As a result of a process that started somewhere during the mid-to-late 80s, the European game is the top of the football pyramid. It has been for a while now. Anyone who’s someone plays their trade in one of Europe’s top five leagues; anyone who doesn’t, wants to. For the most part, at least. As such, it’s hard to imagine one of the world’s top coaches leaving the summit of the game to coach somewhere else. In 1994 one of them did, coming down from the heights of Real Madrid and National Teams to manage in México; Leo Beenhakker, however, isn’t a regular manager. This is the story of his spell at Club América, and how he built a team that everyone calls the king without a crown.
The manager who longed to discover the world
Football is, to many of us, a second home. It’s the embrace of the family we choose, the colours we love, the temple of our faith. That’s why, usually, we don’t want to peak our heads outside. We don’t want to leave that which is ingrained in our identity and venture forth into the unknown. But for some, it’s a calling. The adventure draws them out, like an itch that desperately needs scratching. Leo Beenhakker is one such person.
Born in Rotterdam on August 2nd 1942, he lost his father when he was a teenager, which forced him to work as an electrician whilst he played for a number of local clubs. Usually a right winger, a career-ending injury at the age of 19 drove him away from the pitches, but not from football. In 1968 he became the youngest coach at the time to get the license required to manage in the Dutch First Division, aged only 26. He managed smaller sides like SC Veendam and Go Ahead Eagles before landing his first top job in Ajax, where he’d win a league title. From there, he moved to Spain, managing Real Zaragoza and Real Madrid, with a brief stint at the helm of the Dutch National Team.
So far, so usual, a typical career for an extremely talented manager. But Beenhakker wanted something else. “I’ve always looked to go and discover something different. I spent my youth watching passing cargo ships from all over the world, hoping to jump on one of them so that I could leave and discover the world“, he told Joachim Barbier when interviewed for The Blizzard. Having won pretty much everything he could win with Ajax and Real Madrid, Beenhakker set out to explore new horizons.
After a year in Switzerland with Grasshopper Club Zürich, he took his first job outside of Europe, with the Saudi Arabia National Team. He didn’t speak Arabic, but he had been capable of overcoming the language barrier before. At Real Zaragoza, his first job in Spain, he fired the translator three months into the job and got by with drawings and what little Spanish he had been able to pick up by then; the game was enough of a common denominator to get himself understood. He quickly learned, however, that it wasn’t always enough.
For most people, living in an unknown country, trying to communicate in a language you don’t speak could be terrifying; for Beenhakker was the best bit. “I also understood that even though football’s supposed to be a universal language, the perception of the message changes depending on the country you’re in“, he said to Barbier, “You realise very quickly the key question isn’t what you say but what they hear. We’re talking about the human element and that for me is the most exciting part“.
Beenhakker’s first foray into non-European football, however, didn’t end as expected. He was brought in July 1993 into a Saudi Arabia National Team that had cleared the AFC Qualifiers First Round and was about to face the Final Round to try and qualify to their first-ever World Cup. They got the job done, winning the group undefeated over five matches, all played in Qatar as a neutral venue. However, just four months before the beginning of the tournament that both began and ended with terrible penalty misses, the Dutch coach was fired.
The problem wasn’t economic or performance related, but a culture clash. “Mr Beenhakker is a fantastic coach“, said Saleh Ahmed Bin Nasser, part of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s delegation, “But he wanted to change the style of our players“. Having played under the Brazilian style since the 1980s (most famously being managed by Mario Zagallo and Carlos Alberto Parreira), the SAFF wasn’t keen on Beenhakker’s attempt to introduce Total Football to the team. Four months later, however, the Dutch manager had found a new home.
Beenhakker was introduced as the new manager of Mexican Club América in mid June 1994, signing a one year contract, with an option for another one. In the following days, América announced the signing of two of the most recognizable players in that team, with 31-year-old Zambian Kalusha Bwalya arriving from PSV and 28-year-old Cameroonian striker François Omam-Biyik, signing from French side Racing Club de Lens. All three had one thing in common, Giuseppe Rubulotta. The Italo-Argentinian agent had become América’s Sporting Director under club president Emilio Díaz Barroso. Those would be the highlights of the agent’s career with Club América, whose later signings (players he represented) wouldn’t work.
From the get-go, Beenhakker was able to imprint the style he wanted for his team. Less than two months after he arrived, they went on to beat by 3-0 a Universidad de Aguascalientes best XI. The press lauded the style of the victory, saying “América showed the entertaining and offensive football that Leo Beenhakker wants to impose, and during the 90 minutes the players showed how much they want to fly high in this era that has just begun“.
However, when the Primera División started things didn’t look so good. América was winning, but their style struggled to gel, with a mixed bag of good and bad moments. That all changed on October 7th, 1994, when América hosted Monarcas Morelia at the Estadio Azteca for Matchday 6. It almost became a tragedy. Just 45 seconds into the match, centreback Juan Hernández gave away a penalty from a long clearance by Monarcas
Morelia’s goalkeeper, which was scored. Before the 3rd minute mark, another goal from a long clearance seemed to spell doom for Beenhakker’s men. But then, América reacted; two goals from François Omam-Biyik and one from Kalusha Bwalya made it 3-2 by the 24th minute mark. When the full-time whistle blew, it was América 7-3 Monarcas Morelia.
That win seemed to galvanize the team. Wins in the following fixtures by 8-1 vs Correcaminos and 4-1 vs. Toros consolidated them as title candidates, but what that Morelia did for their mentality was even more important. It showed when they faced Chivas de Guadalajara in the Clásico of Mexican Football on November 13th, 1994.
A derby for the ages
The Clásico Mexicano might not have as much history as other Latin American rivalries (like the Nacional-Peñarol derby in Uruguay, or Boca Juniors-River Plate, the Argentinian Superclásico), but it is every bit as effervescent. The match was first played in 1926 as a friendly, confronting two of the biggest sides from Mexico City and the city of Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco. However, it wasn’t until the late 50s when it became an intense rivalry. After beating two of the biggest clubs in the Jalisco area by 2-0 in late 1959, América beat Chivas by the same result. After the match, América manager Fernando Marcos González said “América doesn’t come to Guadalajara to win, that’s routine. We come here to change their phone area codes. So now you know my friends, if you want to call Guadalajara, dial 2-0, 2-0, 2-0, courtesy of América“. It was the beginning of a huge rivalry.
That’s why when Beenhakker’s América strolled into a packed Estadio Jalisco under the blazing sun, they did it to rubber-stamp their title favourites tag, or lose it forever. Things started well for América, with a long-range effort from Kalusha Bwalya putting them ahead in the 17th minute. However, Chivas would reshuffle, and with a little help from América’s defensive sloppiness, they would climb back to get ahead 2-1. Another fantastic long-range effort, this time from François Omam-Biyik, would make it 2-2; however, in the dying embers of the first half another defensive mistake, this time a handball inside the area, gave Chivas the chance to go 3-2 into halftime, which they took.
Having gone down twice in the match, with a stadium filled up to the brink going against them, it would’ve been reasonable for them to collapse, or simply to play for a draw. But Beenhakker’s team kept going. Just five minutes into the second half, América’s Brazilian-Mexican striker Zague took advantage of Chivas’ own defensive mistakes to make it 3-3. Relentlessly attacking against a Chivas that couldn’t respond, América managed to get ahead once more in the 21st minute of the second half, with Cuautehmoc Blanco scoring a
header from a Joaquín del Olmo cross. Both players had been staples of the Beenhakker era. Blanco in particular, now an América and México legend but only 21-year-old them, had just settled into the first team under Beenhakker. It’s telling that he and other players run to the Dutch manager for the celebration, Beenhakker waiting for his players with his arms stretched. América would go on to win 4-3 at Jalisco, the first time they had done so in 12 years. Their status as title favourites and the biggest force in Mexican football had just been cemented.
Dutch style with Mexican spice
The style Beenhakker had managed to make América thrive on was one of high firepower offensives and overwhelming the opposition, deeply rooted in the Dutch school of football. They mostly played in a 4-3-3, with a solid defence and well-balanced midfield that gave the forward trio a platform from where to strike with surprising freedom. They would press high, looking to counter-press when the ball had just been lost, and then drop into position if the rival had asserted possession. With the ball at their feet, the focus was always on building up play from the back, getting the ball quickly back into play to take advantage of any countering chances, should they exist.
Adrián Chávez between the sticks was as safe a pair of hands as you could find, and an América legend on his own. In front of him, the usual back four of Juan Hernández, Raúl Gutiérrez, Enrique Rodón y Guillermo Naranjo was solid if slightly error-prone. Hernández and Naranjo in particular would provide runs forwards to create overloads on wide areas and overlap the wingers.
In midfield, a core of Joaquín del Olmo, Rodrigo Lara and Kalusha Bwalya provided an equilibrium to América’s play. Del Olmo, at the centre of the three, would often drop during the build-up to aid the centrebacks. From there, he could spray long passes wide or look to combine with his midfield mates. Lara, although not adverse to runs into space from the centre, was largely the holding mid. Kalusha, however, was a revelation. A highly mobile number 10, he would play on the left of the three men midfield, tearing defences apart with his skill and agility. He would often either look to provide passes into space for the three forwards, overlap on the left for a cross with his marvellous left foot or simply shoot from distance.
However, it was upfront that América had their most dangerous players. On the wings, Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Luis Roberto Alves “Zague” created havoc for the opposing defences. Blanco, the younger of the two, was incredibly industrious, pressing relentlessly, whilst Mexican-Brazilian Zague was incredibly creative, his tall frame and long legs giving him a lengthy stride that could out-pace anyone. Both of them being nearly ambidextrous meant they could look to run wide or cut inside for a shot or to find an overlapping teammate, but it also meant they were able to constantly switch positions and keep defences guessing.
All of this played into the hand of François Omam Biyik, who had a debut season to remember with América. The Cameroonian centre-forward was an imposing presence for Mexican defences, but he wasn’t just a target man. A highly skilled scorer, he’d also drop deep to receive the ball in the hole and play one-twos with either winger or a Kalusha Bwalya running from behind. He was also quite capable of taking a spot on the wings when either of the wingers moved centrally, creating a dilemma for the defenders, who didn’t know if they should follow him or not.
That unpredictability in attack made Beenhakker’s América not only highly effective but incredibly exciting to watch; to this day they’re remembered as one of the best teams to grace México’s Primera División. The Dutch manager agrees; when interviewed in 2017 by a Mexican reporter for Spanish newspaper Marca, he said “I remember that team very fondly, it’s one of the best teams I managed”.
In 2010 Beenhakker appeared via telephone on “La Hora de Cuauhtémoc”, a TV show where Blanco, by then a Mexican legend, interviewed footballers, actors and other celebrities. “I still hold very dear memories of that team“, he said. “When I moved houses recently I found a lot of pictures from that time, and I was very happy. It was a pleasure working with that team“. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing; we’ll discuss the turbulent side of Beenhakker’s Mexican days and how it all came apart in part two.