To be widely regarded as a sporting superstar is an accolade gifted to precious few, even more so within any specific sport. Football is certainly no different. Reaching even beyond that exalted status though, there is a higher, more exclusive plane. Access to it is granted only to the legends, those whose passing can require a tear from the eye, a lament for the soul and thaw even the coldest of hearts. It can be difficult to identify what extra quality, what characteristic, what trait, separates those legends from the mere outstanding superstars. And yet, we instantly know it when we see it. Strangely, it’s not a strength. In fact, it’s quite the reverse. In art, in music so many had it, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain for example; it’s an almost perfect imperfection. In football, among others, George Best had it, Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone had it and, without doubt, Diego Armando Maradona had it.
That difference is an extra quotient of a human characteristic that is often labelled as ‘vulnerability’ but should perhaps be better understood as the quality of humanity. It allows those so gifted to dream and reach out for the unimagined spectacular, but also to be prey to the same weaknesses and temptations that the ordinary fan feels. It’s to be favoured by the Gods, to have an angel sit on the right shoulder and whisper into your ear, whilst at the same time being compelled to unconsciously take heed of the devil sitting on the left shoulder, seductively offering an enticing reward for succumbing to a destructive but irresistible temptation.
The difference between the sporting superstar, admired and revered by so many, and the true legend who claims both of those rewards, but also receives that most precious of gifts, love, in abundance, is that they are both above the ordinary, and yet they are part of it, at the same time. They’re one of us. Their successes do not show us how meagre we are. They show what we can achieve, not despite any disadvantaged life chances, but despite our vulnerabilities, despite our human weaknesses, despite our humanity. Reflecting on Maradona’s passing, Jonathan Wilson wrote, ‘Diego Maradona was revered in Argentina, a tortured genius who suffered for his greatness and whose meaning in the history of the sport is derived from considerably more than just his on-field achievements.’ As so often, Wilson delivers his words with impressive precision, as astutely accurate as a Maradona strike on goal,
It’s easy to perceive someone such as Maradona, as a boy from the barrio, a street kid who learnt who to play football on the discarded, dusty and uneven patches of ground in the Lanús district of Buenos Aires; as someone who came up through football the hard way, and shone so bright to become the greatest player of his generation – some would argue of all time – leading his various clubs to silverware and his country to the summit of world football. That seems more than worthy enough of course, to be someone who offers a legacy not only of glorious moments on the football pitch, skills to entrance and beguile, but also offering hope to similar aspiring kids the world over who, despite their disadvantages, dream of sporting success. Such a legacy surpasses the achievements all but a very select few. That however, for all its merits, would be selling the legacy of Diego Maradona so very short.
In 1928, the Argentine newspaper El Grafico published an editorial suggesting what a statue capturing the essence of the game in Argentina would need to feature. It should, the editorial asserted be, ‘An urchin with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday’s bread. His trousers are a few roughly sewn patches; his vest with Argentinian stripes, with a very low neck and with many holes eaten out by the invisible mice of use … His knees covered with the scabs of wounds disinfected by fate; barefoot or with shoes whose holes in the toes suggest they have been made through too much shooting. His stance must be characteristic; it must seem as if he is dribbling with a rag ball.’ I refuse to believe that I am the only one reading these words who does not recognise a description of Diego Maradona, albeit that they were written a dozen years before he was born.
Simply put, Maradona’s legacy is of the “tortured genius” identified by Wilson, and also the “intelligent, roving, trickster” portrayed in that elegant El Grafico editorial. Despite being less successful on the international stage than Maradona, Leo Messi will hoover up more medals and silverware, and doubtless be regarded as a true great of the sport. It’s unlikely however that he will ever be loved, truly loved, as much as Maradona was, especially in Argentina where he is “revered” as Wilson asserts. A few examples from the turbulent life of Maradona, and how they have come to be understood, can perhaps offer a little insight as to why that would be the case.
In 1984, Maradona left Barcelona to join Napoli in Serie A following a dispute with Barça president Josep Lluís Núñez. Often seen as one of the lesser lights of Calcio, and cast into the shadow of the financial powerhouse clubs of the north, I Partenopei had never previously been crowned as champions of Italy. That would change when Maradona arrived though. Two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup triumph brought unheralded success to the Stadio San Paolo. For those true legends however, triumph demands payment in full. Inevitably, accompanying the victories, was the dread cloud of drug abuse, other scandals and alleged links with the Camorra – the notorious Neapolitan mafia. Bans and fines followed as his time with the club deteriorated. Eventually after serving a 15-month for cocaine abuse he left Napoli in disgrace, moving to Spain and Sevilla.
For all the trials and tribulations that the latter end of his time in Naples caused however, the image of Maradona, adorning frescoes on the side of buildings in the city are still treated with great reverence and his number ten shirt was later retired by the club as a sign of respect and gratitude. Following his passing, a move is now afoot to rename the Estadio San Paolo stadium after him, reborn as the Estadio Diego Armando Maradona. Thousands flooded the streets of Naples minutes after the news of his death broke. No one was dismissing the scandals or drug abuse, but this was news of one of their own passing. At such times, forgiveness, sadness, love and adoration wash away thoughts of such ills. Interviewed in The Guardian, as he plastered a poster reading “Maradona, Naples is crying” to a shop front, Manuel Pellegrini spoke for the city. “He was just a Scugnizzo Napoletano [Neapolitan for naughty rascal] like us.” He had vulnerabilities and weaknesses like Neapolitans, like Naples itself, like us all, but that was why they took him to their hearts. It’s what made him more adored, loved.
The World Cup, the greatest football show on earth, has been the scene for so much of what has come to define Maradona. He selected the tournament in 1986 for perhaps the most famous four minutes of his entire career. For many football fans around the world, those brief 240 or so seconds captured the man, the legend that was Maradona, and yet the actions, their consequences and their legacies have been interpreted in so many different ways.
Eschewing chronology, beginning with the second goal against England in the quarter-final of the tournament in Mexico, the slaloming run from halfway, swaying past defenders unhindered by their futile attempts to disrupt his progress, before slotting the ball past Peter Shilton is regarded by many as the greatest goal in World Cup history. Commentating for the BBC at the game, Barry Davies offered support to such assertions. “You have to say that is magnificent,” he remarked. And so, it was. The dribble past so many lunging challenges was like a will o’ the wisp dancing elusively, this way then that, the ball convinced that it was part of his foot, and no one else could dare to take it away. Selecting the biggest stage for your grandest moments is truly the hallmark of legends. Yet if that was football from the Gods, four minutes earlier, the first Argentine goal has been painted as an entirely different picture, when Maradona claimed assistance from a celestial hand in giving Argentina the lead.
The details of the goal are well enough known without going through them again, but it’s the consequences, and interpretation of them, that are of more important in understanding Maradona’s legacy. To so many in England, the goal was regarded as ‘cheating’ which of course, it was. Context is everything though, and the incident was no less contrary to the laws of the game than for the England players – as many others of different nationalities had done, and would continue to do in the tournament – to repeatedly foul their nemesis as the best way to prevent him from harming their cause.
Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right as the hackneyed old cliché goes but, as time has passed, many have come to regard the referee as the villain of the peace for not spotting the subterfuge, rather than Maradona for perpetrating it. After all, who amongst the England players or the many millions of fans watching, if guaranteed they would not be penalised for the offence, would not have done exactly the same thing? Again, Maradona’s deception, the temptation to be a “trickster” was surely one we would all fall prey to. Do we not envy his opportunism in the first goal as much as his majesty in scoring the second one?
In Argentina, there was never much doubt as to which goal brought the most pleasure, albeit perhaps also aided by a sizable measure of schadenfreude for the angst of a former imperial country brought low by the conjurer’s deceptive art and sleight of hand. The “intelligent, roving, trickster” deftly picking the pocket of the dim-witted, aristocratic and wealthy invader, before scampering away to celebrate with his kin. So many Argentines would have wanted to inflict the same embarrassment on the English, especially with the Falklands War so redolent in South American minds, but Maradona spoke for, acted for, them all.
Even for the English, whilst some may still harbour dark thoughts and carry a grudge many years later, many others have accepted, forgiven and even acknowledged the quicksilver thinking that scored the goal. A span of almost three dozen years offers plenty of time for reflection.
Four years later, in Italia 90, Argentina played the hosts Italy at the semi-final stage at the Estadio San Paolo. The Azzurri, one step from the final on home soil would surely have been offered the most vociferous of support. In Naples however, the adoration of Maradona as a Scugnizzo Napoletano, a favoured son who erred but brought so much joy, weighed heavier than that for the national team. Is there any greater love?
In the tournament hosted by the USA in 1994, the ever-present vulnerability rose to the surface again. A positive drugs test for exposed Maradona’s defining vulnerability. He was expelled from the World Cup in disgrace but, despite this transgression and the harm it did to Argentine chances in the tournament, there was enough forgiveness and understanding in the country to welcome him back into the fold as coach of the national team later.
Relating Maradona’s legacy to Naples or Argentina, albeit easy to illustrate and illuminating artificially restricts his legacy, where in reality it spreads across the global football community and beyond. In New Zealand, ahead of a rugby match against Argentina, the All Blacks delayed the Haka to offer their opponents a New Zealand shirt bearing the number ten and Maradona’s name. It may seem like a peripheral event, a sideshow, something happening on the fringes of the tributes to a lost genius, but maybe it shouldn’t be seen that way.
Maradona was born in Argentina and starred for La Albiceleste as well as coaching the national team. In club football, as well as starring for Barcelona, Napoli and Sevilla, he played for Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors and Newell’s Old Boys, and coached clubs in Argentina, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico. All would claim a part of Maradona’s legacy as their own. That legacy however is far bigger and spreads far wider than that.
That legacy belongs to all football, across the world, and may even spread to other sports too. It’s a legacy that speaks not only of a God-given talent, not only of a career blessed by towering heights and benighted by despairing lows, but of both at the same time. It’s a legacy that speaks of all of our strengths, all of our vulnerabilities and what makes us who we are. We applaud, we acclaim and we loved Maradona for who he was, not some wholly virtuous person devoid of inner demons, but because he was like us, because he inspired us. He was a “tortured genius”. He was that “urchin with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes” and he was that “Scugnizzo Napoletano”. He was all of those things and so much more. What he wasn’t however was perfect. Like us all, he had vulnerability and that’s what linked him to everyone else. It’s why we loved Maradona and why his legacy should be exalted as belonging to a very human legend.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times ‘Maradona’ magazine).
To be considered an iconic presence at any club is, by definition, a rare distinction. To do so at one of the world’s leading clubs is another step or three beyond that. It requires not only a dedication to the club and its fans, a longevity and history of success in a number of roles, but also that quintessential affinity with what the club represents. Few achieve such hallowed status. Without fear of contradiction however, it’s safe to say that Daniel Passarella has such a presence at River Plate.
The player who would become known as “El Gran Capitán” and spend ten years wearing River Plate’s famous colours, another six as coach and then serve as president of the club, as well as being a World Cup winning captain and coach of the national team, was born in the Buenos Aires province of Chacabuco on 25 May 1973. His footballing career began with Club Atlético Sarmiento, then in the third-tier of the Argentine league structure. Given how his future would pan out, it’s strange to note that Passarella’s family was very much Boca-orientated and, legend has it, he once assured his Boca supporting grandmother that he would be part of a team that would destroy Las Gallinas –a nickname meaning ‘hens’ and often used as a derogatory term for River Plate. Nevertheless, in 1974, he left Club Atlético Sarmiento, and entered the Estadio Monumental as a River Plate player, beginning an association that would span four decades and see him achieve legendary status.
Passarella’s talent had been spotted by River’s network of scouts and brought to the attention of the then coach Néstor Rossi. Suitably impressed by both his organised and no-holds-barred defending, plus an ability to drive forward from the back and score, Rossi persuaded the young Passarella to put aside youthful enmities and join River. The blandishments of the coach endured, and a 20-year-old Passarella crossed the Rubicon. As if to underscore the break with previously held emotional attachments, his debut in a pre-season game would be against none other than Boca Juniors. It’s not known what his grandmother thought of the occasion.
Although making his league debut that same season, Passarella would quickly become a regular starter, and begin the climb to greatness, when River’s record goalscorer, Ángel Labruna replaced Rossi for the following season. With Passarella inserted into the spine of the team, along with signings brought in by the new coach, the club was set for a golden period. River had last won the Metropolitano title in 1957, the year after Passarella had been born. It had been the club’s 13th and, some considered, ill-fated title, but all of that was about to change. Playing from centre- back, Passarella would appear in 29 league games that term, scoring an impressive nine goals, as River secured the title, four points clear of Huracán, with Boca a point further back. Although far from being the league’s top scorers, River’s defensive efficiency with Passarella at the heart of things returned the best record, conceding just 38 times, and losing a mere six of the 38 fixtures. The stage was set.
Despite standing a mere 1.73metres, much as with so many other great defenders of the era, he played as if he was two metres tall. Short in stature, but still a giant in the air, he seemed to defy the limits imposed by his short frame, consistently dominating forwards despite conceding height to them. Professional to the core, he would deploy all legitimate means to prevent his team conceding, and never shirk from indulging in the darker arts of the game if the situation required such things.
Strong and dominant with pace aplenty, his determined attitude saw him rarely lose out in the intensely physical battles of the Argentine league. As if that were not sufficient upon which to build a reputation however, his early ability to score goals would hardly diminish as his career progressed. Across his two terms with the club, developing a polished technique from the penalty spot and dead ball scenarios, he would score 99 league goals for River across 298 games. An average better than a goal every three games is a decent return for many strikers, but here was the most consummate of defenders offering up the most productive of bonuses. His talent received due reward when he was named Argentina’s Footballer of the Year in 1976. He was still only 23 years old.
Very much in the way of Passarella, River were elbowing their way back towards the top table of Argentine domestic football and when the squad for the home World Cup in 1978 was announced, alongside club mates Ubaldo Fillol, Roberto Perfumo, Reinaldo Merlo and Leopoldo Luque, the name of Daniel Passarella was at the top of the list, with the captain of River Plate also granted the honour of leading the national team. His debut had come during a 1-0 victory over the Soviet Union in a friendly in Kiev on March 20, 1976, and a little over two years later, on 25 June 1978, in River’s own Estadio Monumental, more than 70,000 celebrating Argentines saw Passarella become the first Argentine to list the World Cup.
The trophy was handed to Passarella by General Jorge Rafael Videla, head of the military junta ruling the country. The regime was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths during the years of harsh military repression, and the Argentine captain would later lament that, “If I’d known then what was happening, I wouldn’t have played at all.” Cynically perhaps, some would argue that it’s easy to say that in retrospect, but sitting in the comfort of a democratically run country, such superior opinions can come too easily.
Domestic success continued. The Nacional title was won in 1975, 1979 and 1981, along with other Metropolitano successes in 1977, 1979 and 1980. The goals also continued to flow. In 1976, he scored a staggering 24 goals in just 35 league games. Despite River’s success and playing for one of the country’s top teams, it was still a phenomenal scoring record for a defender. Despite his goals, frustratingly, it was Boca who picked up both the Nacional and Metropolitano titles that term.
By the time of the 1982 World Cup, Passarella was a prime target for the top clubs of Serie A and after Argentina were eliminated from the tournament, Fiorentina moved in with a bid to take the River Plate legend to Tuscany. He would be joined by Brazilian legend and skipper Sócrates, although reports suggest that the pair were anything but close. Given the traditional rivalry between the national teams of Brazil and Argentina, it’s perhaps little surprise that the captains of each of those sides were hardly the best of friends.
Across the next four seasons, Passarella would average 35 games a season with I Viola, scoring first three, then eight, followed by nine and, in his final term there, 15 goals. Although never good enough to challenge for the Scudetto in any consistent way, Fiorentina did qualify for UEFA Cup competition in 1983-84 and 1985-86. In the latter of those seasons, his last with the club, Passarella’s return of 15 goals is made even more remarkable by the fact that the total was more than half of the club’s entire haul of league goals. He would leave Tuscany after the 1986 World Cup, having played 109 games for Fiorentina.
Although a triumph for his country, the 1986 World Cup constituted a personal disappointment for Passarella. Chosen for the squad, a bout of enterocolitis saw him miss the tournament’s action. He was replaced by José Luis Brown who scored the opening goal in the World Cup Final. After the tournament, rumours broke out of a rift between Passarella and Diego Maradona. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, coach Carlos Bilardo sided with his star player and Passarella felt that the two combined to keep him out of the action.
Whatever the truth of that, or otherwise, it illustrated the undiminished burning ambition of Passarella to play, and win, at the highest level of the game. Despite not kicking a ball in the tournament, his presence in the squad ensured him of the exclusive honour of being the only Argentine to feature in both of his country’s World Cup victories. As with 1982, the end of the World Cup saw another move, and Passarella left Tuscany journeying north to Lombardy, and joining I Nerazzurri of Internazionale.
His first term at the San Siro saw Inter hit a third-place finish in Serie A, a point behind runners-up Juventus and four astray of the champions, a Diego Maradona inspired Napoli. The rivalry between the two Argentines, added to by the discomfort of relations at the 1986 World Cup, would only have made losing out to his compatriot’s club even more bitter for the defender with the burning desire to win. Nineteen eighty-six, also saw Passarella play his last game for Argentina, after 70 caps and a highly impressive 22 goals. It’s a goal ratio better than that of Spain’s Fernando Torres! The following season would see Inter trail off into fifth place and despite Passarella delivering his customary goals there seemed little chance of the club enjoying league success, as stadium-sharing rivals AC Milan took on the mantle of Italy’s top club.
Passarella was now 35 and with the remaining years of his career slipping away, he sought a way home, returning to Buenos Aries and the Estadio Monumental. He would play just one further season with River, finishing a disappointing fifth in the league, some 17 points adrift of champions, Independiente. In December 1989 though, another chapter in the career of Daniel Passarella would open when former team-mate, and now River Plate coach, Reinaldo Merlo resigned his post. With their legendary captain and national hero now back home, there was an irresistible clamour for Passarella to inherit the job, and El Gran Capitán swapped the white shirt with the red sash for a tracksuit and position on the bench. If Passarella’s ascent to the realms of playing for River had brought success to the club, his time sitting in the coach’s dugout would hardly suffer by comparison.
The 1989-90 Primera División season had hardly been an encouraging one for River, hence Merlo’s departure. When Passarella assumed charge of the team’s affairs, the club were languishing, comfortably adrift of table-topping Independiente. By the time the last game had been played though, River had eaten away at the deficit and built a seven-point cushion to the club from Avellaneda. River had won the title and conceded a miserly 20 goals in the 38-game league programme. Passarella organised his team to play in the same way he had when wearing the shirt. Cold-eyed and determined, win at all costs and tolerate nothing less than success. It was immensely successful and as the Argentine league system was split into two halves, the club secured two more titles. River Plate was now on an upward trajectory, but Passarella wouldn’t be there to enjoy the full fruits of his labours. A string of other coaches would reap the benefit as the club added a further three Aperturas and four Clausura titles. Somewhat ironically, the success that he helped to create that meant that, after he left the national team four years later, an immediate return to River was hardly possible.
The 1994 World Cup was staged in the USA and, much as with the fate of Merlo at River Plate, the downfall of another hero would herald a call for Passarella. Argentina were eliminated by Romania and a failed drugs test also brought the international career of Diego Maradona to an end. Coach Alfie Basilo was moved out and when the question was asked as to who should be invited to take over as coach of the La Albiceleste, there were few dissenting voice from the acclaim for it to be former World Cup winning skipper and the man at the heart of River Plate’s revival, Daniel Passarella.
His first game in charge saw an upturn in fortunes with a 3-0 victory over Chile, and Passarella’s disciplinarian and demanding ethos brought similar results to those enjoyed at the Estadio Monumental. In 1995, Argentina reached the quarter-finals of the Copa America held in Uruguay, before being unluckily eliminated by Brazil on penalties, following a 2-2 draw. The following year, he guided the team to the Olympic Final, but lost 3-2 to Nigeria after twice being in front, and Argentina had to settle for silver medals.
In February 1997 Passarella’s disciplinary approach both off the field – no long hair, and on the field – adherence to positions led Fernando Redondo to announce that he would never play for the country again whilst Passarella was coach. It’s easy, of course, to find a coach’s approach unacceptable when the results are falling just short, but it’s interesting to contemplate whether, had the Brazil and Nigeria results gone the other way – which they so easily could have done – would Redondo have been happy to visit the barbers and stick to his allotted role in the team? Passarella had little time for regret anyway, declaring after Redondo’s announcement that, “If I select a player who thinks he’s doing the team a favour by joining us, then I not only irritate myself but my players, as well.”
Five months later, Argentina again fell at the last eight stage of the Copa America, this time, somewhat embarrassingly to Bolivia, although Passarella had selected a number of back up players. There was redemption later in the year, as qualification was achieved for the 1998 World Cup to be held in France. The following April, Passarella finally managed a victory over Brazil after 20 years of trying, returning to Argentina with a 0-1 win gained at the Maracana. It’s the sort of victory that adds lustre to the reputation of any coach. Two months later, Argentina were eliminated from the World Cup by Holland, and Passarella resigned.
At the time, River were still enjoying success and, had there been any thoughts of returning to coach the club he had served for so many years, they had to be shelved. Instead, he took up the job of coaching Uruguay in 1999, but only stayed there briefly, leaving after a mixed bag of World Cup qualifying results early in 2001, and frustration over not being able to gain the release of players from Uruguayan clubs. In November, he returned to Italy and took over at Parma, but it was both a disastrous, and mercifully short tenure. Five games and five defeats led to him getting the sack before Santa Claus had even thought about setting to work on his. Two years in Mexico with Monterrey brought a Mexican league title before a short stay in Brazil coaching Corinthians. As with Parma however, the results were poor and the sack followed in a matter of a few months, before the almost inevitable return to River.
On 9 January 2006, he returned to the Estadio Monumental, once again replacing Reinaldo Merlo. His earlier success however was not easy to repeat and on 15 November of the following year, he resigned after losing a semi-final of the Copa Sudamericana to local rivals, but always seen as an inferior club, Arsenal de Sarandí. The following summer there was wide expectation that Passarella would return to Monterrey after his success there, but the job went to Diego Alonso, and the former River player and coach had eyes on a bigger prize.
With River enduring a financial crisis and results sliding Passarella stood for election as president of the club, and swept to victory, comfortably unseating José María Aguilar in 2009. Success would not follow this appointment though. River’s on-field fortunes continued to decline, and the club endured the previously unthinkable humiliation of relegation to the Primera B Nacional. The pain of relegation was clear in Passarella’s words. “I never imagined that we would play in the Second Division. But the only person responsible is José María Aguilar,” he explained in an interview with ESPN Rivadavia radio. “My glorious and beloved River Plate … This is the second greatest pain of my life,” he declared, offering an emotional reference to the death of one of his sons in 1995. Unsurprisingly, coach Juan José López was hastily ushered out of the door and replaced by Leonardo Ponzio, who guided the club back to the top tier at the first attempt in 2012-13.
At first, it looked as if the Passarella magic had retained its power. After taking over a club in decline, things were heading in the right direction again, but a storm was brewing. In 2013, a financial investigation suggested an involvement in irregularities and alleged illegal payments. With River almost 400million pesos in debt and running at a substantial loss, the buck stopped with the president, and Passarella declined to stand for re-election. Too many, it seemed a sad end to his association with the club, but perhaps doing whatever it took to achieve success at River was just something that Daniel Passarella was destined to do.
Did the last few years of Passarella’s association with River Plate diminish his standing with the club’s fans. It hardly seems likely. Football fans can forgive many sins, especially those that appear to have been committed in the best interests of the club, no matter the folly of them. The enduring image of the man who gave so much to the club instead will surely be that of the player and coach who delivered success. The legacy of El Gran Capitán.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ – ‘River Plate’ magazine).
In 1888, as the first football league season was born in England, Brazil passed the ‘Golden Law’ abolishing slavery in the last South American country where it had been acceptable for one person to own another one. Inevitably however, de facto trails de jure by a significant period, and it would be wrong to assume that all discrimination and abuse ended with that piece of legislation. It was therefore, into a land still burdened by history and bigotry that, on 18 July 1892 the son of Oscar Friedenreich, a German merchant, and Mathilde, a Brazilian laundress – a white father and a black mother – entered the world. Despite the troubled environment and the hurdles faced, Artur Friedenreich, described by Eduardo Galeano in ‘Soccer in the Sun and Shadow’ as the “green-eyed mulatto who founded the Brazilian way of playing” would grow up to be a sporting superstar.
As with so many other countries in the continent, football had burrowed deep into the soul of Brazilian culture. Overwhelmingly however, in the early years of the twentieth century, it remained the preserve of the white man. To succeed in such an environment, Friedenreich – born at the junction of streets named Vitoria (Vctory) and Triunfo (Triumph) and with skills developed on the streets of the city of São Paulo – would not only need to be an outstanding player, he’d also need to conquer power, privilege and prejudice. In doing so, this Robin Hood in football boots would steal the game away from the wealthy, advantaged and white, gifting it to the humble, the poor and the downtrodden. He would provide a way for those that emerged from the streets, from the depths of deprivation and despair to journey to the Seleção and deliver a brand of football the country would become synonymous with. As Galeano explained. “Friedenreich brought to the solemn stadium of the whites the irreverence of the brown boys who had fun playing with a ball of rags in the suburbs. Thus, was born a style, open to fantasy, that prefers pleasure to the result.” Without Artur Friedenreich, the Brazilian Jogo Bonito may never have entranced the world.
Despite the barriers blocking access to football for blacks and mulattos – those of mixed race such as Friedenreich – largely thanks to being raised in Europeanised family, football quickly became an important part of the young boy’s life, and his father’s eager support and encouragement carried him through periods of doubt when his nascent ability had yet to find its way out. It was therefore, hardly surprising that, the first club he played for was SC Germânia, a club set up in the city for the benefit of German immigrants. Despite his father’s national credentials though, there were still hurdles to cross. Before turning up at the ground to train or play, Friedenreich would have to spend time straightening his naturally curly hair to appear more European. Some reports even suggest that he would also smear his body with rice powder to hide the darkness of his skin
Still in his teenage years, Friedenreich’s hours of playing on the street, often with a bound ball of rags rather than a football, had honed his skills and dictated the way he played. Even in his prime, he stood well under six feet tall and his wiry physique would see him comfortably fit into the ‘Flyweight’ division of boxing. As such, he had the low centre of gravity that allowed him to weave quickly, dribbling past less adroit opponents, play quick passes, and the pace to dart into spaces, collecting the ball with unerring control. To many, his performances were as some lithe dancer, hypnotically guided by an unheard Samba beat. Add onto that list of qualities, the determination and case-hardened hunger for success etched into his soul, and the package was complete. The first ‘Black Pearl’ – the first Pelé – would set light to the blue touch-paper of Brazilian football. Fireworks would follow!
At 17, the blossoming talent was clear and other clubs sought his services. Although records are unclear and some evidence is doubted by many scholars as to his precise goalscoring records, it’s indisputable that he was a potent force. By the time he was 20 he was the top goalscorer in the São Paulo league, scoring 16 times. It’s an accolade he would claim numerous times over the following 17 years or so of his career.
By 1914, he was becoming a recognised star of the Brazilian game and when the Seleção played their first game as a recognised national team, the name of Artur Friedenreich, then playing for Clube Atlético Ypiranga, was inevitably included on the team sheet. The game itself was somewhat less celebrated than others that would follow. The opponents on that day were in fact, English club Exeter City who were returning to from a tour of Argentina at the time.
It took place on July 21st, 1914 at the Estádio das Laranjeiras, just weeks before the outbreak of World War One. Although debuts on the international stage are always memorable events, there was another reason why Friedenreich would recall his confrontation with the West Country’s Grecians, as he lost two teeth during a heavy tackle from one of the tourists, but completed the game after receiving hasty dental treatment. The game ended in a surprise 2-0 victory for the Brazilians – the game was still amateur then, and would remain so for years to come. Friedenreich didn’t score either of the goals, but some sources report that he had a hand in the second goal scored by Osman Medeiros.
Five years later though, now unquestionably South America’s first footballing superstar, he did score the winning goal in the final of the 1919 Copa America against Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro. The extra-time strike, added to his hat-trick against Chile in a group game made him the tournament’s top scorer. By now, the style of Brazilian football, driven by Friedenreich, had shed the traditional tactics of the early European pioneers of the game in the country. He was the flagbearer for the revolution to the style that would take Brazil to the summit of world football. After the triumph, a São Paulo newspaper would describe the new style of play “which dictates that the ball be brought by all the forwards right up to the oppositions goal, where shots were taken from any distance, and the collective whole of the forward line is not necessary, it’s enough for two or three players to break away with the ball, which by it’s devastating speed disorientates the defence.”
The 1919 victory was probably the zenith of Friedenreich’s career. Huge crowds thronged the city to acclaim the success and especially the exploits of Friedenreich. The boot with which the winning goal was struck would later be placed on display in the window of a jeweller’s shop, after being taken on a tour of the city, for all to marvel at and pay homage. It’s somewhat strange to say therefore, that just two years later, and then at the peak of his powers, and arguably the best player in the world, Artur Friedenreich would not be part of the Brazil team that travelled to Argentina for the 1921 Copa America competition.
Argentina was a predominantly white country and the authorities there announced that only white players would be allowed to represent the country and compete in the tournament. There were even cartoons in the Argentine newspapers championing the decision and pointing fingers towards Brazil, declaring that “The monkeys are coming.” In a shameful and cowardly decision, Brazilian president Epitacio Pessoa cravenly followed suit, apparently concerned that having black players may bring shame on his country. He need not have worried. His decision did that on its own. Friedenreich was excluded from the Seleção and the hosts won the trophy winning all three of their games. Brazil would win just once, defeating Paraguay 3-0, but defeats to Argentina and Uruguay were perhaps just reward for Pessoa’s craven collaboration.
Perhaps the sad reflection of the decision, the consequences of it or a combination of both and the inevitable awakening of a more open attitude, the whole scenario had a transforming effect on both Brazilian football in general and Friedenreich in particular, feeding the springing seeds that would flower into the ending of racial discrimination in Brazilian football. His career with the Seleção would span eleven years but, with games so sparse, inevitably compromised by the demands of travel in that time, would only comprise 23 games. A similar length of time in modern days would more usually mean many more. Neymar for example has played over 100 games for Brazil since his debut in 2010.
By 1925, Friedenreich’s international career was finished. Despite this, his fame showed little sign of diminishing. He was now playing for CA Paulistano and, for some time, the club had been invited invited to play a number of friendly games across the country so people could see the great Friedenreich in the flesh. In 1927 however, the call came for the club and their star, now 37, to travel to Europe for a series of games. For players of a much younger age than Freidenreich, the demands of travelling across the Atlantic by boat before arriving in a different continent and play eight games, with more travelling in between would be difficult enough, but Friedenreich would hardly let down the fans who came to watch not only the team with the strange footballing style, but also the star player whose reputation had crossed the ocean before him. In those eight games, he would score 11 goals, and richly entertain the spectators.
Despite his athletic prowess, and natural fitness, time and tide eventually takes its toll on all things, and age was something Friedenreich could only temporarily ward off. An inability to even walk out of the door of his house only added to the pressures he was under. Although living the life of a celebrity, he did so without the financial income to sustain it, earning a relatively meagre salary, especially given his international renown. Despite this, he still tried to live an extravagant lifestyle, with reports suggesting that he owned more than 100 suits, and developed a taste for particularly expensive beers.
The first World Cup tournament held in Uruguay in 1930 should have been the perfect stage for Freidenreich’s swansong, but it wasn’t to be. Despite being in his late thirties at the time, there was little doubt that he would have warranted a place in the squad that travelled to Montevideo for the first global celebration of the game. Due to some unexplained mix up however, only players from the states of Rio de Janeiro were selected, and Freidenreich, along with other stars from the São Paolo area missed out.
As the years rolled on, he began playing less and less, and when he did play, often it would be for far smaller clubs than in his heydays. Professionalism was gradually spreading through the football ranks in Brazil and by 1933, the game had dispensed with amateurism completely. Whether through a fit of pique for missing out on what could have been hugely financially rewarding times when playing his best years, or merely through idealistic grounds, Friedenreich raged against the changes, and in essence decided to walk away from the game. At 43 years of age, on 21 July 1935, he played his last game for Flamengo in a 2-2 draw against Fluminense.
Finished with football, he began working for liquor company until he retired. His latter years saw the once great hero of Brazilian football brought to his knees by Alzheimer’s disease. Treatment for the condition would drain his financial resources without ever coming close to arresting the deterioration of his mental faculties and memory. He died on 6 September 1969 aged 77, leaving behind a wife and son, whom he called Oscar after his father, penniless.
One of the tragedies of Freidenreich’s mental deterioration was that, towards the end of his life, he had little or no memory of his footballing achievements, or even his name at the end, and was totally unable to corroborate any records offered up by others, hence leaving clouds of doubt over his goalscoring abilities. Perhaps the least contentious account however comes from a former team-mate, Mário de Andrada. Friedenreich’s father began to keep a notebook record of his son’s goals from the day he first started playing, and in 1918, feeling he would no longer be able to maintain the record, he passed the task on to Mário de Andrada, who vowed to ensure the records were maintained for posterity.
In 1962, Andrada showed the records to Brazilian journalist, Adriano Neiva da Motta e Silva, more commonly known as De Vaney. It suggested that across his career spanning 1,329 games, Friedenreich had scored a staggering 1,239 goals. The figures become even more impressive when taking into account that many of those games were played well past the peak of Friedenreich’s powers, through his late thirties and into his forties. Originally, De Vaney added more fog to the uncertainty by inadvertently reversing the figures, before they were corrected. The error hardly aids legitimacy and confidence, especially as Andrada’s written records were lost when he died.
If there are doubts about his precise goalscoring records, there is little to diminish the role that Freidenreich played in both shaping the way that Brazil played football and helping to break down the malignant walls of discrimination. Eduardo Galeano wrote that, “From Friedenreich onward, Brazilian football that is truly Brazilian does not have right angles, like the mountains of Rio de Janeiro and the buildings of Oscar Niemeyer.” The lyrical description does great honour to the former star. To some he was the greatest Brazilian footballer of all time, but without television images to enhance the legend, that accolade often falls to the “’Pelé after Pelé’”
The great man was once asked if there would ever be another player to compete with his own achievements. After musing for a second, Pelé shook his head slowly. “My parents closed the factory,” he said with a smile. That may well be true, but if his parents did bring down the shutters on that factory, the keys to initially open it for black players to flourish in Brazilian football were crafted and used by Artur Friedenrich, the ‘Pelé before Pelé’.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy Analyst’ website).
As the bright Oranje flame of Dutch Totaal Voetbal burnt so brightly before consuming itself in the 1974 World Cup Final and falling to cruel defeat, back in Kerkrade, a Dutch town virtually lying up against the German border, an amateur footballer watched on television. Little did he know that, four years later, donned in the famous colours of his country, he would score the goal that gave the Netherlands renewed hope that they could lay to rest the ghost of the numbing defeat to his German neighbours. In the space of those four years, Dick Nanninga would go from a part-time footballer and full-time worker on construction sites to being the robust and muscular embodiment of an artisan iconoclast among a squad of Dutch artists, the man who gave hope of redemption to his country – and a florist. Continue reading →
Considered by many pundits not only to be the best player in the world, Lionel Messi is also widely touted as the greatest of all time, but as success seems to follow success in an unending flow of glory and acclaim, it’s worth remembering that things weren’t always like that. In fact, as an 18-year-old Messi entered the international playing arena for La Albiceleste on 17 August 2005, the game would be far from the triumph every young footballer dreamt of and prayed for, when pulling on the shirt of his country for the first time. In fact, it would be difficult to suggest how the fates could have conspired to be any more perverse. Continue reading →
It was the opening game of the 1990 World Cup, with holders Argentina, including the mercurial Diego Maradona who had just almost single-handedly taken his Napoli team to the Scudetto, pitched against an African team representing Cameroon populated by players that hardly anyone had heard of drawn largely from the ranks of the lower tiers of French club football and similar less celebrated leagues. It was a chance for a rousing South American performance to set the wheels of the tournament spinning as they hit the ground. What happened however was of far greater significance. Continue reading →
In 2008, José Luis (‘Tata’) Brown was with the Argentine U23 squad at Washington Airport awaiting a connecting flight to take them to the Beijing Olympics. The group of players that contained such luminaries as Messi, Mascherano and Gago. An airport worker walked across to Brown asking for a photograph. The 52 year-old former international defender, a member of the squad’s coaching staff, asked which of the players the worker was looking for. He received a knowing smile and shake of the head in reply. The would-be photographer wasn’t interested in any of the players; he had a much more significant target in mind. He wanted a picture with Brown. “Me?” He questioned. “Yes,” came the reply. “You scored a goal in a World Cup Final!” Continue reading →
Although the 1974 World Cup will be remembered for West Germany lifting the trophy that anointed them champions of the world, it also marked the explosion into international consciousness of two teams, each who may have claims to being better than the tournament’s eventual winners and, who on another day could have reasonably expected to overcome the tournament hosts. Each also had an outstanding star player who many would consider the outstanding player of the tournament.
In the final, the Germans defeated the Dutch team of Cruyff and Michaels’ totaal voetbal in a game that looked destined to go the way of The Netherlands after an early goal had put the Oranje ahead, but as they spent time admiring themselves in the mirror, they got lost in their own swagger, whilst Helmut Schön’s team equalised and then snaffled the trophy away.
The other team possessing that authentic look of potential world beaters also lost to the Germans. They succumbed in the game that took the hosts into that Munich final against the Dutch. Although the denouement of a second group stage rather than a semi-final per se, the 1-0 German victory had a similar effect. The team they had vanquished was Poland, who had amongst their number the player who would be the tournament’s top scorer, and winner of the Golden Boot. If some would consider the fame duly accorded to the cult of the Dutch entirely worthy, the success of the Poles was perhaps much less celebrated. Continue reading →
By almost any measure you choose to evaluate a player’s worth, Martin Palermo was an exceptional striker. The Argentine played in both Spain and Argentina netting 249 goals in 592 games across a career spanning almost 19 years. Slightly worse than a goal every other game, it’s a strike rate to be proud of for someone who, for most of his career, played at the highest level. Even in his international career for La Albiceleste, at a time when his opportunities were stymied by the presence of such luminaries as Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo, he delivered a highly-creditable nine goals in 15 appearances.
For all that success though, and even taking into account the occasion when he suffered a double fracture of his left leg after a wall collapsed on him whilst celebrating a winning goal for Villareal, the thing that most football aficionados will remember about Martin Palermo is when he had a spot – or perhaps more accurately three spots – of bother in a 1999 Copa América game against Colombia. There’s more to this story than that though. Continue reading →
The bride isn’t always the prettiest girl – How the World Cup taught us to adore those lovely losers.
At the World Cup, the teams that lift the biggest award the sport has to offer can go on to become the style setters for a generation. It happened after 1966 with England dispensing with genuine wingers. The Brazilians did it on a number of occasions, but especially perhaps in 1970, when they reinfused the game with an injection of Joga Bonito that made everyone want to play with such unfettered joy and in 2010, Spain raised the Roja banner for tiki-taka. For all the glory and acclaim that winners receive, and the flattering sincerity of imitation that so often follows however, love and affection doesn’t always go to the winners. In football’s four-yearly jamboree, whilst the bride is the star of the show, it’s often the bridesmaid that everyone falls for. It’s a World Cup legacy that taught us to cherish those who never make it to the alter. Continue reading →