Daniel Passarella was unquestionably a formidable defender, the type not even the bravest forwards liked to come up against. Yet it was not just strikers who feared him: with his deadly left foot, a leap any basketball player would be proud of and a fierce header, the most prolific centre-back in Argentinian history was also a handful for opposition goalkeepers.
Passarella's stern expression and captain’s armband would become his trademarks, though the image of him joyously holding aloft the FIFA World Cup™ prize in 1978 at his beloved Estadio Monumental is another that has gone down in history. “Lifting that Trophy is like a never-ending orgasm,” he confessed to FIFA.com many years later.
The recipient of an impressive list of titles and accolades over the course of a long career, Passarella received perhaps his biggest compliment from Diego Maradona, who had more than his share of tussles with El Gran Capitán (The Great Captain) during their playing days. “He’s the best defender I’ve ever seen, and the best header of a ball too – in attack as well as defence,” said El Diez.
I had no doubts about making him captain. His professionalism and ability to influence others were remarkable.
His inclusion in the FIFA 100 (Pele’s list of the 125 greatest living footballers in 2004) came as no surprise, the player having netted no fewer than 99 times in the Argentinian top flight before going on to impress at both ends in the Italian Serie A. “I always felt nervous, a kind of tingling, before playing," Passarella explained. "But as soon as I crossed the white line, always right-foot first, I completely changed. I simply wanted to win - everything else would be forgotten."
With his mentality and reliability, this native of Chacabuco in the province of Buenos Aires quickly won the confidence of Cesar Luis Menotti, the man charged with delivering a maiden world title to La Albiceleste on home soil. “I had no doubts about making him captain," El Flaco said of Passarella. "His professionalism and ability to influence others were remarkable. He was a genuine leader.” Passarella would vindicate Menotti’s faith in him, captaining his side in all seven of their games, culminating in the 3-1 victory over the Netherlands in the Final.
Even amid the jubilant celebrations of 25 June 1978, the captain showed his customary stubbornness by guarding the coveted Trophy as if his life depended on it. Mario Kempes, the tournament’s top scorer, joked about his skipper's attachment to the coveted prize in a FIFA.com interview: “Daniel didn't want to give it to anyone. I never got to touch it once. He had his elbows up in typical Passarella style, so no-one could get it off him. He even refused to hand it over to the security men who came to the dressing room to retrieve it!”
After failing in his bid to retain the world crown four years later in Spain, despite scoring there against El Salvador and Italy, Passarella was determined to end his international career on a high with victory at Mexico 1986. Fate dealt the player a cruel hand, however, when he contracted an intestinal virus that consigned him to a hospital for eight days, ending any realistic chance he had of taking part in the competition his country went on to win.
“There was a small stool in the hotel room where we were staying [during Mexico 1986]. At night I’d often take it with me down to the training field, where I’d sit and cry my eyes out for hours,” the player subsequently revealed.
His replacement at the heart of defence was none other than Jose Luis Brown, who would famously score the opening goal in the Final against West Germany at the Estadio Azteca. For all that, Passarella can take comfort from the knowledge that Argentina may never have reached those deciders had it not been for him.
He’s the best defender I’ve ever seen, and the best header of a ball too – in attack as well as defence.
In the team’s final qualifier against Peru in Buenos Aires, La Albiceleste needed a point to secure their passage to Mexico. At half-time, however, the home side were trailing 2-1 and an air of dread pervaded the Monumental. Passarella explained: “In the dressing room we were all silent, not least our fitness coach Profe Echeverria who, on our suggestion, had put a deposit down on an apartment on the basis that he’d be able to buy it with the bonus we’d get for reaching the finals.
"We needed something to give us a lift ahead of the second half so I stood up, gave El Profe a pat on the back and said, "don't worry, you're still going to buy that flat." And the captain was as good as his word. With the clock ticking down, Passarella picked up the gauntlet by bringing down a ball in the Peruvian area and firing it against the upright. The ball would roll across the goal-line, where Ricardo Gareca was on hand to knock it home and secure qualification.
“Even though I got another World Cup winners’ medal and was with the team for the prize-giving in Mexico, I could only feel like a champion if I’d played,” Passarella later said. Yet despite that bittersweet experience in Mexico, the player’s overall record at World Cups is still impressive.
In all he competed in 12 games, winning seven, losing four and drawing one. Moreover, he netted three goals, lifted one Trophy and took home two winners’ medals along the way. But even more than his enviable stats, Passarella created a legend: that of a centre-back who was formidable at both ends of the field and who was certainly worthy of his Gran Capitán moniker.
Did You Know?
Despite now being synonymous with River Plate, Passarella has admitted to being a fan of arch-rivals Boca Juniors as a child. His decision to reject the offer of a trial with the latter early in his career paved the way for his 1973 move to Los Millonarios, whom he is president of today.
In December 2009, Passarella was elected president of River Plate with a majority of just six votes from his nearest rival. Curiously, six was also the number he wore for much of his playing career.
Having qualified for three FIFA World Cups as a player, Passarella then experienced the tournament as a coach at France 1998, where his Argentina side crashed out in the quarter-finals against the Netherlands.
In his last game as a professional, on 27 July 1989, Passarella was sent off while playing for River Plate against arch-rivals Boca Juniors. The referee was Juan Bava, who also disallowed a free-kick for what would have been his 100th goal in the Argentinian top flight against the same rival a couple of months eariler.
As a coach, Passarella won three league championships with River Plate, one with Mexico's Monterrey and the Pan American Games title with the Argentina U-23s.