Argentinos Juniors, 1985 South American Champions - The benefits of Maradona’s departure
Selling Diego Maradona to Boca Juniors in 1981 almost cost Argentinos Juniors immediate relegation. In the very last game of the Metropolitan tournament of that year, Argentinos, second from bottom in the league, faced one of the big five of Argentine football, San Lorenzo, who were just one point above them. This game would therefore settle the second relegation place, and Argentinos were naturally forced to win. A goal scored by Carlos "el loco" Salinas, one of the players received from Boca as part of the Maradona transfer, sealed the relegation of San Lorenzo to division two for the first time in that club’s history.
The fact that Argentinos had received a significant amount of cash and four very useful players from Boca, amongst which Salinas and the classy midfielder Mario Zanabria were the most talented, did not seem to be enough to minimally compensate Diego’s departure. In 1980 Argentinos had enjoyed the best season in the club’s history finishing runners up for the first time ever in the Metropolitan championship, with Maradona scoring more than forty goals during that whole year.
After a pretty grim middle-of-the-table season in 1982, things gradually began to brighten up with the arrival as coach of former River Plate legend Angel Labruna at the beginning of 1983. Having recently enjoyed tremendous success at that club winning six titles during 1975-81, Labruna was brought in to liven up the spirit at Argentinos after Diego’s departure. At a time when the then Argentine national Coach Carlos Bilardo was persistently emphasizing the futility of using wingers, Labruna decided to base his new team’s tactics on a classic 4-3-3 scheme playing two very fast wingers up front.
Former Velez Sarsfield striker Pepe Castro played on the right wing and the relatively unknown Carlos Ereros was purchased from a Mendoza team to play on the left. Centre forward Carlos Pasculli, later to score Argentina’s winning goal against Uruguay in the 86 World Cup, benefited enormously from the speed and accurate crosses of those two wingers. In order to make this attacking minded scheme more effective, Labruna had very wisely decided to "rent" a pitch with much wider dimensions than the Argentinos one. The Nearby Ferro Carril Oeste stadium was considered more suitable for this purpose, and for the next twenty years it would stage Argentinos’s home matches.
Labruna reinforced the rest of the team with a couple of former River veterans, JJ López and Morete, and two other players he had coached at that same club defender Pavoni and the versatile utility midfielder "Nene" Commisso. Mario Olguin, who played full back in Argentina’s 1978 World Cup winning team, provided extra quality to the defense, and a talented but somewhat lazy midfielder also purchased from a Mendoza team, "Panza" Videla, added skill to the team. At the heart of the midfield a key player emerged from the junior ranks: "el checho" Batista, also to become world champion with Argentina in 1986.
By the time of Labruna’s sudden decease in late 1983, the team had already found its momentum. Cesar Menotti’s former assistant coach Marcos Saporiti was named new manager in early 1984, and immediately made it clear that he would not in any way alter the team’s attacking mentality nor would he modify the squad inherited from Labruna. Argentinos went on to win the metropolitan championship of 1984, the club’s first league title, and consequently won the following Nacional tournament. This second championship was achieved after Saporiti had already left and was replaced by new coach "Piojo" Yudica, who stuck to the same players and tactics.
When Argentinos embarked on their first ever Libertadores Cup campaign in 1985, a major change occurred in the forward line: Pasculli left for Italy and the promising and highly talented Carlos “Bichi” Borghi was promoted to replace him. Borghi was not such a “goalscoring machine” as Pasculli, in fact scoring was to be one of his main deficits, but his tremendous skill, sophisticated passing and great understanding with Videla, allowed Castro and Ereros to get into scoring positions more often than before. After eliminating Rio de Janeiro teams Vasco and Fluminense, Argentinos defeated the Libertadores Cup holders Indpendiente in two memorable semi-finals and went on to beat América de Cali in the final on penalties after a third match play-off. The "icing on the cake" for this team was, however, to be a cup final they eventually lost: the Intercontinental Cup game in Tokyo against Juventus.
Borghi’s performance during that encounter was so sublime that Silvio Berlusconi shortly afterwards decided to purchase him for Milan. Argentinos dominated most of the match and Ereros’ and Castro’s goals twice put Argentinos ahead, only for Platini and Laudrup to equalize. After a spectacular two-all draw, Juve won on penalties, but Argentinos captured everyone’s hearts. After all, this modest club had reached the zenith of international football, a feat that somewhat ironically they would probably never have achieved with Maradona.