Estudiantes’ Copa Libertadores winning coach Alejandro Sabella has come a long way since he was deemed surplus to requirements at Leeds United in the early 80s.
Just four months into his first management post the Argentine steered the club he finished his playing career at to a dramatic win in Brazil.
After drawing their home leg 0-0 Estudiantes came from a goal behind to topple Cruzeiro 2-1 giving El Pincha their fourth Copa Libertadores title and their first for four decades.
The victory was the culmination of a run which saw Estudiantes unbeaten in the ten Copa Libertadores games Sabella oversaw since his arrival in March. In the seven wins and three draws El Pincha netted 14 times while they leaked just two at the other end.
During this time the new coach also turned around their domestic standing as he propelled them from second bottom to a respectable sixth place finish in the Apertura.
“It's all down to the players. Someone should put up a monument to them,” Sabella said after the win in Brazil. “All I did was help them reach the final and tell them to go out and do what I never could as a player.”
Sabella was ably assisted on the pitch during this time by among others his captain Juan Sebastián Verón who took to the field in Copa Libertadores’ games like a man possessed as he sought to emulate his father in lifting the famous trophy for his hometown club.
Verón has further parallels to his current gaffer as he joined up with Estudiantes after having a less than spectacular impact on the English top flight.
‘Alex’ Sabella first arrived in England when Sheffield United came to Argentina sniffing around for talent in the wake of the country’s 1978 World Cup win.
First off Sheffield United targeted another young playmaker but Argentinos Juniors turned down the Steel City club’s £180,000 bid for Diego Maradona.
Sabella had been enjoying a mixed time at River Plate for whom he had made over a 100 appearances for by that time. The stocky playmaker was both feted and criticised for his individualism on the pitch and there were question marks over his lack of pace. Indeed during his time with River he gained the nickname Pachorra, slang for lazy.
A major stumbling block for Sabella at El Monumental was that he was behind Norberto Alonso in the pecking order for the number ten shirt. Alonso was the undisputed fan’s hero at the time and that left his understudy little chance to impress in his favoured position.
On one occasion a scout from Grêmio came down from Brazil to scout on Alonso for an upcoming Copa Libertadores clash. Alonso was out injured for the game with Independiente so Sabella deputised and played a blinder. The scout returned to Grêmio and said he didn’t get to see Alonso but if he keeps that other lad on the bench then he must be pure dynamite.
Sheffield United’s representatives seems to like what they saw as well and a £160,000 transfer was agreed between River Plate and the second division side.
The statistic say that Sabella made 76 appearances for the Blades and bagged a poultry eight goals, in which time the club were relegated to the third tier. A word with some of the fans who saw him play during this time offers a different perspective.
One Bramall Lane regular remembers Sabella scoring the best goal he has ever seen at the ground against Dundee in the Anglo Scottish Cup. On that occasion the Argentine Blade dribbled past five players before slamming the ball home.
Sabella is fondly recalled as the type of player who was worth the admission price on his own with a box of tricks to compete with any player in the world. Unfortunately at times he could even bamboozle his own teammates with back heeled flicks and the like that were far beyond the comprehension of most players fighting a second division relegation dogfight.
Another Blades fan recalls a piece of skill by Sabella down by the corner flag against West Ham United which led to a clash of heads between Billy Bonds and Frank Lampard Snr. as they collided in the Argentine’s wake.
Allan Clarke brought Sabella to Leeds United in the summer of 1980 for £400,000 after the player had refused to move to Sunderland in a £600,000 deal because of his ambitions to play in the top flight.
In a season and a half at Elland Road Sabella made 23 appearances for Leeds United before leaving halfway through their relegation season of 1981/82. Sabella is also fondly recalled by many Leeds fans who saw him play and remember him entertaining the crowd alongside Frank Worthington. Sadly the duo’s showmanship came at the determent of the club’s results.
It was a visit to Yorkshire by then Estudiantes coach Carlos Bilardo that convinced Sabella to come home sharpish rather than hold out for a dream move back to River Plate.
Bilardo had been keeping tabs on Sabella during the player’s time in England and convinced the Estudiantes board to rustle up the cash to finance a trip to Leeds.
“The club didn't have any money but I managed to get a few dollars together and made the journey,” recalls Bilardo, who would go on to coach Argentina to World Cup trumiph in 1986. “I convinced the directors it was a good deal but I had to borrow money from Sabella to pay for the trip home.”
Bilardo was already a well established name in El Leóns’ folklore as part of the team that won three Copa Libertadores and the Copa Intercontinental in the late 60s. Now he had taken the manager’s job Bilardo was looking to build another golden period for the club.
Sabella was joined in a new look Estudiantes’ midfield by Marcelo Trobbiani, Jose Daniel Ponce and Miguel Angel Russo which played their way towards a Metropolitano title in 1982 and added an Argentine league title a year later.
The final piece of the jigsaw was the Copa Libertadores and El Pincha came close in 1983 but eventually fell at the semi-final stage.
During this period Pachorra saw his stock rise beyond previous comprehension in his homeland and he picked up four caps for the national selection. He left for a spell with Grêmio, maybe that scout who saw him against Independiente finally getting his man, before returning to Estudiantes for a second spell.
He was still living close to the Jorge Luis Hirschi Stadium when he eventually hung up his boots in 1988 and his bond remained strong with football in La Plata.
Two years later Sabella started out on his coaching apprenticeship as Daniel Passarella’s second in command. In a seventeen year spell with Passarella he worked at River Plate twice, Parma of Italy, Monterrey of Mexico and Corinthians of Brazil. The management team also took charge of the Argentina and Uruguay national selections during this time.
The deputy finally struck out on his own and got the opportunity for his first job when Estudiantes parted company with Leonardo Astrada earlier this year. Just like Ángel Cappa at Huracán questions were asked if Sabella would be able to cut the mustard.
Four months down the line with a Copa Libertadores title in the trophy cabinet nobody is questioning the quick work of Pachorra.
Copyright © Tim Sturtridge and Soccerphile.com
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