Thirty-two years after he was laid to rest in Buenos Aires, Arsenio Erico finally returned home to Paraguay. Thousands of fans showed up to pay tribute to the "greatest striker in Argentinian league history" as they celebrated his repatriation.
Born in Ascuncion, Paraguay, in 1915, Erico made his name playing for Independiente in Argentina. He was spotted by Los Diablos Rojos after he traveled to Argentina with a Paraguayan Red Cross representative team in an effort to raise money for the country in the Chaco War.
Amazingly enough, Bolivia and Paraguay are the only landlocked countries in the western hemisphere, and as a result any resource in the area is invaluable.
In 1932, the Chaco War broke out between Paraguay and Bolivia over a stretch of land called the Gran Chaco region. It was believed at the time that the area was oil rich, and as such, was worth fighting over. The war was the bloodiest conflict in South America over the last 100 years and claimed the lives of over 100,000 soldiers.
Over the course of a number of fund-raising friendlies, a young striker began to emerge as a player of some skill. Even then it was apparent that young Erico was something special, and Independiente moved in as quickly as possible to offer the youth a contract.
A powerfully built striker with a touch like velvet, Erico's career with Independiente lasted for over 13 years. During that time, he played 332 games and scored an unbelievable 293 goals, earning himself the nickname the "Red Jumper" because of his uncanny ability to hang in the air while waiting for a header—a skill that all truly world-class players possess. Think Pele in 1970, or more recently, Lionel Messi in the 2009 Champions League final.
Such was Erico's importance to the game in Argentina that on the verge of the World Cup in 1938, the AFA offered him the deal of a lifetime: Declare for Argentina and lead the team through the tournament in France.
Having never played an official game for Paraguay, Erico was open to offers from his home country. But he did manage to play in friendlies for La Arribaroja, scoring 26 goals in just 56 games in one incredible season between 1933 and 1934. These were the very same friendlies where Independiente first saw his talent.
His refusal to turn his back on his native Paraguay could explain why Argentina declined to travel to Europe for the tournament. His reluctance to don the famous stripes of Argentina made no difference to either the fans of Independiente or to his own form, as he went on to notch three 40-plus goal seasons between 1937 and 1939.
It is the 1938 season, however, that has gone down in folklore history in Argentina—for a couple of reasons.
Players were not very well paid back then. So when a very well-known Argentinian cigarette company offered a king's ransom to any player who could score 43 goals in one season, in an advertising campaign to launch its Cigarillos 43 brand, both the public's and players' imaginations were caught.
Being one of the best strikers in the world at the time, Erico managed to reach the magical 43-goal target with two games to go. But it was only then that he was told that he had to finish the season with 43 goals to claim the prize.
With the title already in the bag for Independiente, Erico managed to miss some very simple chances over the next two games before he went on to earn his prize. Some years later, he admitted openly to missing on purpose to win the extravagant prize money.
It makes his goal-scoring record all the more incredible, because he could have beaten his own tally easily. Currently, the title of the top scorer in Argentinian football history is shared between Erico and Angel Labruna, although it is worth noting that the "Red Jumper" achieved his 293 tally in 183 games—fewer than Labruna.
It was during this part of his career in Argentina that Erico went on to not only inspire the love of two countries, but of players too. Luminaries such as the great Alfredo Di-Stefano, Leonaidas Da Silva, and Benitez Caceres all cite him as not only being one of the greats of modern football, but also as the player who inspired them the most.
After his retirement in 1948, Arsenio Erico returned briefly to Paraguay to take up a coaching position with Nacional. His managerial career never matched his playing one though. The peak of his time on the sidelines was in guiding Club Sol De America to second place in the league in 1957.
Erico retired from football sometime later and then spent his life traveling between the two loves of his life, Argentina and Paraguay.
He was possibly the only person capable of avoiding the many political tensions between his two homes, which says much of his stature and the high regard both countries had for him.
When he passed away in 1977, he was buried in Buenos Aires, much to the dismay of his countrymen.
After years of seeking to return him to the land of his birth, Paraguay brought him back on Feb. 25, 2010.
His coffin was draped in the flags of his two homes as he was carried on top of a Bolivian fire engine on the way home to Asuncion.
To accompany him home, a two-mile caravan of well wishers followed the coffin solemnly, while thousands of Paraguayans and Argentinians lined the streets to show respect to one of the greatest players their countries have ever produced.
His remains were laid to rest in the mausoleum at the national Defensores del Chaco stadium in Asuncion.
Arsenio Erico is the only Paraguayan listed in FIFA's "Top 50 Players of All Time," an accolade well deserved. And now that he is home, his legend can be told to a new generation of players in Paraguay—and Argentina.
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