Hello soccer fans, El Bolso is here with another chapter in the history of Nacional. As you know, I’ve been reporting on the current Copa Libertadores campaign, and since that’s pretty much a complete disaster, I thought I’d take you back to a simpler time: the 1970s and the beginning of Nacional’s success on the international stage.
Down in the Dumps
The 1960s may be the toughest decade in Nacional’s long and glorious history. The 50s were a successful time: 5 championships, including one in 1950 when Uruguay won their second World Cup and a three-peat (oops, do I owe Pat Riley money now?) between 1955 and 1957. Fortunes would change dramatically after that, however: Peñarol won the 1958 title and the next four after that, putting together its best team ever with players like Néstor Goncalves, Alberto Spencer, Juan Joya, Pedro Rocha, Luis Cubilla (more on him later), and more. Peñarol won 9 of 11 local tournaments between 1958 and 1968, relegating Nacional to little more than an afterthought in the Uruguayan scene. More importantly, this period coincided with the beginnings of organized international competition in South America, and Peñarol took full advantage.
Despite the fact that national teams had been competing in the Copa América almost yearly since 1916 (or perhaps because of it), there had not been, to this point, an official club-level tournament in South America. During the 1955-56 season the European federation, which held no continent-wide tournament at all until this point, created what is now known as the Champions League (the Eurocup for national teams would begin in 1960). Well, South America would not be left behind, starting the Copa Libertadores de America, also in 1960. The first edition was contested by the reigning champions of seven countries: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, Colombia, and Chile. Peru and Ecuador joined in the following season. Peñarol, in the middle of its 5 year run as Uruguayan champion, added to that by winning the first two Libertadores trophies, as well as losing the finals to Brazilian champion Santos and their young star Pelé (you may have heard of him) the next year. In all, Peñarol would win three cups during the decade (the last one in 1966) and make it to the finals three other times. That’s 6 finals in 11 years. They also won two Intercontinental Cups (which were played between the South American and European champions), beating top European power Real Madrid in 1961and 1966 after losing to them in 1960. All this winning created a lot of pressure for Nacional players and executives, as fans feared that the club would become a perennial also-ran to their hated rival.
While their accomplishments during this time were nowhere near as significant as Peñarol’s, Nacional wasn’t exactly a continental afterthought. They managed to qualify for the 1962 cup (Peñarol was the Uruguayan champion, but they were already in the cup as holders), and participated in 7 of the first 11 tournaments (the rules were changed in 1966 to admit two teams per country). They were eliminated in the first round in ‘68, but made it to the quarterfinals in 1970, the semifinals in ’62 and ’66, and the finals in ’64, ’67 and ’69, losing to an Argentinian rival each time: Independiente, Racing Club, and Estudiantes. That’s a pretty good record, as long as you’re not comparing it to three titles and 6 finals. It wasn’t good enough for Nacional fans. They needed the team to reestablish dominance over the seemingly unstoppable Manyas.
If you’re good at math, by the way, you’ve probably realized that there was a Uruguayan team in nine of the first eleven Libertadores finals (and yet another one in 1971, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). This is what life as a Uruguayan soccer fan used to be back in the good old days. These were the last days of the Uruguayan golden era, when the country could lay claim to being the foremost soccer power in South America and one of the biggest in the world. There would be a brief resurgence in the 1980s, when Uruguayan teams would participate in five of the decade’s Libertadores finals (winning four), and the national team would win both Copa América tournaments, and that would be pretty much it other than yet another Copa América win in 1995. This is Oscar Tabárez’s recent run as coach of the national team is so celebrated: most of us are not used to seeing this level of success on the field of play, and we fear that once this group’s time is done the Uruguay will fall back into irrelevance.
In any case, eventually Peñarol’s stars got old, and in the late 60s Nacional started putting together a dream team of its very own. The base was formed with players like Luis Ubiña, Juan Carlos Blanco, Juan Martín Mujica, Julio Montero Castillo (whose son Paolo would become national team captain and a historic figure at Peñarol), Víctor Espárrago, and Julio Cesar Morales. To that group, the team added proven veterans like goalkeeper Manga (who had started for Brazil in the 1966 World Cup), former Peñarol star and two time Libertadores champion Luis Cubilla (remember him?), and another 1966 World Cup alumnus, Argentina striker Luis Artime. Artime had starred at River Plate and Independiente in the early part of the decade, and after a brief and unhappy stint with Palmeiras of Brazil he ended up at Nacional in time for the 1969 season. He immediately took over Uruguayan soccer, topping the league in goals in each of his first three years. With Artime leading the charge, Nacional won the 1969 title and reached the Libertadores finals, falling to defending champions Estudiantes. They won the league in each of the next three years as well, ending a decade of frustration with a flourish, but the real prize would come in the 1971 Libertadores Cup, as veteran coach Washington “Pulpa” Etchamendi replaced the successful but egomaniacal Brazilian Zezé Moreira and led the team to international glory.
By then, the Libertadores organizers had abandoned early experimentation and decided on a recurring format that would last well into the 80s. Two teams from each country qualified, and they were placed into the same first round group with the two teams from a second nation (the country matchups rotated each year), where they played a home and away round robin. The winner of the group advanced to a semifinal round, along with the four other group winners and the defending champion. Separated into two groups of three, they again played each of the other teams in the group twice, and the two group winners faced off in the final. As you know from my Libertadores 2014 posts, Nacional was matched up with Peñarol and two Bolivian teams, Chaco Petrolero and The Strongest. In those days, drawing Bolivian or Venezuelan opponents was a great outcome, as soccer in those countries was nowhere near the level of the top continental powers, and Nacional took full advantage. They took 3 of 4 possible points in Bolivia, beating Chaco 2-1 and tying The Strongest 1-1, and posted dominant wins at home: 3-0 against Chaco and 5-0 against The Strongest. Having beaten Peñarol 2-1 in the group’s opening match, they had a two point cushion going into the final game; all they needed was a tie against the hated Manyas to move on. Nacional did one better, beating them 2-0 and sailing through into the semis.
Nacional’s luck held out in this round, as they were placed in the group opposite three-time defending champions Estudiantes. Facing Brazilian Palmeiras and Universitario de Lima of Peru, the Tricolores again started on the road, drawing the Peruvians 0-0 and smacking Palmeiras around to the tune of a 3-0 final score. Universitario then visited Montevideo and received a 3-0 beatdown of its very own, setting up a deciding match against Palmeiras in Montevideo. Because the Brazilians had swept Universitario, they were only one point behind Nacional (wins were worth only 2 points back then), so a win would see them through to the final. The night started on a positive note for the visitors, as they went ahead in the 25th minute on a goal by Cesar, but the joy wouldn’t last long. Artime tied the game in the 42nd minute, and Morales gave Nacional the lead 12 minutes into the second half. Just seven minutes later, Ignacio Prieto added the third and final goal. Nacional was in the Libertadores finals for the third time. They would meet Estudiantes again, as the Argentines tried for a fourth consecutive title.
By this time Estudiantes was nearing the end of its golden era. Hailing from the relatively small city of La Plata, the team won its first national title in 1913 and would not win another until 1967. This lack of success changed in 1965, when the team hired Osvaldo Zubeldía as coach. Zubeldía took a strong group of young players, added a few key acquisitions, and built a powerhouse team, infamous throughout the world for its penchant for violent fouls and time-wasting techniques. Legend has it that Zubeldía brought in former referees to teach the subtleties of the rulebook so that his players would know how to circumvent them to their benefit. Their nickname was “El Antifutbol,” (an improvement over the traditional team moniker of “rat stabbers”) but this is overly simplistic; the team, while masters of toeing the line between legal and illicit tactics, had its share of talent, like Juan “The Witch” Verón (father of current Argentina star Juan Sebastián Verón, who is of course known as “Little Witch”) and Roberto Infante. It also had its share of brainpower: it featured two players with medical degrees, Raúl Madero and future World Cup winning coach Carlos Bilardo. Still, to most everyone outside La Plata they were the thugs who had been arrested by Argentina police for their antics in the 1968 Intercontinental Cup final against AC Milan (which they lost), a team that built their success on intimidation and destructive tactics.
Nacional, however, knew them well, and had its share of rough defenders and midfielders. After losing 1-0 in Argentina, on a 60th minute goal by Bernardo Romeo, they beat Estudiantes in Montevideo by the same score, as defender Juan Masnik scored in the 28th minute, before Estudiantes could settle into its time-wasting ways. A third final was needed (there was no overtime or penalties in those days) and it took place on June 9th in Lima, Peru. Nacional started the game with Manga in goal; a backline of Masnik, Ubiña, Atilio Ancheta and Blanco; Montero Castillo, Espárrago and Ildo Maneiro in the midfield; and up front, Cubilla, Morales, and Artime. Mujica and Juan Carlos Mamelli, another Argentinian striker who would dethrone Artime as top Uruguayan league scorer the following season, were used as substitutes. Twenty-two minutes in Espárrago put Nacional in front, and Artime, who would of course lead the tournament in scoring, added another in the 65th. Estudiantes didn’t have enough left in the tank to mount a comeback. After eleven years of absences and heartbreak, Nacional was the Libertadores Cup champion for the first time.
The Tricolores would go on to win the Intercontinental title against Greek side Panathinaikos by tying 1-1 in Athens and winning 2-1 in Montevideo; Artime scored all three goals. The team would win the local tournament the next season before again falling behind Peñarol. It would take almost another decade of waiting until a new generation, bolstered by the return of some of this team’s brightest stars, for Nacional to once again become the best soccer team in the world.
Highlights of the second final played in Montevideo:
- The Charrúa Report: On the Right Foot - March 14, 2017
- The Charrúa Report: Campeones! - February 14, 2017
- The Charrúa Report: 48 Is Enough - January 11, 2017
- The Charrúa Report: Nico and the Sounders - December 14, 2016
- The Charrúa Report: King of the Single Rounders - December 12, 2016
- The Charrúa Report: Senseless - December 6, 2016
- The Charrúa Report: The Bum’s Rush - November 28, 2016
- The Charrúa Report: A Bump in the Road - November 16, 2016
- The Charrúa Report: Is It Priceline Time? - November 12, 2016
- The Charrúa Report: Closer to Fine - October 13, 2016