Continuing the history series which began with a nostalgic look at the 1978 World Cup win, I wanted to write something for the second installment which looked at a player forgotten by many today. Those who read my recent article looking back on the 1991 Apertura in UK magazine When Saturday Comes will recognise the name: Orestes Omar Corbatta died shortly before the end of that championship, aged just 55. His death was brought on by alcohol poisoning, but that wasn’t the only similarity with a certain more famous South American. He too played on the right wing, and in his heyday, Corbatta was known by fans of his clubs, Racing and Boca Juniors, as ‘The Argentine Garrincha.’
Orestes Omar Corbatta was born in Diareaux, Buenos Aires Province, on the 11th March 1936. He grew up in La Plata in a poor family, one of eight children, and until his dying day he never learned to read or write. It was said that, during his later career, whenever a journalist came to interview him he would pick up the nearest newspaper and pretend to read it, such was his embarrasment at his illiteracy. What he did out on the pitch, though, was incomparable for all who saw him play.
At 14, Corbatta joined the youth side of Estudiantes, but was let go due to an ankle injury, and joined Juvelandia de Chascomús, with whom he played in the Liga Platense. He was already impressing with his style on the right wing, his endless tricks and a dribbling which made it all but impossible for opposing left-backs to rob him of the ball. In addition, his shooting – which lacked power but demonstrated an uncanny ability for putting the ball exactly where he wanted it to go – was getting noticed. Shortly after he turned 19, a Racing fan who’d taken it on himself to act as an impromptu scout recommended Corbatta to the club, and he made the move to Avellaneda for a price of AR$14,000 in April 1955.
On his debut, Racing lost 1-0 away to Gimnasia La Plata, but he scored his first goal for La Academia against Ferro weeks later. In total, Corbatta played 195 matches for Racing over seven years from 1955 to 1962, scoring 79 goals from the right wing. During his time with the Buenos Aires giants, he was called up to the selección. This was the golden era of football in the Southern Cone, following Uruguay’s second World Cup win over Brazil in 1950, and just a decade after River Plate’s renowned team known as La Máquina. Corbatta, though, made the right-wing spot his own for the national side, debuting in Mexico City against Peru during the 1956 Pan-American Games and scoring his first goal from the penalty spot during a 2-2 draw with Uruguay in La Bombonera.
In 1957, Argentina won the Copa América with Corbatta playing alongside a frontline who have been remembered in Argentine football history as the Angeles con caras sucias (‘Angels with dirty faces’). He played on the right of a five-man frontline which also included Humberto Maschio, Antonio Angelillo, future Juventus and Italy legend Omar Sívori and Osvaldo Cruz. 1958 saw Corbatta return home from the World Cup in Sweden as one of the only Argentine players not to be totally slated (having scored three goals in as many games), and the following year he helped his side to another Copa América win on home soil.
In 1963, after two league titles with Racing to add to the two Copa América wins with the selección, Boca Juniors bought Corbatta from Racing for AR$12 million, a fee large enough to pay for the enlargement of Racing’s stadium and the construction of an entire sporting complex for his former club. Although he stayed with Boca until 1965, he played just 18 matches for them, scoring seven goals. His physical condition was beginning to deteriorate, and his alcohol problems starting to show. All the same, when fit – as rarely as that was – he played, scoring a hat-trick in La Bombonera against Vélez and a free kick against Independiente to win matches alongside future Argentina captain Antonio Rattin as his side took the 1964 and 1965 titles and lost the 1963 Copa Libertadores final to Pelé’s Santos.
From Boca, Corbatta moved to Independiente de Medellín in Colombia. There are no official records of his stats for the club, but he played against former side Racing in the Copa Libertadores and had a penalty saved – one of just four (out of 68) he failed to score during his career. Independiente de Medellín fans recall especially fondly an 8-3 league victory over Deportes Tolima, in which Corbatta scored five goals away from home. His side finished the 1966 Colombian championship in second place, but more important things happened during his stay in Colombia: his wife left him, he lost virtually all his savings, and his alcohol addiction only grew stronger.
Corbatta returned to Argentina in 1970, where he played in the lower leagues, first of all – and most notably – with San Telmo, where he played one season, aged 32, and scored ten goals. In his final match for them, they lost 2-0 to Ferro (against whom he’d scored his first professional goal, years before, for Racing) in the decisive match of the B Metropolitano championship, 1970. He went on to play for Italia Unidos and Tiro Federal de Río Negro in the regional leagues.
In one famous match against Uruguay, Corbatta’s marker, José Sasías, grew so embarassed and frustrated at the winger’s play that he punched him in the face. Thereafter, Corbatta went through life without one of his front teeth.
The goal widely regarded as Corbatta’s best for the national side was one that he scored in La Bombonera against Chile, on the 20th October 1957. Tricking two opponents, Corbatta came face-to-face with the opposing goalkeeper. First he fooled him, then faked to shoot, before taking the ball round another defender who had come back to try and help out. For a second time, Corbatta was one-on-one with the goalkeeper. The crowd held their breath, but El Loco knew exactly what he was doing. Once again, he sold the goalkeeper a fake shot, before fooling two more defenders, both of whom ended up sitting on their backsides, and placing a shot into the net off the post. This goal was the first – and only – time that American magazine Life used, as their cover shot, a sequence of photos of a goal in a football match.
Corbatta lived out his final years in a hostel run by Racing Club, where he worked bringing young players though after the club handed him a lifeline when his alcoholism overpowered him, rendering him jobless and homeless. He died, on the 6th December 1991, of throat cancer brought on by his massive alcohol consumption. Two years after his death, a petition from Racing was accepted, and the city government of Avellaneda renamed Calle Cuyo, leading to their stadium, after Corbatta.
‘She never wanted to leave my side,’ Corbatta said of the ball when his career was over. He won the hearts and minds of fans across the country for his play in spite of his addiction. In today’s game, Corbatta, and his fellow addict Garrincha, may well have been cast out by the game’s authorities. But in the middle of the last century, and particularly during his time at Racing and with Argentina, the right-winger brought nothing but smiles to the watching multitudes. And in today’s game, addiction or not, Racing – let’s face it – would kill to have him on their side.
Very good and touching read!
This seems to be the fate of many touched by the hand of genius, not only footballers die alone and poor but also musicians, poets, writers and other sports men.
Excellent article, and very important to learn of the great figures of Argentine football of this era.
We all grew up in England hearing about the Busby Babes, the Champions of Europe Real Madrid, and the Spurs double winners, but it seems that pre-1966 football history outside Europe is almost ignored in the English history books, certainly on the club front.
He sounds an incredible player, a shame there isn’t too much film of him.
If you’ve not already read it, Matthew, I can recommend David Golblatt’s excellent ‘The Ball Is Round’, which is a global history of the game right from its inception, and is particularly strong on Latin America. There’s not a hell of a lot of minute detail, of course – it would be impossible to write a biog of every player – but it’ll give you a better overall picture of some of the important sides and figures. It’s also a magnificent achievement in terms of chronicling football history, full stop.