Carlos Bianchi is undoubtedly one of the greatest South American coaches of all time. The Buenos Aires native enjoyed a successful playing career in Argentina and France, before taking up the job on the touchline, enjoying significant domestic successes with Vélez Sarsfield, but it was the job later that solidified his status as one of the greatest ever. A tactical genius and a man that added greatly to the beautiful game with his excellent style of football, Bianchi’s finest years came with Boca Juniors, who had a host of stars in the late 1990s and early 2000s and their manager made him one of the greatest club sides known to the sport.
His success with the club came at a time when they needed it most. Boca Juniors, a giant of history, were going through a melancholic phase on the trophy front in that period. Not since the late ‘70s had they been successful on the continental stage and their domestic run had been inconsistent, being usurped by local rivals, River Plate. Over a period of nearly two decades, one of Argentina’s most successful and prominent football clubs had hardly added to their trophy cabinet and there was as much pressure on their emerging stars as there was on Bianchi, whose record with Vélez Sarsfield was intensely chased by the Boca management to overturn their fortunes.
While La Bombonera saw their famous trophy rooms gather more dust than silverware and the fans eagerly craving more success, over at the Estadio Monumental, River Plate saw honours come at a constant under Ramón Díaz. For Bianchi and Boca Juniors, more than a matter of winning, it was a matter of pride as they aimed to put an end to the good period their city rivals and eternal enemies were enjoying. In a region where football is fiercely contested, the red-and-white side had the bragging rights, but with a change in management and an advent in talent, there was optimism that the good days would return to the blue-and-gold.
The phrase “the perfect blend of youth and experience” is very frequently used, but less-frequently put into full effect in terms of actual winnings on the pitch. But what Bianchi had at Boca Juniors upon his arrival is very close to that fading dialogue. With young players such as Juan Román Riquelme, Martín Palermo and Walter Samuel combined with the expertise of Guillermo Schelotto, Óscar Córdoba and Rodolfo Arruabarrena, the support was encouraged that if things didn’t change here, they would remain as strangers in their own city for an even longer period. This was their moment, and it was clear that they had all the tools to succeed.
Magic was what the Xeniezes wanted and magic was what they got. In the 1998-99 Argentine Primera División, Boca Juniors were dominant and quite literally unstoppable. Bianchi put on a show for the faithful, as his vibrant team ripped through the competition, first going unbeaten in the Apertura, then losing just once in the Clausura on their way to a well-deserved league title. Overall, a run of 26 wins out of 38 matches made them one of the most dominant champions in Argentine league history, as the blueprint for their success in the future was laid and Bianchi innovated one of the most attractive styles in world football.
The manager was keen on the 4-3-1-2, or a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield as he used the imperial talents of the great Riquelme to full effect by playing him just behind the two strikers. Having joined Boca two years prior, this was the season he truly adhered himself to the club’s fans as his majestic displays earned the admiration of the Buenos Aires club and made him La Bombonera’s favourite son. Creating chances at will for the two perennially goal-hungry forwards in the form of Palermo and Schelotto, this was the season where Boca re-struck fear into the minds of their opponents and got back to where they belong, with Riquelme having a vital role to play in it.
But while the attack took much of the plaudits, it was their defence that deserved just as much praise. With a back-line consisting of Hugo Ibarra, Walter Samuel, Jorge Bermúdez and Rodolfo Arruabarrena – they were consistent and unbreakable. Throughout their successful Apertura and Clausura campaigns, they conceded just 29 goals and that contributed heavily to their solid seasons. In a team of all-stars, this young, passionate back-line was at the heart of their success, as the best defence in the country would ensure they would end their season with just one defeat. The goalkeeper, Óscar Córdoba, another vital character was good too, but he was more useful in another scene.
With Boca Juniors now back to their best, back to the style they became so famous for and Bianchi well-settled in blue-and-gold, their attentions shifted to continental glory, as they sought after their first Copa Libertadores honour since the late ‘70s. After failing to qualify for the 1999 edition following their poor domestic finish, they entered the 2000 edition of the famous tournament as champions of Argentina and strong favourites to end their duck on the continental front. Paired with Uruguayan giants Peñarol, Bolivia’s Blooming and Chile’s Universidad Católica in the group, they had a tough start, but got into their groove soon.
Having started with a defeat in the high altitudes of Bolivia and drawing against Peñarol in Montevideo with a win against the Chilean side sandwiched in between, qualification to the second round was uncertain after three games played. But after the halfway point in the group stages, Boca Juniors and Bianchi brought the football that had charmed the entire of Argentina: relentless attacking and unbreakable defending to first smash Blooming by six goals to one, and then added successive 3-1 wins over Peñarol and Universidad Católica to end the group as winners, having scored 14 and conceded five in just six games. Their favourites tag had a lot more meaning now.
Here, it was Córdoba’s importance that was well-recognised. Several times, the Colombian goalkeeper came to his side’s rescue, making crucial saves in the group stages to help Boca preserve their advantages and progress. In the second round, however, he was given loads of trouble. Coming up against Ecuador’s El Nacional in the traditional two-legged affair, the first leg finished 0-0, leaving it all to do at the Bombonera. There, the front-line made light work of the Ecuadorians, as Riquelme and Schelotto were in fine form, but the late resurgence from the minnows meant that Boca were given a scare, but still came out 5-3 winners to qualify for the quarter-finals.
In the last eight, it was a clash against the enemy, as River Plate were drawn against Boca Juniors. A typically dramatic encounter when these two meet, the clash on the continental stage proved to be no less. Playing at home, River Plate drew first blood through Juan Pablo Ángel after goalkeeper Córdoba made a rare error. Just 15 minutes later, however, it was the evergreen entertainer Riquelme who had his say on the issue, equalising with a cleverly hit free-kick that wrong-footed the Gallinas’ goalkeeper, Roberto Bonano. Unfortunately for them, they had make the short trip home with the sour taste of defeat as Javier Saviola had the final say with the winner in the second-half.
Just a week later, all the pressure was on Boca to comeback, and coming up against a side that was just as talented, Bianchi had his work cut out. But the intense Bombonera atmosphere was here to give the home side an advantage – and it paid off, quite amazingly as well. In a tight encounter with River Plate unwilling to break, it took until the hour mark for Boca to find a way, with Marcelo Delgado’s goal levelling things up and initiating the possibility of extra-time. Following that, another moment of magic from Riquelme made space for substitute Sebastián Battaglia and the latter won a penalty, which Riquelme converted to give Boca the lead and advantage.
And to add further insult to injury, but more importantly, completely put River Plate’s hopes to the dirt, Martín Palermo scored a late goal. But just before that, the Riquelme show wasn’t over. Everyone in South America knew that he had a wand of a right foot, but with this one moment, the world took notice. With defender Mario Yepes staying close and marking him on the halfway line, he adjusted his body, took a touch to the left and then subtly flicked it through the legs of the Colombian to send the crowd wild with one of the filthiest and popular nutmegs ever. It was a moment to put a smile on a kid, and a moment that summed up what a magical tie this was for him.
The semi-final saw them paired with Mexico’s Club América, and this was a set of two mismatches. In the first leg, Boca Juniors comfortably dispatched their Central American opponents by four goals to one with their typical attacking prowess, giving them a simple task for when they visited Mexico. But in the Azteca, they perhaps let their foot off the gas a little too much: América raced to a 3-0 lead, meaning that extra-time was likely, but with just seven minutes left of the match, Walter Samuel, one of their most astute defenders, reversed roles and scored to give the Argentines the advantage meaning that although they lost the battle, success in the war went to Boca Juniors.
In the hope of ending a 22-year duck on the continental stage, Brazil’s Palmeiras, the defending champions, were the team to overcome. In the first-leg, knowing a win would give them a major advantage, Boca Juniors went on with their traditional attacking style. The left-back, Arrubarrena, who had become quite crucial in this run with his form in front of goal scored twice, but both times he was cancelled out by Palmeiras’ two forwards, Pena and Euller. The second leg was a lot cagier and ended goalless, meaning that the São Paulo crowd would have to see the winners being crowned by virtue of a penalty shootout.
With Palmeiras having the home advantage and the psychological benefit of a better recent history, it could be said that the Brazilians were the favourites in this tie. But in a round of luck, it was the goalkeeper, Óscar Córdoba, that left his mark. Boca scored all four of their penalties, while Córdoba saved two, first from countryman Faustino Asprilla and second from Roque Júnior meaning that for the first time in over two decades, South America’s biggest title was headed to the blue-and-yellow half of Buenos Aires. For his heroics, Córdoba was named as the best player of the tournament as Carlos Bianchi’s team won the prize that they craved for so long.
Martín Palermo is a name forever respected amongst Boca Juniors faithful. He was always lethal in front of goal and although he missed much of their successful Copa Libertadores campaign, his reputation amongst the Boca fans has always been intact. Famous for scoring in Superclásicos throughout his career, his record in other big games was impressive, and when his club needed him most, he would step up. Easily one of the best forwards in South America in the late ‘90s, his reputation was enhanced on the international scene when Boca Juniors were set to face off against Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup of 2000.
A tournament that was yesteryear’s version of the Club World Cup, the Intercontinental Cup pitted the champions of South America against the champions of Europe. Playing amidst a capacity crowd of over 52,000 fans in Tokyo’s National Stadium, it was here that Palermo’s attacking talents were put to good use. In just the third minute of the match, he opened the scoring with a pure striker’s finish, meeting a Marcelo Delgado cross from the left-flank after breaking free of his markers, Roberto Carlos and Aitor Karanka. The South Americans laid the first blow, and soon after, they would double their advantage.
Just three minutes later, Real Madrid were attacking hoping to draw level, but in an instant, they found themselves on the backfoot after Sebastián Battaglia tackled Raúl, passed it short to Juan Román Riquelme, who launched a stunning 40-yard forward pass to Palermo and the striker, taking advantage of the range on the pass and the bounce, hit it low and hard with a first-time short to beat Iker Casillas. Within six minutes, Boca were 2-0 up and Vicente del Bosque’s expensively assembled Blancos found themselves with an uphill battle. Shortly after, Roberto Carlos scored a stunning goal of his own, but the Argentines held on for the win and second Intercontinental Cup.
On a night that had a success for Real Madrid written all over it, Carlos Bianchi’s team stepped up once again. The National Stadium in Tokyo had the likes of Fernando Hierro, Steve McManaman and Luís Figo – the world’s most expensive player at the time – on the pitch, but it was a home-grown, battle-ready Martín Palermo that silenced them with two exquisitely-taken goals. The match caught the attention of the world and after beating the Spanish giants, he would make a move to Spain with Villarreal less than two months later, but that wouldn’t be his last big night with the Buenos Aires giants. There was more to be added to that story.
By now, it became clear that Carlos Bianchi’s speciality was the big international nights. In 2001, having paid little attention during the Argentine domestic season, Boca Juniors turned their attention once again to the Copa Libertadores. Entering the competition as defending champions and the holders of the Intercontinental Cup, they were the clear favourites. Just like the previous year, they were drawn with a Bolivian and Chilean side, this time in the form of Oriente Petrolero and Cobreloa respectively, while the fresh challenge came from Colombia, as Deportivo Cali were strong challengers for qualification to the next round.
Unlike the previous season, Boca were much more astute in their performances in the group stages, showing the confidence of champions as they won five and lost just one group game – a dead rubber tie in Colombia. The goals dried up a little following the departure of Martín Palermo – they scored about half the goals in this season’s group stage as they had in the last. Nevertheless, they were consistent and efficient and that’s what mattered. In the next round, they were drawn for another tie in Colombia, this time against Atlético Junior. Here once again, they were forced to work, coming off as 4-3 aggregate winners in the end.
The quarter-finals was where it really kicked-off. They were tied against Brazil’s Vasco da Gama, and this was where the true value of Guillermo Schelotto was recognised. In the away leg which came first, he scored the winner, being in the right place at the right time to finish the ball into an empty net following a goalmouth scramble as a result of a corner. A week later in the second leg, he was at his influential once again. Having taken the lead early on, he would add a second with a penalty that was well hit into the bottom left and just 10 minutes after that, he killed off the tie with a simple pass into the net, coming at the end of a good move.
Boca Juniors got to this point with relative ease, and in the semi-finals, they would endure a repeat of the previous year’s final: Palmeiras. And once again, it was Schelotto that came to the aid of his club in the first leg at La Bombonera. The Brazilians took the lead early in the first-half, but by the end of it, Boca Juniors were level after it through the forward, leaving the tie open for the second-half. And in similar circumstances to the first 45, Palmeiras took the lead early on, but were pegged back, this time by a penalty from Antonio Barijho. In an open clash, just like the final from the previous year, it all came down to the second leg in São Paulo.
But just before the all-important return fixture, a dispute amongst the side threatened to derail Boca’s hopes of defending their title. Disgruntled by unpaid bonuses for their successes earlier in the campaign in the Copa Libertadores as well as the Argentine domestic season, some of the players threatened to go on strike by not travelling to the neighbouring country for the second-leg. For the first time in his tenure, Bianchi seemed to have lost control of his dressing room, and this happened at arguably the worst time in the season for them: just when they were on the cusp of history.
Luckily for the manager and the fans, all quarrels were resolved, and they would make the trip to Brazil. Undoubtedly rattled by the erratic build-up, Boca showed none of it on the pitch, instead displaying just why they felt they deserved the bonuses. Within 20 minutes, they raced to a 2-0 lead, with goals from Walter Gaitán and Riquelme. However, if they thought they had serious leeway, they were wrong. Palmeiras pegged them back soon after, and to raise memories from the previous year, it all went down to penalties once again. There were several parallels from 2000, and to complete it all, the hero remained the same.
Óscar Córdoba settled the tie once again, saving two penalties to send Boca Juniors through to a second consecutive Copa Libertadores final. After a whirlwind 4-4 aggregate draw, the Colombian goalkeeper powered the Argentines to a 3-2 shootout win and they would face Cruz Azul, who became the first Mexican side to reach the final of South America’s biggest club cup competition which was history in itself. Inspired by their journey up until this point, they were keen to go out and add to it but coming up against the defending champions who conquered the world just a few months prior, they knew they had their work cut out.
In the first leg in the mammoth Azteca Stadium in Mexico, the clash was tight, with no side looking to give the other an advantage, as expected in a major continental final. Even an attacking force such as that available to Carlos Bianchi couldn’t break down a resolute, resilient back-line that La Maquina had, but that pliability was taken apart right at the death. Coming in from the right side, Marcelo Delgado received a pass and with the Cruz Azul defence all over the place and disorganised for once, he had space to shoot and he hit it hard into the bottom right. Boca went back to Buenos Aires with a huge advantage and had one hand on the trophy.
But the Mexicans weren’t afraid; they had no reason to be having had a treacherous journey to get here. In the Argentine capital, they were excellent, taking the lead just before the end of the first-half following a corner. Once again, it was penalties and just as you would imagine, with the home advantage and the confident Córdoba on their side, Boca Juniors felt they could do it all over again. Unlike the last two times where they were aided mostly by the goalkeeper’s intuition, this time, they had their fair share of luck. After two perfect penalties from Boca Juniors, the intensity really kicked-off.
With the pressure on Cruz Azul, it was Chilean Pablo Galdames that stepped up, and well-struck penalty to the goalkeeper’s left was incredibly saved. The advantage went to the hosts. Then came Marcelo Delgado, who smashed his shot into the net: the title was now in touching distance. And after that, two successive Cruz Azul penalties hit the crossbar, and even a miss in the middle from Jorge Bermúdez didn’t matter as Boca Juniors were champions of South America for a second consecutive year, repeating their feat from the late ‘70s. Carlos Bianchi and this crop of players were now etched in the history books forever.
Despite the club retaining the Copa Libertadores, they were unable to do the same with the Intercontinental Cup, losing by a solitary goal to European champions Bayern Munich. And soon after, the stars started to go apart. First it was coach Carlos Bianchi and then star man Juan Román Riquelme, who was off to Barcelona having established himself as one of the world’s finest playmakers. Bianchi’s replacement, Óscar Tabárez couldn’t repeat the successes of his predecessor, losing in the early stages on all fronts and he lasted just one year. With a drastic downfall, a homecoming was on the cards and just a year after leaving, Bianchi was back in the dugout.
The core of the 2001 team stayed behind, but a significant change had to be made in goal as Óscar Córdoba left for Italy. This meant that second-choice Roberto Abbondanzieri was allowed to integrate himself into the first team, while a certain Carlos Tevez was coming through the ranks and had a greater role in Bianchi’s first team plans that season. The manager’s blueprint still stuck: he seemed more interested in succeeding on the continental scene than the domestic one and in 2003, he did just that. After a year of dire football under Tabárez, the magic was back with Bianchi.
The attacking duo of Tevez and Marcelo Delgado was proving to be a handful that season. In a tough group in the Copa Libertadores, they qualified as runners-up, having won just thrice, but the attacking pair were quite something. On the most important nights, they stepped up and linked well together to strike fear into the opposition. The more experienced Delgado was an opportunist, a predator hunting for chances and finishing them of lethally, while the emerging Tevez was making strides in his young career with his work-rate and movement, putting his team ahead of himself and getting desired results.
Having qualified with difficulty, Boca were drawn against Brazilian side Paysandu in the second round. In the first leg, at La Bombonera, Paysandu pulled-off a shock result. Boca’s home had become their fortress under Bianchi and it was a major surprise to see any side win there, so when Paysandu struck gold, shockwaves had reverberated around South America and the club were ridiculed at every opportunity. The jokes didn’t last long, however. In the second leg, they came out all guns blazing and responded with a 4-2 success – Guillermo Schelotto bagged a hat-trick and Delgado added one to put the tie out of reach. The last eight beckoned.
Then came a familiar rival: Cobreloa, who came around in Boca’s last Libertadores success. Just like the last time, the Chileans were dispatched with ease. Schelotto was in fine form again, scoring a double in the away leg and at home, it was Tevez and Matías Donnet that did the trick. If the group stages were inconsistent, the knockout rounds were the exact opposite. This was the Boca Juniors that had become famous to the world and they didn’t stop there. The last two rounds were just a prelude for what was to come and as the tournament progressed, Bianchi’s troops only got better and better.
América de Cali were smashed 6-0 on aggregate, once again it was the workhorse, Carlos Tevez who was getting the goods, scoring half the goals in that tie as Boca went to the final with ease where an old rival, Santos, awaited in a repeat of the 1963 final. In the first leg at home, it was the Marcelo Delgado show as his double prompted a comfortable 2-0 win. His first goal came from a short corner as he played a give-and-go from the flag, went to the edge of the area and slammed it low and hard, past the reach of the goalkeeper. The next came from a long-range free-kick as an attempted cross was met by no one and sneaked into the net. One hand on the title, once again.
And the second leg was the turn of his partner. Tevez and Sebastián Battaglia smartly combined to rip the Santos defence to shreds before the latter coolly finished it into the net to put the tie to bed. Although a fightback was attempted, and the Brazilians drew level on the night, Delgado then put the finishing touches. With Santos all focused on attack, their defence was left exposed and the forward was clear on goal, finishing past an onrushing goalkeeper from long-range. And just minutes later, defender Rodrigo Schiavi ended all hope with a late penalty. Boca Juniors were South American champions once again.
This was a historic period for the famous club and their success wouldn’t end there. They would add another Intercontinental Cup, beating AC Milan on penalties in Yokohama, Japan, and this was just a confirmation that they were one of the best club sides in football at the time. When Carlos Bianchi took over, he had an ailing club with the resources but no success, but within half-a-decade, he built a side capable of beating the best. Three Copa Libertadores honours made him one of South America’s greatest coaches and he’s undoubtedly Boca Juniors’ best-ever manager, for his success and legacy has been unprecedented.