Stars Of BTLM – Delio Onnis

Think of a prolific Monaco striker of Argentinian heritage and chances are David Trezeguet will be the player who comes to mind. Son of a former Argentinian defender who spent part of his career in France, the much-garlanded French international forward enjoyed five successful seasons in the principality between 1995 and 2000.

The 62 career goal haul David Trezeguet achieved with Monaco was but a mere drop in the azure blue Mediterranean when compared to the figures of another, significantly less famous striker of similar origins; one who also played with great distinction for Monaco, along with several other Ligue 1 clubs during the 1970s and 1980s. That forward was Delio Onnis and no other player has come close, or likely ever will, to scoring as many goals in the French League. This regular Stars Of BTLM feature celebrates players from the past we believe history has not been as kind to as it should, and this edition is about France’s most prolific scorer.

Like Trezeguet, Delio Onnis had dual-nationality and a peripatetic early life. Born in Rome but brought up in Argentina, ‘El Tano’ (the Italian, as he was nicknamed) started his career with Almagro before a move to top division side Gimnasia La Plata at the age of 20. The goals flowed, just as they would flow throughout his career, and his efforts elevated unfashionable Gimnasia to an unlikely third-placed league finish in 1970.

Stade de Reims

Across the Atlantic, a famous old French name from the recent past had ambitions to restore lost glories and saw in Delio Onnis a striker who could help them achieve this. Stade de Reims had been in decline for the entirety of the 1960s and had just returned to Ligue 1 thanks only to an expansion of the division to 20 teams. Delio Onnis and his former midfield Gimnasia teammate Roberto Zywica arrived together and thanks to the former’s 39 goals from 65 games over the next two seasons, Reims stayed clear of relegation danger.

Monaco swooped in to sign this burgeoning goal scoring talent in 1973 and were rewarded over the next seven seasons with the sort of consistent scoring returns only elite forwards like Gerd Müller and Jupp Heynckes in the Bundesliga, and Josip Skoblar and Salif Keïta in Ligue 1 had been delivering. Delio Onnis appeared wholly impervious to injuries or significant loss of form, was comfortably the club top scorer every season he played there and metronomically delivered 25-30 goals every campaign – his poorest season return at Monaco was 21 goals.

The sharp fluctuations in fortunes at the club around him had little material effect on the reliability of his solo output. Commentators attributed the success of his impressive debut season to having his talented compatriot José Pastoriza setting up many chances for him from midfield, but the former Independiente star missed much of the following season with injury and Delio Onnis scored freely anyway, including all four in a crushing Côte D’Azur derby victory against Nice. He scored 29 goals as his side were relegated in 1977, 30 goals during the Ligue 2 title-winning campaign in 1978 and 29 goals again as they became French champions on their return to the top flight in 1979. He was the absolute epitome of consistency.

Despite his goals helping the club to a Coupe de France victory in 1980, Monaco seemed spooked by the 3 months he had missed earlier that season with a knee ligaments injury and demonstrated an unenthusiastic stance towards renewing the contract of the now 32-year-old forward. With talk of a transfer to Paris St. Germain, Delio Onnis surprised the French game by signing on instead with Tours, a small but ambitious club that had just earned a first-ever promotion to Ligue 1. The mastermind of the deal was Jean Royer who doubled up as the club’s president and the local mayor, and he put together an unprecedented financial package to tempt the forward. Home attendances tripled on his arrival.

The change in environment had no detrimental effect on Delio Onnis and his knack for scoring. He established his worth there within just a few months when Tours side won 2-1 at high-flying Saint Etienne. The striker was jeered throughout by home fans, but had the last laugh by scoring and then setting up the winner. Playing in a rewarding partnership alongside fellow Argentine Omar da Fonseca, Delio Onnis scored 24 goals in his first season at Tours and 29 in his second. In both campaigns he was Ligue 1 top scorer. 

It was during his third season at Tours, having already claimed 11 goals from 16 games, that he suffered a serious injury which ended his season. Stripped of his goal threat, Delio Onnis’s teammates struggled desperately without him and the club were duly relegated.

He departed that summer and Toulon became the final chapter in his decade and a half love affair with French football. Assisted by a number of his old Monaco teammates like Christian Dalger and Albert Emon, his debut season followed its usual and unerringly predictable pattern: 21 goals scored and the joint Ligue 1 top scorer award with Patrice Garande of Auxerre, a forward 13 years his junior. An almost unremarkable total (by his lofty standards) of 17 goals followed the following season and, as he entered his final year as a professional, he stood just two goals shy of breaking through the 300 league goal mark.

Unfortunately he couldn’t quite get over the finishing line. In understandable decline by this stage and with various injuries and the form of yet another Argentinian marksman, Victor Ramos, keeping him out of the team; Delio Onnis scored just once all season and finished his French career on 299 goals. To put that figure into a broader context, much-decorated domestic legend Bernard Lacombe sits second on France’s all-time scorer list some 44 goals behind.

All of which raises a number of questions. Why is such a prolific player – five-time French Ligue 1 top scorer in a decade with three different clubs – so little remembered today? And why did his formidable goal-scoring exploits not take him to one of the giants of the European game?

Several factors contribute to the absence of a profile commensurate with his considerable achievements. Firstly there were the mostly struggling minnows he played for: Stade de Reims lived a down-at-heel existence a long way from their 50s and early 60s pomp; Tours were first-time participants in Ligue 1 after only turning professional two years earlier and Toulon had only returned to that level after an 18-year absence. Monaco was a competitive and successful club at least, but whatever that club achieved was broadly ignored by the broader footballing public and media alike. Delio Onnis usually performed in front of home crowds of under a thousand people there.    

Then there was the absence of much recognition outside French borders. Monaco made little impression during their European competition involvements and he was never capped for his country. This wasn’t because he wasn’t considered good enough, simply as he was approaching his peak years the Argentina national team manager César Luis Menotti preferred to select only domestic-based players – the brilliant Mario Kempes being the sole exception – for what would be their successful 1978 World Cup campaign. 

On an personal level Delio Onnis was a quiet, pleasant and self-effacing man who lacked any of the swagger and airs and graces that afflicted many a big star. Perhaps had he played up to that role a little more then he might have been taken a little less for granted by the clubs that employed him. For all the goals that he scored for Monaco, that club always seemed to be seeking new strikers to replace him and in the summer of 1978 undertook a much-publicised and ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of the English centre forward Cyrille Regis. 

During a typically prolific season, one of his League performances was sub-par and brought jeers and demands that he be substituted from a section of the tiny home crowd. After the game he calmly acknowledged that the fans had the right to offer up their opinions and he apologised for his performance, one which he explained had been affected by the death the previous night of one of his wife’s family members. Of course he still contributed a goal during this sub-par performance. 

One of his later coaches at Monaco complained that he just couldn’t get on with his main striker, which came as a surprise to the sporting director, Yvon Dublot, who found the Argentine to be one of the most conscientious players he had known. And when Delio Onnis damaged his knee ligaments, he professed his understandable disappointment that not a single club official visited him during his 10 day hospital stay – though receiving a telegram from the club’s patron, Prince Rainier, was some minor consolation. 

In terms of opportunities to move to bigger and better than the lower reaches of Ligue 1, his Italian roots suggested he might have found a natural home in Serie A. For most of his time in France there was no option to move there however, with a foreign transfer ban in place until 1980. When the restrictions were lifted Italian clubs thought, wrongly, that at 32 he was past his best. There was always the Spanish market though and perhaps it was Delio Onnis’s utilitarian style that counted against him. You would love his goals, but not necessarily love watching him score them. This was very much a no-frills striker.

During that era his fellow Ligue 1 marksman Carlos Bianchi and elegant international forward Mario Kempes were closer to the exemplars of Argentinian strikers – elegant, charismatic, individualistic and with a penchant for crowd-pleasing tricks. That pair conformed to a more romantic stereotype of Latin forward play in a way that Delio Onnis never could – or would have wanted to. Negligible involvement in build-up play and taking as few touches as he could from receiving the ball to attempting a shot was his modus operandi, and with his lackadaisical style and socks rolled down to his ankles, this was a very economical striker who had little elaboration or embellishment in his game. There would be little discernible difference in his celebratory reaction to a goal diverted luckily into the net off his knee to one that necessitated improvisation and fine technique on his part. It was only ever about the accumulation of goals rather than any vaulted aesthetic purpose.

Perhaps more importantly than perpetual pursuit of the biggest payday at the highest profile clubs, or pondering over what his legacy might be four decades later, France was good for Delio Onnis and Delio Onnis was good for France. He professed his love of the country and its culture and his great contentment with the career he had enjoyed there. And what we have once enjoyed we can never lose.


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