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Copa America: Lionel Messi, Argentina feel tremendous pressure to win tournament
0:59 | Planet Futbol
Copa America: Lionel Messi, Argentina feel tremendous pressure to win tournament
Friday June 24th, 2016

Argentina has scored three or more goals in four games of this Copa America for the first time since 1957, when it won the championship with the side known as the Angels with Dirty Faces. In an edited extract from his forthcoming book on the history of Argentina, Jonathan Wilson looks back at a team that became emblematic of an entire football culture.

Angels with Dirty Faces is published in the U.S. by Nation Books​ and in the UK by Orion​.

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The game should never have been in the balance, but it was. Argentina had battered Brazil, had created chance after chance, had had shot after shot, yet it was with only three minutes to go that Humberto Maschio, the tough inside-right from Racing, finally made it 2–0. In the wave of relief that followed, the Independiente winger Osvaldo Cruz added a third, and Argentina, with a game to spare, were South American champions for 1957, their eleventh title.

As the players celebrated on the field after the final whistle in the Estadio Nacional in Lima, a microphone was handed to River Plate defender Federico Vairo so he could address the crowd. Although a leader, he was a player whose gentle face suggested concern most of the time, and on this occasion his emotions overwhelmed him. He tried to compose himself, gripping the microphone more firmly, but when he began to speak, his voice was tremulous.

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“It’s…” he said uncertainly, “it’s all thanks to these caras sucias [dirty faces], to these five sinvergüenzas [shameless ones].”

His voice trailed away, and he handed the microphone back to the official who’d thrust it at him. He managed only one sentence, but in it he both gave that team the name by which history would know it and encapsulated the spirit of Argentinian soccer to that point.

Nobody had any doubt as to whom Vairo was referring. The forward line of Omar Orestes Corbatta, Humberto Maschio, Antonio Angelillo, Omar Sívori, and Osvaldo Cruz had been devastating throughout the tournament, playing skillful, fluent soccer that resonated with a sense of enjoyment. What better name for the five players who had inspired Argentina to the Campeonato Sudamericano than los Ángeles con Caras Sucias—the Angels with Dirty Faces—a nod to the 1938 film starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and a recognition of both the impudence of their style and the carefree way in which they played, which extended to a less than rigorous attitude toward training. “Sívori drove [the coach Guillermo] Stábile mad,” said left-half Ángel “Pocho” Schandlein. “If the bus left at eight for training, Sívori was always missing, and he’d show up at ten in a taxi. Sívori liked to sleep.”

In time the Carasucias—as the nickname was abbreviated—came to stand for the great lost past of the Argentinian game, a golden age in which skill and cheek and fun held sway, before the age of responsibility and negativity. The image of the past may have been romanticized, but the sense of loss when it was gone was real enough, and in that nostalgia for an illusory past when the world was still being made and idealism had not been subjugated by cynicism is written the whole psychodrama of Argentinian soccer, perhaps of Argentina itself.

The victory of the carasucias, the dirty faces, was the apotheosis of la nuestra, not just another championship but a perfect demonstration of the ideals of Argentinian soccer. Sívori of River Plate was twenty-one, an explosive dribbler with a large head—its size earned him the nickname “El Cabezón”—a mop of black hair, gaps between his teeth, and a lopsided smile: he was the image of the pibe, the self-schooled urchin Argentina lionized as the perfect exemplar of how it played the game. Angelillo of Boca Juniors, the center-forward, was nineteen and sported a slim mustache and neatly combed, swept-back hair. Maschio of Racing, nicknamed “Bocha,” was the oldest of the trio at twenty-four, his hair severely parted, his gaze stern. Together, the Trio de la Muerte as they became known, were irresistible.

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It wasn’t just the Trio, though, something Maschio was keen to make clear. There was his Racing teammate Omar Orestes Corbatta, a brilliant dribbler, his life as yet untainted by the alcohol that would later overwhelm him, and on the other flank Osvaldo Cruz of Independiente, who came onto the side when Antonio Garabal left Ferro Carril Oeste to move to Spain with Atlético de Madrid. And in the center, perhaps most important of all, was Néstor “Pipo” Rossi, the great caudillo.

The mystique of the carasucias grew because their exploits existed largely in the public’s imagination: they became a myth, a distant, half-dreamed ideal. “No one in Argentina had the chance to see that team,” Maschio said. “There was no television. They could only hear us on the radio. The only opportunity people had to see us was in three friendly matches [before the tournament], and they were very flattering. We beat a selection from the interior 8–1, then we beat Huracán 3–1, and then we beat another team from the interior 6–0, so that helped create an impression.”

It was in those games that the manager, Guillermo Stábile, who had been the top scorer at the 1930 World Cup, first began to realize something special was beginning to form. “In the practice games we had the feeling that we were looking at an exceptional attacking lineup,” he told El Gráfico eight years later. “They understood each other as if they had always played together. Their strength was the combination: old virtues with a modern rhythm. And behind them they had an experienced and efficient defensive block… [T]he axis of the team, sweating quality and injecting soccer, was the Voice, Pipo Rossi: ‘Run, Bocha, don’t stay. Zurdo, raise your head, don’t show off too much. Enrique, pass it, the others can also play. Corbatita, who are you marking? Mark someone, do you want me dead?’”

Stábile wasn’t just focused on soccer, though, something that became apparent in Peru. “He used to take the girls off us,” said Maschio, whose interest in women was legendary. “Sívori started dating the telephone operator in the hotel, and I was going out with one of her friends. And when the girls called, he said to us, ‘Give me the phone; I want to talk to her.’ He always tried to steal our conquests. He was really good-looking. We didn’t have a chance.”

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The form Argentina had shown in the buildup was continued in Lima, where they began with an 8–2 win over Colombia. They followed that up by beating Ecuador 3–0 and Uruguay 4–0. A 6–2 victory over Chile meant that a win over Brazil in their penultimate game would secure the title. Brazil were the pretournament favorites and had racked up twenty-three goals in their first five games thanks to the creativity of Didi and the finishing of Evaristo.

Angelillo put Argentina ahead midway through the first half. Then, the report in El Gráfico said, “Brazil showed their claws trying to equalize. Argentina entrenched behind the screaming of its commander Rossi. Corbatta kept running and distracted Didi. Sívori kept dribbling and Maschio’s coldness awaited for a deadly counterattack.” And finally, after numerous chances to settle the game, came those two goals in the final three minutes. The reaction in Brazil was savage. “The team didn’t do anything,” said playwright and soccer journalist Nelson Rodrigues. “Absolutely nothing. Terrible technically, tactically and psychologically, we escaped, without doubt, an astronomical thrashing.”

There was still one game to play—in fact, as it turned out, two.

“The Argentinian ambassador in Peru was called General [Roberto Tomás] Dalton,” said Maschio. “When we beat Brazil 3–0 we’d already won the championship, but we still had the last match against Peru on the Saturday. On the Thursday, Stábile told us that we had the days before that game free. The whole team went out celebrating, apart from Dellacha, Angelillo and me. We shared a room. Dellacha was like a father to us: he took care of us and wouldn’t let us go. He just introduced us to some female friends on the beach. We lost 2–1 to Peru and Dalton was furious. He thought that because we were champions it was impossible for us to be beaten, so he arranged a rematch. Stabile said that those who wanted to go away were free to do so, but the rest of us lived like we were in cloisters. We had breakfast at the hotel, practiced at El Revolver Club, then lunch, then we trained again in the afternoon. After that we had dinner and went to bed. We won the second game 4–1.”

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Brilliant as they’d been—Pedro Escartín, the Spanish referee and journalist, hailed Argentina as the favorites for the 1958 World Cup—Argentina didn’t return home to any great reception.

“I remember a few people were there to welcome us in the airport,” said Maschio. “There was nothing like there would have been nowadays, nothing to compare with the number of people that came when we won the Intercontinental Cup with Racing. It was not really special. There were only a few fans, journalists and our families.”

It soon became special, though: in retrospect, the victory of the Angels with Dirty Faces in Peru was the last great flowering of la nuestra, the elaborate, free-flowing attacking style of play that Argentinian soccer came to see as characteristic of its golden age. Within a year it was over, humiliation against Czechoslovakia in the World Cup in Helsingborg tipping Argentina into a spiral of self-reflection from which it has never really escaped.

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