Panache, style, elegance and class may be similar adjectives, but they are all apt terms to describe the man we are going to talk about. Ricardo Bochini, a name that may not sound familiar to a football enthusiast from Europe or Asia, is one of the most hailed footballers in South America and particularly, Argentina. From having mesmerizing ability on the pitch to being an icon for every upcoming youngster, most things that a footballer dreams of can be associated with Bochini. Most of all, being the idol that a certain Diego Maradona looked up to himself.
Born in Zárate, Buenos Aires, which proved to be hold him back as his career went on, Ricardo, like many other footballing greats, showed impressive ability on the field from a very young age. It was bound to catch the eye of scouts looking for youth players, and it was Belgrano de Zarate, the club that gave him the initial education about the sport. Soon he was offered a contract by Club Atletico Independiente for whom he proved to be probably the most important player in their history. And thus began a journey that was never to be repeated again.
We appreciate loyalty, and so did Ricardo, who spent his whole career at the same club, and what a career it was. He didn’t have an intimidating image on the field. A short-frame of 5 feet and 5 inches, mediocre size and build and a bald patch. At first look it’s hard to tell this man would dominate a football game like few others. A quick look at his achievements, you will find that he won the Argentine Primera División four times and the Copa Libertadores four times as well. However, that doesn’t even begin to show us the greatness the man achieved.
He was an exceptional player. A midfield maestro who could go on and score but mostly made others look formidable. Not too different from Maradona except that he lacked that solo-run explosion. He had the vision and ability to create space, dribble his way out of trouble and play the perfect pass. Even to this day, the expression ‘pase bochinesco’, that roughly translates to a Bochinesque pass, is used whenever a player puts in a through ball splitting the defence and leaving the forward one on one with the goalkeeper. Do we need to say more about his ability and stature?
If you think that was impressive, that’s only one side of El Bocha’s journey. It was his passion, his leadership and his sincerity to the game that made him the name he is. You might wonder if he was that great a player, why is it that he is hardly talked about outside of his country, or why he failed to show his ability while playing for his country. To start with, as stated earlier, Ricardo was a one-club man, which meant he was never to be seen playing in Europe, unlike many of his colleagues who made their name there, including his pupil Maradona.
But that is not the complete story. He lived at a time when the country was under a dictatorship and the military interfered. The interference reached the sport in the country as well. Bochini was a regular for the national team before the 1978 World Cup. It was the World Cup that would show how great Argentina was so they pressured the manager of the team, Menotti, to call up certain players, either to get representation from certain provinces or teams. It wasn’t as much about the first XI but the squad.
Independiente and Bochini pretty much fell afoul of any criteria as Bochini was born in Zárate in Buenos Aires, and not River which was the dominant region on the footballing front and was called the rulers’ team. So Menotti took Alonso from River instead – who by all means was also a great player – but got injured and so made no impact. Anyone worth his salt would tell you how preposterous it was to leave Ricardo out of the team, given the form he was in. He was quite rightly at the peak of his career.
Moreover, it was Menotti’s tactics and the way he wanted his team to play that also led to Bochini getting side-lined even before the military interfered. His teams were more about tactical discipline and workrate than irrepressible creativity and invention, which also was the reason of another Argentine great, Mario Kempes, to be selected as he suited it well. Lastly, the rise of Diego Maradona meant that even in the future tournaments, Bochini was never to be seen in national colors. It was his fate that the man who grew up watching him and idolising him, decided to play the exact same role in the team ending up keeping Bochini out of the team. If only their ages had been inverted, Bochini would have surely taken over seamlessly from Diego.
It was not until the 1986 World Cup that Bochini was seen playing for his country. Maradona, while he learned his trade from Bochini, also had immense respect for the man, as confirmed by this incident. Bochini was being pushed further and further from the plans of then the manager of Argentina, Bilardo. It was Maradona who demanded Bilardo to take him to Mexico even if he wasn’t planning on playing him. With the semi-final against Belgium running out at 2-0, Maradona again demanded he be played. Burruchaga made way and Maradona came over to the side-line to receive him with the words, “Dibuje Maestro”, which in English is ‘draw master’. The ‘draw’ here refers to surprise everyone with his play. Bochini wasn’t at all match fit and Maradona persisted in trying to get him involved and score, even when he should be keeping the ball and doing it himself. It actually made Bochini look bad simply because while he was the master of the one-two, he was also a pragmatist. He wasn’t expecting what Maradona did because it just didn’t make sense and there were better courses of action. It was a sorry sight in the end but that was the magnitude of respect that Maradona had for him.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that he was one of the most dedicated footballers the world has seen. Just before the ’78 World Cup, Independiente had won the championship in a historic final in which the referee awarded a non-existent penalty, a handball goal, and when the Independiente players protested, he sent off three of them. It could be assumed that someone ‘upstairs’ was calling the shots. Yet they came back to win the game even with 8 vs. 11. It was no surprise that they achieved it with a Bochini goal. Bochini got on with it and Independiente won the next championship final, against River, with him scoring all the goals.
Bochini was a part of the golden era of Independiente, or as they are popularly known, Los Diablos Rojos. He formed a formidable partnership with Daniel Bertoni. Apart from dominating domestic football, they also went on to record a win in the Intercontinental Cup against the British powerhouse, Liverpool, with Bochini instrumental in the game along with the tactically disciplined defence that kept Liverpool out of the game. They won the same trophy earlier in 1973 against Juventus, when both Bochini and Bertoni dazzled the crowd and glided their way past the Juventus defence. No prizes for guessing that it was Bochini who scored the only goal of the game after finishing a delightful move with a chip over Dino Zoff.
It was Bochini who defied convention and inspired many footballers to take the ‘Argentine number 10’ role. He reduced the Independiente supporters to tears when he set foot on the pitch for the last time. Maradona give him a tribute in his biography with the words “watching him play drove me crazy with delight”. It will forever be a shame that due to very particular circumstances, the genius of Bochini has remained unheard of by masses, but that in no way will change the fact that his influence on the sport of football in Argentina and South America will remain unparalleled.
Written by Saurabh Sharma
Follow the author on Twitter: @persiesque