Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On the Northern shore of La Plata military dictatorship was already old news and football hit perhaps its bottom. Nothing was left of once upon a time great Uruguayan football, except constant exodus of players, going everywhere – from Greece to Venezuela. Some were returning home too, but not in great numbers. Yet, 1976 was historically significant year and not for one, but for two important reasons. The first was immediate; the second is still not fully recognized. Uruguayan football was practically Montevideo football – the 22 teams playing in First and Second Division were all from the city – and this remained unchanged: La Luz won promotion from Third Division, preserving the status quo. Up the scale there was no option at all – Fenix was relegated from First, although they finished 9th in the 12-club league (complicated system, taking at least two seasons accumulated record to decide the club moving down) and replaced by inevitable other Montevideo club: Bella Vista. So far, nothing new.

The real bomb dropped among the best: Defensor took the championship.

‘Violeta’ were not some newcomers – the club was founded in 1913, originally as Club Atletico Defensor. Today the name is slightly different: Defensor Sporting Club, but was always known simply as ‘Defensor’. Until 1976 they won plain nothing, but their first ever title had bigger significance: it was the first other than Nacional and Penarol club to win the championship since 1931. That was the last amateur season, so Defensor were the third ever club winning the professional championship. Breaking the duopoly was exciting, yet, considering the grave state of Uruguayan football, the surprise was taken a bit skeptically: the weakness of the big clubs rather the strength of Violeta may have been the reason… a freak accident. However, 1976 marked the end of duopoly – nobody knew it back then, but the duopoly was finished for good. As for Defensor – well, first title is always fantastic for club and fans.

Historic champions: top, only players,from left: Freddy Clavijo,Baudilio Jauregui, Ricardo Meroni, Ricardo Ortiz, Behetoven Javier, Liber Ariste.

Bottom: Luis Cubilla, Jose Gervasio Gomez, Alberto Santelli, Rodolfo Rodriguez, Pedro Graffigna.

For champions, especially judged by outsiders, Violeto did not look impressive – except experienced national team defender Jauregui, the named were unknown. Before the season a bunch players departed to play abroad, eventually followed by Jauregui as well, who moved to Argentina and Union (Santa Fe). But the club acquired the services of Luis Cubilla, perhaps the greatest Uruguayan player of the 1960s. By now Cubilla was 36 years old, returning from a spell with Santiago Morning (Chile). The transfer was a classic – smaller football clubs recruit famous veterans, hoping they would help both performance and gates. And often veterans really help and teams improve, however, one or two players on their last legs are never enough to win championships. Cubilla added his signature posture to team photos – semi-crouching, facing the lenses with his profile, always at the end of first row – and his experience, but was helping the miracle, not making it. The real miracle-maker was somebody else – the coach.

Professor Jose Ricardo de Leon was and is virtually unknown outside South America, but was already almost legendary there. A former player and real professor of physical education, he alternated coaching and academic work. In 1975 he made Toluca champion of Mexico, then spent the second half of the year in Argentina, coaching Rosario Central with Kempes, and returned home to take the reigns of Defensor at the beginning of 1976. Very likely Cubilla was persuaded to play for Defensor by Prof. de Leon (he is always mentioned as ‘Professor de Leon’ by the formal and conservative Uruguayans), but the coach really assembled a squad of young players – some who played at the South American Juniors championship in 1975, and others who did not: Ortiz, Washington Gonzalez, Clavijo, Conde, Caceres, Rudy and Rodolfo Rodriguez, Graffigna. On the surface, it looked like the coach depended on mixture of youth enthusiasm, added by the authority and experience of Cubilla, but it was much more than that – Prof. de Leon had a particular tactical vision in mind and made a team to serve it. His system was radically innovative: 4-2-3-1. Evidently, it was successful, but also universally disliked. Critics grumbled against it – it was ultra-defensive. Since total football was the way, and South Americans lagged behind Europe in adapting it, to introduce defensive tactics was not even reactionary: it looked rather hopeless. However…consider this: most of the teams at the 2010 World Cup played exactly this system, including 3 of the semi-finalists! John Toshak is usually credited as the mastermind of the system, when the real visionary was Prof. de Leon back in 1976. Rinus Michels, the guru of total football, said that the idea came to him when watching rugby on TV. De Leon’s inspiration came from basketball. It worked, but Michels’s vision of football dominated the 70s and de Leon’s concept was neglected. Was it very far from total football? It depended on disciplined collective effort and not on individual brilliance. It required players to cover the whole field – just like total football does. Pleasant, not pleasant, the system not only survived, but trumped the original total football and is dominant in the early 21st century. It is a pity Prof. de Leon remains unrecognized, but at least in South America he is: credited for the development of football in Colombia and Venezuella among other things. Prophets are often disliked and diminished at home, so Defensor was heavily criticized, but champions they become under de Leon! Can’t take away that. Old horse like Cubilla fitted well in the system, something unusual for veterans with clout – they dislike, if capable at all of, changing their style. Perhaps the combination of de Leon and Cubilla was most important – the old player was aiming at coaching himself, and was eager and perceptive participant (in a few years time Cubilla became successful coach, leading the Paraguayan Olympia to winning Libertadores).

And that’s that about Uruguay in 1976 – ironically, a season considered bleak at the time was to stay as historic one. May be after the great play of Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup, the long gone season could be reviewed with more attention. As last, novelty, touch, Defensor have quite suitable name for defensive system of football.