César Luis Menotti obituary

<span>César Luis Menotti speaking at a press conference before <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Argentina;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Argentina</a>’s World Cup final match against the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Netherlands;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Netherlands</a> in 1978.</span><span>Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images</span>

The football manager César Luis Menotti, who has died aged 85, led Argentina to their first ever World Cup trophy in 1978, a 3-1 victory on home territory against the Netherlands in the deafening noise of the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires on a pitch strewn with ticker tape. It was a joyful occasion, but one that for many – including Menotti himself – was soured by the fact that the country was led by a brutal military junta, for whom the win was valuable propaganda.

Long-haired and left-leaning, Menotti was, as Esquire magazine once said, “the embodiment of everything the junta opposed”. But there was a symbiotic relationship between the two parties, for Menotti’s job as manager was reliant on the patronage of the dictator Jorge Rafaél Videla, who had come to power in a coup two years earlier, and Videla was wise enough to recognise that Menotti represented Argentina’s best chance of glory.

Although the scale of state violence was not then fully understood by Menotti or his players, throughout the World Cup he had to negotiate a moral maze, privately urging his players to win the tournament not so much for national pride but for the ordinary football watchers whose family and friends were beginning to bear the brunt of the torture, murder and “disappearances” that became the junta’s modus operandi.

He also gained satisfaction from nurturing a freer-flowing, more attacking style of play – featuring flair footballers of the calibre of Osvaldo Ardiles, Alberto Tarantini, Daniel Passarella and Mario Kempes – that was the antithesis of what he called “rightwing football”: the cynical, foul-ridden methods that had held sway in Argentina before his arrival. While some later accused him of being a collaborationist, the more general view was that he did what he could in difficult circumstances.

Only 39 years of age when Argentina won the World Cup, Menotti was a gaunt, chain-smoking, café society philosopher who took an intellectual approach to football. Although occasionally given to making obscure statements about the game – once declaring that “a football team is above all an idea” – he did much to change coaching attitudes around the world, and his influence was wide, encouraging the emergence of a brand of manager committed to exploring tactical possibilities in all their detail. One of his greatest admirers was the Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Menotti was born in Rosario in the central province of Santa Fe, and began his footballing career for the local side Unión América, where as a teenager he managed to get himself sentenced to 30 days in prison for writing graffiti on the walls of the club stadium in protest at what he perceived as its slide into commercialism. Already tall, he was also a good basketball player, but when Menotti was 16 his father, Antonio, died of cancer, and his commitment to football thereafter took on greater significance, as the money would help him support his mother.

An elegant player with a powerful shot, Menotti signed for Rosario Central, where he became known as “El Flaco” (the thin one) and made his debut in the Primera División in 1960 as a striker, spending four years there until signing for the Buenos Aires club Racing in 1964. The following year he went to Boca Juniors, with whom he was part of the 1965 Argentinian championship-winning side.

By 1967 he had moved on again, this time to the US, where he played a season for New York Generals in the fledgling North American Soccer League before signing for the Brazilian club Santos, where he played alongside Pelé as they won the Brazilian title in 1968. In what proved to be a peripatetic club career, his final move came in 1969, when he signed for Clube Atlético Juventus in Brazil before retiring as a player in 1970, having also won 11 caps for Argentina between 1963 and 1968.

Moving straight into coaching back in Rosario, Menotti had a year as assistant manager at Newell’s Old Boys before being appointed manager at the Huracán club in Buenos Aires in 1971, developing his trademark attacking philosophy there and making such an impression by winning the 1973 Metropolitano championship that he was appointed as Argentina manager the following year.

In contrast to the chaos that had often preceded him, Menotti’s nine-year era as Argentina manager was a stable one, based around his insistence on a properly organised fixture list and a government-supported ban on Argentinian players under the age of 25 playing abroad. This allowed him to work more effectively with the young talent at his disposal, including through a newly created national youth team.

By the time the military seized power in 1976, he had already set in train a detailed programme to deliver the 1978 World Cup that chimed neatly with the junta’s desire to polish its global reputation. Showing his mettle, Menotti resisted the general clamour to include the 17-year-old Diego Maradona in the squad, judging that he might crack under the pressure of expectation.

In the 1978 tournament Argentina began well, with victories over Hungary and France that took them through the first group stage, then beat Poland and drew with Brazil before a 6–0 win against Peru – since viewed with suspicion given that Argentina needed to win by four goals or more to progress – took them to the final from the second group stage.

In the final Kempes gave Argentina the lead in the 38th minute, and after the Netherlands took the game to extra time with an 82nd minute equaliser from Dick Nanninga, Kempes scored again to make it 2-1 and then Daniel Bertoni sealed the victory.

There was further success for Menotti as Argentina won the World Youth Championship in 1979 in Tokyo. But at the 1982 World Cup, held in Spain, just as Argentina and the UK had become involved in the Falklands conflict, his side disappointed. Now with Maradona in the full squad, this time there were internal divisions between the younger and older players, and they were eliminated at the second group stage after losses to Italy and Brazil.

Menotti resigned afterwards, but was swiftly hired by Barcelona, who had also signed Maradona. Although Menotti led his new team to the Copa del Rey, the league cup and the Spanish Super Cup in 1983, there was no domestic league or European glory, and he decided to leave in 1984.

His later managerial career ranged across many clubs, including at Boca Juniors (1987), Atlético Madrid (1987-88), River Plate (1989), Peñarol de Montevideo (1990), the Mexico national team (1991-92), Independiente (1996-99, interrupted by a brief period at Sampdoria), and then, with growing gaps in between appointments, at Rosario, Independiente again, Pueblo and Tecos.

In 2019 he became director of the Argentina national footballing set-up, and held the position until 2023.

• César Luis Menotti, footballer and manager, born 22 October 1938; died 5 May 2024