Argentine football, recognised among the finest in the world, owes its lofty standing in no small measure to Cesar Luis Menotti. The arrival of El Flaco ('The Thin One'), as he was known from an early age, was a turning point in both the organisation and planning of international football in Argentina. Under his expert tutelage, the Albiceleste won both their first FIFA World Cup ™ and their first FIFA World Youth Championship.
A well-spoken leader, Menotti's name is synonymous in Argentina with the concept of stylish, forward-thinking football. "A goal should be just another pass into the net," became one of his favourite expressions. Before his era at the helm of the national side, Argentine football was known for its systematic turnover of coaches and the refusal of its top players to travel overseas on international duty. Post-Menotti, the side not only continued to chalk up titles but managers were also allowed to see out their contracts. Playing for the national side nowadays is an honour coveted by all the country's top players.
Menotti's crowning achievement as manager was in leading Argentina to the 1978 FIFA World Cup title when they hosted the competition. Menotti's first big gamble, which is still much discussed to this day, was to prefer veteran striker Mario Kempes in place of a promising youngster from Argentinos Juniors named Diego Maradona. That decision sparked a furious debate, but subsequent events were to prove Menotti's intuition impeccable. Kempes was the inspirational leader and goal scorer of the 1978 FIFA World Cup winning side, while Diego Maradona became the star of the following year's FIFA World Youth Championship in Japan, which Argentina also won under his guidance.
Scaling new heights
After hanging up his playing boots, Menotti threw himself into his new career as coach. In 1973, after just two years in management, he led modest club side Huracán to the only league title in their history. The Parque Patricios club produced a side that will be long remembered for being one the most stylish outfits ever to grace the Argentine league. This was all down to the inimitable touch of El Flaco and players like René Houseman, Miguel Brindisi and Carlos Babington, who all flourished under his watchful eye.
After Argentina's gloomy exit from Germany '74, the Argentine Football Association (AFA) offered Menotti the chance to manage the national team. His heady task was to prepare a team capable of winning the world's premier football tournament when it came to Argentina four years later. In building his side, Menotti went immediately for experienced players like Ubaldo Fillol, Daniel Passarella and Kempes, men who could fulfil the coach's enigmatic philosophies.
"The effectiveness of our tactics depended greatly on how clear the players were on what was being asked of them," the coach remarked later about his well-disciplined side. "Someone without a clear idea of what he is looking for will never find anything."
At the event, the Albiceleste beat Hungary and France in the first round but then lost to Italy, which forced the team to leave Buenos Aires. In Rosario for the second phase, Argentina won against Poland, drew with continental rivals Brazil, and then destroyed Peru to set up a mouth-watering final against Holland.
And so it was that on 25 July 1978, Menotti's side beat the Dutch 3-1 after extra time, with two goals from Kempes and one added by Daniel Bertoni. Praise for El Flaco was justifiably lavish, and the coach himself proved ecstatic: "Not many people know that after the game, I went to the Obelisk to celebrate with the rest of the supporters," Menotti confessed later. "I put on a disguise so that no one would recognise me, and I went incognito in the back of a pick-up. I was keeping a promise I'd made earlier. Although there weren't many people left when I arrived, I still enjoyed my own celebration."
Winning with Maradona
A year later, Menotti personally asked to coach the youth side at that year's FIFA World Youth Championship in Japan. Gabriel Calderon, a member of that side before becoming a full international, takes up the story: "Just to see him there in front of us talking about football was an incredible experience," related the player. "He told us that he was coaching us because he believed in our potential. The best thing about him was that he never lied to us. Instead, he put special emphasis on the strengths of each individual. Every player ran out on the pitch crystal clear on what they had to do, and determined to do it."
The 1979 youth side that travelled to Japan seamlessly applied Menotti's ideas of attacking football and were soon showing impressive results. With Maradona, Ramon Diaz and Calderon leading the charge, the Albicelestes had the watching public back home glued to the TV in the early hours of the morning. Nobody was complaining though, and after lighting up the tournament with their glittering play, Menotti's youngsters found themselves in the final against the USSR.
The subsequent 3-1 win over the powerful Soviets was unquestionably one of the golden moments in the history of youth football in Argentina. Maradona recalled years later: "I never enjoyed myself so much on the field of play as I did with that team. That was all down to Menotti's work."
An inauspicious performance by Maradona and the entire national team at Spain '82 marked the end of Menotti's term in charge. Despite having the nucleus of the cup-winning side from four years earlier, the Albiceleste took a relatively early flight home after second round defeats to Brazil and Italy.
Astute ball-movement, swift passing and motivation were concepts that Menotti instilled in all his teams. It surprised nobody that the savvy Argentinean found the winning formula as manager of some of the finest club teams in Europe and South America, and also in his subsequent work for the media.
As time went by, Menotti became something of an ambassador for attractive football. In Argentina, where everyone has an opinion on the game, the camps are divided between those who value the result above everything else, and those who think that good football is the best way to get results. The latter are referred to as Menottistas.
Of the teams Menotti managed, the most famous were River Plate, Boca Juniors, Independiente de Avellaneda, Rosario Central, Peñarol de Montevideo, Atlético de Madrid and FC Barcelona. At the Catalan club, reunited with Maradona, the Argentine won major honours including the Copa de la Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Supercopa. With his international track record, it came as no surprise that he was later offered the job of coaching the Mexican national side. In 1992, however, with Mexico in the second qualifying round for USA '94, Menotti stepped down to pursue a career in sports commentary.
After further short spells in Argentina and Italy, where he briefly coached Sampdoria, Menotti retired from football management altogether to concentrate on his work with the media. At the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan and again at 2004's Copa America in Peru, he worked as a commentator for Mexican television.
From his early days in coaching, Menotti always advocated attacking football over the risky business of defending deep and waiting for chances. Although he accepts that "everyone plays to win," he was always known for deploying his team's resources to maximise goal scoring chances. His sides were all about teamwork, with quality players in midfield and technically gifted individuals up front.
One of his calling cards was, paradoxically enough, his most criticised trait - the offside trap. His defences used the trap systematically as the back four pushed up quickly, but the system was far from perfect and caused its share of headaches over the years. Menotti was always quick to defend his tactics: "It's always better to push up and go at your opponents, so that you can recover the ball as far up the field as possible." As for tactical formations, the Argentine normally opted for four across the back and a holding midfielder. The other midfielders would have licence to push forward and be responsible for supplying the two or three front men.