Intercontinental Cup Final play off
Estadio Centenario, Montevideo
4 November 1967
It may not have been the greatest game of football in history and it is light years from being among the most attractive, but for controversy and polemic, few fixtures can compare with the impact of Racing Club’s 1967 Intercontinental Cup clash with Jock Stein’s Celtic. Scottish fans still rail against what they perceive as the injustice of that play-of defeat in the Uruguayan capital after the first two legs finished tied, but the real story of what happened in the game later dubbed “The Battle of Montevideo” is far from black and white.
In any sport, to be “champions of the world” should be the pinnacle of achievement. It is a sign that a team or individual is the very best on the planet and has beaten all comers in order to earn the most prestigious of titles.
While in football this tag has often been undervalued by clubs from Europe —especially in the last 20 years, when the influence of limitless money and overwhelming commercial exposure has made the Champions League more important than the European Cup ever was — it remains the biggest honour imaginable for teams on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The venerable Intercontinental Cup competition was the only opportunity that the best clubs from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay had to prove they were equal to their European cousins, which made for some ferocious encounters.
A historical grudge played and continues to play a vital role in the fomenting of this continental rivalry. It began in the 1930s, when an Italy side driven by a will to win at all costs started repatriating the sons and grandsons of those impoverished immigrants who fled to the new world seeking a new life and an escape from the rigid landlord-peasant dynamic of southern Italy. The 1934 and 1938 World Cup-winning sides boasted talents such as Raimundo Orsi, born in Argentina but a goal scorer for the azzurri in the 1934 final, as well as Luis Monti, whose record of playing in two World Cup finals for two different teams is unique in football history. From these auspicious beginnings developed the outward flow of talent from South America, which is now a billion-dollar business for agents, clubs and players.
Omar Sivori, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Alcides Ghiggia: just a handful of the legendary stars who made their names away from their home nations, building resentment. All this and more made victory over European rivals a powerful incentive for the continent’s best teams, an obsession reflected in the results of the earliest Intercontinental clashes.
The Montevideo side Peñarol contested the first two tournaments on behalf of South America, first holding the mighty Real Madrid to a tie in the Estadio Centenario before being destroyed 5-1 in the Bernabéu; a double from Ferenc Puskás and goals from Di Stéfano and Francisco Gento firing them to success. There was revenge for the Uruguayans the following year, though, as Eusébio’s Benfica were beaten in a tie-break after a win each.
The match in Montevideo resulted in a 5-0 demolition thanks to two goals from one of football’s unforgettable personalities, Alberto Spencer. An Ecuadorian born of a Jamaican-British father, the forward earned the nickname Cabeza magica (magic head) for his ability to steer the heavy leather ball into the back of the net and he would later be named among the 20 best South American footballers of all time by the International Federation of Football
History and Statistics.
1962 and 1963 belonged to Santos, as Pelé, Pepe and Coutinho blew past Benfica and AC Milan to become the first team to win consecutive titles, a feat only matched by São Paulo, Internazionale and AC Milan in the history of the competition. Argentinian teams, meanwhile, struggled in those pioneering days of transatlantic travel and international play. Independiente went down two years in a row to Helenio Herrera’s Inter meaning that, while Peñarol and Santos celebrated their status as world champions, Argentina still lacked a standard-bearer of their own.
It was in this context that Racing Club entered the 1967 edition of the Intercontinental Cup. The club based in the industrial suburb of Avellaneda, a stone’s throw from Buenos Aires and the home of the monstrous port complex of Dock Sud, had been one of the strongest sides of the amateur era, but with the advent of professionalism in 1931 they had struggled to replicate their prodigious early success. Then José Pezzuti took his place on the bench. Pezzuti was a prolific goalscorer as a player, netting 182 times in 349 games and winning three domestic titles with Racing and Boca Juniors.
He retired at La Bombonera in 1963 and two years later, at 38 years old, he found himself back in Avellaneda with La Academia. Racing had not won the league since he left, but just a year after taking over the novice coach was leading a lap of honour, having taken La Academia to the 1966 Primera Division title. “That team was put together to save us from relegation,” the striker Humberto Maschio recalled. “The situation was not good, but José put his faith in the kids, who later showed they had lots of character. Add to that the arrival of some great players, like me, and we ended up creating a brilliant team.” A fresh thinker and an accomplished technician despite his lack of experience, Pezzuti quickly set about creating what became known as El Equipo de José.
He modified the W-M formation that most teams still played, edging towards a total-footballing model. Contemporary observers agree that the team set out in Avellaneda during the mid-sixties, in an age in which catenaccio and safety-first play were beginning to prevail over the gung-ho tactics of the sport’s early days, was like a preview of the wonderful Ajax side led by Johan Cruyff which so enchanted the world in the early seventies.
These comparisons can become embellished and exaggerated over time, of course, and the defining characteristics of Pizzutti’s team were its solidity and tenacious defence. What is certainly true, though, is that there were no fixed positions in Pezzutti’s team; every player was expected to defend and attack, to run and to tackle, to contribute to a flowing style of play. In an age in which a player’s position was still very much defined by the number on his back, the team can be said to be, if not revolutionary, at least part of football’s evolution into the fluid game seen in the 1970s.
Of course, to put such a style of play into practice you need footballers with the talent and intelligence to make the coach’s diagrams and scribbles come to life, and the 1967 Racing team had them in droves. There was Roberto Perfumo, the defender from just down the road in Sarandí who came through the youth ranks into the first team, and who is now considered one of the finest centre-backs in the history of Argentine football. There was Alfio Basile, who in later years would be known for his gravelly voice as coach of the National team and who returned in December 2011 for a fourth spell as coach of the club that made him an idol as a player. ‘El Coco’ came to the club as a youngster from Bella Vista of Bahia Blanca and excelled alongside Perfumo, forming a partnership in the middle of defence that would yield just 36 goals in a 60-game stretch that covered winning the league in 1966 and the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup campaigns in 1967. Up front, and soon to make himself an eternal idol for Racing fans, was Juan Carlos ‘Chango’ Cardenas.
Born in the impoverished northern province of Santiago del Estero, Chang moved to the Capital as a teenager and by the age of 19, after just one season in the second flight with Nuevo Chicago, was in the Racing team. He was to play in La Academia for nine years in total, scoring 81 goals in 287 appearances; but one strike in particular in that Intercontinental triumph, would go down in history. Still recognised as one of the greatest figures in Racing history, Cardenas revels in the memories of 1967 and what it meant to the club and its fans. “It makes me so proud that what we achieved is still remembered,” he reflected years later. “And with that goal that was such a beauty! The most important thing about that moment is that it was the one that made us the first Argentinian world champions and that is what most fills us with pride.”
Racing walked the 1966 Primera campaign, losing just one game to finish five points clear of River Plate. In the Copa Libertadores the following season, they suffered just two defeats in the 16-game marathon needed to reach a final against the Montevideo titans Nacional An incredible 290,000 spectators are estimated to have been present at the three clashes it took to settle the tie.
Both legs ended 0-0, so a tie-break was arranged in Chile’s Estadio Monumenta. A massive movement of Argentinean and Uruguayan fans across the breadth of the continent filled the 100,000 capacity stadium to bursting point, and that crowd watched Racing clinch their first International title with a 2-1 victory. The midfielder João Cardoso opened the scoring, before Norberto Rafo made it 2-0 to La Academia just before half-time Milton Viera pulled one back for the Uruguayans late in the second half, but Racing held on to lift the trophy, setting up their meeting with Celtic.
Just like their Argentinean opponents, the Celtic team of the day has since gone down in legend. Under the tutelage of Jock Stein, the Bhoys had won two consecutive Scottish League titles by 1967, a run that had extended to an incredible nine when their eternal rivals Rangers finally broke it in 1975. Players like Jimmy Johnstone, Bobby Lennox, Tommy Gemmell and the lion-hearted defender Billy McNeill are considered some of the greatest players ever to come out of Scotland, but what made that team even more remarkable was the fact that, like Racing, they had been pulled together from a tight radius around the team’s home.
Few managers have received as much acclaim as Stein. The journalist Hugh McIlvaney called him “the greatest manager in the history of the game”, while Bill Shankly summed up the thoughts of all Celtic fans after that 1967 European Cup win by telling his countryman, “You’re immortal now.” His most celebrated attribute, though, was his ability to motivate a team to show no fear and to give 100% whether on the pitch or, as Bobby Murdoch remembers, even in a training session.“Quite often,” he said, “I would go home from training at Barrowﬁeld with bumps and bruises. Training under Big Jock was competitive.”
Every single player in that team was born within 30 miles of Parkhead and their camaraderie and unity was legendary even in that age in which footballers still mingled with fans. Even so, this team was not supposed to win the European Cup in 1967. They were playing Inter, the iconic catenaccio side of the Argentina-born Helenio Herrera, made up of stars like Sandro Mazzola, Armando Picchi and Giacinto Facchetti. Inter had won two European Cups in the previous three years and as they lined up against Stein’s plucky underdogs in Lisbon defeat seemed unthinkable.
Even more so when, after just seven minutes, Mazzola slotted home a penalty to give the Italians the lead. This was playing exactly into Herrera’s hands; one up, the team could then shut down into defensive mode and squeeze the life out of their opponents. It was a game plan that had worked countless times before, but Stein was not going to play by the script. Total attack overwhelmed total defence. Celtic recorded an incredible 39 shots in the match, and after nearly an hour of constant pressure the Scots finally broke through, Tommy Gemmell firing in from just outside the box. With seven minutes left the winning goal finally arrived, Gemmell laying the ball off to Bobby Murdoch, whose long shot was deflected in by Stevie Chalmers. It was the first time a northern European club had won the title.
Over 100,000 people flocked to Hampden Park for the first leg of the Intercontinental final against Racing, and they were rewarded with a 1-0 victory for the Lisbon Lions. Billy McNeill was the hero, a towering header with 69 minutes gone giving the Scots a narrow victory. The second leg, however, in the cauldron of Avellaneda’s El Cilindro stadium, saw the advantage swing back in the Argentinians’ favour.
Celtic looked on the verge of becoming world champions when, after 21 minutes and in spite of a hugely partisan home support, Tommy Gemmell converted a penalty. Norberto Rafo pulled one back, but Racing needed a win to force the game to a play-of (these were the days before the away-goals rule). Just as it seemed Racing would provide yet another disappointment in the Intercontinental Cup, Chango Cardenas broke free on the left and dragged a shot across the body of the goalkeeper John Fallon and into the bottom corner.
Celtic were furious, alleging that everything had been orchestrated to ensure a home success. Whether it was rough treatment from fans, problems with hotel allocation or even, as Jimmy Johnstone claimed years later, local girls being sent to their accommodation to put their minds of the game, the stories have become legend.
The first-choice keeper Ronnie Simpson was taken out of the game in the warm-up after being hit by a missile, which he later claimed came not from a fan, almost impossible given the fencing around the goals, but from a photographer. Given the problems they’d had, Celtic’s spirits can’t have been raised by the prospect of a second South American match in three days, a play-off across the Río de la Plata in Montevideo to decide who would be crowned the champions of the world.
“If we’d have just played that game, and after that said, ‘You know what, here forget it, you keep [the Cup], we’d have been quite happy,” Johnstone said years later when asked about the mood of the team after that bruising encounter. The remark was surely in jest, but it betrays a certain reluctance on the part of Celtic to keep fighting against a team and public who seemed determined to win at all costs.
The lack of a world title in Argentina, combined with a history of anger at the arrogance and ignorance of Europeans towards South American football, had inflated expectations and emotions to a dangerous level by the time the second leg was played. Add to that the animosity stimulated by England’s 1966 World Cup quarter-final victory over Argentina, played in an ugly atmosphere which culminated in the expulsion and demonising of the captain, Boca idol and brilliant midfielder Antonio Rattin (the distinction between England and Scotland meaning little) and the result was an atmosphere in which losing was not an option, either for Racing or for Argentina.
In truth, however, the Scots could not claim that they were forced to play a second away tie. The Racing fans had rather less distance to travel to the tie-break, and indeed they travelled in their thousands; 25,000 to be precise, who flocked across the estuary which separates the two nations in bus, boat, car or whatever transport was at hand.
The rest of the Centenario, though, was firmly behind Celtic. The memories of that year’s Libertadores, in which Racing had taken down the local heroes Nacional, were still very fresh in the minds of the Uruguayan public, meaning that it was Jock Stein’s team, from thousands of miles away on the other side of the world, that had the support of the neutral on that balmy spring evening of 4 November 1967.
Racing, though, could count on support from one unusual source — John Lennon.
It has entered club folklore that, asked if he took much interest in football, he answered initially no, before thinking for a second and continuing, “Wait, who’s that team playing against Celtic? Racing? Yeah, I like Racing! Viva Racing, I’m a Racing fan!” A similar story is told by Cardenas, of a chance encounter following the game. “In England, a rocker came up to me to say that John Lennon had been rooting for us,” he said. “He told me that my goal was one of those that he celebrated the most. It made me very happy to know that, it was an honour.”
Lennon was not in the Centenario for that game, while Ronnie Simpson could not make it on to the pitch having still not recovered from the blow he’d suffered in El Cilindro three days previously. The bad blood left by two brutal clashes, though, was still very much present, and contributed to one of the ugliest games of football ever played.
The question of who was to blame for this showpiece fixture turning into, as the Reuters reporter of the day put it, “a bar-room brawl with soccer skills abandoned for swinging fists, flying boots and blatant body checking” will probably never be resolved; but in Britain at least, it has become a rare case of the losers writing the history. Celtic’s version of events, espoused by Jock Stein, Johnstone, the rest of the side as well as the media of the day, has largely been adopted as accurate on the European side of the Atlantic. The old stereotypes flooded out of the newspapers: Racing were “the most professionally dirty team I have ever seen, sinisterly cold and calculating in their fouling… prancing, arrogant caballeros,” according to one commentator, convinced that the Argentinians’ anti-football had broken the spirit of the plucky Scots.
In this atmosphere, the story goes, who could blame them for fighting fire with fire?
In fact, an objective viewing of the match suggests that Celtic went out onto the Centenario pitch a demoralised unit, with the sole intention of kicking, punching and otherwise assaulting Racing out of the game. Far from the plucky underdogs driven to uncharacteristically violent behaviour, in Montevideo the Bhoys were if anything the instigators of the shocking violence that was so roundly condemned after the match. The Avellaneda side were no shrinking violets either, of course, and to a degree what had happened to Simpson set the tone for 90 minutes of frankly outrageous attacks. Both sides tried to court the neutral
Uruguayan support, each carrying the nation’s flag onto the pitch before kick-off. What followed, however, did little to endear either squad to the watching public. It took just four seconds for the first foul to be committed, Maschio impeded moments after receiving the ball from kick-off. The first half-hour, however, developed in a relatively fair-minded, clean manner. Racing attempted to impose their passing game on the Scots, and had the first chance when Cardenas’s right-footed strike from outside the area forced Fallon into a straightforward stop. Two things stood out from those early exchanges, one being the unquestioned advantage Racing held in terms of technical proficiency. Contrasting strongly with he hustle of the Celtic team, the Argentinians were always happy to put a foot on the ball and gauge their options, even in the light of sometimes ferocious tackling from their opponents. The virtuoso Jimmy Johnstone, a wizard with the ball at his feet, stands out as a notable exception, but generally Celtic were made to look technically limited.
The second tendency, however, was rather less commendable, perhaps even reprehensible for British football fans schooled with the emphasis of going n hard but fair. Tackles flew in from each team, but when a La Academia player left his opponent stricken on the floor — and Alﬁo Basile was a master at his — they would immediately sprint to he other end of the field, leaving the referee scampering after them to give a warning. This seemed to have the effect of taking the wind out of the sails of the Paraguayan official Rodolfo Osorio, while simultaneously irritating the European team unused to such a reaction.
Let’s not pretend, however, that those in green-and-white hoops were angels. The Bhoys gave as good as they got throughout the match, and in many instances a fair bit more. Basile himself was the victim of a crushing waist-high tackle 12 minutes in from John Hughes, who left his man prostrate with a flying challenge hat took out both ‘El Coco’ and Martins. It was the first really nasty foul of the match and you could feel the temperature rising from that moment onwards. These niggles would continue throughout the game, but there was plenty of decent play as well.
A wonderful move that swarmed between Maschio, Cardenas, Rafo and ‘Jota Jota’ Rodríguez from close to Racing’s own penalty area almost allowed Cardenas in, but the striker uncharacteristically fluffed his lines and could not get the shot away on his left foot. The Scots, outplayed in the opening exchanges and pinned back in their own half, relied on playing the ball of the nearest marker to gain a throw-in and a little breathing space. From the stands the thousands of Argentinians present made their voices heard throughout, drowning out the 106 plucky fans from Glasgow who had flown with the team to Argentina and stayed throughout their South American odyssey.
Celtic’s first real attack came after 15 minutes, when Bobby Lennox could have been given a penalty after a clumsy challenge for a header. Osorio, though, had already called the play back for offside. Maschio then tried his luck from distance, only to strike one of several Celtic bodies massed on the edge of their own area.
The first indication that things were getting out of control came midway through the first half, as Nelson Chabay caught Johnstone with a fierce kick to the midriff. It could have been malicious; it could have been an innocent attempt to clear the ball gone terribly wrong; to argue the point now is redundant. The result was that both teams started to take their eye of the game and focus on doing damage to their opponent, despite Osorio’s attempts to calm matters by calling the captains Perfumo and McNeill into the middle and asking them to restrain their players. Racing continued to dominate possession and territory, and a decent run through the middle from Cardenas set up Cardoso who blasted a half-volley high and wide.
For Celtic, the beginning of the end came after 35 minutes. Johnstone was pole-axed by a late challenge from the uncompromising central midfielder Juan Carlos Rulli: a bad tackle, but not one that could not justify the reaction of the Scottish team. The defender John Clark took offence at another case of Argentinian hit and run, and went to pursue the perpetrator, putting up his fists and striking a pose worthy of turn-of-the-century bare-knuckle boxers. In the confusion of players from both sides who had gathered round Osorio, not to mention a group of riot police who had rushed onto the pitch to quell the tension, the Paraguayan made his first glaring error of the match, a case of mistaken identity; he sent of Bobby Lennox.
The midfielder was 40 yards away from the incident when Clark squared up to Rulli and then Basile, and recalled that his coach was less than happy to see him leave. “Actually I went off the field, and then Big Jock put me back on saying, ‘We really need you back on the field.’ The referee put me of again, Big Jock made me go back on and then the guy [a policeman] came over with a sword, and I just left the field,” he said. Celtic certainly felt hard done by, and no-one more so than Lennox, but if Osorio had failed to act following Clark’s naked aggression the game could have descended into a farce. He just got the wrong man.
Basile was also sent off for his part in the fracas, while other Racing men were given rough treatment by the Uruguayan police as they remonstrated with Osorio
in the centre of the pitch. After several minutes a semblance of order was restored as Basile trudged down the tunnel. Looking back, it’s hard to say that the Argentinians, who lost their talisman in defence, the player who controlled the game from the centre, benefitted particularly from the decision, as it has gone down in British football lore. What is true, though, is that Racing quickly regained their composure and became even more dominant, a couple of corners late in the first half hinting at the superiority they’d enjoy in the second. The second half began in almost identical fashion to the first; this time the foul took just three seconds — a Rodríguez body-check on Johnstone. A rapid break down the right by Oscar Martin almost released Cardenas in the box, before a stinging strike from Rodríguez flashed just wide. Three minutes into the half, the momentum tipped further against Celtic as Johnstone was dismissed.
Again, it’s hard to argue with the referee’s decision. Johnstone had been one of the few players who had not succumbed to the temptation of foul play, but after becoming entangled with Martin on the left wing his reaction was unjustifiable.
Although the past 45 years have served to paint him as the victim, at least on one side of the Atlantic, there seems little doubt; the winger turned and swung a fierce elbow into the face of his rival. Perhaps Martin overreacted, but an elbow is an elbow. “That was the flipper, from that point there was no coming back,” he recognised in an interview with Celtic TV just before his death in 2006. The Argentinian commentator, meanwhile, had no doubt that the decision was the correct one. “The camera shows [his offence] with absolute finality,” he said, as Celtic players once more crowded round the referee. Even he wasn’t impervious to the confusion that swept Montevideo, though, believing Willie Wallace, rather than Lennox, had been sent off . As the Racing goalkeeper Agustín Cejas was then felled by a coin thrown from the stand behind his net, it seemed possible that the game might have to be abandoned.
It did, though, eventually resume, and when it did, Celtic enjoyed their best period of the game, most of their best play being worked through Bertie Auld on the right wing. But 11 minutes into the half, they suffered a blow that would prove devastating; it came in the most exquisite fashion.
Rulli and Cardoso got Racing moving in the Celtic half, before a flick from Rodríguez failed to find a blue-and-white shirt and Gemmell cleaned up for the Scots. His pass, however, was controlled poorly by Craig in front of him and Martin moved forward with the interception before laying the ball off to Cardenas. The striker, the hero of the second leg in Avellaneda, had 35 yards of pitch in front of him and Humberto Maschio screaming to his left. Chango, as he explained later, only ever had one thing on his mind.
“In football, the goal is sublime,” he explained. “For me, in football a goal is the greatest thing that can happen. So scoring a goal of that magnitude in a final, in which we were seeking our first ever international title, is simply sublime.” It may have been that wish to write his name in legend that prompted Chango to go solo, or maybe it was confidence that he could take it himself and break open a game quickly drowning in a sea of petty fouls, stops and starts. Whatever his motivation, the execution is beyond doubt.
The first touch, free for once of the close attentions of his opponents, helped to calm a bobbling ball. The second touch took it down onto the field. The third, a delicate jab with the right boot in order to ease himself onto his favoured left. And the fourth, as he closed within shooting range of John Fallon’s goal but still at an uncomfortable distance, a perfectly-hit shot that gave the stand-in keeper no chance. Swerving, curling and hit with precision and power, the ball flew past Fallon at full stretch to whistle into the top left-hand corner of the goal, as the Argentinian half of the Estadio Centenario exploded with joy.
Cardenas ran to jump into the arms of Pizzutti, later joined by more of his teammates while the commentator released a deafening cry of “Gooooolllllll!” to the Argentinian nation and those in the stadium celebrated wildly. It was a goal fitting of such a prestigious occasion, even if the minutes of play that had led up to the strike weren’t. The Celtic players, meanwhile, looked dejected; knowing that with a numerical disadvantage there was little chance of finding a way back. Murdoch, in fact, soon had a glorious chance to equalise, but having been set through one-on-one with Cejas, he blazed over. Racing could then have sealed their victory, when Rafo broke and squared for Cardenas. Chango, though, with a chance far easier than the one he sent so gloriously into the net, fell over his own feet to miss out on a second.
The final nail was hammered into Celtic’s coffin as John Hughes became the third Celtic man to be sent off, for a barely explicable moment of madness. “What came into my head was, ‘If I hit this guy no one will see me,” he said; but unfortunately for him, his assault on Cejas was all too clear to Osorio and everyone watching. Frustrated by the time the goalkeeper was taking to release the ball, Hughes turned and punched Cejas in the stomach, also stamping on his foot to send him to the ground. To compound the offence, Hughes buried his boot into Cejas’s midriff as he lay on the floor. Celtic’s reduction to eight men was both predictable and justified. They had lost control, while Racing were content to play out the final minutes.
Rulli was the next to be sent from the field, although Gemmell was extremely lucky not to follow him. The Argentinian went in hard and “the boxer Gemmell”, as the commentator described him, reacted with a punch. It was a bizarre decision, maybe a moment of pity from the official, seeing the Scots ragged, desperate and on their way to missing out on the world title.
Racing almost added a second as a free-kick flashed past the post of Fallon. There was still one more moment of shame, though, this time following a tussle between Rodríguez and Auld. A late body-check and another quick exit from the Argentinian took the winger to the end of his tether and he attacked the No 10. Auld became the fourth Celtic player to be sent off , but declined to leave the field, later citing “language differences” between himself and the Paraguayan official: Celtic remained with eight men in the most farcical of ways. The last few seconds were played out in a half-hearted fashion, with Maschio meandering to the touchline with no interference from a green-and-white shirt; as Osorio blew his whistle for the final time, Pizzutti and his staff raced onto the pitch to celebrate.
Were Celtic really cheated out of the Intercontinental Cup, as so many have claimed in the intervening years? It’s difficult to uphold the accusation. Of course, the match was peppered with fouls and disruptions; Celtic were guilty of 31 infractions to Racing’s 20. Those figures often don’t tell the full story, but the more serious foul play came from the men in green-and-white, not blue-and-white. From Johnstone’s elbow to Gemmell’s punch, Hughes’s outrageous attack on the goalkeeper to a disgraceful challenge from Murdoch that left Cardenas in agony on the floor with a blatant kick to the midriff, it is impossible to say that the Scots did not play a part in their own downfall.
The explanation for their indiscipline is rather straightforward — it was a reaction to seeing their game plan fall to pieces. Stein attempted to hurry and pressure the Argentinian players straight from the first whistle, with body checks, late challenges and plenty of hard hits designed to disrupt the passing game and movement of their more technically proficient rivals — who, it must be said, were also guilty of cynicism and a number of questionable tackles.
Cardenas’s goal, however, signalled the failure of this tactic and from that point forwards the match became for Celtic more about leaving their mark on the soon-to-be world champions than any serious attempt to play their way back into the game. Frustration at their inability to overcome a team who were better on the day, rather than conspiracy theories concerning mistreatment and biased officiating, were ultimately responsible for the downfall of the Lisbon Lions (although they, of course, would argue the real provocation had come three days earlier in Avellaneda.)
The Argentinian press, certainly, cared for little other than eulogising their world champions. “José’s team had already left their stamp on the Argentinian championship, and they had taken over America,” said the report in El Gráﬁco. “There was one more step until total glory. With great play, spirit, heart and commitment, this group of men has taken the name of Racing to the highest level. It was the perfect way to put a full stop on a run of success unprecedented until now. Racing represented with pride all of Argentinian football.”
The goalkeeper Cejas, it went on, was “pure safety between the sticks”; Basile was “the caudillo, a total leader, impassable either in the air on the ground”; Cardenas was “the man whose golazo changed history.” And the “maximum expression of quality and winning spirit” in defence, Perfumo, who described in emotional terms his meeting after the game with fellow titan McNeill. “On reaching the tunnel I saw him coming slowly towards me, the blonde chap who had scored against us in Glasgow,” he said. “I looked him in the eyes and instinctively put myself on guard… perhaps because of all that had happened during the game. He held out his hand and I had to grip it tight. He intimated that he wanted to swap shirts with me and it was then that I couldn’t stop the tears coming to my eyes, for him, not for me.
“All the ugly things we and they did during the game seemed to be forgotten. I pulled of my jersey — a chance to wipe the tears. When the exchange was made, I hugged him and said in Spanish, ‘This is how football should be played.’ McNeill smiled and said in perfect Spanish, ‘Buena suerte, buena suerte’.”
A brief glimpse of humanity in a tie that would be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
For Basile, it was a victory that reached across the nation’s football horizons; even cheered by fans of their bitterest rivals. “An immense joy that for me as a player was the greatest I ever experienced, and something that you value even more when you get older because all of Argentina was touched,” Coco explained. “Fans of all teams were happy, even those of Independiente celebrated.”
For Celtic, meanwhile, the game was marked as one of their, and football’s, darkest hours. Every player was fined £250 for their part in the disgrace, something which the players regard as unjust to this day. “We appreciate that this game was a great shock to everyone…” said their chairman Bob Kelly. “From a team which has established such a wonderful reputation for discipline that they should fall so badly from grace on this occasion… We feel for our reputation and for the reputation of British football the players must suffer for their conduct.” The stories coming back from South America, meanwhile, suggested that every member of the Racing team received a new car and up to £2,000 for their parts in the team’s glorious two-year run of success.
The real vitriol was reserved for the Argentinians, written off in Britain as savage cheats, a reputation seemingly confirmed the next year in Manchester United’s bruising defeat to Estudiantes, a team which — unlike Racing — was already infamous for their love of football’s darker arts. The clashes contributed to the animosity which still infects the relationship between British and Argentinian teams.
Following this most controversial of finals, the fates of the two participants diverged. Celtic continue to battle with arch-rivals Rangers for supremacy in Scottish football, the two teams taking all but four of the national titles contested since the Bhoys missed out on the Intercontinental Cup.
Despite appearances in the finals of the 1970 European Cup and 2003 Uefa Cup, however, continental success has eluded Celtic since 1967.For Racing, meanwhile, the Intercontinental Cup triumph marked a high point that has been followed by a protracted slide. The three decades that followed were marked by failure on the pitch and desperate mismanagement in the boardroom, culminating in a historic first relegation in 1983. Under the tutelage of Basile, Racing regained their Primera place two years later, but it was not until 2001, 35 years after their previous national success, that they finally ended their domestic drought with victory in the Apertura.
The controversy hasn’t lifted in the half-century since that final. Was it really a case of Jock Stein’s naive boys from the backstreets of Glasgow being bullied out of world glory by their cynical opponents? Or perhaps it was rather that a team unprepared for the rigours of international, transcontinental football were shown up by an opponent who knew how to play the game, and its laws, to the very limit?
The truth is that no amount of evidence or analysis will change the views of those Celtic and Racing fans privy to an incredible trio of matches played across two continents, three countries and 7000 miles. But those skewed perspectives of the British media in the 1960s and a fear of the swarthy, mysterious and uncompromising South American Other should not continue to colour our view of some of the great Argentinian teams of the era; or indeed that of Celtic, who played magnificently for 180 minutes before self-destructing in Montevideo.
The decisive strike, at least, was truly ﬁtting of a world champion.