential radical tactical changes the Hungarian might force. While Peñarol’s star-studded team was an exception, by the 1960s conservatism was entrenched in Uruguay’s football culture. This wasn’t 1924 anymore. No longer protagonists, Uruguay had largely reconciled with a defensive, counter-attacking style heavily reliant on the individual efforts of their talented forwards and the leadership of a strong centre-half. So proud of their footballing identity, and with the trophies to back it up, locals were convinced that drastic changes weren’t necessary. Guttmann was football royalty, but this was Uruguay. Some were already seeing the Hungarian’s presence as a threat to a national style that had propelled them to the top of the world.
Guttmann hit back at such scepticism, launching a tirade against the negative influence of the press. “Do you know why world football is sick?” he asked through his interpreter Berger. “There are too many theorists.” Guttmann went on to lament how in Europe, particularly in Italy, coaches were too afraid to experiment with new systems of play or team selections out of fear of the backlash from local journalists.
But Guttmann was different. “I fear only God,” he said defiantly. The Peñarol coach then calmed down, pledging to accept the input of local journalists – so influential in Uruguay – but only “as long as it benefits Uruguayan football.”
Guttmann arrived in the middle of a storm. The day after he landed in Montevideo, Peñarol faced their rivals Nacional in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores semi-final. While it was understood the Hungarian would officially take over first-team duties the following week, he nevertheless made it to the Estádio Centenario and took his place in the stands. He was treated to an intense opening, with Nacional taking the lead on 11 minutes, followed by a Peñarol equaliser through a penalty 20 minutes later. When Peñarol’s Néstor Gonçalves was sent off after 35 minutes for a series of overly-aggressive fouls and constant protests, the game descended into a typically intriguing but ugly Clásico. The second half was all action. Nacional took the lead 10 minutes in, another two players were sent off after a scuffle and despite a flurry of Peñarol attacks in the final 20 minutes, Nacional held on for a 2-1 win.
The following morning, with just over a week to prepare for the second leg, Guttmann went straight to work. His team was physically ill-prepared and required a drastic improvement if they were to turn around the first leg deficit. In his first training session, Guttmann announced that he would be taking over all aspects of first team management including physical preparation and team selection. The new program would consist of gym work and football in the morning, then theory classes in the afternoon.
Days before the return leg, Roberto Matosas was asked about the Hungarian’s approach. “Our new coach is worried by the technical and disciplinary concepts of our game,” he said. Guttmann was pushing for a man-marking system and a more dynamic style of combinations and transitions. Importantly for the young defender, this was done without losing the supposed essence of Uruguayan football, with Guttmann stressing in his theory classes that players need not abandon the fundamentals of their national game, but appreciate other aspects of play. The initial reaction from the squad was generally positive, with Matosas remarking that “he has awoken within me and my teammates a thirst to know more about the game.”
In the second leg, Peñarol comfortably beat Nacional 3-1 in front of 50,000 fans, with two goals from Spencer and one from Cabrera. Just days later in the third and deciding match, the Ecuadorian produced a heroic 70th minute equaliser. An additional thirty minutes couldn’t break the deadlock, the game finished 1-1 and Peñarol were through to the Copa Libertadores final on goal difference.
Guttmann’s influence was beginning to show. The Hungarian’s team selection was praised, especially his decision to entrust ‘Pepe’ Sasía as the main attacking outlet and organising force. According to the head physio Guillermo Lemez, standing in for Guttmann who refused to be interviewed post-game, the team had strictly adhered to the new coach’s instructions. “We are the better team and today justice was served.”
Then, the first sign of friction between Guttmann and his players.
Guttmann sought to shake up not only the football but the general culture of Peñarol. Concerned about the team’s physical conditioning, he astonished everybody when he began to push for the prohibition of the constant drinking of mate at the club’s training ground. He annoyed others with his strict imposition of curfews. Born with bombillas in their mouths and used to late dinners, the players were unsure if the Hungarian was genuine in his demands.
Guttmann also had the habit of selecting players out of position. The most curious case was that of the forward Julio Abbadie, a player Guttmann surely remembered from the 1954 World Cup despite the Uruguayan’s absence in that great semi-final against Hungary. In his first few training sessions, much to everybody’s surprise, Guttmann persisted with selecting the forward at left-back. Some say the Hungarian took weeks to remember the names of his players, while his Italian and Portuguese-infused Spanish provided both confusion and laughter. Such clashes didn’t affect the team’s performances or results, however, with Peñarol continuing to dominate the league. A historic Quinquenio was in sight.
The immediate focus, however, was the Copa Libertadores.
Standing in the way of Peñarol’s third straight South American title were Santos, who were participating in the competition for the first time. The Brazilians already possessed an air of invincibility, having been crowned Paulista champions five times and runners-up twice in the last seven seasons. Boasting the remarkable duo of Pelé and Coutinho and a host of other Brazilian internationals, Santos were already one of the world’s great sides.
But the Brazilians were without Pelé for the first leg in Montevideo, the forward still recovering from an injury suffered at the recent World Cup in Chile. While Santos could still count on many other great players, Peñarol were confident of a positive result. “We have what it takes to win,” said the Peñarol president Güelfi. For him, Pelé’s absence would surely have a “real psychological effect” on Santos, who were “another team” without the 22 year old. “They have many potholes as a team … let’s see what happens.”
When Spencer put Peñarol ahead after just 18 minutes, the Centenario was shaking. But the euphoria was short-lived, with Santos quickly taking control through the 19-year-old Coutinho, who brought the visitors level just 10 minutes later. With 20 minutes remaining, a second Coutinho goal gave Santos a 2-1 victory. The result was deserved according to one Montevideo newspaper, which praised the calmness of a Santos side “so used to such international victories.” The Santos defender Mauro was pleased with the Brazilian performance in the absence of Pelé, but remained hopeful of the star’s return in the second leg. “With Pelé there’s more confidence, more security,” he said.
The second leg was to be played on August 2 at the Estádio Vila Belmiro. Requiring only a draw to be crowned champions, Santos were destined for glory. The club was in its fiftieth year of existence - what better way to celebrate than a Libertadores triumph at home and a potential Intercontinental title months later? So desperate to avoid a potential playoff at a neutral venue, Santos put Pelé through a series of fitness tests in the days leading up to the game, but once again he was deemed unfit.
Santos could at least draw from the influence of an unforgiving home support. The Belmiro was a true cauldron, the public practically within touching distance of the footballers. For Peñarol, it was unsuitable for a game of such magnitude. Fearing for the safety of their players in a stadium that lacked the proper security guarantees, the Uruguayans pleaded that Conmebol at least re-schedule the evening kick-for for an earlier, more appropriate hour. Their arguments weren’t heeded and the game went ahead as planned.
The Belmiro received the Uruguayans with insults and whistles upon their entrance to the pitch. The reception merely spurred on Peñarol, however, with Spencer silencing the crowd with a goal after 14 minutes. Santos reacted almost immediately through a Dorval equaliser, with another goal from Mengálvio on 39 minutes ensuring a 2-1 half-time lead for the Brazilians. Despite their advantage, the local support was becoming agitated with the Chilean referee Carlos Robles and his assistants, who had failed to award what appeared to be two clear penalties for fouls on Coutinho and Pepe.
Four minutes into the second half, Peñarol equalised in a true moment of madness. As the visitors delivered a corner, their captain José Sasía grabbed a fistful of sand and threw it in the face of Gilmar, who had come off his line to intercept the ball. Spencer took advantage of the keeper’s disorientation, putting the ball in the net to bring the Uruguayans level. Recalling the incident years later, Pepe stated that he had employed the same trick three years earlier in the 1959 Campeonato Sudamericano against Paraguay.
When Sasía put Peñarol ahead just two minutes later, the Belmiro exploded. The fans showered the pitch with insults, whistles and projectiles. Then, just as Santos were about to take a corner, Robles was struck by a bottle thrown from the stands, while Peñarol’s Lezcano was hit by another projectile. After waking in the dressing room, the Chilean was dazed, but his immediate thought was clear – the contest had to be suspended.
Robles was soon joined by officials from both sides. In his post-match report, the referee claimed the president of the Federação Paulista, João Mendonça Falcão, threatened to have him detained by police if he decided to suspend the match. When the Chilean refused, he was called a “coward” and a “thief”. The Santos coach Lula, accompanied by the club’s president Athiê Jorge Coury, similarly attempted to convince the referee to reverse his decision. But Robles stood his ground, the Brazilians fired off more insults and, as a parting shot, warned the Chilean that the club would not guarantee his safety at the conclusion of the match.
In response to these threats, Robles got in touch with the Conmebol president Raúl Colombo. With Peñarol 3-2 ahead and the siruation febrile, the Chilean suggested awarding the victory to the Uruguayans, but with the final 38 minutes played as a friendly to prevent any more ugly scenes. Colombo agreed and almost an hour later the match was restarted.
Guttmann soon found out what had just occurred. “Look, Mister,” explained the team’s kinesiologist Dante Cocito, “Peñarol already won.” In classic Guttmann fashion, the Hungarian then put on his cap, left the bench, and retired to the team’s hotel before the game concluded.
Just three minutes into this now ‘friendly’ match, Santos equalised. Moments later, another bottle was launched from the stands, this time hitting and cutting the head of the assistant referee Domingo Massaro. The game was suspended once again. The drama didn’t stop after the next restart, with Robles awarding Peñarol a penalty after a foul on Pedro Rocha. Almost instantly, perhaps out of fear of the possibilities if the visitors again took the lead, the Chilean quickly reversed his decision and instead awarded a free kick.
At the ‘final’ whistle, the Santos players, officials and fans celebrated. Refusing to accept Robles’ initial decision, the Brazilians were adamant that they had just won the Copa Libertadores with that 3-3 result. After days of confusion, the referee’s decision to suspend the match at 51 minutes was officially upheld by Conmebol. Peñarol were awarded the 3-2 win, forcing a third game to decide who would be crowned 1962 South American champions.
After marathon discussions, the play-off was finally confirmed for August 30, to be played at River Plate’s Monumental in Buenos Aires. The Uruguayans had initially proposed playing the decider two weeks after the game at the Belmiro, but Santos had refused, instead spending weeks protesting against both the original decision and the location and date of the decider. Scheduled twenty-eight days after that scandalous game in Brazil, Santos had delayed the play-off just long enough for Pelé to regain fitness.
With confidence high after their team’s heroics in Brazil, as many as ten thousand Peñarol fans crossed the Río de la Plata for the decider. For Guttmann, a potential Intercontinental Cup revenge match against Benfica was at stake. For Conmebol, a repeat of the scenes from the second leg was unacceptable. Convinced that the presence of a distinguished European official was necessary to maintain order in another potentially explosive game, the Dutchman Leo Horn, who had refereed that year’s European Cup final, was appointed.
Thanks to a superb performance and two goals from Pelé, Santos brushed aside Peñarol 3-0 to claim their first Copa Libertadores title. While the Uruguayans performed admirably, Santos, with a fit and unstoppable Pelé, were simply too much. Alberto Spencer, expected to score in every game, missed five clear-cut chances. Even so, Santos were deserved champions and would go on to embarrass Benfica to win their first Intercontinental Cup.
For Guttmann, that third month in charge proved fatal. His last game in charge of Peñarol was six weeks later against Nacional. Peñarol once again showed their superiority, beating their rivals 4-1 thanks to a hat-trick from Sasía and an astonishing individual effort by Abbadie. Guttmann soon left the country for Europe, reportedly for health reasons, with Juan Pelegrín Anselmo taking over for the remainder of the year. The 1930 World Cup winner and former Peñarol player ultimately steered the club to its first Quinquenio, a feat sealed and celebrated on the Centenario pitch after yet another Clásico triumph on December 27.
Guttmann’s story didn’t end there. The following year, he was convinced by a persistent Washington Cataldi to return to Uruguay for the 1963 season and another shot at the Libertadores.
In the first round, Peñarol beat the Ecuadorian champions Everest 5-0 in Guayaquil and 9-1 in Montevideo. Then, a semi-final against Boca Juniors. The first game was played on August 7 at the Centenario, with the Argentinians recording an important a 2-1 win thanks to two goals from Brazilian Paulo Valentim. Ten days later in Buenos Aires, Boca sealed their spot in the final with a 1-0 win. Eliminated from the Libertadores, Peñarol didn’t fare any better in the Uruguayan league. Despite winning both Clásicos yet again, Guttmann’s team surrendered the title to Nacional by one point after a pair of draws and two losses against the humble Racing de Montevideo, who were inspired by the Argentinian forward Pedro Eugenio Callá. This time Guttmann left Uruguay, never to return.
The Hungarian and Peñarol were just never meant to be. The Uruguayans, so proud of their footballing tradition, were too stubborn to accept their coach’s demands both on and off the pitch. It was all too much for Guttmann, who later lamented the Uruguayans’ inflated view of their own tactical expertise, while continuously complaining that the Centenario pitch was better prepared for planting potatoes than playing football.
Despite the bitterness, Guttmann left no curse at Peñarol. The following year, 1950 World Cup winner Roque Máspoli guided the team to an undefeated season and league title. In 1966, they would stage a miraculous comeback against River Plate in Santiago to win the Copa Libertadores for a third time. Then, five months later, the Uruguayans would comfortably beat Real Madrid to reach the summit of not only South American but world football.