The links between Ireland and Argentina go back centuries from the Chief Admiral of the Argentinian Navy, William Brown, to Che Guevara. There are significant footballing ties also, and two of the more exotic names touted as replacements for Giovanni Trapattoni are those of Hector Cuper and Marcelo Bielsa. Fellow countryman and journalist, Xabier François, says the time is right for an Argentine coach of the Boys in Green.
A South-American manager would certainly be a departure for Irish football when the likeliest scenario in the aftermath of Trapattoni’s departure seems a return to British-based personalities such as Martin O’Neill and Mick McCarthy.
And yet, the historical connections between Ireland and Argentina are stronger than many might think. Argentina is said to be home to South America’s largest Irish community and the world’s fifth largest among the Irish diaspora.
As early as 1535, two Irish brothers Juan and Tomas Farrell are thought to have participated in the expedition of explorer Pedro de Mendoza to the River Plate, and are believed to be the first Irishmen to set foot in Argentina.
The missionary priest Father Thomas Fehily, whose ship on the passage to Brazil was captured by English pirates, was transferred to the La Plata region in 1587. He was later followed by Fr. Patrick O’Gorman and Fr. Anthony Fahy who became important leaders of the Irish community. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries names such as Murphy, Cullen, O’Hara and O’Donnell began appearing in the country. The celebrated Ernesto Guevara Lynch is descended from an important family of merchants in the middle of the 18th century while the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Juan Carr also has Irish ancestry.
The most famous immigrant of all was William Brown of Foxford, Co Mayo who led the revolutionary war with Spain and became the Chief Admiral of the Navy, as well as Governor of Buenos Aires.
The cultural links between the countries, then, are significant and, typically, they extend to football.
The club Valez Sarsfield was named after a judge called Dalmacio Velez Sarsfield who descended from Irish immigrants employed in the military in Argentina during the mid-18th century. There are several regional teams called after William ‘Guillermo’ Brown.
James Wensley Bond from Armagh and Henry Murray from Dublin played in what is believed to be the first organised football game on Argentine soil on 29 June 1867 in Palermo, while compatriots also served as committee members for the Buenos Aires Football club.
The establishment of Lobos Athletic Club in the south of the capital city on 3 July 1892 by a group of Irish-Argentines is considered to be the first Irish sports club in the country and Irish-Argentines were included among the first selections for the national team.
In more modern times, the first Latin American country to play Ireland was Argentina, who won 1-0 at Dalymount Park in 1951. During the Falklands War, the FAI risked the wrath of the British by requesting the release of players for a tour to South America that would include a meeting with the Argentines. Eventually the fixture was scrapped, but not before many Irish players were refused permission to travel (though not Liam Brady), and the tour led to Ireland’s record defeat, a 7-o loss to Brazil in Uberlandia.
Argentina provided the opposition for Eoin Hand’s first game as caretaker coach in 1980 before assuming the role full-time. A teenage Diego Maradona lit up Lansdowne Road as the visiting world champions claimed a 1-0 win with a goal from Jose Daniel Valencia.
The Argentines and Lionel Messi were Ireland’s guests once more for the opening game at the redeveloped Lansdowne Road in 2010.
Now, in the wake of Giovanni Trapattoni’s exit from the Irish dugout, two Argentine managers are said to be among the list of candidates to replace the Italian.
Representatives of the former Inter, Valencia and Parma boss, Hector Cuper revealed the 57-year-old’s interest almost instantaneously following Trapattoni’s departure. In September, Cuper’s agent, Stephen Morris, confirmed that the Argentinian was keen to become the new Ireland manager.
“Hector is extremely interested in the job,” he told the Irish Independent. “If he was appointed, he would move to Liverpool where our agency is based and he would attend matches from there.”
Although he has a reputation for defensive football, Cuper has pedigree as Argentine journalist Xabier François, who has a deep interest in the fortunes of the Irish team, notes:
“Cuper is a very honest, hard-working manager” says François. “A former player, he was a centre-back similar to Kevin Moran from the Ferro Carril Oeste club which was founded by Irish and British labourers around the railway system of metropolitan Buenos Aires.”
“The team were champions in the early 80’s, a small club who won the league twice with Cuper as captain and played in the Copa Libertadores. His first position as manager was at Huracan where he was runner-up of the championship in 1994, only losing out on the final day.”
“Cuper was almost chosen as the manager of Argentina, but was beaten by current coach Alejandro Sabella”
At Mallorca, Cuper took the club to the finals of the Copa Del Rey and the UEFA Cup Winners Cup, and won the Supercopa de Espana in 1998. He led Valencia to consecutive Champions League finals in 00 and 01, losing out in both.
At Inter Milan, Cuper infamously lost out on the Scudetto on the final day of the 2002 season to Juventus. The 57-year-old has managed in a number of different countries since, including the Georgia national team during Ireland’s ill-fated campaign to reach the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Most recently, Cuper was at the helm of Orduspsor in Turkey.
The then Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola hailed Cuper as a ‘defensive master’ during his time at Racing Santander but it is another Argentine and another apparent candidate for the Irish job, whom Gaurdiola made it his mission to learn from, the man known as ‘Loco Bielsa.’
“Marcelo Bielsa could be an asset for the national team because of his football approach,” says François. “He is an all-out attack-minded manager and Ireland’s best players are attacking midfielders. Bielsa’s stint at Athetic Club of Bilbao is a good example. The Basque players are very similar to the Irish. Indeed there are similarities between both peoples.”
“Bielsa changed the mindset of the Basque squad and the Athetic club, the most ‘British-style’ team from La Liga of Spain. The team played ground football – out from the keeper – with a high tempo and further pressure. They didn’t play the so called ‘tiki-taka’, but something more akin to a ‘Put them under pressure’ strategy like Jack Charlton, without the use and the abuse of the long ball, cavemen football of his tenure.”
“They say that Bielsa is the ‘King of the Underdogs’, a guy whose goals are football projects rather than money.”
“He reportedly received offers from Chelsea, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Roma, México, USA, Australia and many more but he was not convinced by those. He preferred to develop a team, an average team like Athletic Bilbao, and in a sense a full national team since they cannot purchase players that are not Basques.”
“Bielsa was leading effectively a national team in a big money league and he reached two cup finals with the side playing exciting and effective football. You can ask former Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson about that.”
Bielsa shocked the Red Devils over two legs and led Bilbao to the Europa League final before losing out to a Radamel Falcao-inspired Atletico Madrid.
“Yes, regarding Bielsa he is the best choice you’ve got if you want to change Irish football, from under youth level to the senior team. Guardiola rated him as the best coach in the world. When he was learning the trade, he visited Bielsa for advice at his countryside manor in Rosario. Pep studied what he did at Bilbao.”
“Former Argentina hero Jorge Valdano recently said that Bielsa had returned Athletic Club back to greatness. And his work with the Chilean national side was mesmerizing. He turned the most inept outfit, rock bottom (suffering their worst ever home qualifying defeats) with a big inferiority complex in football, into a team of braves.”
Bielsa took Chile to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, securing second place behind Spain in Group H, before losing 3-0 to Brazil in the second round.
Bielsa is also considered something of a mentor to the Premier League’s current trend-setter, Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino (born in a town called Muphy, Argentina) and whom he managed at Newell’s Old Boys.
“If Ireland wants to change things around, go for an Argentinian, like the Vatican did. A fresh approach from a brave man that is not there for the money. Bielsa is the best candidate to lead Ireland’s national team, he will make your players play, and more important, they will believe in themselves again.”