The football theory of the two opposites
No matter how systems change and football evolves, we often return to its primal questions. Spectacle or outcome? Victory or good football? If the eternal battle between good and evil, spirit and matter, light and darkness could be transposed onto football, then the main role in football’s… Manichaeism would be played by the duo of high priests: Carlos Bilardo and César Luis Menotti. Argentina’s football might grapple with dilemmas like Maradona or Messi, but the timeless question remains: “menottismo or bilardismo.” We’re not merely talking about two coaches; we’re discussing the greatest proponents of two footballing philosophies.
Bilardo, known as “El Narigón” (The Big Nosed), born in Buenos Aires to Sicilian parents, grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Paternal, where toil was the only way out. It was a place where one had to respect their elders, teachers, police officers, and authorities. On the other hand, Menotti, born in Rosario, nicknamed “El Flaco” (The Thin One), also of Italian heritage, was raised in an area with many British aristocrats and significant class differences. Their common ground: a love for football. Their differences: abundant. Bilardo aimed to balance lessons, football, and studies to advance in life, whereas Menotti was an avid reader, interested in politics, and a Peronism supporter. One woke up early in the morning, the other was a long-haired, devoted smoker and bohemian type. At one point in his life, Bilardo simultaneously worked as a doctor, assisted in the family business, and coached. In contrast, Menotti was solely engrossed in football. One enjoyed the more “popular” tunes of cumbia, and the other reveled in the corresponding “new wave” of Argentine music.
It’s as if their lives and careers were predestined to form a colossal contrast. Bilardo emerged in the limelight of one of the most successful and dirtiest teams of all time, La Plata’s Estudiantes. A squad that went to great lengths to win, fouling, striking, provoking, and even clinching a Continental championship with these tactics. It was necessity that drove Estudiantes, breaking the dominance of the Big 5 (Boca-River-Independiente-Racing-San Lorenzo) and carving their path through a trail of bodies. Bilardo acted as the vital link between defense and midfield, a gritty defensive midfielder, who simultaneously played the role of the team’s strategist. On the contrary, Menotti, while not amassing numerous titles, proved to be a capable attacking midfielder with a career primarily rooted at Rosario Central. With a mere year’s difference in age, both called time on their football careers in 1970 and transitioned into coaching.
They carried their philosophies to the dugouts. Bilardo took the reins of Estudiantes, shaping a team with an unrelenting thirst for victory. Meanwhile, Menotti made a name for himself at Huracán, playing for spectacle, playing for attack. For Menotti, above winning, stood recognition and respect from opponents, and beyond tactics, technique reigned supreme. A supporter of both Brazilian Jogo Bonito and Dutch Total Football, he grounded his teams in these styles. For Bilardo, it was about doing what was necessary, not necessarily what was beautiful. Victory was the sole and ultimate goal, even if by a slim margin. Every practice mirrored a battle, video tapes would wear thin from his tactical analysis, he demanded sacrifices from players on the field, prioritizing strategy above all. Defensive assurance, neutralizing the adversary’s game, and slowly building toward that crucial goal and triumph. As he himself once declared, in the national team, his perfectionism extended to the point of even training the players for the national anthem, “We practiced it five times before each match, in that moment, the player’s entire life flashes before their eyes.”
In order for all things to fall into a… karmic equilibrium, Argentina clinched two World Cups with these two at the helm, one after the other. Menotti, only 36 at the time, took charge of Argentina to infuse that air of attacking football following the country’s two major failures in 1970 and 1974, and he succeeded in 1978. Bilardo took over immediately afterward. Yet… their respective World Cups were won with… compromises to their philosophies. The left-leaning Menotti claimed the World Cup organized by his country’s military junta, even under shadows regarding the circumstances of the event. Moreover, though a romantic of the sport, he left out the country’s new talent named Diego Maradona, a player who theoretically epitomized Menotti’s philosophy. On the contrary, Bilardo, a fan of dedication and teamwork, seized the 1986 World Cup, altering the system to grant a free role for Maradona with the 3-5-1-1 formation, allowing a player on the field who defied conventional molds. Games of fate or proof that ultimately in life, as well as in football, things aren’t just black and white? That we often create the dilemmas ourselves?
The meeting that triggered the war
Their rivalry was always present; two opposing forces naturally clash when they coexist. It transcended to another level when Bilardo took over the national team and traveled to Barcelona to meet Menotti (who had taken charge of Barcelona). The meeting began and ended with embraces after a four-hour discussion between them. Menotti told him which two players he deemed important and which one should not be included in the team. Bilardo omitted the first two and selected the third. After Bilardo’s first match (a 4-0 defeat), Menotti stated, “He drove me mad with questions, asking me about everything, and in the end, he turned everything upside down.” This officially marked the start of their war, with a series of caustic statements that persisted for many years. Bilardo struggled (only three wins in his first 15 matches) constantly facing Menotti’s criticism, who had a weekly column in a newspaper and naturally, he subjected him to harsh critique. Yet, Bilardo ultimately clinched a World Cup as well. The antipathy reached new heights in 2006 when the then 68-year-old coaches met in the restrooms of the World Cup Media Center in Germany. Menotti was washing his hands and said, “Even here, I run into this… damn son of a bitch.” Bilardo began shouting at the onlookers, “What did he say? What did he say?” and if it weren’t for the journalists, we might have witnessed a veterans’ boxing match. In recent years, their feud has somewhat softened, with Menotti, for example, admitting that Estudiantes in 1982 played good football and Bilardo acknowledging that he liked Huracán in 1973.
And while both of them are no longer actively involved in coaching, their philosophies continue to thrive. In Argentina, there isn’t a coach who isn’t questioned about where they belong, although many remain neutral or develop their own “schools” like Bielsa. Pep Guardiola has often referred to Menotti and his ideas, while Menotti has admitted to finding Simeone’s Atletico boring, and Simeone himself has stated that he drew a lot from Bilardo. After all, Diego Simeone secured a championship for Estudiantes after 26 years, and yes, the previous one was under Bilardo. It’s highly probable that if these two coaches didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them. In the global football arena, there could never be two such contrasting personalities, separated by so much, yet simultaneously united by many.