Billy McNeill: This Is How Football Should Be

He had given Celtic the precious single-goal lead to take to Argentina in the away leg of the World Club Championship in 1967.  He watched on as he and his team-mates were subjected to appalling treatment by the players of Racing Club – and their supporters – in the away leg.  A deciding tie was necessary and he had to steer clear of the madness and the mayhem.  He was as disgusted as every other Celt at the terrible abuse they’d been subjected to – and the lack of protection offered by the referee – in each of the three games.  But  he had to rise above it.  And, at the end of the deciding game in Montevideo, he did – despite being cheated out of the opportunity to lift the trophy which would have crowned Celtic as world champions.

This account of Roberto Perfumo, the highly-rated Racing defender who represented Argentina in the 1966 and 1974 World Cups, demonstrates how Celtic’s greatest captain demonstrated his class in the midst of one of the club’s darkest hours:

“On reaching the tunnel, I saw him come towards me slowly, the blond chap McNeill, who had scored against us in Glasgow.  I looked him in the eyes and instictively put myself on guard, perhaps because of all that had happened during the game.  He held out his hand and I had to grip it tight.  He intimated that he wanted to exchange jerseys with me and it was then I couldn’t stop the tears coming to my eyes, not for me, but for him.  I thought how sad the moment must be, how I would have felt if the title had slipped out of my hands.  McNeill’s face showed no emotion but I thought I almost detected a smile. 

All the ugly things we and they had did during the game seemed to be forgotten.  I pulled off my jersey – a chance to wipe the tears.  The exchange was made.  I hugged him and said (in Spanish) ‘This is how football should be.’  McNeill smiled and said in perfect Spanish: ‘Buena Suerte.  Buena Suerte.’  (Good luck, good luck) 

I don’t know if we will meet again.  Perhaps in the World Cup at Mexico or or some future Club Championship final, a happier occasion.  I hope, but I’ll never forget his gesture in the middle of the sadness he must have felt, a sadness which could so easily have been mine.  How dreadful it must be to travel home beaten and disgraced.  I rushed down the tunnel and held that green ahd white number 5 jersey tightly to me.  I didn’t want anybody pulling it out of my hands in the general commotion down there.  It was my most treasured memento of this World Championship which had been played to the death.  What a nice guy that McNeill must be.” 

Roberto Perfumo, Racing Club and Argentina

(From ‘World Soccer’ magazine, 1967)

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