On the afternoon of Wednesday 22 October 1969 Ozvaldo Zubeldía, coach of the Estudiantes side that would contest the second leg of the Intercontinental Cup against Milan that evening, crowbarred his squad into room 704 of the Hotel Nogaro in Buenos Aires to deliver his final address before they made the journey to the Bombonera for the game.
Having lost 3-0 in Italy their task was daunting, but not quite impossible. Just before he went inside, he told reporters from the Argentinian magazine El Gráfico what he planned to say. “I think we have a 20% chance of success, but it will get much harder if we lose our heads,” he said. “The important thing is to keep calm, play well, try to win the game even if we cannot recover the aggregate deficit, give a good account of ourselves and don’t get anyone sent off. Play well, go out to win, but without losing control.”
Cramped inside the hotel room his team listened intently. They mulled it over. And then they went to the stadium and played with such violence that three of them ended up in prison.
Not that Zubeldía can plausibly claim innocence. This was a coach whose teams were always prone to violence and acts of premeditated dastardliness. The midfielder Juan Ramón Verón (one of two fathers of future Chelsea players involved in the game, along with the Milan goalkeeper Fabio Cudicini) said the Estudiantes side would be briefed on their rivals’ “habits, their characters, their weaknesses, and even their private lives” so they were best able to goad them into getting themselves sent off. Like many particularly successful teams – think tiki-taka, or the catenaccio pioneered by Milan’s Nereo Rocco – their tactics ended up with their own name: El anti-fútbol. With it they reached four successive Copa Libertadores finals, winning three, and beat Manchester United in the 1968 Intercontinental Cup (“the dirtiest team I’ve played against,” said Paddy Crerand).
“You don’t win the Intercontinental Cup playing anti-fútbol,” Zubeldía insisted. “What happened with Estudientes after 1968 was that we got tired and the players ran out of stamina. There were so many tours and friendlies, the entire squad was injured. That’s why the players, because they did not have the physical strength to play, turned to dirty tricks instead. What they called anti-fútbol was not a strategy, it was necessity.”
Well, perhaps. On that night in October 1969 the atmosphere inside the Bombonera was so febrile that Milan cut short their warm-up because of the level of abuse they were receiving. And then the game, and the violence, started. In the first half Pierino Prati, the Milan striker, was kicked to the ground by Alberto José Poletti, the Estudiantes goalkeeper – on the halfway line, while the home side took a corner – and then headbutted out of the game by Ramon Suárez.
Shortly afterwards Rivera, who had been kicked while on the ground by Eduardo Manera, gave Milan a 4-0 aggregate lead, which served to wind up their opponents still further. Estudiantes came back to lead 2-1 on the night, before shortly after half-time Suárez made another telling intervention. “Having insulted Néstor Combin horribly and covered him in spit, and while play continued far away, Suárez savagely hit his opponent on the nose,” wrote La Stampa. Combin crumpled to the turf, blood pouring from his face, and was loaded on to a stretcher. It turned out this was not to be the low point of his evening.
After more savage fouling but no further scoring the game ended and the players returned to their dressing rooms, some throwing a few more punches along the way. Face swollen and balls of cotton wool stuffed up each nostril to stem the bleeding, Combin eventually emerged at 12.30am to board the team coach, but as he made his way across the car park he was surrounded by six unfamiliar people and bundled into an unmarked green car. A fan leapt upon the bonnet to stop it leaving, and was hauled off by police and beaten. Milan thought their night of controversy and confusion was coming to a close; in fact it had only just begun.
Combin had been born in Argentina, and in the local media was portrayed as a traitor in the buildup to the game, particularly as he had not done his national service. A magistrate in his home province of Santa Fe had accused him of draft-dodging in 1963, and there had been much speculation that he might be arrested and charged with desertion, a genuine enough concern that many other Argentina-born footballers of the era refused to return to their homeland. Combin, however, had served in the French army and under the terms of a reciprocal agreement between the two nations had no obligations to the land of his birth. This did not dissuade the Buenos Aires police from basically kidnapping him.
In the early hours of Thursday morning Italian journalists toured the city’s police stations in search of the lost player. At 2am he was finally located, but 45 minutes later he was bundled into another car and driven away again, this time to a military prison. At 3.30am Milan officials finally returned to their hotel, where one of them – who had been hit on the head by a baton-wielding policeman at the ground earlier in the evening – collapsed. At 4am Combin was officially charged with draft-dodging, and Milan officials set about assembling evidence to exculpate him – the player had taken the precaution of packing his draft book and a letter from the French consular general in Milan. At 10.30am a tired and groggy Combin was allowed to briefly talk to journalists (“Suárez kept yelling, ‘I’ll break your leg’ and spitting in my face. I truly have no idea why he had it in for me”). At noon, after the intervention of the Argentinian president, Juan Carlos Onganía, he was released and driven to the airport to join his teammates on the flight home.
Onganía had watched the game, which was televised around the world, and spoke later that day about a “lamentable spectacle which breached the most basic sporting ethics”. At his request police issued arrest warrants for Poletti, Suárez and Manera, who turned themselves in that afternoon. All three received 30-day jail sentences and lengthy bans.
The match sealed Argentina’s reputation for dastardliness, to which the 1966 World Cup quarter-final against England and Estudiantes’ two games against United had already contributed. But in truth such violence was a global disease. Brazil’s head coach, João Saldanha, had gone to the first leg in Milan while on a lengthy scouting trip to Europe, where he saw plenty of similar savagery. “Karate is a good sport. I used to do karate and I like it. But it should not be practiced in football boots,” he told the Guardian. “In the matches Romania v Portugal and Yugoslavia v Belgium the kicking started at the navel and got higher and higher … Why play when it is no longer a football match, when the laws have been thrown into the rubbish bin and we have the law of the jungle instead?”
Still, Argentina were particularly adept at this football/karate hybrid – and the worst was yet to come. Some 18 months after the Milan game another Argentinian side, Boca Juniors, played Peru’s Sporting Cristal in the Copa Libertadores. Two minutes from the end a fight broke out that led to a fractured skull, a broken nose, one player beating another with a corner flag, the mother of one of the Peruvians dying of a heart attack as she watched her son getting pummelled on television, 19 red cards and perhaps a feeling back in Milan that, all things considered, maybe they actually got off rather lightly.