10 Most Influential Latin American Footballers
With a World Cup in Brazil on the horizon, we asked Andreas Campomar, the author of Golazo! A History of Latin American Football, to list the 10 most influential Latin American players in the history of the game.
Here follows Campomar's list, which includes some of the greatest players we've known—three of whom vie for the title of greatest ever in the minds of many.
1. Jose Nasazzi
Historically, Uruguayan teams, no matter how talented, have tended to excel under strong leadership. The Latin American obsession with the "caudillo" (a charismatic political/military leader) can be traced back to the wars of independence. Jose Nasazzi, an uncompromising defender for Bella Vista and Nacional, was one such.
He was the diminutive republic's first caudillo and captained Uruguay to victory in the 1930 World Cup. "El Gran Mariscal" ("The Great Marshall") epitomized the country's pugnacious attitude to the game—he was once suspended for a year for punching a referee in the face—which at times sat uneasily with the finesse that many players possessed.
In 1967, at the funeral of his team-mate, Hector Scarone, Jose Nasazzi stated, "We were young, we were winners, we were united, we believed that we were indestructible."
It might as well have been a eulogy for a golden age of Uruguayan football.
2. Diego Maradona
By turns footballing genius and pantomime villain, Diego Maradona held a mirror up to both the potencies and shortcomings of his native Argentina. When, as a 10-year-old, he was asked in a television interview what his dreams were, he answered that the first was to play in a World Cup and that the second was to win it.
This was what Argentina had been waiting for: the appearance of the mythical "El Pibe de Oro" ("The Golden Kid") who epitomized the country's football. Against England in the 1986 World Cup, he scored a goal of sublime beauty, one that, just as much as his disputed opener, summed up the Latin American game.
Victor Hugo Morales, a Uruguayan who'd taken residence in Argentina, gave one of the greatest commentaries in the history of the game: "Genius! Genius! Genius! Ta, ta, ta, ta, ta...and Gooooooool! Gooooooool! I want to cry! Dear God! Long live football! Golaaaaazoooo! Diegoooool! Maradona! Sorry I want to cry. […] Thank you, God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears."
The abolition of slavery came to Brazil late. In 1888, Brazil became the last civilized country in the Western world to abolish this sordid practice. Although Brazil possessed the largest Afro–Latin American population on the continent, the country would not come to terms with colour and race until the 1950s.
The Brazilian writer Mario Filho credited Pele and the 1958 World Cup winners with having "completed the work [the abolition of slavery] of Princess Isabel."
With Zito, Pepe and Pele, Santos played the kind of attacking football that attracted audiences. The team became the Harlem Globetrotters of the international game.
Pele symbolized the dynamism of the new Brazil. The inventor of the wall pass, which entailed rebounding the ball against an opponent's leg, Pele was also credited with being the master of the "sombrero," a skill that allows the player to lift the ball over an opponent's head only to run around him and control it on the volley.
Surely the greatest player to grace a pitch.
4. Arsenio Erico
In the 1930s, Argentina may have possessed the best league on the continent, but its most talented player was Paraguayan.
Arsenio Erico was a footballing god. Between 1934 and 1946, he played 325 matches for Independiente, scoring 293 goals, an all-time record for Argentinian football, but this phenomenon had only come to the attention of the Argentinians by a quirk of fate.
During the Chaco War (1932-35), many of the country's best players volunteered for military service. It was, however, decided that Erico would better serve his country on the pitch rather than off it. He joined the Red Cross squad that had been assembled by the Paraguayan Football League.
To raise money for the wounded, the squad toured Argentina and Uruguay, playing 26 games. During the Argentinian leg of the tour, Erico so impressed Independiente that the club paid 5,000 pesos for his transfer. Erico donated the money to the Paraguayan Red Cross.
5. Elias Figueroa
Elias Figueroa was arguably one of the greatest footballers in the history of the Chilean game. Said Nelson Rodrigues, the Brazilian writer, of Don Elias: "Elegant like a count in black tie, dangerous like a Bengal tiger. [He] was the perfect defender." Figueroa was more modest: "The area is my home. Only those I want enter there."
After winning a number of trophies with Montevideo's Penarol, he moved on to Internacional of Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. When, after a defeat against Peru, an opposing player was heard to shout, "Viva Chile m----a! Viva Chile m----a!" outside the dressing room, Figueroa calmly got up and asked him: "Sorry, my friend, 'Viva Chile' is that with or without a comma before the 'm----a' ['s--t']?"
Intimidated by the Chilean's steely politeness, the Peruvian said that it was definitely with the comma. "Ah, I had thought so. Now you'd better go and celebrate on the other side," came the reply.
6. Hugo 'El Cholo' Sotil
With his Indian background, no one epitomised the new Peru in the early 1970s more than Hugo "El Cholo" Sotil. A brilliant dribbler and exquisite passer of the ball, "El Cholo" ("The Mestizo") galvanized Peru's resurgence in the international game.
Barcelona, for whom Sotil would play, had wanted another Johan Cruyff but got the brilliant but flawed Peruvian. Sotil would become notorious for his nocturnal activities, however impressive he was on the pitch.
He did not enamour himself to the club's management when, without its permission, he travelled to Caracas to play for Peru against Colombia in the play-off final of the 1975 Copa America.
His late entrance—he arrived at the Estadio Olimpico as his fellow players were warming up—did not dull his prowess: He scored the only goal of the match. El Cholo had also brought 20 watches for his team-mates.
7. Obdulio Varela
Nicknamed "El Negro Jefe" ("The Black Chief"), Obdulio Varela emerged as the mythological hero of the 1950 World Cup final. If one game had ever caused a country to question its identity—and thereby change its fortunes—it was what would become known as the "Maracanazo" ("Maracana Blow").
Uruguay defeated Brazil in front of 173,850 spectators (though the unofficial figure was over 200,000). Nelson Rodrigues would later remember the pain of defeat: "Obdulio ripped the title from us. I said, 'ripped' as if I would say 'extracted' the title from us as if it were a tooth."
The truth was that Obdulio had kicked Brazil around like a stray dog. In one episode, Obdulio was said to have had punched the Brazilian defender Bigode, though the Brazilian masseur remembered it differently:
"Obdulio ran over there, stuck his finger in Bigode's nose and barked, 'You son of a thousand b----es, if you hit the kid [Alcides Ghiggia, who scored the winner] I'll kill you.'"
8. Arthur Friedenreich
Arthur Friedenreich was born to a German father and an Afro-Brazilian mother, and his darker complexion and wiry hair would always mark him out.
The green-eyed Friedenreich moved back and forth between various clubs, including Flamengo, before settling at Paulistano. He was a goalscoring machine. By the time he hung up his boots in 1935 at the age of 43, he had found the net 1,329 times.
He was a curious, though highly effective, combination of classical English centre-forward and Afro-Brazilian suppleness.
In a society where race was highly demarcated, "Fried" was neither black nor white. He may have been accepted by the white elite, but would also turn out for black elevens. Such was Friedenreich's readiness to hide his Afro-Brazilian roots and evade racism, that he would straighten his hair to give himself a side part before taking to the field.
But it took a Brazilian victory at the 1919 South American championship to make Friedenreich a national hero.
9. Marco Etcheverry
Bolivian football had been considered a joke—in 1949, Brazil had inflicted a 10–1 defeat on the country before Uruguay scored eight goals without reply a year later. In July and August 1993, Bolivia won the first five matches in their World Cup qualifying campaign.
Few would have given them any chance in a group that included Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador and Venezuela. After the Bolivians had beaten Venezuela 7–1, a never-ending cycle of tie-saving draws and honorable defeats had been broken. A week later, against Brazil, Bolivia secured one of the greatest victories of its sporting history.
The brilliant Marco Etcheverry—otherwise known as "El Diablo" ("The Devil") for his demonic dribbling—covered half of the pitch before forcing a mistake from Claudio Taffarel, who let Etcheverry's shot dart through his legs. A minute later another Bolivian goal, and Brazil's unblemished record had come to an end. It was the very first time the country had lost a World Cup qualifying match.
Etcheverry had been instrumental in one of the greatest episodes in Bolivian sporting history.
10. Lionel Messi
Argentina supplies more professional footballers than any other country in the world. This strategy of selling players—often at a very young age, as was the case with Lionel Messi —may yet have a deleterious effect on its domestic leagues.
Nevertheless, it remains a way for clubs in the region to survive financially. Messi, in spite of being the greatest player in the world, epitomizes a new kind of player: born in Latin America, made in Europe.
Efforts have been made to Argentinian-ize the young man, who remains so much a product of Barcelona. Some found him not Argentinian enough—never having played senior football in the country and perhaps being too clean-cut, having too little of the barrio about him—others anxiously sought to find some trace of Argentinian-ness.
In 2007 he had scored a sublime individual goal against Getafe that was uncannily similar to Maradona's second in 1986, and when Barcelona played Espanyol later in the year, one commentator saw El Diego's reincarnation.
Golazo! A History of Latin American Football by Andreas Campomar is out now in hardback (Quercus).