César Menotti, manager who gave Maradona his first cap and steered Argentina to 1978 World Cup glory – obituary

César Menotti: he imposed more structure on Argentina's play, quickened their tempo, and ignored big names in his team selection

César Menotti, who has died aged 85, was the architect of Argentina’s triumph on home soil at the 1978 World Cup and subsequently oversaw the first flourishing of Diego Maradona.

Menotti himself enjoyed a meteoric rise as a manager after taking charge in 1971, when he was just 32, of Huracán, an unfashionable club in Buenos Aires. Argentine football had become synonymous with cynical foul play, not least at the 1966 World Cup, but Menotti returned Huracán to an earlier tradition.

“I want to win the match,” said Menotti. “But I don’t give in to tactical reasoning as the only way to win, rather I believe that efficacy is not divorced from beauty.” Attacking, wrote one journalist, “with the cadence of the tango”, Huracán won the Metropolitano championship in 1973. The next year Menotti was appointed national team manager.

César Menotti, left, talking with his rising star Diego Maradona in 1980
César Menotti, left, talking with his rising star Diego Maradona in 1980 - Bob Thomas

With his collar-length hair, the tall, chain-smoking Menotti brought a Left-leaning intellectualism to the Albiceleste, imposing more structure on their play, quickening the tempo of their game and ignoring big names in his team selection.

Although he gave the 17-year-old Maradona his international debut, he did not bow to pressure to pick him for the 1978 tournament. Menotti also established an uneasy truce with the repressive Right-wing military junta which had seized power two years earlier.

Driven on by Mario Kempes, Daniel Passarella and Ossie Ardiles, Argentina overcame an uncertain start, and rumours that Peru had been bribed to throw their match against them, to reach the final in Buenos Aires. There they avenged their thrashing by the Netherlands four years before, winning 3-1 against the Dutch in extra time to claim Argentina’s first World Cup. Menotti afterwards mingled anonymously with the wildly celebrating crowds.

Menotti during the 1978 World Cup, ahead of Argentina's 3-1 defeat of Holland
Menotti during the 1978 World Cup, ahead of Argentina's 3-1 defeat of Holland - Mirrorpix

The next year, he took charge of the Under-20 team which won the World Youth Championships by beating the USSR 3-1. The tournament made a star of Maradona, who attributed victory to Menotti’s coaching. At the 1982 World Cup in Spain, however, Argentina found themselves drawn against Italy and Brazil.

They lost both matches, with Maradona sent off against Brazil. Their disappointing exit led to Menotti being succeeded as manager by his nemesis, Carlos Bilardo, who favoured a more pragmatic style of play. This did bring home a second World Cup in 1986, but it was Menotti who could claim to have turned Argentina into the footballing powerhouse that they remain.

Menotti during a 1980 Argentina training session
Menotti during a 1980 Argentina training session - Getty Images

César Luis Menotti was born in Rosario, central Argentina, on October 22 1938, although his birth was registered on November 5 and that date appeared on his documents.

His father was a renowned boxer and dancer locally but died of lung cancer when César was a teenager. This obliged the promising footballer to accept work in a rural league outside the city, and he did not get his chance until in 1960 he turned out in a friendly for the reserves of his hometown side, Rosario Central.

His ability as a striker was noticed and within a few weeks he was playing for the team in the country’s top flight. He moved to Boca Juniors in 1965 and won the Primera Division title. Menotti later had spells playing in New York and with Pele at Santos before retiring in 1970, having also been capped by Argentina a dozen times.

With Maradona during their first training session at Barcelona in 1983
With Maradona during their first training session at Barcelona in 1983 - EFE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

After stepping down as national manager, Menotti was given the job at Barcelona in 1983, largely to ease Maradona’s settling-in at the Spanish club. In his first season, Menotti won the Copa del Rey and the league cup, but Maradona was injured for much of the next campaign and Menotti was eventually replaced by Terry Venables.

Over the next two decades, Menotti had stints at many big clubs in Argentina, as well as at Atlético Madrid and Sampdoria, though without notable success. He also coached Mexico from 1991 to 1992. A key influence on Pep Guardiola as a coach, latterly he had been director of Argentina’s national teams.

César Menotti and his wife had two sons.

César Menotti, born October 22 1938, died May 5 2024

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