Argentina 1973 – La selección fantasma

In order to qualify for the World Cup 1974 in Germany, Argentina had to win its qualifiers group, including Bolivia and Paraguay. To leave nothing to chance, and to endure in La Paz, 3600m above sea level, a part of the national team was sent to an altitude training camp for more than 30 days, where it almost was forgotten.

Starting point

Because Argentina couldn’t qualify for the 1970 World Cup, a repeated failure in qualifying for the edition in 1974, could have put at risk the own hosting of the tournament in 1978. In addition, Brazil, the big rival had already brought itself into position as substitution host. To qualify for the edition in the Federal Republic of Germany, the Albiceleste had to finish first its group, completed with Bolivia and Paraguay.

SinceArgentina had missed to qualify for the tournament in 1970, among other things due to a 3:1 loss in Bolivia, and hadn’t been able to win in such altitude for over 20 years, the association made a unique decision. On initiative of assistant coach Miguel Ignomiriello, a B-Team was sent for over a month to an altitude training camp to Tilcara, in the northwest of the country (Jujuy Province). There they were supposed to acclimatize, to compensate the height advantage of the Bolivians in La Paz. In exchange the A-Team should play the three games on sea level; both home matches in Buenos Aires and the away match against Paraguay in Asunción.

The plan: 45 days, 15 matches, 14 wins, 1 draw, 4000m height and a few dollars

Those are the figures of a unique performance, behind which a lot of more stories are hiding. Except for Aldo Pedro Poy, all players who joined the adventure were youngsters and relatively unknown. This was the only way to do it, because the special preparation took place while the regular season was still going on, and the major clubs would not have let go their stars for over a month. Some of them should later become legends and world cup winners, like Ubaldo „Pato“ Fillol, Ricardo „El Bocha“ Bochini or Mario „El Matador“ Kempes, others in comparison should never wear the dress of the national team again.

1. Stage: Tilcara 2465m

On 19th of August 1973 the mentioned team first took a flight to Salvador de Jujuy, in order to continue the journey by bus to Tilcara. Tilcara is a small village with around 5600 inhabitants, which is situated on 2465m. Originally it was planned to stay in La Quiaca (3442m), but the only hotel there was being renovated during that time.

In the meantime, the A-Team made a tour to Spain, where they played amongst others Atlético Madrid and FC Málaga. The contrast between both teams couldn’t possibly be bigger. While the Spain travellers together with head coach Enríque Omar Sívori and some officials probably enjoyed their lives with Serrano ham and wine, their colleagues sank into oblivion. Ironically the men in the mountains occasionally were not believed to be national players, and were told, that the true national squad was in Spain. Since nobody of the association could tell the journalist José María Otero any news about the B-Team, he named it “Equipo Fantasma” (Ghost team).

Disastrous organisation

The conditions in Tilcara were pathetic. The equipment reached the players just three days before departure, due to personal intervention from Ignomirielo, who was coach of the team. Plus, none of the officials felt like joining the trip to the province. The association contacted seven men, who all had an excuse prepared, so that in the end a friend of Ignomirielo accompanied the team. That way it was at least accomplished, that the rage against the association forged a bond between the players.

Above all Mario “El Matador” Kempes pulled both the AFA and the local conditions into pieces, it was a “shitty hotel”, and the little food they had was very bad. “The purée from the hotel, could be thrown to the roof and would not fall down, and the meat was as hard as a stone”. There was not even a phone to communicate with the association or the families. Rubén “Hueso” Glaría described it more drastically as a “gulag”, and Reinaldo “Mostaza” Merlo did leave after a few days, because he did not cope with the conditions.

“The AFA did forget us, and we were really suffering. We did not even have food. Two friendly matches were scheduled, but we ended up playing seven, to earn money. With the money, we did buy stuff at the supermarket and one of us prepared the meal. I lost eight kilos.” (Kempes)

2. Stage: Peru

After the basic work in Argentina, the team travelled on to Cuzco (3416m). There they played amongst others a friendly match against the local CS Cienciano, which was won 1:0. But instead of the agreed 5000 Peso reward, the Peruvians only paid 3500, because they weren’t the “true” national team. To make matters worse on the matchday there was called out a general strike in Peru, and all cooks from the hotel left work. But when the players went to the market themselves and saw all the meat lying on the dirty ground, the hunger disappeared.

After that the team descended to Arequipa (2335m), to play against the local champion FBC Melgar, which was also beaten 1:0. However the journey was rather made for backpackers than for professional football players. In general, the journeys were like torture, and the players usually spent five hours on a wooden bench on a train or bus, which drove them through the Andes. At least there prevailed a more pleasant climate in Arequipa and this time the full reward was paid.

As already described, the squad around Ignomirielo had sunk into oblivion for the rest of the country, and the AFA was an unorganised bunch these days. When the team arrived at Arequipa, an official called Ignomirielo and told him, that he was not allowed to play any more games in exchange for money. To which he answered, that if they wouldn’t play, they would not have anything to eat. But the official insisted and said that he would send an airplane with all the necessary things. But Ignomiriello just replied mockingly “until now you were not even able to send as some ham, and now you want to send us a plane? The tour went on.

3. Stage: Bolivia

After the arrival at La Paz, there was arranged a match against Independiente Unificada from Potosí (3900m) in southern-central Bolivia. The local Fiat branch found out about the match and wanted to use the Argentinians in their marketing campaign against the newly opened Volkswagen branch. They asked the Argentinians to travel to Potosí by car. The parties agreed and the 500 km were covered in five Fiats, whose carburettors were pulled off, so that they wouldn’t break in the altitude.

At half time the rival led 1:0 and Ignomirielo made clear to his players, that loosing was forbidden, because this would be published all over the media, and they would look bad in front of A-coach Sívori. Accordingly, the players begun the 2nd half nervously, and furthermore two players were sent off for insults, after they responded to provocations. Nevertheless, they managed to win the match by 3:1. But the temper of the locals was so heated up already, that they threw stones towards the Fiats and damaged them severely. The responsible people at Fiat were foaming with rage and obviously paid less than it had been agreed on.

The Match

On 23rd of September the match day had arrived and the decisive game in the Estadio Hernando Siles in La Paz was pending. The manager of the A-Team, Sívori, joined the squad the night before. To everyone’s surprise he nominated, against the initial deal, five players from the principal side. That had already done groundwork and had won the home match against Bolivia and reached a draw in Paraguay. Although the players felt betrayed, after they had gone through so much suffering, from a sporting perspective the changes were understandable.

In the match, appropriately enough, it was Oscar “El Fantasma/The Ghost” Fornari who scored the 1:0 in the 18th minute, which was defended firmly up to the end. Thanks to the victory the team had practically one foot in Germany. However, this heroic victory was not paid immediate attention either, because the same day Juan Domingo Perón was elected president for the third time. The ignorance of the team continued till to the end. One week later the qualification was accomplished through a 3:1 win against Paraguay.

Conclusive consideration

If the training camp was indeed the decisive reason for the important victory cannot be said with 100% certainty. Because as a matter of fact Bolivia was a relatively weak team and Paraguay, without special training camp, did win in La Paz, too. In any case the team felt well prepared. Rubén “Hueso” Glaría expressed it this way, “we played from 2000m up to 4200m, but we faced so many problems, that the altitude was the smallest”. Besides “at the end of the trip everyone had become a good businessman, cause while negotiating the match payments everybody had to have in mind how much they needed for the hotel and food”.

In the meantime, the FIFA did forbid to play qualifying matches above 3000m, but La Paz received a special permission. And it is not uncommon that the Bolivians achieve a surprising victory against a higher rated team.

Mil gracias a Federico Vazza, director del documental “La selección Fantasma” para hacernos posible verlo desde Alemania. / Many thanks to Federico Vazza, director of the documentary “La selección Fantasma”, who made it possible for us to watch the movie from Germany.