Osvaldo Zubeldía
Legendary Coach Osvaldo Zubeldía (Wikimedia)

His way of seeing the game completely changed the way that football was played, not in South America but in the world.  When you watch a football match today, there are several concepts you can look at and say, “Zubeldía created it”.   Kind of ironic that a man that was notorious for defending anti-football has had so many of his concepts become so commonplace in the modern game.

Passion embodied his way of living and it engulfed his way of analyzing the game.  His work ethic was second to none and that was transmitted over to many of his players throughout the years.

All of this despite the fact that Osvaldo Juan Zubeldía died 30 years ago on this date.

His gruff demeanor was a façade that had a mad genius behind it tinkering and over analyzing every single detail in every move that could be taken advantage of in any match. He knew that the puzzle always had one piece missing and the coach’s job was to make sure that no one figured out where it was.  Very few were successful in figuring them out throughout his extraordinary career.

Many in South America hear his name and there is a sense of reverence over what he offered as a coach.   He was a mastered football intelligence and was the master pragmatist.  This came as his views as a player, one that saw him be a very good player aided him in making the transition to the bench.

We hear about the sweeper and stopper positions and immediately you start to see that the concept was one that emerged from Zubeldía from his days as a young coach over at Buenos Aires-based club Atlanta.  After retiring as a player in 1960, he would take over El Bohemio and there he would start working in very revolutionary ways.

Like any other coach, he had his ups and downs at different clubs.  His early days at Atlanta saw him take a team that was perennially in the middle of the table and have them fight for the title for the majority of his time there.

He would then be called up to take over the Argentine national team alongside Antonio Faldutti.  During his brief time in charge of the Albiceleste, AFA showed their ineptitude come to the fray yet again as Zubledía’s training with the national team was very intense, but the federation did not accept his work plan that included multiple daily sessions as well as English lessons so the players can better communicate with the media in England during the World Cup that was going to be held in the island nation just six months later.

The 1966 World Cup would also be a black eye to Argentine football as they were eliminated by the host nation in a match that was marked more by controversy than how the game itself was played.  Four years later, they would not qualify for the World Cup in Mexico. The English football fan would remember him for one instance:  the 1968 Intercontinental Cup. According to the English press it was “anti-football” in its greatest expression.  In an interview published in El Colombiano back in 1976, he spoke about him supposedly being a proponent for anti-football.  Meanwhile in Argentina, that win a Old Trafford was the crowning achievement for a football nation starved of international successes.

“(Estudiantes) became world champions in 1968 in England.  One can’t do that playing anti-football.  What happened was that the players were tired and had no strength left.  There were so many tours and friendlies that they played that the entire squad was injured.  Also the club was poor and they did not buy one player during those six years.  So what happened?  Well players started to kick the ball out and try to waste time. They didn’t do that because of strategy, they did it because of necessity.”- Osvaldo Juan Zubeldía

Soon after he wrote his first collaboration, Zubeldía was hired by Estudiantes La Plata, a club that was perennially mired in the middle of the table.  Yet prior to the arrival of Zubeldía, the club was in the middle of a crisis-enthralled era.  During the 1950’s and 60’s, they were a side that usually were looking to avoid relegation instead of challenging for titles.  Yet not all was based on a stroke of luck in the midnight hour.

In 1963, the club was relegated and no stroke of luck would go their way for the following three years as AFA decided to suspend promotion/relegation during that time period.  When Zubeldía took over his mission was to prevent Estudiantes from going down to the second division yet again.  He was able to surpass that expectation- Estudiantes ended up in sixth place.

His tactics and his ability to motivate players were starting to turn head and in the 1967 season, Estudiantes were now looking to take that next step and would end up winning the Torneo Metropolitano and come in second place in the Nacional that year.  This would allow the club to take part in the Copa Libertadores that following year.
“You don’t achieve glory by going down a path of roses” –
Quote written on chalkboard by Zubeldía prior to match against Manchester United
Osvaldo Zubeldía en Boca
Zubeldía as a player at Boca Juniors (Image via Wikipedia)

That would be their launching pad into the next level.  They were able to defeat Palmeiras in the final and that would set the stage for Estudiantes to face reigning European champs Manchester United in a home and away series.

In the first match at La Bombonera, Estudiantes took advantage of a corner kick and attacked Manchester United towards the first post and Marcos Conigliaro scored the only goal of the match.   The return leg would be a battle of attrition that would see George Best get sent off in what many called an all-out brawl at Old Trafford that would see Estudiantes survive and win their second international title at the expense of the best team on the planet.

They would win Libertadores again (this time to Uruguayan side Nacional) as well as the Nacional and Metropolitano tournaments, as well as the Interamerican Cup as they defeated Toluca in three matches.   They would fail to win the Intercontinental that year as AC Milan would win on a 4-2 aggregate.  In this case it was the return leg in Buenos Aires that was remembered more for the three players that went to jail after the match than the 2-1 win for Estudiantes.

“Don’t concede defeat even though you’ve lost.  Don’t feel like a slave  if you aren’t enslaved, tremble with fear, think of yourself as brave, and attack ferociously despite being badly injured.  Have the tenacity of a mold nail, that even though it is old and despicable it still is a nail; not the cowardly stupidity of the turkey that abates his plumage at the first sound.”-  Osvaldo Juan Zubeldía

Their dominance in Argentina extended into Uruguay as they would win a third Copa Lib at the expense of Peñarol, but Feyenoord would deny them that second Intercontinental Cup.

By this time several Argentine teams were already implementing various Zubeldía concepts.  Set pieces as well as offside traps were being implemented by sides in several instances.  As a matter of fact, those same concepts are normal nowadays as well.  Zubeldía was also the first coach to implement the sequestering of players in hotel rooms or dorms the night before a match in order to focus solely on the game itself.

By 1971, the Zubeldía era was coming to an end and so was Estudiantes reign.  Their loss to Nacional would end their three-year reign and Zubeldía would step aside after the third match that took place at the Estadio Nacional in Lima.

Life after Estudiantes

With the end of the golden era of the La Plata side already behind, his next step would be Vélez Sarsfield where he would do very little.    He would then take over the reigns at San Lorenzo and he would lead them to league title and he would then take over at Racing and meekly exit our the back door as the Argentine leg of his coaching career came to an end.

Colombian Football Experience

If there was a person that many people say kickstarted the birth of Colombian football, Zubeldía was the one that put the foundation down.  The league was one that floundered as much as its national team as it was a haven for foreigners going back to the days of Alfredo DiStefano, Pinino Más and the big exodus of the late 1940’s during the players’ strike that occurred in many leagues in South America.

The league in Colombia was one that saw players take things very easy and the talent of players was trumped only by the work ethic that they did not have. Many of the foreigners that arrived were not looking to remain disciplined.  Instead they were looking for a paycheck and live in a near idyllic climate.

 “I revolutionized Colombian football.  No more heavy breakfasts or extended lunches. ”                                                                           Osvaldo Zubeldía on his influence in Colombian football.

Atlético Nacional looked for his services as they were looking to become one of the elite teams in the Colombian league again after last winning a title back in 1954.  For many Argentines, Medellín was the ideal place to go to as its microclimate allowed for the weather to be pleasant year-round.  Also Medellín is one of the cities in all of Colombia that has the greatest influences of Argentine culture- tango.  Many people say that tango is probably bigger in the City of Eternal Spring than in Argentina itself.

There Zubeldía was able to live like the king of the town as he resided at the luxurious Hotel Nutibara throughout his entire tenure as Nacional coach.  The hotel was located in the most centric area in Medellín and it was also the place where the big stars and players would stay.  In 1976, he did a great deal of work selling the players into his style of preparation and the squad won the league title. He would continue blazing a trail in this virgin territory as Nacional would also win the league title in 1981.  By this time, one of his former players from Estudiantes was also doing big things in Colombia. Carlos Bilardo, took over the reigns at Deportivo Cali and led them to the final of the Copa Libertadores where they would eventually fall to Boca Juniors in 1978.  Bilardo by this point became the most important disciple of Zubeldía, but would take pragmatism to the next level as he would take over the Colombian national team in 1979 for the World Cup qualifiers.

Zubeldía was an institution in Colombian football and his imprint was left by several players that he coached at that time, especially Francisco Maturana. Soon you saw a Colombian league that had domestic players playing at a high level as they began to be complimented by some high-quality players that would make the league on of the most competitive in the world at one point.  Although at the national team level, the results did not translate as the order that was being predicated was not fitting in with a national team that had players that wanted to play a more free-flowing style.

If there was one thing about Zubeldía it was that he lived passionately, and he died doing what he was most passionate about.  On that fateful January 17th, 1982, Zubeldía was at the race track and just as he was ready to make a bet he suffered a massive heart attack and died.   Of course, Colombian football was rocked, although many said that he died doing what he enjoyed doing.

There was no doubt that Osvaldo Juan Zubeldía was one of the most influential people in world football in the 20th century.  His ability to change the way the game was played and how teams approached matches made him a man ahead of his time and ahead of the curve.  Football reached new heights during the time that he was a coach, but he took that evolutionary curve into a new direction.  The way he changed tactics and match preparation changed the game and professionalized it even more.


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