The most controversial World Cup Final of all took place on the 25th June 1978, Buenos Aires, Rob Rensenbrink famously hit the post at 1-1, and Mario Kempes and Daniel Bertoni went on to score the extra-time goals that took Argentina to World Cup victory over The Netherlands. Following the tournament there were later reports the fascist government in Argentina had “encouraged” opponents to give the hosts an easy ride into the final. Many countries, including the eventual losers in the final, had issues with even competing in the first place due to the nature of the military coup two years before the finals. Watching from the bench that night was third choice goalkeeper Ricardo La Volpe.
La Volpe had watched from the bench in all of Argentina’s games but he left with a winners’ medal nonetheless. The World Cup Final was the biggest moment in his playing career but was surrounded by controversy, and controversy would follow him for much of his career. At the time he was playing for San Lorenzo of Buenos Aires, although the next year he would leave for the first of his many connections with Mexico. He signed for FC Atlanta and would go on to make almost as many enemies as he did friends in that football-mad country. La Volpe was an accomplished goalkeeper but it was as a manager that he started to make real waves. He has taken charge of Oaxtepec, Atlante, Guadalajara, Querétaro FC, America, Atlas, Toluca, Monterrey and the Mexican national side, as well Boca Juniors and Vélez Sársfeld in his native Argentina. He left his last job at Atlas in November 2009 by mutual consent following a run of poor results and has been out of work since. La Volpe is one of football’s most flamboyant characters and was always unlikely to unemployed for long. As such he this week signed a pre-contract agreement to become the manager of the Costa Rica national side. La Volpe may not be able to guarantee success, having only won one domestic title, the Mexican League in 1993-93 during his second spell at Atlante FC, and one international trophy, the Gold Cup in 2003 as Mexico manager, but he certainly does guarantee controversy.
He also brings with him vast experience as a manager, and one of the few who have a tactical system named after him. La Volpe didn’t invent this system but during his time as Mexico manager his chosen method of playing became known as “Lavolpismo”. Using a 5-3-2 system that changes into a 3-5-2 by the use of attacking wing backs, La Volpe’s sides were very offensive in outlook, he was famously quoted as saying, “Go out to win and you’ll either win or draw, go out to draw and you’ll either draw or lose”. Trying to defend his system from fans of the 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 favoured by previous Mexico managers, notably Manuel Lapuente, La Volpe countered, “4-4-1-1 is not football, it’s anti-football”. Lavolpismo also matches the personality of the coach, offensive and confident, and he transferred this to the players. During his time as national manager El Tri rose to number 4 in the FIFA World Rankings and became the only manager in the last 20 years to defeat the Mexican nemesis Argentina. This success led Mexico to be named one of the seeded nations for the 2006 World Cup in Germany although in truth they had a disappointing tournament, beating Iran, drawing with Angola and losing to Portugal in the group stage, before going out to Argentina (again) in the next round to this stunning Maxi Rodriguez volley in extra-time.
As his nickname El Bigotón shows, the tactics may be named after him but the man himself is named after his moustache. As well-known as he may be for his tactics and facial hair in Mexico, he is more famous around the world for his temper. He has had frequent bust-ups with employers, journalists and colleagues. He was voted “Best Coach” by the Guardian in 2006 following his World Cup performances, not for his tactics or his team’s performances but for his eccentric attitude. La Volpe has been a committed smoker for a long time, and likes to puff away on the sidelines while directing his team. FIFA took exception to this though and warned him to stop smoking while on the pitch, La Volpe’s response was that if it came down to a choice between smoking and football, he would give up the football. As it was though he did give up the fags and moved onto doughnuts instead, often munching away under a roped-off parasol. He also famously resigned three times on air during a radio interview before the tournament and then denied all knowledge of it the following day. He has always had a difficult relationship with the media, telling reporters at the 2006 World Cup, “Get out of my face! You know nothing, don’t break my balls, you fucking idiots!” and, “The media are mental, they are nothing”. He has said of his relationship with the press, “I’m sorry the press doesn’t want to discuss tactics, but I’m here to talk football, not nonsense”. This summer’s World Cup saw his adopted country, Mexico, lose against his homeland in the knockout rounds again, and saw him publicly fall-out with Argentina coach Diego Maradona. Maradona accused La Volpe of being a traitor as before the game he had said he wanted Mexico to win.
He has already shown some signs of his willful personality in Costa Rica before he has even signed the final contract. He was due to be presented at a press conference earlier last week but instead returned home to Mexico saying that there were still many things to be agreed upon before he would sign. Now it appears that he has given himself until November 1st to complete the deal as La Volpe is taking some time to check the contract with his lawyers. It is reported that he wants greater access to the players, and that this must be agreed upon by the owners of the clubs and written into his contract with the Costa Rican FA. He still has some detractors, notably among Mexican journalists. La Volpe recently said he is aware of two who have personally called the Costa Rican Federation to advise them not go through with his appointment. Responding to one in particular, La Volpe said the journalist in question has “a problem with football, he was mediocre as a player, a journalist and everything for him is bad”.
Whether La Volpe eventually signs remains to be seen, and the Costa Rican national team are currently preparing for two friendly games against Panama and Jamaica under interim coach Ronald Gonzalez. The federation clearly hope that appointing La Volpe will help them to qualify for the World Cup in 2014, after closely missing the finals this time around. Costa Rica were eliminated in a play-off against Uruguay but in truth should have had the qualification sewn up long before then. With 4 games to go they were top of their group but began a disastrous run that left them needing to go to Montevideo and win. The Costa Rican Federation are looking for a first-class manager with international experience, character and good preparation who will avoid these spectacular losses of form. They are also aware of the beneficial side effects of appointing La Volpe, the president of Alajuelense highlighted the potential investment opportunities by appointing La Volpe. A technician like La Volpe will “change the way other teams see you, they will see you with caution and interest and this is what sells extra tickets and attracts sponsors” he said. La Volpe is an investment that doesn’t come cheap however, at a cost of $3.5 million over 4 years. Regardless of the financial cost in many ways La Volpe is a risky appointment. As President of Cartagines, Jose Luis Rodriguez notes no foreign coach has succeeded in taking Costa Rica to the World Cup. This appointment has the potential to be an expensive mistake but if La Volpe’s brand of conflict and controversy coupled with tactical knowledge and confidence help Costa Rica reach Brazil then it will have been worth it. First he has to sign his contract though.