Nacional 68': Golden Memories
It's been fifty years since Vélez won its first league. @VelezinEnglish goes back in time to revisit that feat
Vélez was in a solid, healthy situation entering 1968. The club had a concrete-built, modern stadium with the best ilumination system available to call home; the number of socios was higher than ever and under the leadership of the mythical Amalfitani, the money those new socios brought to the club was reinvested in new facilities for them, feeding a virtous circle that benefitted the club's growth. But something was missing: success on the football pitch. With Amalfitani in charge of the club, this was an aspect that took the backseat. He didn't have disdain for it, but he believed that that club's mission was to be a socially oriented institution and while winning was good, he wouldn't compromise the club's stability to win a trophy. Although his health was deteriorated by then and he was not running the club, his principles and presence remained strong.
When 1968 began there was a good setup in the football team so few moves were made: Coach Manuel Giudice was hired because of his title-winning CV, midfielder Moreyra and wingers Novara and Luna were added to a squad built by mythical Victorio Spinetto that had names like Willington, Gallo, Solórzano, Carone, Willington, Wehbe and up and coming youngsters like Carlos Bianchi and "El Gato" Marín. The first half of the year had the team reaching the semi-finals of the metropolitan tournament, falling narrowly to that great Estudiantes team. That Metropolitan team gave the squad some taste of high stakes football, but more importantly it qualified the team for the National Championship that took place later that year.
Ups and Downs After a convoluted preseason in Jujuy which had Coach Giudice (A strict disciplinarian) on the verge of resignation due to several acts of indiscipline among the squad (Willington was the main offender), Vélez visited la Ciudadela to face San Martín (Tucumán). In a game which had the first substitution in the history of Argentinian football, Vélez gave a solid performance and got a 3-1 win courtesy of Bianchi scoring the first and the third with midfielder Ríos scoring the second. The following game against Belgrano the team wasn't as good, but got the same result: Carone scored early, but that goal was cancelled before halftime. Strikes from Carone again and Bianchi in the last quarter of hour sealed the win for Vélez.
Week 3 had a visit to El Gasometro and the return of Willington to the first team, but the men upfront had a bad evening (Willington included, although he scored a penalty) and the team fell to a 2-1 defeat. Things improved in week 4 when leaders Racing came to Liniers, but wasn't enough to get a win: In a reversal of roles a Bianchi cross set up a Nogara header for the 1-0 but Racing levelled via Ruben "Panadero" Díaz for the final 1-1. Week 5 had the team going back to winning ways and the second game in a row with Willington out.
Decisive changes were made elsewhere: "El gato" Marín would take over the injured Caballero in goal, rugged defender Iselín Santos Ovejero was included to bring defensive stability and poacher Omar "El Turco" Wehbe would play upfront. El Fortín took advantage of a sluggish Rosario Central defense to seal a 4-2 win with Nogara, another brace from Bianchi and Wehbe the goalscorers. Vélez couldn't carry their from onto the next game where the team put a bad performance on a 1-0 defeat against Boca. Week 7 had a 2-0 win against Lanús which was closer than the scoreline suggests: The goals from Bianchi and Nogara came at the minutes 83 and 85 respectively. The following game was also another win at home: Vélez paid respects to newly crowned World Champions Estudiantes but when the whistle was blown the game turned into a gorefest. Vélez won 3-0 with a brace from Wehbe and a Solórzano goal in a game that had three players sent off: Ríos for home side and dark arts maestro Aguirre Suarez and feisty midfielder Pachamé for Estudiantes.
Week 9 saw the team travel to Banfield for game against Los Andes which ended in a 0-0 stalemate.
Change of tide
Week 10 had River, a title contender, coming to Liniers. Vélez was in fourth place, but way behind the top three, so it badly needed a win to put the season back on track. El Fortín was in need of a spark to get the season going and it had it in Daniel Willington. He had been ostracised due to what happened in preseason and Giudice wasn't willing to budge until that game, when no longer could sustain that position because of the fan pressure so he gave to el Famoso Cordobés one last chance. His situation was so precarious that it was speculated that he was brought in to put him in shopping window to convince River Plate to take him the following year. In a day where the stadium got the name from his adored José Amalfitani, Willington delivered with a fitting tribute in the first half. Needless to say, no one wanted him to leave after that game. Journalist Diego Lucero put it this way in his particularly baroque style: "Once the 'Sleepy' put his share of wisdom in this game, Vélez could claim themselves winners. Because when River missed the cold talent of Ermindo Onega, Vélez had an excess of the science and art of Daniel Willington... Wherever the ball had bounced never was a man that treated it with such finesse and grace..." The 2-1 win wasn't as comfortable for Vélez in the end because Giudice's men gave away ball and territory in the second half. After a great high came a low in a typically balmy summer afternoon in Santa Fe. A chronicle said that due to the intense heat "Some players looked like 115 kilograms sixty year old men" and the team gave "an awful collective performance". In the end was a 3-1 defeat against Colón. Vélez got to winning ways the following game against Independiente in Avellaneda: The first half was even and ended 1-1 but in the second half as El Rojo worn off the floodgates opened for Vélez: Wehbe scored two penalties, Willington scored one and Nogara added his second for an emphatic 5-2 win.
From there on, Vélez desperately needed to win out until the end of the tournament. Five Omar Wehbe goals, 4 from Luna, one from Solórzano and another one from Bianchi sealed an 11-0 record win (Later broken by Banfield) over a sorry Huracán from Bahía Blanca. This win finally allowed Vélez to move to third place with two games to go, a point behind second placed River and three points behind leaders Racing.
Vélez barely got the job done on hot afternoon in the leafy General San Martín Park in Mendoza with Wehbe the lone scorer on a 1-0 win. Good news came from Santa Fe as Racing fell in the Elephant's Cemetery, while River got a win. This left River and Racing sharing the top with 21 points and Vélez trailing one point behind. Vélez hopes rested on forcing a three-way tie becuase Racing and River faced each other in Avellaneda. The winner of that game would take the league, but in case of a draw and a Vélez win there would be a mini league between the three to find a champion. But Giudice's men needed to take care of their business against Huracán in the first place. Goals from Solórzano and Nogara in the first half settled the matter early. After the game, news arrived. Racing and River ended 1-1. The dream was alive.
El Gasómetro was the stage for this final tournament. The first game was the last one in the previous stage. River defeated Racing 2-0. Bianchi and Wehbe were detained by the police after attending the game but were released inmediately. Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in Liniers: The first squad decided that their efforts were worth some extra bucks. When Amalfitani was asked about this matter, his opinion was clear: "Field the Reserves then". Anyway, amid the fury of some fans, the issue was quickly settled.
Gameday arrived. If River won, they would take the glory and that reflected in how the game unfolded. Marín had to perform heroics to keep River at bay during the first ten minutes. At eleventh minute, Luna scored and Vélez started to play better but not for long: Marín was called into action many times and Daniel Onega got the equaliser after a scramble in the penalty box. The second half was a nervy affair which was marked by questionable decisions by referee Guillermo Nimo which went Vélez' way like famous hand of Gallo and a way too early final whistle blow. Vélez avoided defeat, which meant that still had chances, as a win by any score would do the job (By being the team that scored more goals during the tournament, El Fortín had the tie-breaker). On December 29, 1968 Marín; Gallo, Ovejero, Zóttola, Atela; Solórzano, Moreyra, Willington; Luna, Wehbe and Nogara were the eleven men tasked with bringing the first championship to the house that Don Pepe built. Liniers, Villa Luro, Versalles, Floresta, and other neighborhoods from western Buenos Aires saw their inhabitants pilgrim to El Nuevo Gasómetro. When the game started Vélez, pushed by their fans and the need to get the win, had the better chances.
Willington was denied by Racing keeper Cejas but but a couple of minutes earlier, Giudice's men took the lead after Moreyra latched onto a loose ball and fired past Cejas. Soon the tempo of the game fell and Racing took advantage of it eventually levelling thanks to Maschio. The rest of the first half Vélez was pinned back and hung on thanks to a string of great saves from Marín. In the second half Bianchi replaced Nogara, but who made the difference was Willington, as expected. Marín caught a cross and sent the ball to El Daniel to the left side of midfield. Willington nutmegged Rulli, went for one-two with Bianchi whose pass was long, but Willington reached the ball and held off Basile to put a magnificent cross to Wehbe, who only had to nod it past a desperate Cejas. After that Vélez sat back and repelled the chaotic Racing approaches. With ten minutes to go, Willington again made the difference with Rulli and Basile the victims again and assisting Wehbe, whose placed shot couldn't be blocked by Chabay and Mori and was far from Cejas' reach. When the party was getting started, Martinoli scored the 3-2 and added suspense, but Willington made sure a minute later that there would be a happy ending in Liniers. Again, Rulli was left behind (Reading this you might think he was awful that day but chronicles say that his rough outing had to do more to the poor performance of his teammates), and when Willington got into the box he tried to squeeze between Chabay and Perfumo but he was brought down by the latter. Wehbe sent Cejas the other way in the resulting penalty. After almost 58 years, the championship was finally in Liniers.
It was a vindication for a club that despite having a great setup, had no trophies to show for. But now it could brag about one in a time where Estudiantes showed it could be done and then many more followed. On the field it seems like everybody had done their bit: from star number 10 Willington, who forged his legend during the tournament to those little-feasturing, little-known players like Pérez, Gómez or Biaggio; Marín and Bianchi gave a glimpse of the players they were going to be; Luna went from inconsistent winger to instil fear in opposing backs if only for six months; tournament goal-scorer Wehbe made a habit of scoring; Nogara's work rate belied his tag of winger but his six goals were the third most of the team; ever present players Atela, Zóttola and Solórzano provided a backbone that had the additions of Gallo and Ovejero later and a platform to Ríos first and Moreyra in the end to start the build up and even those like Caballero, Cevallos, Carone, Nieva, or Sinatra who didn't feature in the final run, had a role to play when the season started.
25 years later Vélez would start a run that reached the top of the world, but these were the first men that brought the glory to Liniers.