It was never known with certainty what words Diego Armando Maradona uttered on June 5, 1986, when, in a semifinal of the World Cup that year, Ricardo Enrique Bochini approached the band to jump on the court. Five minutes left, Argentina dominated Belgium 2-0 and the albiceleste already caressed the championship. The safety of that team, which arrived in Mexico almost evicted and grew during the tournament until feeling unbeatable, had been built without Bochini. The genius of Independiente remained always on the bench, except for those five minutes. But nobody had stopped admiring him. Nor Maradona, for whom he was an idol and an example. The footballer who dominated the World Cup trotted towards Bochini and expressed his respect. What did he say? According to some, the phrase was: "Welcome, Master, we were waiting for you". According to others, the thing was simpler: "Draw, Master."
Bochini is, perhaps, the most underrated footballer in world football. Not in Argentina, of course, much less in Avellaneda. Maybe because he developed his entire career (19 years) in Independiente, with which he won everything, and did not play in Europe. Maybe because he was small, bald, and he was weird. Maybe because of its reasonable nature. The fact is that Bochini would hardly appear in a list of the ten best of all time. And, nevertheless, he deserves it. Not only was he a magician with the ball: there are enough of those. He had something much stranger: he understood the game, he knew the reason for every detail in the very complex dance of movements that make up a game, he guessed where the ball should be before any other.
Bochini's professional career ended at 36, on May 5, 1991. Independiente played against Estudiantes. Pablo Erbín, the left-back of the second team, violently kicked Bochini's knee and finished everything. The Independent Master played down the issue and commented that he had to retire. But he still had football left. On February 25, 2007, aged 53, he played a regional qualifier with Barracas Bolívar. He was 42 minutes on the lawn. And won.
That last drawing of the Master was an extreme case. But there is a curious phenomenon of longevity among Argentine footballers. Right now there are almost a hundred players in the Superliga with more than 35 years. Some examples: Cubero, defender and Velez Sarsfield midfielder, he is 40; Guiñazu, half-center of Workshops, has 40; Mercier, Tucuman flyer, is 39; Bastia, Colon midfielder, has 40; Maxi Rodríguez, of Newell's, has 38; Braña, Estudiantes midfielder, will turn 40 in March; Luna, Tiet's striker, is 37. Christian Gomez, Chicago midfielder (a team with all the numbers to play in First next season), has 44. We do not count the goalkeepers, whose career usually lasts longer. But let's mention Sebastian Bértoli, who at 41 is a board-mate of the Board and, in addition, a Peronist councilor in Paraná.
That is the lack of money, the reader will say. The Argentine Super League is impoverished, like the rest of the country, and has to make do with what there is, just as in Cuba American cars from the 1950s continue to circulate. To a certain extent, it is true. But there have been more buoyant times and footballers have also lasted. And although not now about money, Argentine football, with all its elders, lately dominates the Copa Libertadores.
Let us remember, already put, the definitive case: Alfredo di Stéfano. He retired at 40, with Espanyol de Barcelona, already greatly diminished. In 1960, however, he played the famous Real Madrid-Eintracht final of Frankfurt, a wonderful match that ended 7-3 and gave the You meringues his fifth continental title. Di Stéfano scored a hat-trick and also moved across the field. That day was the complete footballer. And I was about to turn 36.