Mix one part footballer with one part heavyweight boxer, add a liberal dose of viciousness, a pinch of spitefulness and a splash of remorselessness and you have the recipe for the most brutal footballer to ever kick a ball in anger. A central defender whose name may not be a familiar one to you, this was a player whose career in Argentina and Spain twisted out of shape all preconceived ideas of what a hard man was all about.
His crimes against football were so extensive that we can’t do justice to them in a single article. This is part one of a two-part story, covering the early years of his career with notorious Estudiantes de La Plata. Welcome to the Wild World of Ramón Aguirre Suárez.
In decades past, high-profile hard men proliferated and roamed football pitches with malevolent scowls and malicious intent. At the top of the hard-man hierarchy was a distinct group of players whose notoriety inspired menacing nicknames from imaginative journalists: ‘Chopper,’ ‘Bites Yer Legs,’ ‘The Beast of Barcelona’ or ‘The Butcher of Bilbao,’ among some of the more lurid examples.
Such players usually revelled in their infamy and the implied threat their nicknames carried and yet, however deserving of their reputations they might have been, the highest profile hatchet-men of decades past were but mild models of restraint when compared to this Argentinian defender of Paraguayan descent. Nicknamed ‘El Negro’ because of his dark skin, Ramón Aguirre Suárez’s unflattering nickname gave opponents no clue to the horrors he had in store for them.
In South America he is widely considered to be the most vicious footballer the game has produced and his name still sends shivers down the spines and shins of the unfortunates who faced him during his infamous career with Estudiantes de La Plata and Granada. If opponents were not initially intimidated by that benign nickname, during his cartoonishly violent career he developed a second one that served as a much more apposite warning of the dangers he brought: ‘The Killer’.
Football in Argentina underwent a sea change in the 1960s as a new breed of coach swept away the outdated methods that had seen the nation’s attractive, but fragile game consistently undermined by poor tactical and physical preparation. The new approach was more European and based upon resolute principles of counter-attack, robust physicality and raw psychological warfare. Club sides saw this new arch-pragmatism yield quick competitive gains, both domestically and in the Copa de Libertadores – first Independiente, then Racing Club and ultimately an Estudiantes de La Plata side under coach Osvaldo Zubeldía that honed the concept to its most extreme degree.
Estudiantes was the first team to successfully use calculated, controlled aggression as a tactical and psychological weapon against opponents. The result was all that mattered and the manner in which that result might be achieved was merely incidental detail. This environment was to prove an unfortunately fertile one for a player as morally ambivalent as Ramón Aguirre Suárez to prosper in.
He was a graduate of the Estudiantes youth sections and, while not especially quick or mobile, Zubeldía saw in him a defender of rare power and presence. Aguirre Suárez emerged in 1966 and became a regular the following year in the defensively solid, well-drilled side that became the first provincial winner of an Argentinian championship in 36 years. That title was won despite a shocking collective disciplinary record – easily the worst in the division – with Aguirre Suárez the worst individual culprit. A feeble disciplinary system that typically fined rather than suspended offenders meant there was little incentive for him to clean up his act. Even the fines had little impact as he had an agreement that the club paid them on his behalf.
He was revelling in the roving assassin role that Zubeldía had given him and besides the kicks, elbows, gouges and head butts, there were the less obvious practices that were difficult for referees to spot. Aguirre Suárez regularly used a tactic of faux-benevolence which involved leaning over an opponent he had just felled as if to enquire after his wellbeing, then, with others distracted, poking him in the eye. He would politely appear to help an opponent back to his feet but lift him by the skin under the poor fellow’s armpits. Try it yourself and see how painful that is. Another underhand tactic he was a keen exponent of was the ‘pincharratas’ – literally ‘rat stabbers’ – which involving the carrying of pins to jab into opponents at set pieces. And few players relished provoking opponents with taunts about dead mothers or sick children as much as ‘El Negro’.
The title win brought a debut entry and surprise success in the Copa de Libertadores of 1968. Palmeiras of Brazil were defeated in the Final but it was the semi-final games against holders and compatriots Racing Club that brought home to the South American public the full horror of the new order. Three violence-strewn matches produced eight dismissals and constant running battles all over the field. Aguirre Suárez was relishing the opportunity to extend his growing reputation beyond mere domestic competition. In the third and decisive match, he provoked a bench-emptying brawl by deliberately standing on the head of a prostrate opponent.
Order was finally restored and Aguirre Suárez was sent off, yet still managed to demonstrate his alarming absence of contrition by standing once again on the head of the same, stricken player as he left the field. He was one of several players to be jailed for a month by Buenos Aires police chief Mario Fonseca under public order offences, and it was not to be the only jail time football would bring him.
Manchester United were the next victims as Estudiantes defeated them over two legs for the unofficial World Club Cup title. The games were typically violent, but Aguirre Suárez was atypically one of the lesser offenders; his resilient performance in keeping the English club at bay during the second leg at Old Trafford even drawing praise, admittedly qualified, from an English press otherwise scathing about the South American behaviour. Now a South American and World Club champion, Aguirre Suárez was developing a reputation as a cult anti-hero: feared and loathed by his opponents but earning some grudging respect for his undiluted fundamentalism on the pitch. Legendary Racing Club player Roberto Perfumo said in an interview at the time: “There is no power like him, he is like a caveman who fiercely defends his territory to the death”.
Following their great successes of 1968, Estudiantes struggled domestically to match those standards the following year. Their limited, counter-attacking game found goals hard to come by and too often increased violence was filling the void where form should have been. Matches against Boca Juniors and an ongoing vendetta with Racing Club were especially difficult for police and referees to handle. It was a worry for Zubeldía. The Estudiantes modus operandi was based around controlled provocation, but Aguirre Suárez in particular was undermining it. He had become an uncontrollable Frankenstein’s monster, the footballing resilience he had displayed at Old Trafford perennially subverted by his relentless propensity for violence.
Retaining the Copa de Libertadores became vital for Estudiantes. The club was reliant upon the financial benefits that came with the title of continental champions, but with domestic form ailing, winning it was now their only viable route to continuing entry. The benign format certainly helped with the holders gaining a bye straight to the semi-finals and raising their game to defeat first Universidad Católica, then Nacional in the Final. ‘El Negro’ was to the fore again in the preparations for the lucrative World Club Cup Final games with Milan.
A tetchy performance leading to another dismissal for attacking the referee might have represented a typical Aguirre Suárez day at the office, but this particular incident came in a friendly match across the border in Brazil against Internacional Porte Alegre. With delicious irony it was a game organised by the Estudiantes president Mariano Mangano specifically to improve the club’s gutter reputation abroad. The referee was scathing: “I only let the game run to full-time in respect of the public who had spent good money to see the world champions. But this riff-raff were spoiling for a fight”
Within weeks, the 1969 World Club Cup matches against Milan would see new depths of appalling behaviour plumbed by Aguirre Suárez and his teammates, alienating even the few remaining journalists who had continued to argue that the Estudiantes ends justified the means. Heavily defeated 3-0 in the First Leg in Italy – a match in which watching Brazilian team manager João Saldanha commented he would have sent off all 22 players within the first five minutes – Estudiantes took a spiteful revenge in the return game. After a half hour of constantly disrupted and foul-strewn football, Milan’s Gianni Rivera collected a through pass, left Aguirre Suárez clumsily lunging at thin air and rounded keeper Poletti to score.
Nothing good could come of making a notoriously intolerant individual like Aguirre Suárez look foolish, especially in a game that was now all but lost. Rivera’s fellow forward Pierino Prati was the first to suffer the fallout just minutes later, Aguirre Suárez catching him heavily on the thigh with his studs – for the second time – and putting him off on a stretcher. Prati got off relatively lightly compared to another teammate, the unfortunate Franco-Argentinian striker Nestor Combin. Aguirre Suárez became embroiled in a second half wrestling match with the Milan man and struck him with a frightening forearm smash. Combin was unconscious before he hit the ground, his cheekbone badly fractured and his nose broken. Doctors later suggested that he could have lost an eye and extensive and pioneering plastic surgery was needed to repair the damage. Rivera was later to say that it was a contact more forceful than any he had seen from a heavyweight boxer.
Aguirre Suárez was dismissed after much argument, yet still managed to attack yet another Milan player before exiting the pitch. Almost forgotten amidst the chaotic scenes was the rare goal he had scored, just before half time, that had put the home side ahead on the night. Watching the game on television, the furious Argentinian President Juan Carlos Onganía witnessed Manera and Poletti also dismissed for the home side and he immediately ordered the arrest of all three.
Manera was seized in the dressing room, but Poletti and Aguirre Suárez, still in full kit, ran away from the stadium before handing themselves in to police the following day. All three were jailed for a month in the notorious Villa Devoto prison for inciting disorder and causing injury. There were heavy football punishments too, in Aguirre Suárez’s case a thirty-match club and five-year international ban. Twelve months earlier he had been received at the Presidential Palace as an all-conquering hero, now he was languishing in jail as a common criminal.
‘El Negro’ had to watch from the sidelines as Estudiantes and their suspension-decimated squad endured a difficult 1970 season. Domestic form was still poor and they remained an unpleasant and quarrelsome side, but they did retain the Copa de Libertadores for a third successive year. This time they benefitted from Brazilian sides being absent while Peñarol, their opponents in the Final, had eight of their players unavailable as they were in national team training for the forthcoming World Cup. Feyenoord thoroughly outplayed them in another roughhouse World Club Cup Final, just as Milan had the previous season.
An off-the-pace Aguirre Suárez was back for the 1971 season but could do little to arrest the decline as the malign Estudiantes era drifted to a close. The iron grip they had exerted over South America’s premier club competition was ended in their fourth Final by a Nacional Montevideo side that successfully aped their brutal style. Aguirre Suárez was thoroughly eclipsed by a younger, fresher and more talented version of himself, Nacional’s skilled, yet vicious defensive midfielder Julio Montero Castillo – father of future Juventus wildcat Paolo.
Defeat spelled collapse for the club. President Mangano killed himself with a bullet to the head leaving a widow, two daughters and a club several million dollars in debt. Zubeldía moved on, several players had retired and most of the high earners were shipped out to clubs in Argentina or Mexico for nominal fees.
There was not expected to be transfer interest in Aguirre Suárez – this was, after all, the player who had left an indelible stain on the Argentinian game in his role as malevolent poster boy for the ultimate anti-establishment club. With the domestic game opening up under a new generation of attack-minded coaches like Menotti, Ramón Aguirre Suárez now represented little more than a discredited relic of a best-forgotten era.
Yet demonstrating some of the belligerence off the pitch that had characterised him on it, Ramón Aguirre Suárez showed he was not willing to bow out quietly at the relatively young age of 27. To general disbelief on two continents he managed to negotiate a legally questionable transfer to newly promoted Spanish club Granada. Aguirre Suárez’s second career in Europe would not be as successful as his time at Estudiantes, but it was to prove just as uncompromising and controversial.