The year 1969 was a year of triumph and tragedy, jubilation and despondency.
The United States of America was locked in the Vietnam War while The Beatles released Abbey Road, their last recorded album, to critical acclaim in the UK. That same year saw the USA win the space race as Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July, and a month later Woodstock changed the face of music forever.
Infamously, tragedy would strike Italy toward the end of that year. December 12, 1969 saw the Piazza Fontana Bombing, a terrorist attack that left 17 dead and 88 wounded after a bomb was detonated in the Banca Nazionale dell’ Agricolura. Two other bombs would explode during the day in Milan and Rome, while a fourth bomb, also in Milan, would be found undetonated.
Only two months prior, Milan had been a city rejoicing the success of the Rossoneri. On October 22, the club, led by the great Gianni Rivera, won the 1969 Intercontinental Cup in what has been called “one of the most violent games of football.”
It was a game that went down in infamy for the way in which Milan’s opponents played during the second leg, and the subsequent actions that occurred following the match.
Nereo Rocco’s AC Milan punched their ticket to the Intercontinental Cup Final following their demolition of Ajax in the 1968-1969 European Cup Final. The original Intercontinental Cup, the precursor to today’s FIFA Club World Cup, was the definitive trophy declaring the best club football side in the world.
Italian sides would hoist the trophy seven times in 44 years with Milan tied for most all-time at three. Despite declaring the best side in the world, the Intercontinental Cup was only contested by the winners of the European Cup and the Copa Liberadores.
Both at the time were considered the premier club football competitions in the world. However, this format made many feel it was only a glorified friendly between football’s two best continents.
Rocco’s Rossoneri opponent for the two-legged tie was Argentine club Estudientes. A club of fierce players and fans, Estudientes was playing in their second of three consecutive finals after defeating Manchester United the year before.
In that final, Estudientes’ tactics of intimidation got George Best sent off for fighting and pushed United manager Matt Busby to say “Argentineans should be banned from all competitive football.”
Coming into the first leg on October 8, 1969 there was a lot of speculation in the Argentine press surrounding Milan’s French striker Nestor Combin. Though he held French nationality and played for the French national team, Combin was actually Argentine.
Born in La Rosas in 1940, Combin moved to France, where he played five years with Lyon. He then became one of the first French internationals to play in Italy with Juventus, Varese, Torino and Milan, before moving back to France.
An Argentine playing with an European team against a team from his home nation outraged many of the players, journalists and fans in Argentina, and all of them seemed set on blood during this tie.
Meanwhile, the Argentine press had also set off a fervor of emotions by alleging Combin had deserted his country and, maybe more importantly in such volatile times, his military duties. Though Estudientes’ players clashed with all Milan players during the series, it was Combin who received the brunt of the South Americans’ hatred and rage.
In the first leg Milan dominated the match from the start with a 3-0 victory. Goals from Angelo Sormani on either side of Combin’s effort put Milan in the driver’s seat with the second leg in Buenos Aires to come 14 days later.
A hostile crowd greeted Milan on their arrival in Argentina, as the two teams squared off in Boca Junior’s La Bombonera stadium. Estudientes would use everything in their power to intimidate the Rossoneri on the night, including “kicking balls at the team as they warmed up” and fans “pouring coffee” on the Rossoneri as they walked out of the tunnel, according to Yahoo! Eurosport.
In the first half Pierino Prati would go down momentarily unconscious, and was sent off injured after taking a kick to the back from Estudientes goalkeeper Alberto Jose Poletti.
A goalkeeper colliding with a striker is normal in the 18-yard box. However, Poletti assaulted the Italian near the halfway line out of the sight of the referee prior to a corner kick at the other end.
Shortly after Prati’s injury, however, Milan opened the scoring when Rivera intercepted a meandering Estudientes’ pass before playing a one-two with Combin. After receiving the return pass, Rivera dribbled into the box, rounded Poletti, dribbled to the end line and coolly slotted the ball into the back of the net.
Following the “Golden Boy’s” goal, Estudientes pushed hard to get back into the match, and into the tie. In doing so their tempers boiled over with numerous skirmishes breaking out during the match, including Combin having his nose and cheekbone broken.
Combin later alleged Estudientes’ Ramon Aguirre Suarez caused his facial injury following a vicious elbow during the game.
Though Milan won the tie 4-2 on aggregate, they lost the match 2-1 with Estudientes’ goals coming from Marcos Noberto Conigliaro and Suarez only a minute apart.
Though the match was sheer bedlam, there was no respite for Milan after the final whistle. With Combin laid out as if he’d just gone 10 rounds in a heavyweight fight, he was handcuffed and led away by local police for dodging his military service, despite being a French citizen by the time of the Intercontinental Cup.
With skirmish being extinguished on the field by the Argentine military, Combin was led away to jail where he spent the night.
Combin was finally released from jail on October 23 after international pressure was put on the Argentine government. He was able to reunite with his teammates, who refused to leave him behind and fly back to Italy.
Once Milan left the country many thought that would be the end of events. However, due to international outrage, Argentine President Juan Carlos Ongania demanded action. Three Estudientes players were reprimanded.
Goalkeeper Poletti received a 30-day jail sentence and a lifetime ban from football. Suarez and Eduardo Manera received 30 days jail sentences and 20-year bans.
All three bans, however, were commuted, and all three would play the next season for Estudientes, who would once again again play in the Intercontinental Cup losing to Feynoord.
Following their first Intercontinental Cup triumph, Milan did not win another until 1989, the same year they won their next European Cup.
Meanwhile, they would not win the Scudetto again until the late ‘70s, but did find success in the Copa Italia and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup at the beginning of the ‘70s.