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REY DE COPAS: REMEMBERING INDEPENDIENTE’S COPA LIBERTADORES GLORIES IN THE 1960S AND ’70S

Looking back at Independiente's famous Copa Libertadores runs in the 1960s and '70s that made them the competition's most successful outfit.

When you think of domestic football in Argentina, you think of the mystique of Boca Juniors and River Plate. The two have dominated the scene in the South American nation, and it comes as no surprise that they’re the first names that come to mind. From the glory and violence of the Superclásico to the legendary names that have represented them over the years, this is undeniably Argentina’s greatest football tale.

They’re divided in every sense of the word, but when it comes to one record, it could be said that they are united in envy. This envy comes as a result of the two flailing behind on the continent’s greatest stage.

Despite having won 10 Copa Libertadores titles between them, including the most recent one where they controversially squared off against each other, they still lack behind one club when compared individually. That club is, of course, Independiente, whose seven Copa Libertadores honours eclipses every other side in South America.

From those seven titles, six came in an incredibly successful period during the mid-sixties and early-seventies that saw them form some of the most storied teams in the history of the sport as a pinch of revolutionary tactical tweaks, instinctive players and studious managers made this a trophy-laden period for the club from Avellaneda.

This story, however, is split into two parts. The first looks at a period where Independiente would end a massive trophy-drought and establish themselves as one of the sport’s elite. The second looks at the time Independiente used the success of their recent past to drive them for the future and form a period of sustained glory that would see them etch their names in the history books for eternity.

Overall, this is a tale of many great characters that played a vital role in the most dominant period for a South American football club.

1964-67: LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS

The 1950s was an uncertain period for Los Diablos Rojo. The club did not win any titles, having last won the league in 1948. This was the first decade to not see the club claim silverware of some sort. It could be said, though, that they were laying the foundations to improve.

The club would embark on a tour of Europe, facing both Real and Atlético Madrid while also going over to Lisbon and squaring off against Sporting CP and Benfica. This experience certainly helped boost the team, as they sowed the seeds for a gleaming future.

The phrase “laying the foundations” is crucial here. Not only was this a period where the club were building themselves for the future, but they were also aiming to inspire the whole of the Avellaneda region, establishing themselves as the outright leader in Buenos Aires.

In 1960, with some difficulty, they ended their league drought by pipping River Plate to the title in a closely-fought title race. This granted them entry into the next season’s Copa Libertadores, but that run was halted shortly. Brazil’s Palmeiras toppled them in the first round, and it was clear that the Argentine champions needed more tuning.

THE EARLY 1960S LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR FUTURE GLORY

Several changes were needed to establish a more consistent period of dominance and progress on the continental stage, and the first of those came in 1963. This was when coach Armando Renganeschi was replaced by former Huracán and River Plate midfielder Manuel Giúdice.

The change was inspiring as Independiente’s football was entirely revitalized, bringing in more strength in defence and sting with their speed in attack. They retained much of the team that won the championship in 1960 including defenders Jorge Maldano and Roberto Ferreiro but added a bit of firepower with the integration of the likes of Osvaldo Mura and Mario Rodríguez in the attack.

The Primera División success in 1963 granted them participation for the following year’s Copa Libertadores, and from there, they didn’t look back. Prior to the start of the Copa Libertadores, Independiente arranged a friendly against the Pelé-centred Santos.

With many expecting the Brazilian club, who had dominated the local and continental scene, to win, this was seen as a mere test against a higher-level opposition for Independiente. However, the team’s eccentric style shocked many, as they ran out 5-1 winners, leaving their famed opposition bewildered and establishing themselves as favourites to claim continental glory.

With an altered format to that year’s competition, Independiente were placed in a group with Colombia’s Millonarios and Peru’s Alianza Lima in the first round. They went through the group phase with ease, winning three of their four matches, scoring 11, including a 4-0 thrashing of Alianza Lima and a 5-1 hammering of Millonarios – both at home – and finishing as group winners to progress to the second round.

This set up a two-legged tie against Santos, the side they comprehensively beat just a few months prior to the commencement of the continental event.

For this clash, Santos missed the great Pelé, but there was enough cause for optimism for the Brazilians, as they had never lost to a foreign side on home soil. That advantage paid off, but not for long. The home side rushed to a 2-0 lead early in the game but were pegged back and ended up losing.

Such was the excellence of this Independiente team that they overcame this wonderful Santos side, and their desire got them the right reward. Mario Rodríguez, Raúl Bernao, and Luis Suárez would score to overturn the advantage and give them the upper hand in the second leg. At home, they were just as clinical, as a 2-1 win would set-up a two-legged final against Uruguay’s Nacional.

Having dispatched the overwhelming favourites, the team from Avellaneda were now strongly tipped to win their first Copa Libertadores, but Nacional were no pushovers. Their home record was unprecedented, having comprehensively beaten all the teams that visited their famous Estadio Centenario that season, and seeing as the first leg of the final was in Montevideo, Independiente had a huge task on their hands.

Unwilling to concede, the clash in the Uruguayan capital was largely dominated by one man: Miguel Ángel Santoro – the Independiente goalkeeper who would put in an inspirational shift to aid the match in finishing goalless.

It was at home that El Rojo would take advantage. Mario Rodríguez, who would end the campaign as the top goalscorer of that season’s Copa Libertadores, struck just after the half-hour mark as 80,000 witnessed Independiente win South America’s most prestigious club cup competition. Undefeated throughout the tournament, the club made history and also became the first Argentine club to win the famous competition.

VICTORY IN THE 1964 COPA LIBERTADORES BROUGHT INDEPENDIENTE THEIR FIRST CONTINENTAL SUCCESS

The campaign was also well-renowned for coach Giúdice’s tactical innovation. He would deploy a 2-3-2-3 formation, with Roberto Ferreiro and David Acevedo covering the flanks, while the front five of Osvaldo Mura, Bernao, Suárez, Rodríguez and Raúl Savoy created a fiery attacking setup.

Victory on the continental scene granted Independiente the opportunity to take part in the Intercontinental Cup in 1964, where they would square off against European champions, Inter Milan. Unfortunately, they couldn’t repeat their feats here. Having won their first-leg at home and lost the second-leg in Italy, a loss at the neutral venue – the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid – would mean that global glory would be a tad bit too far.

And while their efforts were mainly aimed at the grander scale, it would see Boca Juniors take advantage and win the league in 1964. Nevertheless, the Copa Libertadores success was big enough to keep the team motivated and hungry for more.

They entered the next edition of the Copa Libertadores at the semi-final stage – the added bonus of being the defending champions. It was here that they would get the change to avenge a domestic vendetta, as they were paired against Boca Juniors – who had reached this point in impressive fashion – for a place in the final. Other than that, Santos and Peñarol, who were running riot in Brazil and Uruguay respectively, as well as chasing continental glory with just as much vigour, were squaring off in the other semi-final.

Against Boca Juniors, they were given a stern challenge. The Xeneizes had the simple aim of translating their domestic dominance into success on the bigger stage, and with a slice of luck, were able to take the tie to their Argentine rivals. Having lost the first leg to Independiente in Avellaneda by two goals to nil, a 1-0 victory in Buenos Aires, in a tie where aggregate scores weren’t taken into consideration, meant that a play-off match would have to be contested to determine an outright winner.

That play-off was a rather dire affair, with neither side looking to give in. It finished 0-0 after 120 minutes of combative, conservative football, meaning that Independiente, based on better goal-difference according to the previous two clashes, would have the opportunity to defend their elusive title. They would face Peñarol in the final, who required a play-off themselves to get to the ultimate tie. Their two games against Santos amazingly finished 7-7, and it would take a 2-1 play-off success to ensure their path to the final.

For Independiente, Raúl Bernao would prove to be crucial in this 1965 run. Nicknamed as “Poeta de la Derecha” [poet of the right], he would look up to the fiery Brazilian winger, Garrincha, for inspiration. In this successful period for the club, he would be an ever-present feature in the side, with his speed and versatility to play across various positions down the right side and cover various roles making him hard to ignore. In the final of that year’s Copa Libertadores, he would prove his importance.

In the first leg in Argentina, he would score the winner late in the game to give his side a 1-0 advantage to take to Montevideo. However, the plan of defending their lead went up in the air in Uruguay, as this incredible Peñarol team would display their excellence in a 3-1 victory, meaning that another play-off would be required to settle the tie. This match would be held in Santiago, Chile. Fittingly, just three years prior, many of Garrincha’s great performances took place in this country at the 1962 World Cup and more specifically, in the Estadio Nacional, where the match was being held. The stage was set for Bernao.

The winger was inspirational again, proving to be a menace down the right side as Independiente speed and fearlessness was too much to handle for Peñarol. He would feature on the scoresheet and be supported by Roque Avallay, Osvaldo Mura and a Carlos Pérez own goal in a 4-1 win. With the spirit of Garrincha in mind and the unerring desire to win, Independiente would defend their Copa Libertadores, becoming just the third team to do so after Santos and the team they defeated on the night, Peñarol, thus, etching their names in South American greatness.

With the win over Peñarol, Independiente were granted the chance to overturn their failures against Inter Milan, who, just like El Diablo Rojo, had defended their continental honour. However, just like the previous year, the Intercontinental Cup would prove to be a step too far. The Nerazzurri would steamroll their Argentine counterparts by three goals to nil at the San Siro, and a goalless draw in Avellaneda would be enough for Helenio Herrera’s men to add another international trophy to their gleaming cabinet.

There was further frustration in the league as well. Seeing as the club had put in all their efforts in bringing the Intercontinental Cup home, their league form was greatly affected. They would finish a lowly 13th that season. In the next year, they failed to win a third-successive Copa Libertadores title, falling slightly short in the semi-final stage, as local rivals River Plate went through. And it wasn’t until a year after that when their league form would truly pick up.

IN 1965, INDEPENDIENTE FAMOUSLY DEFENDED THEIR COPA LIBERTADORES TITLE

Now split into the Campeonato Metropolitano and the Campeonato Nacional as a way to allow lesser clubs to participate amongst the better Argentine sides, Independiente would be a dominant force in both competitions. Without the distraction of international football and with a new manager who went by the name of Osvaldo Brandão, a Brazilian who had made his name with Palmeiras and Corinthians, this was a rejuvenated team. They would pick up massive victories against some of Argentina’s best, winning the Nacional, scoring a mammoth 43 goals in 15 games and losing just once.

Their most impressive display that season came against their fiercest rivals and world champions Racing Club, who they beat 4-0 at home. Their record that season was historic and wouldn’t be repeated again, thus solidifying their status as one of Argentina’s greatest-ever teams. That would, however, be the last success they would see for a while, and the club would require changes of great magnitude to reach that level once again.

1971-75: SUSTAINING DOMINANCE

Estudiantes dominated the scene in Argentina and South America towards the end of the 1960s, but the Independiente revival wasn’t far away. This would be an era of sustained dominance, a period that is still strongly significant to this day – one that made Independiente the historical giant that it is. Several of the players that were part of the success in the mid-‘60s stuck into the next decade, and their role was crucial.

Now under the guidance of Pedro Dellacha, a man that had made much of his name with the cross-town enemy, Racing Club, but was well-revered around Argentina for his exploits with the national team, with whom he lifted the Copa América on two occasions, the club knew they were hiring a winner.

In his first year in charge, he proved his worth to El Diablo Rojo, winning the Primera División, dominating the Metropolitano and Nacional and granting the club the opportunity to return to the Copa Libertadores.

After several years where they failed to make a mark in South America’s biggest competition, winning the 1972 edition was their priority and they were inspired by victories of the past. Several players that won consecutive Copa Libertadores honours in the ‘60s stayed on for this phase under Dellacha, but the fresh blood that did join in were just as talented and just as hungry.

Once such player was Eduardo Maglioni, an explosive forward who once held the record of scoring the fastest hat-trick in the history of the sport (his three goals against Gimnasia in 1973 were scored in a minute and 51 seconds). Maglioni was crucial to this team. In Dellacha’s 4-3-3, his link-up with wingers Daniel Bertoni and Agustín Balbuena was key, and he would show up when his team needed him most. That year’s Copa Libertadores was his stage, and he would perform with the utmost class.

RICARDO BOCHINI WOULD GO ON TO BECOME ONE OF THE CLUB’S GREATEST PLAYERS

Now a competition with more participants, Independiente were put in a group with Rosario Central, a team from their native Argentina and two teams from Colombia: Santa Fe and Atlético Nacional. After starting slowly with two draws, they would pick up form in alarming fashion, going on to win the group with four wins in their final four group games. The most impressive was their 4-2 thrashing of Sante Fe, where they were rampant in front of goal.

Dellacha’s teams often overloaded the wide areas, creating various scoring opportunities from the flanks through crosses and overlapping runs. And with experience in the back, especially through goalkeeper Miguel Ángel Santoro, who was part of the teams that won the tournament several years prior, they looked steady on all fronts. However, several times, they were also believed to be too physical, relying on brutality. Despite that, the team had quality, and it would be unfair to reduce their future success to unfair methods.

Their next challenge was to get past São Paulo and Ecuador’s Barcelona. Played under strict conditions, Independiente would show their quality once again by topping the three-team group. They also got slightly lucky, as the other two teams failed to capitalize on the few shortcomings for the team from Avellaneda, meaning that despite putting on a challenge, they could not prevent the Argentines from going for their third South American honour.

In the final, it would be Peru’s Universitario that would stand in the way of a third Copa Libertadores title. Peruvians had dominated that edition of the famous tournament. The two clubs from the country that were participating, Universitario and their rivals, Alianza Lima, had been in free-scoring form and saw three players from both clubs finish as that edition’s top scorers: Oswaldo Ramírez and Percy Rojas from Universitario and the great Teófilo Cubillas of Alianza Lima – the latter even failed to get past the group stages.

It was a testament to the excellence of the country’s growing football reputation that they were so impressive in the continent’s most prominent competition. With that in mind, Universitario put on a strong challenge for the title. In the first-leg in Peru, they held Independiente to a 0-0 draw – a fair result, considering they were coming up against an attack that was relentless in the competition thus far.

In the second-leg, however, it was the intuitiveness of Eduardo Maglioni that put them down. His brace by the hour mark gave them a huge mountain to climb, and even though the Peruvians got a goal late on to mount a fight, it would end up proving to be mere consolation. Independiente had won their third Copa Libertadores in eight years – putting them amongst the very best in the region.

THE 1972 COPA LIBERTADORES WIN STARTED ANOTHER PERIOD OF GLORY

That success in South America wasn’t enough – the club wanted more, and they wanted glory on the global stage, something that had eluded them twice prior. First, they established themselves in the fresh Inter-American Cup, which pitted the champions of both Americas, north and south. The team faced Olimpia from Honduras, winning with relative comfort by four goals to one on aggregate and establishing themselves as the faces of football on that side of the world.

The bigger priority, though, was the Intercontinental Cup, something Inter Milan had denied. In 1972, however, it was the legendary Ajax featuring Johan Cruyff, Ruud Krol, and Johan Neeskens, amongst others and led by Ștefan Kovács.

Independiente, as fantastic as they were as a team, were no match for Ajax. Over two legs, the team from Amsterdam proved why they would be regarded as one of football’s finest teams. After drawing the first-leg in Argentina 1-1, the Dutch were unstoppable in the second-leg as Neeskens’ goal and Johnny Rep’s brace shut out the Independiente challenge. The wait for the prestigious Intercontinental Cup would go on, but there would be many more chances to come.

After a poor league performance that was once again in part due to their exploits in the Intercontinental Cup, Independiente would challenge for the 1973 edition of the Copa Libertadores from the semi-final stage. Despite the advantage, there were several obstacles along the way, one of which was internal. Pedro Dellacha had departed the club and left the reins to Humberto Maschio, while the team was still underperforming significantly.

With all their attention focused on the Copa Libertadores, the team was a far cry on the continental stage from the one that frequently struggled on the domestic scene. In their group, they easily dispatched San Lorenzo and Millonarios to make it through to yet another two-legged final against Chile’s Colo-Colo.

Once again, a nervy and rather drab affair, Independiente would win, but it took two draws followed by a play-off success in Uruguay to get them to this point. With the fourth win within a decade, they were now the tournament’s most successful team outright, earning a piece of history that would help them for generations to follow.

Independiente’s frequent glories coincided with the arrival and rise of one Ricardo Bochini. The number 10 was a magician on the ball and would become one of the greatest players in Argentine league history. Such was his quality as a footballer that cries of “Pasar a Bochini” [pass to Bochini] were fervent and synonymous around La Doble Visera. So, when the time came for Independiente’s most important success, it’s no surprise that he was imperative to it.

In 1973, Independiente finally got what they had craved for about a decade. That year, Ajax, once again the champions of Europe, refused to participate in the Intercontinental Cup and it would be Juventus, the runners-up of the European Cup that year, who would take on the Argentines.

In a one-legged affair in Rome and under a chorus of jeers for the travelling outfit, a late Bochini goal sealed the win and the long-awaited Intercontinental Cup. Granted, they weren’t playing the actual best team in Europe, this was still a mammoth result for the club, and their supremacy on the day made this a deserved success.

What made this even more interesting was that it came under the management of Roberto Ferreira – their former player who was part of the Copa Libertadores wins in the 1960s. He may have ended his career elsewhere in Buenos Aires, but he always had a place in the hearts of Independiente faithful for his longevity with the club.

INDEPENDIENTE BEAT JUVENTUS TO WIN THEIR FIRST INTERCONTINENTAL CUP IN 1973

Following this, the next year was almost a carbon copy of the previous. They struggled to make a mark domestically once again, entered the Copa Libertadores at the penultimate stage, were unbeaten in their group – getting past Peñarol and Huracán – and had São Paulo to contest with in the final. Just like the last year, this too went to a play-off, but it was far tenser than the goalless affairs of the year prior.

With the spirit of champions, they swept aside their first-leg defeat and beat the Brazilians twice in succession. The victory in Argentina was impressive, with Bochini and Balbuena getting on the scoresheet and the play-off, held in the Chilean capital of Santiago where the club had experience of winning the same competition nearly a decade ago, saw Ricardo Pavoni’s solitary goal seal an amazing fifth continental trophy. In the process, they became the second team to win a hat-trick of Copa Libertadores competitions after Estudiantes in the late-‘60s.

Defeat in the Intercontinental Cup followed, but that didn’t deter their spirits too much. They were back at it again in their favourite tournament, winning it for a record fourth-consecutive year, once again under Pedro Dellacha – this was a record. They beat Unión Española, requiring yet another play-off after a first-leg defeat.

That would, however, be the last of this incredible run. In 1976, they aimed at levelling Real Madrid’s record of winning five consecutive continental trophies, but it would be local rivals River Plate that would crush their dynasty, as the Buenos Aires club reached the final.

Nevertheless, the feat on its own was unique, and the record still stands to this day. Featuring world-beaters such as captain and defender Francisco Sá, midfielder Miguel Raimondo and Mario Mendoza in the attack, this team would become one of the finest in football history. For over a decade, they were synonymous with silverware at home in Argentina and on the continent, while the Intercontinental Cup success against Juventus would be the icing on the cake. It’s no surprise that Independiente haven’t been able to replicate this level of superiority again – this era was their pinnacle as a football club.

BY KARAN TEJWANI