Juan Alberto Schiaffino was pretty much the embodiment of precisely what you would not expect a footballer to look like. Short and slender, with a pallor complexion, he could easily have passed for some someone in need of a good meal, rather than an outstanding athlete. Here was a player though that reached the very top of the football tree, and at the height of his powers, was deemed to be worth more money than any other player on the planet before him.
Schiaffino was born in Montevideo, capital of Uruguay on 28 July 1925. Despite this, and both of his parents also being native of the South American country, links to his paternal grandfather, born in Italy’s Genoa province, would see him play international football both for his country of birth and to don the famous Azzurri shirt of the Italian national team. All of that would have seemed a long way away when the straggly 17-year-old broke into the youth team of Peñarol in his home city.
It took little time to convince the staff at the club that despite his appearance, here was a rare talent. He was quickly progressed into the first team by the time he was 18, and international recognition followed a year later when he was selected as a member of Uruguay’s squad to contest the South American Championship. His initial inclusion came about as the squad selected was mainly amateur due to a players’ strike. Subsequent call-ups would not need to be aided by such scenarios.
Few players could have had such a meteoric rise, and it perhaps did his cause no harm that the difference between the perception created by his slight appearance and the huge talent that flowed through his slender body was so pronounced. Displaying an eagerness and commitment not to be bullied out of possession by the sort of robust challenge his frame invited, he had the time and ability to pick passes, dictate games and prompt those playing further ahead of him, and his natural left-sided approach added to his value.
An extra quality he possessed, one that many of similar sorts of players thought below them, was an eagerness to tack back and defend when not in possession. In ‘old money’ terms, he was an ideal ‘inside forward’ hard-working, perceptive and with an eager eye for goal. In his later life, he would also be deployed in a ‘sweeper’ role, when age and accumulated injuries had eaten away at his pace and ability to maintain a high work-rate in the engine room of the team. It was a role that his perceptive play and ability to read a game made him highly suited, and he played there with distinction.
In a highly successful period, he stayed with the Montevideo club for eight years, but that was nearly not the case. At 24 years of age, having already secured the Primera División Uruguaya with Peñarol in 1949, he was selected to play for Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup to be held in Brazil. By now he was a true star of Uruguayan football. Superbly balanced he could seemingly dribble past players with ease, and his will o’ the wisp appearance gave his game an almost surreal appearance as drifted effortlessly past opponents, dismissing their muscular challenges with a nonchalant grace. In the World Cup, he would demonstrate his brilliance to the world. What Uruguay already knew, others would soon learn.
It was the first post-war tournament, and although the previous two tournaments before the world war conflagration had been won by Italy, Uruguay still had claims to be the world champions. After winning the inaugural Fifa tournament in 1930 beating Argentina 4-2 in the final, the next two Finals were played out in Italy, and then Germany. The Uruguayan FA declined to take part, declaring the travelling costs to Europe to be prohibitive, although there may also have been a side issue that travelling to a different hemisphere may have depleted their chances of holding onto the trophy. Nevertheless, they had not been deposed as champions on the pitch, and that carried a certain kudos. With the tournament now back in South America therefore, there was more than a little pressure on the players chosen to play for La Celeste to uphold the legacy of Uruguayan football.
The 1950 version of the tournament was not the world embracing jamboree of today. A number of nations declined entry and others refused to turn up. Schiaffino and his compatriots eventually found themselves in Group Four, with just Bolivia for company, as France had withdrawn. It was a comfortable for La Celeste, as they rattled in no less than eight goals without reply, to top what was still somewhat strangely described as a group. Some reports say that Schiaffino netted half of that total, whilst others put it at just a brace. Suffice to say, he was a major influence in both the victory, and the margin achieved.
Along with the other three group winners – hosts Brazil, Sweden and Spain – Uruguay were then placed into a second group, with whoever topped the round-robin of games being declared world champions. It was the first, and so far, only, time that the title wouldn’t be decided in a set-piece final. Strangely though, the way it panned out, and perhaps it planned that way by the organisers, the final game of the group did decide the outcome of the tournament.
When the final round of matches rolled around, it was clear that the game between the hosts and Uruguay would decide the title. The Brazilians were red hot favourites. In their previous two games, they had beaten Sweden 7-1, before scoring six of the best as they spanked Spain 6-1. Uruguay had drawn 2-2 against Spain, before beating the Swedes 3-2, thanks to a goal five minutes before time by Óscar Míguez. It meant that Brazil only needed a draw to lift the trophy, whilst Uruguay would have to defeat the hosts if they were to prevail.
Official attendance for the game held at the cavernous Maracanà on 16th July is listed at in excess of 174,000. That may even be a conservative figure though, as many ‘unofficial’ spectators gained entry by a number of less than conspicuous ways. No-one in Rio de Janeiro wanted to miss the game that would make Brazil champions of the world for the first time.
Predictably, given their recent goal gluts and the insistent shouts of a frenzied and massive crowd, Brazil tore into their visitors in pursuit of the goals that would assure their crowning as champions. The dogged Uruguayans though refused to buckle. Prompted by Schiaffino, Uruguay also carried a threat of their own. Twice in the first half he ame close to opening the scoring. First after a pass by Alcides Ghiggia, he struck a shot on goal that had Brazilian ‘keeper Moacir Barbosa at full stretch. Then a mazy dribble saw him spirit his way through, on goal again only to be thwarted by Barbosa once more. Brazil should have heeded the warning.
At the break there had still been no breakthrough, but as the game restarted, the crowd, frustrated by the lack of goals towards the end of the first period, found their voices again. Two minutes into the second half, they were rewarded. Ademir fed the ball through to Friaca who fired past Roque Maspoli, between the sticks for Le Celeste, although the goalkeeper would have expected to have done better as the shot went under his timid dive. And that surely was that. The crowd exploded in adulation. The crown was heading towards the Seleção. Less than 20 minutes later, a lithe and tantalisingly talented Uruguayan would break millions of Brazilian hearts.
The Uruguayan skipper, centre back Obdulio Varela, had been heroic in the first-half, marshalling his defence and denying waves of Brazilian thrusts, now he was to launch the attack that would silence the crowd and bring Uruguay back level. His pass found Ghiggia scampering down the right flank, and as the cross came in, it found Schiaffino, astoundingly unmarked. He had time to control, stride forward and smash his shot home. This time, Barbosa had no chance.
Having felt the game had been won, Brazil now seemed to sense trepidation. This hadn’t been in the script. No-one had told Schiaffino though. With just ten minutes remaining, the denouement fell as Ghiggia cut in from the right and shot past Barbosa. Schiaffino and Le Celeste had delivered. Uruguay could now claim the longest unbeaten run in World Cup Finals, and to have been unbeaten world champions for the longest period ever. Having been anointed in 1930, they now would keep their record until the 1954 tournament at least. Schiaffino finished as the second highest scorer and was selected for the Fifa Team of the Tournament.
The performance of the little forward had been mightily impressive. Either bagging three or five goals, depending on whose account you take most note of, his general game as the playmaker of the world champions had been a highlight of the tournament. In 1951, a number of Italian clubs sought to take him to Serie A. Particularly at forefront of the fare la coda was Juventus. Benefactor and patron of the club, Fiat owner Gianni Agnelli, even travelled to Montevideo to try and complete a deal. Roma also offered the considerable sum of half a million pesos to try and prise Peñarol’s prize asset away from Montevideo. The Uruguayan club were fully aware of the treasure they had though, and were jealously unmoved.
It was rumoured that Schiaffino himself was keen on the move to his ancestral homeland, but the club rebuffed each approach. Some reports suggest that the player told the club he had his passport ready to travel and would go to Colombia – then outside the domain of Fifa – as a halfway house to force through the move. For all the threats and lure of the lira however, Peñarol remained steadfast, and Schiaffino stayed in Uruguay.
It proved to be a wise move by the club, following their triumph in 1949, they secured the Uruguayan championship in 1951, 1953 and 1954, with Schiaffino very much to the fore. The latter championship however would be his last with the club, and following the World Cup in 1954, he was finally allowed to move to Italy.
The 1954 tournament was held in Switzerland, with all the accompanying disadvantages that had for South American countries. Uruguay nevertheless turned up and put in a creditable defence.
There was a convoluted seeding system in place that meant each country, although in a group of four, would only play two teams rather than all three. It was constructed in order to smooth the passage of the more accomplished sides into the later stages of the tournament. Pitted in a group alongside Austria, Czechoslovakia and Scotland, they gave a good account of themselves. In their first group games, they defeated the Czechs 2-0 with goals from Míguez and Schiaffino himself. In the second game they played the Scots, running up a 7-0 scoreline. Surprisingly, Schiaffino failed to find the net himself amongst the deluge of goals, but Tommy Docherty, who was playing in midfield for Scotland in the game, had little doubt as to who the mainspring of the Uruguayan play was, particularly recalling the moment when the tough Scot was certain he had the little south American penned in on the goal line. With a twist and a turn though Schiaffino danced clear leaving the Scot in his wake. Docherty declared his opponent was the best player he had ever been on a pitch with. The Doc was joining a growing band of admirers.
In the quarter-finals, Uruguay faced England. Carlos Borges gave Le Celeste an early lead. With just five minutes gone, a mishit shot found him on the far post, and he swept the ball past Gil Merrick. Just ten minutes later, a neat reverse pass by Denis Willshaw, put Nat Lofthouse clear and he fired home the equaliser. It stayed that way for the next 25 minutes or so, but a few minutes either side of the break would decide the game.
The game had taken on a fairly even tone, with both sides having chances, but with Schiaffino prompting from midfield, Uruguay looked the more dangerous, and so it proved when Varela fired powerfully home just ahead of the break. The second half was only a minute or so old when Schiaffino applied the coup de grace, firing in from a tight angle with exquisite accuracy. Late goals from Finney and Javier Ambrois did little to change the outcome, and Uruguay would play Hungary in the last four. Late in the game, following an injury to a defender, Schiaffino was moved back to cover for his stricken team-mate. His ability to read a game and take possession, moving out of defence was a revelation, and something that he would demonstrate a mastery of later in his career. If he hadn’t been so invaluable as a playmaker, he would have been a magnificent defender.
The Magyars were the dominant team in the world at the time, and were in the middle of a run of 50 games that would see them win no less than 46, drawing three and losing just one. Sadly for Puskás, Hidegkuti and the cherry-shirted magicians playing under Gusztáv Sebes, that loss would be to West Germany in the final of this tournament. Additionally, Uruguay were undoubtedly hampered by the loss of their inspirational defender and skipper as Varela was unavailable for selection.
Displaying the skill and panache that had seen them largely canter through the tournament to date, the Hungarians were two goals clear just after the break. First, Zoltán Czibor netted after 13 minutes. It was a jolt to the Uruguayans, but they responded with typical resilience and Schiaffino nearly equalised when he rounded goalkeeper Groscis, but couldn’t get his shot on target. Just after the restart Nándor Hidegkuti doubled the Hungarians lead.
It would take a mammoth effort now for Le Celeste to recover. Showing the garra (fighting spirit) they had displayed when faced with the intimidating atmosphere at the Maracanà four years earlier, Le Celeste rallied. Schiaffino was now driving the play forwards, and the Hungarian defence came under increasing pressure. They struck twice with goals from Juan Hohberg and forced a draw after ninety minutes. The equalising goal coming just three minutes before full time. It was created by Schiaffino
In the extra period, Schiaffino all but turned the game in the South Americans’ favour. A shot from distance by Hohberg struck the post, but when the Peñarol star closed in to put the rebound away, Grosics scrambling to recover, managed to deflect the effort wide. An injury to Schiaffino all but did for his team then and Hungary would score twice in the remaining minutes as without their dynamic playmaker, the Uruguayans capitulated. It was the first defeat the country had endured in a World Cup Finals tournament, and felt all the more painful for that, but the world champions had put up an epic fight and save for the injury to their star player with the game still in the balance, the outcome could have been so very different.
For Schiaffino now though, it was time to move on. Even Peñarol recognised the inevitable, and when AC Milan came forward with a world record bid – the equivalent of £72,000 – they took the cash for a player now 29 years old. The deal broke the previous transfer record by over 33%, and meant that Schiaffino would be the most expensive footballer on the planet until 1958. He had netted 88 league goals in 227 games for Peñarol and won four domestic league titles with the Montevideo club, the greater number of which owed so much to his talent and now they had also taken a huge load of lira for his services. If it seemed like good business for the Peñarol, I Rossoneri certainly weren’t complaining about the way it worked out for them either. With the player himself also picking up a reported £23,000, it was a deal that suited all parties.
Within six months of arriving in Lombardy, Schiaffino was lifting the Scudetto as Milan became Italian champions. Fitting in alongside a plethora of foreign stars such as Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm, he had been an automatic starter for the club, missing a mere seven games across the season. It was only the second time I Rossoneri had been title holders since 1907, but it ushered a brief golden era for the tifosi on the Curva Sud. After one win in almost fifty years, they secured the title again in 1955 and 1957, also lifting the Latin Cup in 1956 against a collection of clubs from France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
1n 1956, Milan also reached the semi-finals of the European Cup. They defeated Saarbrücken 7-5 on aggregate in the first round, with Schiaffino scoring one of the goals. In the last eight, he also scored in an 8-3 aggregate victory over Rapid Wien. In the last four however, Milan were paired with eventual champions, Real Madrid. Again, he scored, but the Italian club were eliminated 5-4 on aggregate.
Two years later, Milan went one better and reached the final, facing Los Blancos again. Schiaffino hadn’t scored in the competition that year until Milan were pitted against a post-Munich Manchester United. Across both games, he scored three times, putting Milan ahead at Old Trafford before United fought back to win 2-1. At the San Siro however, the inevitably weakened Manchester team were soundly beaten, with Schiaffino landing a brace in a 4-0 victory. It was then on to the Heysel Stadium, Brussels to face the reigning champions, who had the likes of Raymond Kopa, Francisco Gento and the incomparable Alfredo Di Stéfano in their team.
Schiaffino was now deployed as a centre forward by coach Giuseppe Viani, and again demonstrated his versatility by giving Milan the lead hooking a superb shot past Juan Alonso following a pass by Liedholm on the hour mark. For a while it looked very much like being the goal that would take the trophy back to the San Siro, and there was less than 15 minutes to play when Madrid equalised through di Stefano, firing home right-footed from inside the box. Milan continued to press though, and only a brave plunge at the feet of Giancarlo Danova by Alonso, stopped the wide man restoring the advantage.
Parity only lasted three minutes. With 13 still to play Ernesto Grillo put Milan ahead again. Perhaps now Schiaffino would crown his club career with the European Cup. It wasn’t to be though. Just two minutes later, a clever lob from José Hector Rial restored parity, and much as with Uruguay in 1954, Schiaffino would lose out in extra-time in a massive game, when Gento netted the winner.
As well as changing clubs in 1954, Schiaffino also changed his international allegiances. Intercontinental travel was still a major stumbling block in the early fifties, rendering representation for his homeland difficult whilst plying his trade in Serie A. He had scored eight goals in 21 appearances for Le Celeste, but by virtue of his paternal grandfather, he would now don the famous blue shirt of Italy. It was only for a short period though, and his last cap came in 1958 when he was 33 years old.
In 1960, Roma took what seemed at the time to be a strange move when they signed the 35-year-old Schiaffino from Milan. It had been a hugely successful period in Lombardy. Milan had garnered silverware and Schiaffino had meshed wonderfully with the cosmopolitan side that had been assembled at the San Siro, scoring no less than 145 goals, and creating just as many for his team-mates. Now all roads led to Rome though and the Stadio Olimpico.
His time with I Giallorossi was fairly unfulfilling for both parties, and he played in only carefully selected games, but when doing so, he often turned out as a sweeper, or the free man at the back of a Catenaccio system, illustrating the skills he had hinted at much earlier in his career. Age and injuries deplete even the greatest skills though, and in 1962 Juan Alberton Schiaffino retired from football.
He would return to his native Uruguay to take charge of Le Celeste for a brief period before heading up Peñarol. Neither were particularly successful. As with so many of the most outrageously gifted players across the years, a God-given ability to play is no measure of a coaching ability. Schiaffino died in November 2002 and was buried in Montevideo. To many of his countrymen, he was their greatest footballing treasure. A talent to rank alongside the all-time greats such as Pelé, Maradona, Di Stefano and Cruyff.
The highly regarded International Federation of Football History & Statistics clearly recognised his worth. They considered Schiaffino to be Uruguayan Player of the 20th Century. They also placed him sixth in the list of the best South American Players of the same period and seventeenth in the world list. Imagine how high his ranking would have been had he managed to find the net after the ball hit the post during extra time in the World Cup semi-final in 1954 and Uruguay had gone in to retain the title, or if his goal in the 1956 European Cup Final had led to Milan retaining the lead for just a further 15 minutes.
In his career Juan Schiaffino not only broke the hearts of millions of Brazilians in 1950, but also shattered the world transfer record when he camped to Italy in 1954. In a time today when physical ability is counted so highly, it’s sometimes pleasant to reflect on a time when a waif like figure cut swathes through a defence with nothing but talent and intelligence. Uruguay may be waiting a long time for another player like Juan Alberto Schiaffino.