Greater than Messi & Maradona? Meet the Angels with Dirty Faces – Argentina’s best-ever forward line

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If we judge by names alone, the famous forward lines of
Argentina’s football golden era back in the 1950s were far
superior than the current incarnations that dominate world
football. The MSN and BBC, formidable though they are, are
essentially acronyms of broadcasting corporations, perhaps
fitting for the media-saturated age we live in. 

Sixty years ago, fans knew their idols in far more evocative
terms. There was the famous ‘Machine’ of River Plate,
spearheaded by Angel Labruna and Adolfo Perdernera, that took
the Primera Division by storm in the opening years of that
far-off decade. Then, in 1957, Albiceleste coach Guillermo
Stabile brought together the five players that would take that
year’s Copa America by storm: referring back to James Cagney’s
classic gangster film, they would become known as the ‘Angels
with Dirty Faces’. 

Football formed a close reflection of the evolving Argentine
society. The game had come to South America via British
businessmen that had connected the continent with ports and
railways in order to feed the Empire, but by the middle of the
century it had shifted into the less salubrious neighbourhoods
of Buenos Aires, Rosario, Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro. 

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Its protagonists were the sons of the millions of Italian and
Spanish immigrants that flooded into the new world to escape
grinding poverty, as a cursory look at the Argentina team-sheet
demonstrates. Osmar Oreste Corbatta, Humberto Maschio, Omar
Sivori and Antonio Angelillo, four-fifths of that famous
forward line, were born to Italians in the province of Buenos
Aires; Osvaldo Cruz, Independiente’s unplayable left winger,
was of Spanish descent. They were the sons of
the potrero, patches of wasteland in the shadows
of newly nascent factories and railway lines in the developing
suburbs of the big cities, which would later spawn Diego
Maradona, Lionel Messi and a romantic legend of young brats
dodging the potholes and perfecting their dribbling with balls
of dubious quality.

Between them, and backed up by the defensive titan Nestor
‘Pipo’ Rossi, who had also played in that marvellous River
‘Machine’ – “We all played well, but the man who put things in
their place and ran the field was Rossi,” Labruna said once of
his former team-mate – the Angels were ready for battle. In a
stunning tournament Argentina won their first five games,
losing only a final dead-rubber clash against Peru when the
title was already assured.

The tournament kicked off in spectacular fashion with an 8-2
thrashing of Colombia, in a game that showed the quintet’s
incredible offensive abilities. Maschio, a rugged inside
forward who would go on to star for several Italian clubs and
then take the crown of world champion on his return to Racing
Club, smashed four goals past the hapless Cafetero, with Cruz,
Angelillo and Corbatta also finding the net. Those eight
strikes were the first of 25 the Albiceleste would net in just
six games in Lima, with all but one coming from one of the
Angels. 

Ecuador and Uruguay were the next victims to the slaughter,
losing 3 and 4-0 respectively in two one-sided encounters.
Angelillo starred with two strikes in the first match,
demonstrating the goalscoring prowess that would later see him
crowned Serie A capocanniere with Inter just
two years later. Like Maschio, Angelillo had graduated from
neighbourhood club Arsenal de Llavallol in Buenos Aires’ gritty
southern suburbs to make the first team at Racing; alongside
the wizardly Corbatta, the ‘Argentine Garrincha’ whose skills
down the right wing were only matched by his aptitude for
self-destruction aided by alcohol, they had helped make the
Avellaneda club one of the most fearsome in Argentina.

Corbatta 1957

One of the most startling aspects of the ‘Angels’ was their
tender ages. At 26, Cruz was the elder statesman of the group,
with Maschio having recently turned 24 a month before the
competition kicked off in Peru and Sivori approaching his
22nd birthday. Corbatta turned 21 just two days before that 8-2
drubbing of Colombia, while Angelillo was still a teenager at
19. But they were not awed by the ferocious crowds that packed
into Lima’s Estadio Nacional to watch the upstarts.

Chile suffered a similar fate to their South American
neighbours when it came to meeting the quintet: the Roja were
destroyed 6-2, with Sivori kicking off with an early strike
before doubles from Angelillo and Maschio put the game beyond
doubt. Corbatta was charged with delivering the coup
de grace 
from the penalty spot, and the man famed as
one of the greatest penalty takers in football history did not
err. The story goes that legendary River goalkeeper Amadeo
Carrizo bet ‘El Loco’ he could save at least 10 of 50 penalty
attempts, while the pair were together for the 1958 World Cup
in Sweden. Corbatta assented, and duly went on to convert 49 of
his strikes – the 50th going wide off the post. 

For many, however, Enrique Omar Sivori was the best of all the
‘Angels’. The River idol was described in El
Grafico 
back in 1994 as “the forerunner to Diego
Maradona, with the same virtuoso talent for dribbling and
tricks, perhaps less true in his shot, especially at the dead
ball, but with as much or more personality than Diego.”

Former Argentina coach Miguel Ignomiriello, who worked with
Sivori during a brief spell at the Albiceleste years after his
retirement, concurs: “In the history of Argentine football
there is [Alfredo] Di Stefano, Sivori and Maradona, those three
take the podium,” he explained to this writer. ‘El Cabezon’
(Big Head), as he was known, lifted the Ballon d’Or in 1961,
becoming the second non-European honoured after Di Stefano by
virtue of his Italian passport. The star missed several games
in Lima, struggling for fitness and replaced in a handful
of games by young San Lorenzo marksman Jose Sanfilippo (the
unheralded ‘sixth angel’) but his presence was nevertheless
vital for victory and his talents recognised with the Best
Player award at its end. 

Sivori quote

While the 1957 Copa America took place in round-robin format,
Argentina’s fifth game of the tournament effectively decided
the winner. Brazil were not yet the Selecao that would take
World Cup glory just a year later, with Pele and Garrincha yet
to explode on the scene. But it was still a formidable squad
that travelled to Peru in search of victory. Evaristo was there
in his final flourish for the national team before a move to
Barcelona ended his Brazil career; as were Santos idol Pepe and
Didi, the nation’s ‘Senhor Futebol’. It was useless, however,
as no team were capable of stopping the avaricious
Angels. 

Goals from Angelillo, Maschio – scoring his ninth strike of the
tournament to equal a top-scoring record set back in 1949
– and Cruz blew the Brazilians away in yet another
comprehensive victory, crowning Argentina champions of South
America with a game to spare. It should have been the beginning
of world domination for Stabile’s charges, a youthful, dynamic
side that rolled over even the toughest opponents in an era
where markers literally left their mark on any players who
dared to defy them. The reign of the Angels was not to be,
however; by the end of 1957 arguably the best side the
Albiceleste has ever built was utterly destroyed. 

Hounded by the Revolucion Libertadora, the
military dictatorship that in 1955 had overthrown Juan Domingo
Peron in a bloody coup, to complete his national service,
Angelillo instead opted to flee to Italy, where he joined
Inter. That decision would see him blacklisted from his home
nation for over 20 years. He was joined by Sivori and Maschio;
the former becoming one of Juventus’ all-time greats, the
latter going to Bologna. Corbatta stayed, and guided Racing to
a Primera title in the same year, but the drink had already
taken its hold in the young star, and by the early 1960s ‘El
Loco’ was already a shadow of his former self. 

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Corbatta and Cruz were the only remnants of that fabulous
quintet that travelled to Sweden for Argentina’s first World
Cup since 1934. So short of talent up front was Stabile that
the great Labruna was drafted into action at 39. The result was
an unprecedented fiasco. Much like England’s destruction at the
hands of Hungary in 1953 the Albiceleste’s myth of
invincibility was shattered with a first round exit, winning
one and losing two games to finish rock bottom of their group.

Stabile was sacked after 18 years in charge, and his successors
discarded the classical La Nuestra style of
play based around dribbling, attack and individual skill in
favour of a meaner, more cynical philosophy that dominated the
next two decades in the nation. Failure in Sweden marked the
end of an era, just 12 months after
the potrero had conquered South America with
unforgettable swagger. 

The Angels with Dirty Faces won their place in history perhaps
for that very reason. Corbatta, Sivori, Maschio, Angelillo and
Cruz played just one tournament together, their success a
meteor that flashed across the skies before fading into
oblivion. But even 60 years later, their legacy lives on. Great
players would follow, from Maradona to Lionel Messi himself,
but never again would Argentina put out an attack so potent as
those five street urchins who lit up Lima with their
incomparable skills. 

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