Many years ago, just as Argentina were about to launch their defence of the World Cup they had won in 1978, two colleagues of mine expressed their disappointment that Ricardo Bochini had not been included in Cesar Luis Menotti’s squad for Spain 1982. I was, of course, familiar with the star names of Argentina ’78, players like Osvaldo Ardiles, Mario Kempes, Leopoldo Luque and Daniel Passarella, all of whom had jumped out of the TV screen from the ticker-tape drenched stadiums in Buenos Aires. But Bochini was new to me, and, presumably most football fans in Europe.
“El Bocha….grande Bochini…you won’t know him, but he’s the best player in Argentina,” said Carlos, my bond-trading colleague from BA. “You all know Maradona, but Bochini taught him how to play football….Bochini is the man.”
If Maradona had not come along, it’s reasonable to suggest that Bochini would be far better known than he is today. But there”s another relevant reason why the player who Maradona himself calls “Maestro” never won international acclaim. Bochini played all of his career in Argentina, spurning the chance to emulate some of his contemporaries and play abroad. While players like Daniel Bertoni, once inseparable from Bochini, tried their luck in Europe, and gained a much higher profile for it, he stayed with one club, Independiente, in Argentine domestic football. As it happened. Bochini played 28 times for his country, most of which were pre-Maradona, and the remainder were probably due to the insistence of Maradona to include his mentor.
Bochini came from the kind of stable that would have produced similar needle-threading pass-masters like Xavi and Pirlo, but in 1978, the chain-smoking Menotti didn’t include either Bochini, then 24, or the fledgling Maradona in his squad for the World Cup. The omission of a gifted yet untried Maradona was understandable, but Bochini’s place went to River Plate’s Noberto Alonso. As the competition would demonstrate, Menotti’s preference was for fast, slaloming football, with pace in all departments. Bochini, for all his passing prowess, wasn’t the fastest player. He also didn’t look like the archetype Latin American gun-slinging footballer of the time – a la Kempes and Luque, – with his thinning, mad professor hair and his Bambi on Ice legs. One backpacker, keen on watching a game in Argentina, saw him play in 1977 and described him thus: “Saw Independiente. Excellent midfielder who could spray the ball…looked like Max Wall.” There was no doubt he could play and the Independiente fans loved him. And so did Maradona, who idolised Bochini.
There’s a school of thought suggesting that if Bochini had moved to Boca Juniors or River Plate, then he would have won more caps. Menotti favoured – either through choice or through gentle regime persuasion (let’s not discount that this was an administration that dropped dissidents out of helicopters into the River Plate) – the more fashionable Buenos Aires clubs. In the 1970s, however, Independiente were very successful and won the Libertadores Cup in 1973, 1974 and 1975 and were crowned as World Club champions in 1973, thanks to some outstanding performances from the young Bochini, notably when he lobbed the great Dino Zoff as Independiente beat Juventus.
Equally important for Independiente fans was the hat-trick Bochini scored against Avellenedan rivals Racing Club in a memorable 4-1 win in 1974, the only time he achieved that personal landmark in almost 700 appearances for the club.
Bochini was not just a goalscorer though, and perfected the skill of making others look good. His vision and passing ability were without equal and even today, when a player makes a remarkable pass, it is referred to as pase Bochinesco in tribute to him. One of his great skills was the delayed pass to ensure the ball would find his man. This became known as la pausa, the art of waiting for the recipient of the pass to arrive at the right time.
Despite the relative lack of international recognition, Bochini remains one of the most celebrated of Argentine players, and is considered Independiente’s greatest player. He won four Argentine Primera Division titles, four Libertadores, two Copa Interamericanas and two World Club (Intercontinental) titles. He netted over 100 goals in around 700 games. And he has a street named after him!
He also won a World Cup medal in 1986 in Mexico, although he saw just five minutes of action. Excluded from the 1982 squad, Carlos Bilardo included the 32 year-old in the Argentina World Cup squad for the first time, doubtless prompted by his captain. Five minutes from the end of the semi-final against Belgium, with Argentina cruising to victory, he entered the field of play as a substitute. Maradona welcomed him with no small degree of joy, but Bochini was in the autumn of his career and looked out of place in the eventual winners’ line-up. Despite everything, he got to appear in the World Cup.
It’s no great surprise that Bochini’s career has largely been overlooked by football historians. His peak was in a time when European ventures into South America were treated with all the trepidation of a Victorian expedition into darkest Africa, or a trip up the Amazon. There was no SKY, no internet and if a team from Europe travelled to that part of the world, it took nearly 24 hours to read a report of the game. But his influence is significant – after all, without Bochini, would there have been a Diego Armando Maradona?