The history of the World Cup is replete with tales of epic encounters. In 1950, Uruguay drove an ice-cold dagger into the footballing heart of Brazil when they lifted the trophy after beating the Seleção in the infamous Maracanazo. Twenty years later West Germany faced Italy in the 1970 semi-final as the two teams slugged it out like exhausted heavyweight boxers across a merciless 30 minutes of extra-time under the relentless Mexican sun. A dozen years later, the Azzurri featured in that epic contest against the Brazil of Socrates and Zico. In the same competition the gloriously artistic French team of Platini, Girese, Tigana et al, were denied by the Teutonic efficiency of West Germany, aided by the scurrilously unpunished aggression of Toni Schumacher.
Few of those games can, however, match up to the star billing that lit up the game when the World Champions, and undefeated holders of the crown for some 24 years, faced up to the 1952 Olympic Champions, a team on an unbeaten run of three-and-half years, almost 50 games and averaging four goals per game. It wasn’t Superman v Batman, or the Avengers Civil War, but it was getting there when, in the 1954 World Cup, Uruguay faced Hungary.
The early stages of the tournament had already indicated the sort of form that the Hungarians, so many people’s strong favourites to lift the trophy, were in. The previous year, they had visited Wembley and inflicted that humbling 3-6 defeat on the team that considered itself invulnerable to foreign opposition when playing at home. Then, in the final game before the tournament began, the Hungarians franked that form and underscored the new world order by thrashing England 7-1 in Budapest. It was the sort of form they carried into the tournament. In just two group games they amassed no less than 17 goals, defeating South Korea 9-0 and then West Germany 8-3, although the Germans would take revenge later.
Uruguay had suffered the relative humiliation of finishing in third place in the 1953 Copa America, when an unexpected defeat to Chile had cost them a place in the final. They still retained many of the players who had been successful in retaining their crown in Brazil four years earlier though, including forward Juan Alberto Schiaffino, soon to become subject of a world record transfer fee when moving from Peñarol to AC Milan following the tournament’s end, and their dominating centre half and captain, Obdulio Varela. The World Cup offered Uruguay an opportunity to reassert their global supremacy. The South Americans had been a little recalcitrant in comparison to the goal glut of the Hungarians, amassing just the nine goals in their couple of group games. Scotland felt the sharp edge of the South Americans’ frustration, conceding seven times without reply after Czechoslovakia had restricted La Celeste to a mere two strikes.
In the quarter-finals, the Hungarians scored another four goals, conceding two in reply against Brazil in the infamous Battle of Bern, and the Uruguayans matched the Magical Magyars toll when facing England in their last eight tie, albeit in much less rancorous circumstances. It meant that when the two teams faced off with each of their pedigrees looking like a CV that any team would die for, Hungary had won their three games by scoring 21 goals, an average of seven per game, and conceded five, two of which had been late goals by the Germans when trailing 7-1 and 8-2. The World Cup holders had scored 13 times in their three games and conceded just three times. In fairness though, this World Cup tournament was hardly a study in defensive expertise, with goals flowing. In the quarter-finals, Austria defeated Switzerland 7-5, after being three goals down, before losing to West Germany 6-1 in the semi-finals. By the time the two behemoths met in Lausanne’s Stade Olympique de la Pontaise, on 30 June, the 45,000 spectators were expecting to be royally entertained. They wouldn’t be disappointed.
As well as a contrast between two teams, each with arguably logical claims to being the planet’s foremost footballing power, the game would also inevitably feature a clash of cultures as the South American pattern of play rubbed up against the dynamic Hungarian system. At the time, with intercontinental travel still a major problem there was precious little interaction between teams from the different continents and World Cups were serially won by teams from the host hemisphere. Brazil’s victory in Sweden at the 1958 tournament was the only time this trend was bucked, arguably until Brazil’s 2002 victory in Japan. There was therefore still a measure of mystery when teams clashed in this manner.
The Hungarian pattern, playing with what has latterly been termed as a ‘False Nine’ usually in the guise of the astute Nándor Hidegkuti, predating any kind of assumed tactical genius of Guardiola’s Barcelona around fifty years later, was a key innovation. The ploy created space in the midfield and fluid attacking options. Although the tactic invariably provoked problems for opponents – not least England whose defence had been torn asunder by the rampant Hungarians – the Uruguayans had the players with flexibility to counter the move. Varela would be absent through injury, and replaced by Néstor Carballo who, similar to his captain would not feel out of place advancing to close down a deep-lying opponent.
Hungary were also denied the services of their captain, with Ferenc Puskás also on the injured list. His absence however did allow coach Gusztav Sebes to bring in Peter Palotás, who had played in the Hidegkuti role. As the two dropped deeper, space was opened in the middle for the likes of Zoltán Czibor to exploit, with the Uruguayan centre half drawn out of position. It would lead to the opening goal of the game, as the rain poured down, slicking up the playing surface.
In their previous three games, Hungary had been quick out of the blocks to try and establish a domination of the game and an early lead. Against South Korea, Puskás had scored after a dozen minutes, Consequential games would make that strike appear tardy. Against West Germany Sándor Kocsis had netted the first of his four goals of the game with just three minutes on the clock. The early strike rate was then maintained against Brazil as Hidegkuti gave the cherry-shirted Europeans the lead after four minutes. It was a ploy that Sebes insisted on against Uruguay as well.
In the Uruguayan goal, Roque Máspoli, was in for a busy first dozen minutes or so. First Palotás tested the vastly experienced Peñarol goalkeeper drawing a sharp save from the 36- year-old, and then Jozsef Bozsik, standing in as skipper for the absent Puskás, and somewhat controversially allowed to play in this game despite being dismissed in the battle against Brazil, fired narrowly wide. The nearest to an early goal came from Hidegkuti. Shooting from a tight angle, his effort scraped past the post with Máspoli beaten and Czibor in presumptuously celebratory mode, before reality and anguish subdued his ardour.
When the twelfth minute arrived without a breakthrough for the Europeans, Uruguayan coach Juan Lopez may well have been relieved as his side eased their way into the game, but a goal was imminent. The deep-lying Hidegkuti had found his usual parcel of space in midfield and picked out Kocsis with a neat lofted pass. Spotting the penetrating run of Czibor, the Honvéd forward who would later escape the invasion of his country by the Soviet Union to achieve legendary status in Barcelona, nodded the ball into the Uruguay penalty area for his team-mate to run onto. With his marker befuddled by the move, Czibor collected and shot from around 12 yards. His effort was scuffed however and surely should have been saved, but somehow Máspoli contrived to allow the ball to bobble past his outstretched hand and into the net. The Hungarians were ahead.
Perhaps sated by the strike or lulled into a false sense of security by the memory of how so many of their opponents had folded after falling behind to an early goal, and undoubtably to Sebes’s great chagrin, the Hungarians seemed to ease off from their busy start and Uruguay found a way back into the game. In contrast to the Hungarians fluid play, the South Americans sought to open up their opponents’ back line with astute passes and runs into space. Now with more possession than in the opening period, Uruguayan compelled the defensive pairing of Mihály Lantos and Gyula Lóránt to demonstrate their calm assurance, although they were often compelled to merely hack clear under pressure, and goalkeeper Gyula Grosics was frequently required to advance from his line to follow suit when passes evaded the duo. Probably the best chance to equalise fell to Schiaffino when he managed to go around Grosics in the area, but then failed to get off an effective shot.
After the ebullient opening from Hungary, the game was now fairly even as Uruguay pressed to level. The Hungarians lacked little in comparison though and their intricate play opened up chances as well. A goal for either side would be crucial in the way the fortunes of the game swayed back and forth. It nearly came when a cross from the left found Kocsis unmarked around ten yards from goal. His header was powerful but poorly directed towards the centre of the goal, and Máspoli leapt to divert it over the bar with his left hand. There were no more goals before the break and both teams retired to their dressing rooms to take on board the words of wisdom from the respective coaches.
Uruguay began the second-half, but if Lopez had emphasised the importance of not conceding early again, the advice was not heeded. Honvéd winger László Budai had been selected to play in place of the injured József Tóth, and during the first period, his pacey and tricky runs down the flank had been a thorn in the side of the Uruguayans, but inside 60 seconds of the restart, his play brought some tangible reward. A cross to the far post found
Hidegkuti hurling himself forwards to head powerfully past Máspoli and double the lead. Clearly shaken by the setback, Uruguay were like a dazed boxer on the ropes as Hungary pressed for another goal that would surely kill off the game. Shots rained in, but in contrast to his early error for the opening goal, Máspoli defied all of their efforts, and kept his team clinging on to a fingertip hold in the game. A penalty claim for a clumsy challenge on Hidegkuti looked to have merit, but Welsh referee Benjamin Griffiths was unconvinced.
Slowly clearing their heads, Uruguay demonstrated the resilience and refusal to bend the knee under the severest pressure that had seen them come back from a goal down in front of nearly 200,000 wildly partisan Brazilians in the Estádio do Maracanã four years earlier. Even without the driving force of their absent skipper and totemic leader, Varela, this was a team of character and no little ability. They were undefeated reigning champions of the world. With the elusive and slippery skills of Schiaffino becoming more of a factor as the game progressed and energy levels dropped, Uruguay showed they were anything but a beaten team, and with 15 minutes remaining, a Javier Ambrois pass eventually found chink in the Hungarian back line and Juan Hohberg strode forward to coolly slot home and bring his team right back into the game. Although born in Córdoba, Argentina, Hohberg was a naturalised Uruguayan and as his shot rolled past Groscis’s left hand and into the net, the whole nation celebrated that fact.
It was now game on, and for the remaining minutes, the Hungarian defence would be put under increasing amounts of pressure. Despite their flowing forward play, defence was often the disguised Achille’s Heel of the Magyar team. Usually their forwards would score more than they conceded to minimise the effect of the less than perfect back line, but in Uruguay, they were playing against anything other than ‘usual’ opponents. Schiaffino was now in his pomp, prodding and probing for any other gap that could be exploited as the Hungarian defence battled to retain what had looked like a comfortable winning position.
With just four minutes remaining, the dam finally broke as Hohberg again found space to break into the area and dribble around Groscis. Racing back to defend however, both Lantos and Jenő Buzansky had took advantage of the delay caused by the goalkeeper’s challenge to drop back onto the line. Calmness personified, Hohberg merely paused before picking his spot high into the net beyond any despairing challenge. Hungarian head in hands. Uruguayan arms raised in both relief and celebration. It would surely be extra-time now with the South American wave of momentum poised to wash Hungarian dreams away.
With both teams comfortably winning their earlier games, albeit somewhat violently for the Europeans in their game against Brazil, neither team were used to being extended into an extra thirty minutes to decide a game. In such circumstances it is often resilience and resolve that decides the issue, rather than any particular outstanding piece of skill. With the reigining champions feeling that the game was there for the taking, they continued to press and Hohberg nearly completed a hat-trick when his shot deceived Groscis before striking the post. Even then, the goalkeeper was compelled to recover and throw himself forward to block a Schiaffino follow-up and divert the ball for a corner with his feet. Hungary were forced to replicate the application that Uruguay had shown when two goals down and the game seemingly slipping away from them. There’s a time for effervescent forward paly, and there’s a time to lock down and reassess. For the remainder of the first period of extra-time, Hungary opted for the latter. The decision would serve them well.
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).
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