La Bombonera Massacre 1969

by Charles Pulling

La Bombonera MassacreBlood poured from Nestor Combin’s broken nose onto his once white A.C Milan shirt. His eyes rendered nearly useless – a result from his shattered cheekbone. The Milan doctor knelt at his crumpled body. Through blurred vision and the deafening clamor Combin focused on a man dressed all in black. The referee leant down to speak over the din. He wanted the battered and bloodied striker back on the pitch so the game could resume. Combin’s body went limp as he lost consciousness. The next thing he would be aware of would be his arrest whilst laid out on a stretcher.

Throughout the early 60s the Intercontinental cup had captured the world’s attention. Helped in no small means by Santos’ 2-in-a-row victory headed by Pele the competition had one fans by being both glamorous and providing competitive, exciting football.

However, the withdrawal of Brazilian teams in the later years of the decade – due to among other things a lack of financial incentive – led to a reduction in the perceived prestige the competition enjoyed in the Latin continent. With Brazil’s teams abstaining Argentina’s domestic sides seized the opportunity to have their impact on the world stage.

The Argentines saw fit to perpetuate the reputation they had gained during the 1966 World cup for excessive physicality on the pitch. Perhaps encouraged and enraged in equal measure by Alf Ramsey’s comments that they were “Animals” first blood was drawn in 1967. The ‘Battle of Montevideo’ saw Celtic, Racing Club of Argentina and riot police take the field as six players were dismissed.

The following year Manchester United and Estudiantes fought out a brutal edition. The tactical violence and intimidation leading Matt Bubsy to call for Argentina’s teams to be “banned from all competitions”. But it was the 1969 final, between A.C Milan and a returning Estudiantes that would shock the world and draw serious doubt over the competitions future.

The Milan team that qualified for the global trophy was coached by Nereo Rocco. A pioneer of the Catenaccio tactical system in Italy it had served his side well. The air tight defence supplemented with the young attacking duo of Gianni Rivera and José Altafini made light work of Ajax in the European cup final and now expected to add another trophy to the prestigious Milan cabinet.

Rocco’s opposite number was Osvaldo Zubeldía, a man who was pinnacle in shaping Estudiantes’ into a domestic success. He took the graduates of the youth team (‘La Tercera que Mata’ or ‘the juvenile killers’) and molded them into a team which would be the first to break the ‘Big 5’ monopoly of Argentinian football.

The two-legged nature of the final saw Milan on home soil at the San Siro on 8th October. i Rossoneri in all white barely broke stride as they cruised in to the lead after just eight minutes, Sormani heading in unmarked at the back post. The lead was doubled when Combin jinxed past defence, goalkeeper et al. to finish. Estudiantes rallied briefly in the second half, but their forwards (including Juan Verón father of the Lazio and Chelsea midfielder) could not unlock Milan’s Catenaccio defence. Sormani seemingly put the first-leg beyond doubt midway in the second half. A breathtaking display of control and possession by the Milan side who saw nothing from their opponents to suggest anything other than a trophy celebration in Buenos Aries.

Fourteen days later as the Milan players entered ‘The chocolate box’ pitch it was clear the second leg was a different beast to its cousin. As they warmed up footballs and were fired towards them by their opponents. The police in the stadium did nothing to dissuade fans throwing missiles towards Milan’s players and staff. Nor did they put a stop to hot coffee being poured down onto the Italians as they left the tunnel, a South American incarnation of hot oil poured from medieval castle turrets.

It became abundantly clear from the kick off what kind of ‘game’ Milan would expect. Possession of the football and a Milan shirt seemingly a crime punishable by a barrage of kicking, punching and elbows. Also abundantly clear was the Chilean referee’s blatant ignoring of Estudiantes’ indiscretions.

All Milan players received their ‘fair’ share of fouls and physicality. But 15 minutes in gave the first indication to those watching that there was brutality to the home sides actions when Pierino Prati was felled on the half way line which resulted in concussion. Milan captain Gianni Riviera was punched repeatedly to the ground by goalkeeper Alberto Poletti, a reward perhaps for scoring the opener to give Milan a 4-0 aggregate score line.

The Argentines pulled two back in quick succession before half time, but in truth the score line was now an irrelevancy to the Estudiantes players and staff. More important was the physical retributions they could inflict on their opponents. And singled out for the most brutal treatment was Néstor Combin, the argentine born striker who had been singled out as a ‘traitor’ by both players and the thousands of braying los porteños for representing France rather than the land of his birth.

The receiver of a devastating elbow from Ramón Aguirre Suárez resulted in Combin’s need for medical attention. Though things took a turn from the violent to the surreal as he was being stretchered away. Argentine police handcuffed the semi-conscious striker whilst still lying in his now blood red Milan kit. The charge: Draft-dodging.

The final whistle went and Milan were crowned champions. Whilst celebrations were a mix of euphoria and relief (at having come through relatively unscathed). The joy soon turned to disbelief upon learning that Combin was escorted out of the stadium and now in the local jail. Manager Rocco, perhaps swayed by what he saw both from the home team and fans made a decision. We leave. To his mind this was now a legal and diplomatic issue. The best he could do for his team was to get them out of the country as soon as possible.

The levels of media outcry after the game almost matched the violence on it. The Gazetto dello sport  called it a “Ninety minute man-hunt”. Even the Argentinian press, citing the Estudiantes players as a national embarrassment called for recriminations.

They were swift in coming. Military dictator Juan Carlos Ongania intervened, demanding the harshest punishment be meted out to the culprits. The Argentinian FA played ball in sentencing, the harshest of which reserved for Ramón Suárez and Eduardo Manero to bans of up to 30 games. The severest of punishments was saved for goalkeeper Poletti who was banned for life and along with Manero actually sentenced to a month in prison.

The damage done to the Intercontinental Cup was almost irreparable. The subsequent ten years saw the majority of European teams boycott the competition. It was only after car company Toyota lobbied for the format to be moved to a one off game in Japan that the inter-continental cup regained some of its 1960s prestige.

Combin was released after two days in custody and soon rejoined his teammates back in Milan. Battered but not broken. A survivor of the La Bombonera Massacre.

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