The 1968 Intercontinental Cup – Violence, George Best and South America

British expats established the beautiful game wherever they went, so many countries have the British to thank for their dedication to the sport. They took the sport to the Far East, Africa, Continental Europe and of course the exotic far-flung reaches of South America.

It is generally agreed that the game was introduced to the South American country of Argentina in the latter half of the 19th Century by the British immigrants in Buenos Aires. The British had crossed the Atlantic to set up business in South America – in Argentina they owned the railway system amongst other industries.

Naturally, clubs were set up to represent respective organisations with the first Argentinian league being held in 1891, making it the third oldest league (after Great Britain and the Netherlands). The inaugural league was shared between Old Caledonians and St. Andrew’s who finished level on 13 points at the end of the eight game season.

The St. Andrew's team that were the joint winners of the first Argentinian League
The St. Andrew’s team that were the joint winners of the first Argentinian League

Football flourished in the country and in 1930 Argentina finished as Runners-up to Uruguay in the first World Cup that was held in Montevideo, just 129 miles from Buenos Aires across the Río de la Plata.

However by 1968, the relations between Argentina and the British were not on good terms. England had beaten the South Americans in an ill-tempered Quarter-Final where captain Antonio Rattín was sent off, on their way to lifting the 1966 World Cup. It is a game that we are still hearing about almost 60 years later such was the controversy.

Also, there was the Intercontinental Cup match the year before between Racing Club and Scottish outfit Celtic – the three-legged tie turned into a slug-fest, a dirty match at both ends of the field. The final game which saw Racing Club triumph has infamously been dubbed “The Battle of Montevideo” after a terribly violent game. Three players from the Scottish side and two from the Argentine side were sent off in a game that was interrupted by riot police on numerous occasions. A fourth Celtic player was also dismissed, but amid the chaos he stayed on the pitch and escaped having to leave the field.

In 1968, after winning the European Cup and Copa Libertadores respectively, Manchester United and Estudiantes de La Plata were pitted against each other. Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby was expecting a hostile reaction and indeed, that is exactly what his team got when the first leg of the final was played in Argentina on September 25, 1968 after a warm welcome in Argentina from the receiving dignitaries.

The Estudiantes team that won the 1968 Copa Libertadores
The Estudiantes team that won the 1968 Copa Libertadores

To start, England manager Sir Alf Ramsey had called the Argentinians ‘animals’ after the 1966 World Cup, something which created a lot of animosity towards the English. It had not been forgotten in the two years that passed and Manchester United were to experience a hostile crowd and opposition during the tie in Buenos Aires.

Prior to the match, a bomb that released red smoke was set off in the stadium, which proved what many people knew, the crowds in South America were exciting, and different than anything that Manchester United had seen in their travels.

1968 European Cup winners Manchester United
1968 European Cup winners Manchester United

The South American club played dirty and ultimately won on the night 1-0 thanks to a striker from Marcos Conigliaro. Nobby Stiles in particular had a night to forget after being sent off in the 79th minute. The midfielder retaliated after being targeted by the opposition with kicks, punches and even headbutts throughout the match, presumably as retribution for the World Cup exit two years prior. His red card meant that he would be suspended for the return leg in Manchester. Bobby Charlton also had to leave the field after receiving a severe head injury that needed stitches.

The final and deciding match was in the British Isles, at Old Trafford on October 16th. There were 300 Argentinians who had made it to the match, with 63,000 United supporters also filling the famous stadium. Tickets for the highly anticipated game were anywhere from three pounds to ten shillings and gate receipts totalling £50,000 was a record for that time.

Just like the first match the second in driving Manchester rain was a niggly affair. After Juan Ramón Verón put the ball in the back of the United net in the 6th minute, the home side needed to score three goals to win the tie and two to force a play-off.

Juan Ramón Verón heads a ball into the Manchester United net
Juan Ramón Verón heads a ball into the Manchester United net

The tie boiled over once-more at the end of the game with George Best punching defender José Medina and pushed Néstor Togneri to the ground. Yugoslavian referee Konstantin Zečević sent off both Medina and Best, with both having to be escorted to the opposing dressing rooms.

Outside right Willie Morgan did manage to get a consolation goal in the 90th minute but it wasn’t enough. Estudiantes came to Europe and won the Cup, in England, and at Old Trafford. The Esutdiantes players tried to do the lap of honour after winning the match, but the supporters who had stayed hurled anything they could find at the players as they were parading around.

That highly successful Estudiantes side would be the representative for South America in the cup for the next two years, and violence would follow them in both ties. However they wouldn’t repeat their feat of winning in 1969 nor 1970. In 1969, AC Milan beat the Argentinians 5-4 on aggregate, and the following year they were beaten by Dutch club Feyenoord 4-2 on aggregate after a superb 2-3 away in the famous La Bombonera in Buenos Aires.

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