Rey De Copas – Independiente’s Copa Libertadores Glories

When you think of domestic football in Argentina, you think foremost of the mystique of Boca Juniors and River Plate. From the glory and violence of the Superclásico to the legendary names that have represented them over the years; this is undeniably Argentina’s greatest football tale. They’re divided in every sense of the word, but when it comes to one record it could be said that they are united in envy. Despite having won 10 Copa Libertadores titles between them, including the 2019 edition in which they controversially squared off head-to-head, both still trail behind another compatriot club in titles won. That club is, of course, Independiente whose seven Copa Libertadores honours eclipse the big two and every other side in South America.

Of those seven titles, six came in an incredibly successful period during the mid-sixties and early-seventies that saw them form some of the most storied teams in South American football history – driven by a pinch of revolutionary tactical tweaks, instinctive players and studious managers. This story is split into two parts. The first looks at a period in which Independiente would end a lengthy trophy-drought and establish themselves as one of the sport’s elite. The second looks at the time Independiente used the success of their recent past to drive them forwards towards the future.

1964-67: LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS

The 1950s was an uncertain, barren period for Los Diablos Rojo, the only decade in the club’s history in which it did not claim silverware of some description. Foundations for the future were being laid, however. The club would embark on a tour of Europe that saw them play both Real and Atlético Madrid and visit Lisbon to square off against Sporting CP and Benfica. This experience certainly helped boost the team. In 1960, with some difficulty, Independiente ended its 12-year league drought by pipping River Plate to the title in a closely-fought race. This granted them entry into the following season’s Copa Libertadores, but that participation was short. Brazil’s Palmeiras toppled them in the first round and it was clear that the Argentine champions needed to improve.

The early 60s laid the groundwork for future glory

Changes were needed to bring progress on the continental stage and the first of those came in 1963 when coach Armando Renganeschi was replaced by former Huracán and River Plate midfielder Manuel Giúdice. The change was inspiring and completely revitalised Independiente’s football, bringing more strength in defence and more attacking sting with a pacier forward line. Much of the team that won the championship in 1960 was retained including defenders Jorge Maldano and Roberto Ferreiro, but players like Osvaldo Mura and Mario Rodríguez brought new vigour to the team.

The Primera División success in 1963 earned participation in the following year’s Copa Libertadores. Prior to the start of the competition, Independiente arranged a friendly against the mighty Pelé-inspired Santos. The Brazilians were the dominant club on the continental scene at the time and were seen merely as a higher-grade opposition test for Independiente, but the Argentinians’ eccentric style shocked their lauded opponents and they ran out surprise 5-1 winners.

With an altered format to that year’s competition, Independiente was placed in a first-round group with Colombia’s Millonarios and Peru’s Alianza Lima and advanced as group winners with ease. This set up a two-legged tie against Santos, the side they had comprehensively defeated just a few months earlier. Santos was unable to field the great Pelé for the first leg encounter but were buoyed by an impressive record of never having lost to foreign opposition on home soil. The Brazilians rushed into a 2-0 lead early in the game but were pegged back and ended up losing 3-2 to goals by Mario Rodríguez, Raúl Bernao, and Luis Suárez. In the second leg back in Avellaneda, Independiente showed the same clinical form to win 2-1 and set-up a two-legged final against Uruguay’s Nacional.

Having dispatched the overwhelming favourites, the team from Avellaneda was now fancied to win its first Copa Libertadores, but Nacional were no pushovers. The Uruguayan home record was daunting and they had comprehensively beaten every team that visited their  Estadio Centenario that season. That first-leg clash in the Uruguayan capital was largely dominated by one man: Miguel Ángel Santoro – the Independiente goalkeeper who would put in an inspirational shift to keep a clean sheet and ensure the match finished goalless.

El Rojo maximised their home advantage in the second leg. Mario Rodríguez, who would end the campaign as the top goalscorer of that season’s competition, struck just after the half-hour mark as 80,000 witnessed Independiente win South America’s most prestigious club cup competition. Undefeated throughout the tournament, the club made history and became the first Argentine club to win the famous competition.

VICTORY IN THE 1964 COPA LIBERTADORES BROUGHT INDEPENDIENTE THEIR FIRST CONTINENTAL SUCCESS

The campaign was also well-recognised for coach Giúdice’s tactical innovation. He would deploy a 2-3-2-3 formation, with Roberto Ferreiro and David Acevedo covering the flanks, while the front five of Osvaldo Mura, Bernao, Suárez, Rodríguez and Raúl Savoy created a fierce attacking setup.

Victory granted Independiente the opportunity to take part in the Intercontinental Cup of 1964 to square off against European champions, Inter Milan. Having won the first-leg at home and lost the second-leg in Italy, a loss at the neutral venue of the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid in a third match decider meant that intercontinental glory would have to wait for another season. Meanwhile back home Boca Juniors took advantage of Independiente’s shift in focus to win that season’s League title.

Independiente returned the following season to defend their Libertadores crown and entered at the semi-final stage – an added bonus for the defending champions. Their opponents would be bitter domestic rivals Boca Juniors while Santos and Peñarol would meet in the other semi-final. The Xeneizes had the simple aim of translating their domestic dominance into success on the bigger stage, and with a slice of luck, were able to take the tie to their Argentine rivals. Having lost the first leg to Independiente in Avellaneda by two goals to nil, a 1-0 victory in Buenos Aires, in a tie where aggregate scores weren’t taken into consideration, meant that a play-off match would have to be contested to determine an outright winner.

That play-off was a rather dire affair that finished 0-0 after two hours of combative and conservative football, meaning that Independiente, based on better goal-difference from the previous two clashes, would have the opportunity to defend their Libertadores title. In that final awaited Peñarol who had required a play-off against Santos themselves to advance. Raúl Bernao would prove to be crucial in this 1965 run for Independiente. Nicknamed as “Poeta de la Derecha” (poet of the right), he would look to the explosive Brazilian winger Garrincha for inspiration. In this era, he was an ever-present in the side, his speed and versatility allowing him to play anywhere up and down the right flank. In the final of that year’s Copa Libertadores he would prove his worth on the biggest of stages.

In the first leg he scored the winner late in the game to give his side a 1-0 advantage to take to Montevideo. The plan to defend this lead fell apart in Uruguay as this talented Peñarol team swept to a 3-1 victory, meaning that yet another play-off would be required to settle the tie. This match would be held, fittingly, in the Chilean capital Santiago and more specifically in the Estadio Nacional, where just three years prior many of Garrincha’s great performances at the 1962 World Cup had taken place. The stage was set for Bernao. The winger was inspirational once again as Independiente’s pace and fearlessness proved too much for Peñarol to handle. He featured on the scoresheet along with Roque Avallay, Osvaldo Mura and an own goal in a 4-1 win. With the spirit of Garrincha in mind, Independiente had successfully defended their Copa Libertadores title.

The win over Peñarol granted Independiente the chance for revenge against Inter Milan, who, just like El Diablo Rojo, had retained their own continental championship. However, just like the previous year, the Intercontinental Cup would prove to be a step too far. The Nerazzurri steamrollered their Argentine counterparts by three goals to nil at the San Siro and a goalless draw in Avellaneda was enough for Helenio Herrera’s men to add another international trophy to their collection.

There was further frustration in the league as well: all the effort spent in the pursuit of winning the Intercontinental Cup meant league form was greatly affected and Independiente finished in a lowly 13th place. The following year they failed to win a third-successive Copa Libertadores title, falling at the semi-final stage to  local rivals River Plate. And it wasn’t until a year after that when their league form would finally recover.

Independiente 1965

Now split into the Campeonato Metropolitano and the Campeonato Nacional as a way to allow lesser clubs to be more competitive, Independiente would be the dominant force in both competitions. Without the distraction of international football and with a new manager in Osvaldo Brandão, a Brazilian who had made his name with Palmeiras and Corinthians, this was a rejuvenated team which recorded big victories against some of Argentina’s best, winning the Nacional, losing just once and scoring an impressive 43 goals in 15 games. Their most impressive display that season came against their fiercest rivals and world champions Racing Club, who they crushed 4-0 at home.

1971-75: SUSTAINING DOMINANCE

Estudiantes dominated the scene in Argentina and South America towards the end of the 1960s, but the Independiente revival wasn’t long in coming. Several of the players who were part of the mid-‘60s successes were still playing and still influential as the calendar clicked over into the 1970s – and their role would be crucial.

Now under the guidance of former cross-town enemy and Racing Club coach Pedro Dellacha, Independiente had a leader well-respected around Argentina for his Copa América winning exploits with the national team. In his first year in charge he led El Diablo Rojo to the Primera División, dominated the Metropolitano and gave the club the opportunity of a return to the Libertadores.

Following several years of participation but no significant impression upon South America’s biggest competition, making a mark on the 1972 edition was a pressing priority for the club. One of the new generation of players was Eduardo Maglioni, an explosive forward who once held the record of scoring the fastest hat-trick in the history of the game (his three goals against Gimnasia in 1973 were scored in a minute and 51 seconds). Maglioni was crucial to this team: in Dellacha’s 4-3-3 his link-up with wingers Daniel Bertoni and Agustín Balbuena was key. That year’s Copa Libertadores was his stage.

Ricardo Bochini

Now an expanded competition with more participants, Independiente were drawn in a group with fellow Argentinians Rosario Central and Santa Fe and Atlético Nacional from Colombia. After starting slowly with two draws, form improved with four wins from their remaining four group games. Dellacha’s teams often overloaded the wide areas creating scoring opportunities from the flanks through crosses and overlapping runs. And with experience at the back, especially in the form of goalkeeper and past Libertadores winner Miguel Ángel Santoro, they looked steady on all fronts. This was also a very physical team, though the quality throughout the side suggested it would be unfair to diminish their success by suggesting it was all down to underhand methods.

Brazilian club São Paulo and Ecuador’s Barcelona provided the challenge in the next group stage, and although Independiente enjoyed some luck with the other sides failing to capitalise on their few shortcomings, the group was duly won and the Argentinians were in the final. Peru’s Universitario stood in the way of a third Copa Libertadores title. Peruvian clubs had impressed during that year’s edition with both participants, Universitario and Alianza Lima, in free-scoring form to the extent that the competition’s three top scorers came from their ranks: Oswaldo Ramírez and Percy Rojas from Universitario and the great Teófilo Cubillas of Alianza Lima.

In the first-leg in Peru, Universitario deservedly held Independiente to a 0-0 draw. In the second-leg the intuitiveness of Eduardo Maglioni swung the game for Independiente and his brace by the hour mark gave the visitors a huge mountain to climb. Universitario did manage a late goal which proved a mere consolation: Independiente had won their third Copa Libertadores in eight years.

Independiente 1972

But success in South America wasn’t enough – the club wanted more and they wanted glory on the global stage, something that had eluded them twice already. Firstly they took on the new Inter-American Cup which pitted the champions of both Americas, north and south, against each other. Olimpia from Honduras were the opponents and Independiente won with relative comfort by a 4-1 aggregate score. The bigger priority was the Intercontinental Cup and in 1972 the opponents would be the legendary Ajax featuring Johan Cruyff, Ruud Krol and Johan Neeskens and led by Ștefan Kovács.

A fine team they might have been, but Independiente proved no match for the Dutch over two legs. After drawing the first-leg in Argentina 1-1, Ajax were unstoppable in the second-leg with Neeskens’ goal and Johnny Rep’s brace crushing the Independiente challenge. The wait for the prestigious Intercontinental Cup would go on.

A changed Independiente challenged for the 1973 Libertadores edition with Pedro Dellacha having departed the club and Humberto Maschio taking over. The team was not performing well domestically, though in what became a pattern in the early years of the Libertadores, their parallel international form was much more impressive. San Lorenzo and Millonarios were easily overcome to make it through to yet another two-legged final against Chile’s Colo-Colo. Once again Independiente would win a nervy and rather drab affair, but it took two draws and then a play-off in Uruguay to get them over the line. With a fourth title won within a decade, the Avellaneda club was now the tournament’s most successful.

Independiente’s frequent glories coincided with the arrival and rise of one Ricardo Bochini. The number 10 was a magician on the ball and would become one of the greatest players in Argentine league history. Such was his quality as a footballer that fervent cries of “Pasar a Bochini” (pass to Bochini) were commonplace around La Doble Visera. So, when Independiente’s achieved their most important success yet, it’s no surprise that he was central to it.

Independiente finally achieved in 1973 what they had dreamed of for the past decade. That year Ajax, once again the champions of Europe, refused to participate in the Intercontinental Cup and the baton was passed to the runners-up, Juventus. In a one-legged affair in Rome and amidst a chorus of jeers for the visitors, a late Bochini goal sealed the win and that long-awaited Intercontinental Cup. Granted, they weren’t playing the actual best team in Europe, but this was still a symbolic result for the club and their supremacy on the day made this a deserved success.

What made it even more interesting was that it came under the management of Roberto Ferreira – their former player who was part of the Copa Libertadores wins of the 1960s. He may have ended his career elsewhere in Buenos Aires, but he always had a place in the hearts of the Independiente faithful thanks to his longevity and faithful service for the club.

Independiente v Juventus 1973

The following year was almost a carbon copy of the previous: domestic struggles, entering the Copa Libertadores at the penultimate stage, unbeaten in their group and facing São Paulo in the final. And just like the previous season, this tie went to a play-off, although it was far tenser than the goalless affairs of the year prior.

Independiente swept aside a first-leg defeat to beat the Brazilians twice in succession. The victory in Argentina was impressive with Bochini and Balbuena getting on the scoresheet while Ricardo Pavoni’s solitary goal in the Santiago play-off sealed a remarkable fifth continental trophy – so becoming the second team to win a hat-trick of Copa Libertadores competitions after Estudiantes in the late ‘60s. Another defeat in the Intercontinental Cup followed but they were back to what they knew best in 1975 in their favourite competition with a fourth-consecutive win, once again under Pedro Dellacha. This time their vanquished opponents in the Final were Unión Española, though again victory only came about after a play-off.

In 1976 hopes of matching Real Madrid’s record of winning five consecutive continental trophies were ended by local rivals River Plate and the dynasty ended. Nevertheless, the four-time winning feat was unique and it’s a record which stands to this day thanks to outstanding players such as captain and defender Francisco Sá, midfielder Miguel Raimondo and attacker Mario Mendoza. For more than a decade Independiente was a name synonymous with trophy success both domestically and internationally and such was the level of achievement, it’s little surprise that the club hasn’t come close to replicating those years in the intervening decades.

KARAN TEJWANI

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