Greater than Messi & Maradona? Meet the Angels with Dirty Faces - Argentina's best-ever forward line

Sixty years ago today Corbatta, Sivori, Maschio, Angelillo and Cruz were writing their names into Albiceleste history with a glorious Copa campaign


If we judge by names alone, the famous forward lines of Argentina's football golden era back in the 1950s were far superior than the current incarnations that dominate world football. The MSN and BBC, formidable though they are, are essentially acronyms of broadcasting corporations, perhaps fitting for the media-saturated age we live in. 

Sixty years ago, fans knew their idols in far more evocative terms. There was the famous 'Machine' of River Plate, spearheaded by Angel Labruna and Adolfo Perdernera, that took the Primera Division by storm in the opening years of that far-off decade. Then, in 1957, Albiceleste coach Guillermo Stabile brought together the five players that would take that year's Copa America by storm: referring back to James Cagney's classic gangster film, they would become known as the 'Angels with Dirty Faces'. 

Football formed a close reflection of the evolving Argentine society. The game had come to South America via British businessmen that had connected the continent with ports and railways in order to feed the Empire, but by the middle of the century it had shifted into the less salubrious neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires, Rosario, Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro. 

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Its protagonists were the sons of the millions of Italian and Spanish immigrants that flooded into the new world to escape grinding poverty, as a cursory look at the Argentina team-sheet demonstrates. Osmar Oreste Corbatta, Humberto Maschio, Omar Sivori and Antonio Angelillo, four-fifths of that famous forward line, were born to Italians in the province of Buenos Aires; Osvaldo Cruz, Independiente's unplayable left winger, was of Spanish descent. They were the sons of the potrero, patches of wasteland in the shadows of newly nascent factories and railway lines in the developing suburbs of the big cities, which would later spawn Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and a romantic legend of young brats dodging the potholes and perfecting their dribbling with balls of dubious quality.

Between them, and backed up by the defensive titan Nestor 'Pipo' Rossi, who had also played in that marvellous River 'Machine' - "We all played well, but the man who put things in their place and ran the field was Rossi," Labruna said once of his former team-mate - the Angels were ready for battle. In a stunning tournament Argentina won their first five games, losing only a final dead-rubber clash against Peru when the title was already assured.

The tournament kicked off in spectacular fashion with an 8-2 thrashing of Colombia, in a game that showed the quintet's incredible offensive abilities. Maschio, a rugged inside forward who would go on to star for several Italian clubs and then take the crown of world champion on his return to Racing Club, smashed four goals past the hapless Cafetero, with Cruz, Angelillo and Corbatta also finding the net. Those eight strikes were the first of 25 the Albiceleste would net in just six games in Lima, with all but one coming from one of the Angels. 

Ecuador and Uruguay were the next victims to the slaughter, losing 3 and 4-0 respectively in two one-sided encounters. Angelillo starred with two strikes in the first match, demonstrating the goalscoring prowess that would later see him crowned Serie A capocanniere with Inter just two years later. Like Maschio, Angelillo had graduated from neighbourhood club Arsenal de Llavallol in Buenos Aires' gritty southern suburbs to make the first team at Racing; alongside the wizardly Corbatta, the 'Argentine Garrincha' whose skills down the right wing were only matched by his aptitude for self-destruction aided by alcohol, they had helped make the Avellaneda club one of the most fearsome in Argentina.

Corbatta 1957

One of the most startling aspects of the 'Angels' was their tender ages. At 26, Cruz was the elder statesman of the group, with Maschio having recently turned 24 a month before the competition kicked off in Peru and Sivori approaching his 22nd birthday. Corbatta turned 21 just two days before that 8-2 drubbing of Colombia, while Angelillo was still a teenager at 19. But they were not awed by the ferocious crowds that packed into Lima's Estadio Nacional to watch the upstarts.

Chile suffered a similar fate to their South American neighbours when it came to meeting the quintet: the Roja were destroyed 6-2, with Sivori kicking off with an early strike before doubles from Angelillo and Maschio put the game beyond doubt. Corbatta was charged with delivering the coup de grace from the penalty spot, and the man famed as one of the greatest penalty takers in football history did not err. The story goes that legendary River goalkeeper Amadeo Carrizo bet 'El Loco' he could save at least 10 of 50 penalty attempts, while the pair were together for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Corbatta assented, and duly went on to convert 49 of his strikes - the 50th going wide off the post. 

For many, however, Enrique Omar Sivori was the best of all the 'Angels'. The River idol was described in El Grafico back in 1994 as "the forerunner to Diego Maradona, with the same virtuoso talent for dribbling and tricks, perhaps less true in his shot, especially at the dead ball, but with as much or more personality than Diego."

Former Argentina coach Miguel Ignomiriello, who worked with Sivori during a brief spell at the Albiceleste years after his retirement, concurs: "In the history of Argentine football there is [Alfredo] Di Stefano, Sivori and Maradona, those three take the podium," he explained to this writer. 'El Cabezon' (Big Head), as he was known, lifted the Ballon d'Or in 1961, becoming the second non-European honoured after Di Stefano by virtue of his Italian passport. The star missed several games in Lima, struggling for fitness and replaced in a handful of games by young San Lorenzo marksman Jose Sanfilippo (the unheralded 'sixth angel') but his presence was nevertheless vital for victory and his talents recognised with the Best Player award at its end. 

Sivori quote

While the 1957 Copa America took place in round-robin format, Argentina's fifth game of the tournament effectively decided the winner. Brazil were not yet the Selecao that would take World Cup glory just a year later, with Pele and Garrincha yet to explode on the scene. But it was still a formidable squad that travelled to Peru in search of victory. Evaristo was there in his final flourish for the national team before a move to Barcelona ended his Brazil career; as were Santos idol Pepe and Didi, the nation's 'Senhor Futebol'. It was useless, however, as no team were capable of stopping the avaricious Angels. 

Goals from Angelillo, Maschio - scoring his ninth strike of the tournament to equal a top-scoring record set back in 1949 - and Cruz blew the Brazilians away in yet another comprehensive victory, crowning Argentina champions of South America with a game to spare. It should have been the beginning of world domination for Stabile's charges, a youthful, dynamic side that rolled over even the toughest opponents in an era where markers literally left their mark on any players who dared to defy them. The reign of the Angels was not to be, however; by the end of 1957 arguably the best side the Albiceleste has ever built was utterly destroyed. 

Hounded by the Revolucion Libertadora, the military dictatorship that in 1955 had overthrown Juan Domingo Peron in a bloody coup, to complete his national service, Angelillo instead opted to flee to Italy, where he joined Inter. That decision would see him blacklisted from his home nation for over 20 years. He was joined by Sivori and Maschio; the former becoming one of Juventus' all-time greats, the latter going to Bologna. Corbatta stayed, and guided Racing to a Primera title in the same year, but the drink had already taken its hold in the young star, and by the early 1960s 'El Loco' was already a shadow of his former self. 

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Corbatta and Cruz were the only remnants of that fabulous quintet that travelled to Sweden for Argentina's first World Cup since 1934. So short of talent up front was Stabile that the great Labruna was drafted into action at 39. The result was an unprecedented fiasco. Much like England's destruction at the hands of Hungary in 1953 the Albiceleste's myth of invincibility was shattered with a first round exit, winning one and losing two games to finish rock bottom of their group.

Stabile was sacked after 18 years in charge, and his successors discarded the classical La Nuestra style of play based around dribbling, attack and individual skill in favour of a meaner, more cynical philosophy that dominated the next two decades in the nation. Failure in Sweden marked the end of an era, just 12 months after the potrero had conquered South America with unforgettable swagger. 

The Angels with Dirty Faces won their place in history perhaps for that very reason. Corbatta, Sivori, Maschio, Angelillo and Cruz played just one tournament together, their success a meteor that flashed across the skies before fading into oblivion. But even 60 years later, their legacy lives on. Great players would follow, from Maradona to Lionel Messi himself, but never again would Argentina put out an attack so potent as those five street urchins who lit up Lima with their incomparable skills.