To a European audience starved of opportunities to see him in action the name Ricardo Bochini is unlikely to elicit much emotion. Mention his name in the Avellaneda district of Buenos Aires that is home to Club Atletico Independiente, however, and you will be regaled with tales of a true living legend, the best player ever to wear the famous red shirt of the ‘Diablos Rojos’.
Born in the port city of Zarate in the north-east of Buenos Aires province on the 25th January 1954, Bochini took a keen interest in football from an early age, beginning his education at the local club Belgrano de Zarate. In 1971 he accepted an offer to join the youth ranks of Independiente, the club he would serve loyally and soley for the remainder of his career, and in 1972, at the age of 18, made his debut as a second half substitute away to River Plate.
Far from a first-team regular at the time, Bochini got his big break with a role in the starting eleven for Independiente’s Intercontinental Cup showdown against European giants Juventus in November 1973. In front of a stunned Stadio Olimpico in Rome, he and fellow youngster Daniel Bertoni, danced their way through the Juventus defence with a slick combination of dribbles and passes that culminated in an impudent scooped finish over the prone Dino Zoff from Bochini for the only goal of the match.
It was the first glimpse of a partnership that would drive an already successful Independiente side on to two further Copa Libertadores triumphs in 1974 and 1975 and establish the pair as two of the most exciting players in Argentine football. “We were picked for the final and the whole world saw what a good understanding we had,” Bertoni commented some years later. “That was when our careers really got going."
But while Bertoni left to embrace Europe, Bochini stayed at Independiente, winning the Nacional league title in 1978 and the Metropolitano in 1983 before once more leading the club to Copa Libertadores glory in 1984 with a 1-0 aggregate win over Gremio of Brazil, laying on the only goal of the tie for Jorge Burruchaga. That victory set up an Intercontinental Cup tie against European champions Liverpool, giving the 30-year-old Bochini another opportunity to display his talent to a wider audience.
Liverpool had suffered a beating at the hands of another South American playmaker extraordinaire, Zico, on their previous outing in the competition in 1981 and were in no mood to be dismantled in similar fashion again. Their high defensive line caused congestion in the area of the pitch Bochini most liked to operate in and on the few occasions he was able to slip his trademark through balls in behind the defence the inability of his left forward Alejandro Barberon to stay onside rendered his efforts pointless.
Liverpool’s tactics proved to be their undoing, though, as the Reds’ focus on Bochini opened up space for the two defensively minded midfielders, Claudio Marangoni and Ricardo Giusti, to pick measured balls over the top of the English side’s backline. One such pass, from Marangoni to Jose Percudani, resulted in the only goal of the match, as Independiente, and Bochini, added yet another honour to their ever growing list.
A final Argentine league title followed in the 1988/89 season before Bochini hung up his boots for good in 1991, having played a total of 740 league matches for his one and only club.
Standing in the tunnel, deep inside the concrete structure of Independente’s Estadio Libertadores de America as he waited to take to the pitch for his farewell testimonial, Bochini looked an unlikely hero. With a pot belly, spindly legs and hair that was thinning by the minute, one might have assumed that the man poet Hector Negro christened ‘El Chaplin’ was in fact the groundsman or a janitor rather than the star of the show.
But Bochini was a man who defied convention, whose little scampering runs zig-zagged between defenders with apparent ease and whose defence splitting passes became a thing of legend. He inspired a young Diego Maradona, who describes Bochini as his idol and in his autobiography noted that “watching him play drove me crazy with delight,” and reduced hardened Independiente supporters to tears when he departed their turf for the final time.
Despite his achievements and legendary status at club level, Bochini was never quite able to have the same impact for the national team. A semi-regular in Cesar Luis Menotti’s squads in the build-up to the 1978 World Cup, he, like Maradona, found himself discarded from the final selection. Unlike Maradona, Bochini didn’t get a look in for the remaining four years of Menotti’s reign, despite some sparkling form at club level.
Handed an opportunity under new coach Carlos Bilardo, Bochini was Argentina’s first choice number ten when they embarked on a tour of Europe in 1984 without the injured Maradona. Despite some flashes of brilliance – his attempted lob from the half-way line against Germany, for instance – he generally struggled to enjoy the same impact as with Independiente, constantly looking for his club-mates Burruchaga and Giusti whenever he received possession.
Bochini was very much a player who thrived on a close understanding with his team-mates, something that was never likely to translate well to the national team. He was, however, picked in the squad for the 1986 World Cup, making a cameo appearance at the end of the semi-final win over Belgium. When he set foot on the pitch, Maradona shouted to him “let’s go maestro”, to which Bochini replied “let’s go, let’s go and play.”
In retirement, Bochini has been a semi-frequent visitor to the Estadio Libertadores de America, enjoying VIP status whenever he has been in attendance. The Argentine has a street named after him in the Calle Cordero district of Avellaneda and is still to this day considered by most Independiente supporters to be their best ever player.
Bochini’s famous number ten shirt has proved to be far from a burden to those who followed in his footsteps. Daniel Garnero won four honours having directly succeeded him, Matute Morales earned a move to Italy not long after taking on the jersey, Daniel Montenegro won a league title and Sergio Aguero briefly dazzled before being whisked off to Europe.
But whatever anybody else does in that famous shirt, there is one man to whom it intrinsically belongs and that is, and will always be, Ricardo Bochini.