Cesar Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo: Argentinian football’s opposing ideologues

Words by Callum Rice Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 16, 2018
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The mood when Cesar Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo met at the Arena Hotel in Seville in March 1983 was amicable enough. There was no animosity, no feud. There was, though, a hint at what was to come: Menotti, never one to hide his beliefs, told Bilardo that he had held back the development of Argentinian football by ten years.

Bilardo brushed off the comment. He had thick skin. And he had admired the performances of Menotti’s World Cup-winning Argentina team in 1978. Bilardo had met with Menotti to seek his advice. The former had taken over from the latter as Argentina coach and could hardly have been more different. Both represented opposing schools of  thought: Pragmatism against idealism, Anti-Fútbol against La Nuestra and, within a few months of their meeting, Bilardisme against Menottisme.

It was a clash based on ideological disagreements more than any personal differences, but it began with what Menotti, principled and respectful, deemed to be an insult to his professionalism. In Seville, he had advised Bilardo to select Alberto Tarantini and Hugo Gatti in his squad for his first game as coach, a friendly against Chile. Bilardo ignored his advice and left them out.

Furious, Menotti wrote an article for Clarin – an Argentinian newspaper – chastising the methods of Bilardo. Any bridges that had been established between the two were burnt; they were, from that moment on, enemies, or were at least perceived to be.

One’s ideas were antithetical to the other’s. Bilardo was a tracksuited, unapologetic pragmatist, a student of the founders of anti-fútbol, a man with little concern over aesthetics, just focused on winning and little else. Menotti, meanwhile, was a chain-smoking, erudite romanticist, an outspoken liberal, an advocate of beautiful football and freedom of expression.

They perhaps summed themselves up best in their own words, even if both played up to caricatured versions of themselves. Bilardo’s philosophy was simple: “I like being first. You have to think about being first. Because being second is a failure. For me it’s good that if you lose you should feel bad. If you want you can express it by crying, shutting yourself away, feeling bad. You can’t let people down: the fans, the person who signed you, everyone. Football is played to win. Shows are for the theatre. Some people are very confused.”

By some people, Bilardo perhaps referred indirectly to Menotti, who preached the importance of aestheticism and romanticism, and rejected suggestions that football should be little more than a Darwinian struggle. “There is a right-wing football and a left-wing football,” he said. “Right-wing football wants us to believe that life is struggle. It demands sacrifices. We have to become steel and win by any methods.”

A footballer, Menotti said, is “a privileged interpreter of the dreams and feelings of thousands of people. You can lose a game, but what you cannot lose is the dignity earned by playing good football.”

There was a perception that the two represented, in effect, the light versus the dark, that Bilardo was diametrically opposed to anything expressive and that Menotti was undyingly devoted to entertaining the people, as if in some footballing utopia. The reality, though, as is often the case with such distinct dichotomies, was far more multi-layered and complex.

Menotti, in the build-up to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, attempted to publicly assert his convictions. “If we could win the World Cup the way I would like us to it would inspire others to reassess the way we play the game – our basic philosophy,” he said. “Perhaps it would also stop us relying so much on violence and cynicism, which are the tools of fear.”

There was a perception that the two represented, in effect, the light versus the dark, that Bilardo was diametrically opposed to anything expressive and that Menotti was undyingly devoted to entertaining the people

His comments were made in reference to the military junta that led the country at the time. Menotti was vehemently opposed to this regime and looked to ensure that his team were distanced from the ideologies of the dictatorial government.

When the World Cup came, though, it appeared that Menotti had embraced an element of pragmatism. Certainly, his team did not shy away from gamesmanship. Menotti insisted that his ideals remained intact but the consensus in the final was that the Netherlands were the idealists. Brian Glanville wrote that the tournament had been “disfigured by negative football, ill temper, spiteful players and the wanton surrender of Peru”.

Bilardo, meanwhile, was equally capable of confounding his reputation. He won the World Cup eight years after Menotti, playing functional, effective football, and depending to an extent on the brilliance of Diego Maradona. But it was he who in 2005, bemoaned the paucity of technically gifted players in the modern game. “The quality of play has definitely deteriorated over the years,” he said. “Modern football is all about running. Technique is a foreign word. Nowadays even 12-year-olds are obliged to win. Actually enjoying play is immaterial. Rushing, running, wrestling and writhing are top of the bill; creativity and ingenuity are now old hat. Unfortunately, it is the truth.”

Evidently, Bilardo, despite how he was often portrayed, was not intent on seeping all of the enjoyment out of football. His passion for winning and his unerring competitiveness may have outweighed his desire to entertain, but the term Anti-Fútbol does not tell the whole story. Nor can the dichotomous relationship between he and Menotti be taken solely at face value.

The two were rivals, certainly, but to consider them exact opposites would be reductive. In reality, Bilardo and Menotti were characters just as nuanced as the true parallels between idealistic and pragmatic football.

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