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SPORTS | 07-05-2024 16:48

‘El Flaco’ left an indelible mark on Argentine football

César Luis Menotti will be forever associated with football and the nation he took to the top of the world, in the most difficult of circumstances.

Argentine football has lost one of its titans. On Sunday, World Cup winning coach César Luis Menotti passed away at the age of 85, plunging the national game into mourning. For more than five decades ‘El Flaco’ worked to leave an indelible mark on the sport, and he will be forever associated with football and the nation he took to the top of the world in the most difficult of circumstances.

Born in Rosario in 1938, Menotti was an accomplished footballer during his playing days, a prolific goalscorer who shined with Rosario Central, Racing Club, Santos and Argentina’s national team. But it was on the bench that the combative, outspoken firebrand would become a legend. After retiring early from the playing field, he was handed the top job at Huracán aged just 32, tasked with turning around the fortunes of the ailing Buenos Aires club.

Inspired by the wizardly wing play of René Houseman, Menotti's Globo team took Argentina by storm, beating out Boca to win the 1973 Metropolitano championship and clinch the club's first title in almost 50 years. What is more, they played with the verve and swagger that would become synonymous with the long-haired, chain-smoking coach throughout his career, a throwback to the golden 'La Nuestra' era of Argentine football where technical ability and the bravery to try anything on the pitch were first and foremost. 

“That Huracán side was different from everyone else. It arrived to earn a place in history as one of the greatest and most brilliant in our football,” Menotti recalled years later. “At the very least [it was] the best I ever saw in Argentina. But it did not express an era. Not even the feeling of an era. I am convinced it saved Argentine football.”

Menotti's prowess in Parque Patricios led to him being named coach of the national team in 1974, and he remained in his post even after the advent of the murderous dictatorship under Jorge Rafael Videla two years later – the coup occurred while the national team was on a tour of Poland. 

The coach, an avowed militant and member of the Communist Party, was talked out of resigning by colleagues who convinced him that he should remain working on the inside, and in defence of the Argentine people. Menotti stayed true to that principle. In 1978 it was his team that fought to Argentina's first-ever World Cup triumph on home soil, beating the great Netherlands at a packed Estadio Monumental and with millions across the country cheering on their every move, an unforgettable moment in its football history.

A year later Argentina would be celebrating again as Menotti and the teenage Diego Maradona – infamously left out of the 1978 squad – brought home the World Youth Cup from Japan. It proved the high-water mark of El Flaco's Albiceleste tenure. In 1982 and in the shadow of war with England Argentina suffered an early exit to their defence of the title, prompting the authorities to turn to the coach's arch-rival Carlos Bilardo. He would move on to work with Maradona in Barcelona, winning the Copa del Rey in their debut season together before events in Catalunya ultimately turned sour; Menotti went on to work in coaching and advisory capacities for top clubs across Argentina and the football world, later acting as a mentor to Lionel Scaloni as National Team Director at the start of the Albiceleste's latest and current golden age starting in 2018.

Menotti was considered a footballing bohemian, whose emphasis on individual freedom and expression formed one half of the great dichotomy in Argentine coaching philosophy next to Bilardo's system-based pragmatism. The rift between those two titans was often also personal as well as programmatic, with both men over the years dedicating rafts of column inches to taking the other down a peg or two. Towards the end of his life, however, Menotti made efforts to close the feud, stating in 2019: “Whatever differences we have are irrelevant. May God protect and help him,” when asked to send a message to his adversary as he suffered from a degenerative illness. 

Modern Argentine football in many ways was forged in the image of these greats, and will be much the poorer for the loss of Menotti, one of its great standard-bearers and a true representative of his nation both on the field and away from it.

Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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