El Pepe

July 10, 2010

Get someone to name some of the best football players in history and you’ll get a fairly standard set of answers: Pelé, Maradona, Cruyff or Beckenbauer, maybe Netzer or Scirea if you’re lucky. There’s a man who’ll rarely get a mention: an old inside forward from Montevideo, one Juan Alberto Schiaffino.

Schiaffino had a lot to prove right from the start of his career. Lean and pale, doubters said he would never survive against the tougher defenders in the game. Despite the lack of faith, “Pepe” continued, making his debut at 17 for hometown club Penarol and establishing himself in the first team within a year. He quickly garnered attention for his exquisite ball control, vision and demon left foot and, at just 19, was picked for Uruguay’s South American Championship squad.

In 1945, he was named the best striker in the Uruguayan league, but it wasn’t until 1949 that he would win the league with Penarol, shortly before setting off for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.

It was here that Schiaffino made his name. He finished with two goals on his World Cup debut in an 8-0 mauling of Bolivia to advance Uruguay into the final round. A 2-2 draw against Spain and a 3-2 win over Sweden left Brazil ahead by one point, meaning all they needed was a draw to win the World Cup on home soil. Brazil started the game on the front foot , barraging the Uruguayan goal and Friaca finally broke the deadlock shortly after half-time. Uruguay forced themselves back into the game and Schiaffino equalised in the 66th minute, then setting up another for Alcides Ghiggia. The game finished 2-1 to Uruguay. In a game that became known as the Maracanazo, Schiaffino had silenced the two hundred thousand people in the Maracana.

He continued to perform exceptionally for Penarol, winning 3 more titles with them and by the time the next World Cup rolled around he had matured into the complete inside left. Uruguay had improved too: Ghiggia was gone, but in came the arguably better Carlos Borges and Julio Cesar Abbadie and strong centre-back Jose Santamaria came into the heart of the defence. They began their World Cup with a 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia with Schiaffino scoring the second goal and he starred in the 7-0 win over Scotland. Wing-half Tommy Docherty, who marked Schiaffino, called him the greatest player he had ever faced, recalling when he thought he had the Uruguayan captured, only to find him effortlessly slipping by. Next another goal for Schiaffino in a 4-2 win over a tough England side, setting up a semi-final against the Magnificent Magyars. By now Uruguay’s team were beset by injuries and Schiaffino was deployed as a centre-forward in one of the most entertaining games of the tournament. With 15 minutes to go, and Uruguay 2-0 down, Schiaffino twice set up Juan Hohberg to force extra time, where Hungary scored two more. In the third-place play-off Schiaffino again set up Hohberg, but it was too far for the exhausted Uruguay who lost 3-1 to Austria.

Schiaffino’s performances saw a flock of European clubs covet him like they had in 1951, and he moved to AC Milan for a world record £72,000. Joining up with Swedish Olympic Champions Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Niels Liedholm and Cesare Maldini, he fitted in straight away, winning Serie A in his first season. He went on to win two more league titles in 1957 and 1959 and scored the opening goal in Milan’s 3-2 loss to Real Madrid in the 1958 European Cup final. Upon his move to Milan his national allegiances switched too, making 4 appearances for Italy, but failed to play in the 1958 World Cup. In 1960 he moved to Roma, where he played selectively in two fairly successful seasons, winning the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup before his retirement in 1962.

He briefly returned to the game to manage Penarol and the Uruguayan national team in the mid-seventies, but his business dealings had already ensured a comfortable future and he lived happily in his home country until his death in November 2002.

Why is it then that Schiaffino has been almost forgotten? Most likely it’s a matter of timing. While Pelé and Cruyff had the vivid colours of their best moments beamed across the world via television, only Uruguay’s failure at the 1954 World Cup was televised and that footage is difficult to find. He didn’t play in a side as good or successful as Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas’ Real Madrid and, even if he had, the focus of that Milan is on the Swedish triumvirate of Gre-No-Li, not Schiaffino. Like many other footballers from that era and before, he’s a victim of his time.

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