“The most stupid, appalling and disgusting exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game,” declared commentator David Coleman.
He was introducing the World Cup group match between Chile and Italy in 1962, a match that would go on to be known as the Battle of Santiago.
Had Coleman been fronting up the coverage of the 1969 World Club Championship game between Italian giants AC Milan and Argentina’s Estudiantes however, heaven knows how he would have summarised a chaotic encounter that left FIFA representatives waking up with cold sweats.
A year earlier, the cynical Argentines had announced themselves on the world stage by beating Manchester United in the same competition – back then, a two-legged final between the European Cup and Copa Libertadores winners – and by disembowelling Red Devils star George Best in the process.
AC Milan, led by the mercurial Rivera, had qualified for the 1969 final by destroying Johan Cruyff’s Ajax 4-1 in the European Cup Final in Madrid the previous May. The Italians, under the guidance of legendary coach Nereo Rocco, were making their second appearance in the final of the World Club Championship, having lost to Santos in 1963. There was extra incentive for the Rossoneri too, with city rivals Inter having won the competition in both 1964 and 65.
Estudiantes were going through a halcyon period in their history and came into this match after retaining their Copa Libertadores title, despite having won no friends outside of their own federation for their heavy-handed tactics against United.
Coach Osvaldo Zubeldia had managed to break the stranglehold of Argentina’s so-called Big Five (Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing Club, Independiente and San Lorenzo) with a group of players who had grown up together and had been nicknamed The Killer Juveniles due to their success at under-19 level. Juan Ramon Veron, father of the former Lazio, Manchester United and Chelsea playmaker Juan Sebastian, was the undoubted star.
Round one of this two-legged affair took place at the San Siro on 8 October with a partisan home crowd trying their best to intimidate their Argentinean visitors.
Within minutes of the game starting, Estudiantes goalkeeper Alberto Poletti claimed to have been struck by a missile thrown from the crowd, an incident that lit the blue touch paper for what was to follow.
The visitors looked rattled from the opening whistle so when Milan took the lead after just eight minutes courtesy of striker Angelo Sormani, it seemed as though Zubeldia’s men would crumble under intense Italian pressure.
Sormani’s strike partner Nestor Combin, who would grab all the headlines in the second leg, doubled the home side’s advantage on the stroke of half-time. The visitors were being taken apart by their hosts while living up to their callous nickname, El Antifutbol (the anti-football), by using every underhand trick in the book to keep the scoreline respectable.
With 19 minutes left on the clock, their rearguard was finally punctured again thanks to a great strike from Sormani – his second of the game – making the return leg in Argentina look like a formality.
Rocco knew his side had been in a battle and that in two weeks’ time they would be going into the lion’s den to try to protect their three-goal cushion.
The second leg would be played at La Bombonera, home of Boca Juniors in Buenos Airies, a strange decision with many Italian immigrants living in the city. However, any hopes Rocco had that his side would receive a heavy backing were quashed when during the warm-up, his players were subjected to abuse from the steep terraces and spent more time trying to dodge missiles rather than practice their ball skills.
When Poletti and team-mate Ramon Aguirre Suarez also started throwing balls at the Milan players as they were going through their paces, Rocco was aware his team would have to win the war before winning a football match.
Estudiantes full-back Eduardo Manera set the tone for the evening early on when he decided to take a bite out of Milan defender Saul Malatrasi. Even Malatrasi’s defensive colleague Karl-Heinz Schnelliger, a German international who could certainly handle himself, was being subjected to some sickening challenges.
Despite all the intimidation, it was Milan who took the lead to effectively end the contest as golden boy Rivera coolly slotted home on the half-hour mark. The Italian superstar hardly had time to celebrate before Poletti’s sense of sportsmanship deserted him once more as he tried to assault the Milan player right in front of the referee’s nose who did nothing.
Poletti’s Rambo impersonation got the already frustrated crowd into an even more hysterical state with the playing surface now covered in missiles ranging from bits of newspaper to cigarette lighters.
Back home in the early hours of the morning, bars and cafés in Milan were packed with anxious supporters huddled around their radios as the tv pictures weren’t beamed back to Italy. As half-time approached, two quickfire goals from Marcos Conigliaro and Aguirre Suarez breathed new life into the hosts and it was a merciful release to Rocco’s men when Signore Massaro blew for half-time.
Anyone who thought the half-time interval would be a calming influence was sadly mistaken as the second 45 minutes began in the same vein as the first. As Estudiantes threw caution to the wind in the hope of overturning a three-goal aggregate, their players – notably Aguirre Sanchez – seemed intent on making sure the visitors wouldn’t finish the game with 11 players.
Aguirre Sanchez claimed two victims, first-leg goalscorer Nestor Combin and his strike partner Pierino Prati, but still Signore Massaro would not produce a card. In the end he had no choice after a third assault on skipper Gianni Rivera as the game descended into total farce.
With Aguirre Sanchez still protesting his innocence, goalkeeper Poletti, who had also taken a swipe at the unfortunate Combin, was once again keeping himself busy by intimidating any Milan player who came within five metres of him.
The game petered out into a comfortable 4-2 aggregate win for Milan, before things took a bizarre twist. Nestor Combin, victim number one who’d had his nose broken by the assassin Aguirre Sanchez, was being carted off to the dressing room on a stretcher having fainted when he was arrested by Argentinian police for draft dodging.
The big frontman had been born in Argentina but had represented France at international level after moving to Europe to pursue his career. This was clearly another attempt to unsettle the Italian champions, but more pressing matters were still taking place out on the pitch where Aguirre Sanchez’s partner in crime, that man Poletti again, was embroiled in an altercation with Rivera and some supporters who had spilled onto the pitch to join in the shenanigans.
There would no doubt be ramifications and as Milan, complete with the World Club Championship trophy, and Combin, who after intense negotiations had managed to escape the clutches of the Argentine authorities, boarded their flight home. The local press in Buenos Aires started to go to work on a group of players who had not only embarrassed themselves but the whole country.
“No, Estudiantes… that was not manhood, it was not temperament, it was not a claw… this was an apology for brutality and madness… this embarrassed us all and should shame those responsible. If we really want to rescue something to continue believing in the future, let’s start by repudiating this unfortunate episode.” wrote journalist Julio Cesar Pasquato. He agreed with England World Cup winning manager Sir Alf Ramsey’s comments at the tournament four years earlier when he branded Argentine national team “animals”.
With Argentina due to host the 1978 World Cup Finals, the football authorities had to be seen to be doing something constructive.
They began by throwing the book at goalkeeper Poletti, banning him for life and followed this up by omitting the thuggish Aguirre Suarez from international competition for the next five years.
A good majority of the team that took part in the La Bombonera massacre also found themselves arrested as Argentine authorities began a charm offensive to save their finals.