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Dec 16, 2010

Estudiantes leave their mark

On Saturday, Italy's Inter will play in the final of the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi. While the tournament may currently be seen as a diversionary exhibition for FIFA, its predecessor, the Intercontinental Cup, achieved a level of notoriety in the 1960s, particularly following an infamous game between Milan and Estudiantes in 1969 that resulted in broken bones, red cards and mass arrests. It was a battle that established the Argentinean club's formidable reputation for anti-futbol, and damaged the competition's integrity.

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The history of the Intercontinental Cup in the 1960s is a troubled one. Violence marred clashes between the champions of Europe and South America in 1967, as Celtic battled Racing Club, and 1968, when Estudiantes fought out a bad-tempered fixture against Manchester United. But it was the following year that brutality, intimidation and outright warfare reached a violent crescendo. It was, as the Guardian reported, "the culmination of all that is evil in international club soccer."

In order to contextualise the events of 1969, we must first look at how aggression brewed in the previous two instalments of the now defunct competition. Firstly, in a play-off in Montevideo following a 2-2 aggregate draw over two legs, Celtic were drawn into a rancorous encounter against Racing Club of Argentina. Armed police entered the field of play, six players were dismissed, the last of which, Bertie Auld, refused to leave the pitch, while Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson was also knocked out by a missile. "I would like to come back here for another go," said leader of the Lisbon Lions, Jock Stein, and though Celtic would not return to the competition, British-Argentinean hostilities resumed the following season.

In 1968, Manchester United - champions of Europe following their victory over Benfica at Wembley, ten years on from the Munich Disaster that cut the Busby Babes down in their prime - would face the notorious Estudiantes. Coached by Osvaldo Zubeldia, and boasting future World Cup-winning coach Carlos Bilardo and Juan Sebastian Veron's father, Juan Ramon Veron, amongst their playing staff, the Argentinean side cultivated a reputation for uncompromising play as they enjoyed sustained domestic and continental success, winning the Copa Libertadores on three occasions. Their tie against United would degenerate into a predictably ill-tempered affair.

After the first leg - a 1-0 win for the South Americans - The Guardian's match report carried the headline: "Estudiantes' way to success: intimidate and destroy". The second leg, which saw George Best and Luis Medina red carded for fighting and Denis Law require four stitches for a gash on his leg, was described as a "disgusting spectacle of butting, spitting and cold, brutal, cynical fouls". But the orgy of violence instigated by Estudiantes proved pragmatic as they took the title.

United manager Matt Busby insisted that "the Argentineans should be banned from all competitive football. FIFA should really step in" - and the club did pull out of a subsequent tour to England to play Birmingham and Arsenal, ostensibly following instructions from influential figures in Argentina - but Estudiantes instead returned to defend their title the following year and, with grim predictability, subscribed to a similarly cynical methodology.

Their opponents in October 1969 would be the Milan side coached by Nereo Rocco, one of the founding fathers of catenaccio, and boasting as its star player Gianni Rivera, a playmaker nicknamed 'Ragazzo d'Oro' ('Golden Boy') thanks to the alchemy he weaved in the Rossoneri side. After a 3-0 win for Milan in the first leg in Italy though, golden skills were met with leaden brutality in the return fixture.

Battle was begun even before kick-off, as Estudiantes booted balls at the Milan team as they warmed up and hot coffee was poured on the Italians as they emerged from the tunnel - a variation on the medieval theme of boiling oil from a castle rampart from a team that seemed determined to drag football firmly back into the dark ages. When what could loosely be described as a 'game' did kick off, it was said the Chilean referee habitually turned a blind eye to early indiscretions, while Milan players claimed one opponent even jabbed them with a needle. As Giovanni Lodetti said: "When you had the ball, someone would arrive and hit you."

Milan striker Pierino Prati was the first serious victim of Estudiantes when he was knocked unconscious, though despite suffering from mild concussion and amnesia he continued for a further 20 minutes. Estudiantes goalkeeper Alberto Poletti also punched Rivera, but the most vicious treatment was reserved for Nestor Combin - an Argentinean-born striker, who had faced accusations of being a traitor as he was on the opposite side of the continental divide. Combin was kicked in the face by Poletti and later saw his nose and cheekbone broken by the elbow of Ramon Aguirre Sanchez.

Bloodied and broken, Combin was asked to return to the pitch by referee Rocco but fainted, and was carried away on a stretcher. It was, quite unbelievably, while lying prone on tarpaulin that Combin was arrested by Argentine police on a charge of draft dodging, having not undertaken military service in the country. The player was forced to spend a night in the cells, eventually being released after explaining he had fulfilled national service requirements as a French citizen.

Estudiantes won the game 2-1 after responding to an opening goal from Rivera, meaning that Milan took the title 4-3 on aggregate. However, the result was rendered almost immaterial as intense recriminations soon followed. It was less a game, more, as Gazzetta dello Sport put it, "Ninety minutes of a man-hunt". The Argentinean press did not attempt to gloss over the outrages committed, with one paper splashing with "The English were right" - a reference to Alf Ramsey's famous description of the Argentina national side as "animals" during the 1966 World Cup.

Assailed from both internal and external media, and bruised by criticism from an increasingly disaffected public, the Argentinean Football Association (AFA) took stern action. In fact, the punishments meted out were unprecedented, and no doubt inspired by the intervention of Argentina's President, military dictator Juan Carlos Ongania, who after summoning Estudiantes delegate Oscar Ferrari demanded "the severest appropriate measures in defence of the good name of the national sport. [It was a] lamentable spectacle which breached most norms of sporting ethics". The AFA read between the lines and responded accordingly.

Goalkeeper Poletti - who, as well as kicking Combin, had clashed with spectators - was given a life ban, Suarez was suspended for 30 games and from internationals for five years and Eduardo Manero was banned for 20 games and from internationals for three years. All three guilty parties were arrested, with Poletti and Manera condemned to 30-day jail terms. It was rumoured that a hard-line approach had been taken to enhance Argentina's hopes of winning the right to host the 1978 World Cup, which they duly did. Retribution, for whatever reason, had been swift, public outrage sated, but resentment lingered in the Milan camp. As Lodetti explained, when the Milan players boarded their plane to fly home: "We all made the gesture of the umbrella ['up yours'] towards Argentina". Meanwhile, by sticking two fingers up to football themselves with their brutal approach, Estudiantes had firmly ensured a place in the pantheon of the game's most reviled teams.

What happened next? The reputation of the Intercontinental Cup was damaged so severely that subsequent European Cup holders often refused to take part, including Liverpool in 1977 and 1978 and Nottingham Forest in 1979. Estudiantes returned to the final the following season after winning the Copa Libertadores once again, but were defeated by Feyenoord and would not return to the pinnacle of the South American game until 2009 when, complete with Juan Sebastian Veron in midfield, they lost to Barcelona in the final of the Club World Cup.

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