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Stabile's Copa America domination

Argentina host this year's Copa America tournament, but it has been 18 long years since they got their hands on the title. Rivals Brazil have the chance to claim the trophy for the third time in succession, but Argentina were the first-team to do so, when they brought it home three times in the mid-40s under the management of Guillermo Stabile.

The beginnings of the Copa America were humble. Initially dubbed the "Campeonato Sudamericano de Selecciones'' (the South American Championship of Nations), the competition was created by Argentina in 1910 with a three-nation tournament involving Chile and Uruguay to commemorate the 100th year since the May Revolution, considered the starting point of the Argentine War of Independence.

However, in the middle of World War I, ten CONMEBOL nations took part in what is considered the inaugural tournament in 1916, seemingly a world away from the conflict in Europe. The fact that the competition was born in Argentina makes it all the more important to the country and it is no surprise that they have been the most successful team in the tournament to date - winning 111 of their 173 games thus far, with a goal difference of +265.

The majority of Argentina's successes came in the competition's early years. With the two World Wars temporarily destroying European football, Latin America took over and became unquestionably the best in the world until the 1950s. Argentina, in particular, enjoyed a rapid rise that was made all the more easy by the fact they had been playing international football for 30 years.

A formation of their first professional league in 1931 set the foundations for their domestic game, although they had to play second fiddle to Uruguay in both the 1928 Olympic final and the first World Cup in 1930. But, against a backdrop of political and economic uncertainty, Argentina continued to thrive and as historian David Goldblatt puts it: ''In South America, Argentina were supreme. While Europe and the Pacific burned, Argentina was winning the Copa America.''

As the format of the competition was changed to be played every two years after WWII, Argentina hosted and won in 1937, before travelling to Chile in 1941 to claim more success. The latter had been the first trophy in the management career of former Argentine international striker Guillermo Stabile, who had been appointed two years previous, after a spell with Red Star Paris.

As a player, Stabile enjoyed success with Huracan, Genoa and Napoli, but it is his exploits in the 1930 World Cup that made history. Playing in only four games, Stabile hit a hat-trick in his first game against Mexico, before braces against Chile and the USA and a goal in a losing cause against Uruguay in the final saw him leave the competition with eight goals. Boasting one of the greatest strike rates (two goals per game) in the history of the World Cup, it was his last bow in international football but his real impact would come from the dugout.

Key to Stabile's success in these years was the presence of players from River Plate's La Máquina ('The Machine') team, who dominated the domestic game at the start of the 1940s: Juan Carlos Munoz, Jose Manuel Moreno, Adolfo Pedenera, Felix Loustau and Angel Labruna in particular.

The nickname had been given to River by Borocoto, an Argentine sports journalist working for El Gráfico, after River Plate defeated Chacarita Juniors 6-2 in June 1942; the team's style of play can only be described as unreservedly attacking. Indeed, Goldblatt maintains the side ''kept possession and could slow the tempo of the game until a chink of light, a hint of a chance, offered up by the opportunity of some remarkable feint, shot or dash,'' while the tricky Munoz extolled the virtues of training by dancing the tango to ''maintain a rhythm and then stride forward.''

Munoz, an ''incorrigible bohemian'', helped Argentina to the title in Chile in 1945 alongside Loustau, as the hosts narrowly missed out on equalling the Albiceleste's points tally after losing 1-0 to Brazil in the final game.

While Argentina's political horizons were undergoing a change with the election of Colonel Juan Domingo Peron, the country's football team continued their success on home soil in 1946 in an 'extra' edition of the tournament. The disruption did not affect Stabile's men as River's Pedenera was voted the best player of the competition for his impact - despite netting just two goals - and the country's domestic top scorer, Pedenera's team-mate Labruna, finished with five in their five unbeaten games.

The following year, Argentina would create history by collecting their third Copa America in three years. It was also the year that saw a young Alfredo Di Stefano arrive on the scene in Guayaquil, Ecuador, although it is indicative of Argentina's wealth of talent that he struggled to make it into the starting line-up. Instead, Moreno - who had scored five goals in the 12-0 win over Ecuador in 1942 that remains a record score to this day - returned to the fold to be voted the tournament's best player.

Argentina won six of their seven games and scored 28 goals, conceding just four on their way to glory, but while Loustau would feature in all three triumphs alongside strike duo Rene Alejandro Pontoni (San Lorenzo) and Mario Boye (Boca Juniors), there was one player who was also involved in the treble whose roots did not begin in La Máquina and who was arguably more important than any of the Rivers stars: Huracan's Norberto 'Tucho' Mendez.

Mendez's record of 17 goals in his three Copa America tournaments is unmatched by any other player (as Brazil's Zizinho appeared in six editions between 1942 and 1957). His unforgettable hat-trick - that included a stunning 35 yard goal - against Brazil in 1945 is a performance that has gone down in history and it helped him to become an idol in his home country, with songs written about him.

The humble forward was once quoted as saying: "If we turn back the clock, I would do the same. I did everything I could. I was happy," while he always maintained he had three great loves in his life: "Huracan fue mi novia. Racing, mi mujer y la Selección mi amante" [Huracan was my girlfriend. Racing, my wife and my lover La Selection.]

Such was the inside right's importance to the Argentine side in their record-breaking run that in 1947, Stabile - who was then simultaneously managing Racing Club - said: "If we want to be champions, we need Tucho Mendez". With Mendez playing a starring role in the side, Racing became the first team in Argentine professional football to win the league three times in a row in 1949, 1950 and 1951.

What happened next? Mendez never made the same impact at international level again, but (after two withdrawals in 1949 and 1953) Stabile took Argentina to two more Copa America titles in 1955 and 1957, making it a personal tally of six in a 20-year spell with the national side. His failure to impress upon the World Cup ultimately cost him his job in 1958, after Argentina were hammered 6-1 by Czechoslovakia, but he returned for a brief spell in 1960 before retiring and taking up a directorial position until his death six years later. Since Stabile's reign Argentina have only won the Copa America three times - in 1959, 1991 and 1993.


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