Obdulio Varela: The wise champion
Who is the greatest captain of all time? From Aug. 18-29, ESPN FC will reveal its 10-man shortlist of the finest skippers to have graced the game before conducting a vote for the winner. The result will be revealed on Sept. 1.
"When we walk out onto the pitch, don't look up at the stands. On the pitch, it's 11 against 11." Reports claim that about 200,000 people were in the stands of the Maracana for the decisive match of the 1950 World Cup between Brazil and Uruguay, but Obdulio Varela wasn't going to let his teammates feel that the spectators would have a say in the result.
Not yet 13 years old when Uruguay hosted and won the first World Cup in 1930, Varela would be the country's captain 20 years later in their second appearance in the tournament -- and their second triumph. Although it has been suggested as the most famous of his prematch phrases, "los de afuera son de palo" ("those outside [the pitch] don't matter") was actually uttered by a teammate -- the magnificently named Schubert Gambetta -- Varela's leadership was key to the team in every way.
Teams captained: Montevideo Wanderers, Penarol, Uruguay.
Trophies won: Uruguayan First Division (1944, 1945, 1949, 1951, 1953, 1954); Campeonato Sudamericano/Copa America (1942); 1950 World Cup.
He was the archetype of the rioplatense No. 5, or deep-lying midfielder; able to handle himself physically, superb at shielding his defence and linking play to the midfield, Varela also had a ferocious shot from outside the penalty area, which England learned in Switzerland during the 1954 World Cup. In the quarterfinals, with the score at 1-1 and six minutes before half-time, Varela hit a fine drive from outside the box that England goalkeeper Gil Merrick couldn't reach -- it was one of any number of long-rangers he scored during his career.
He led by example on the pitch in more ways than merely scoring at key moments, though. Let's go back to the Maracana on July 16, 1950. Brazil had dominated the first half, but the Uruguayan defence had kept them at arm's length comfortably enough that, at half-time, they realised there was no reason they couldn't win. Two minutes into the second half, though, Friaca opened the scoring for the hosts.
Varela realised at this point that, with the crowd and Brazilian players whipped into a frenzy, something needed to be done to calm the atmosphere and allow him and his teammates time to regain their composure. He got to the ball first as it nestled in the net, picked it up and put it under his arm. And while walking it back to the centre spot, he started remonstrating with the English referee, George Reader.
The goal seemed perfectly valid, but the argument continued as Varela demanded a translator be called onto the pitch to help the officials explain why no offside had been flagged for in the buildup to the goal. The crowd, of course, had no idea what the argument was about. The strangeness of the situation meant that by the time the game was ready to restart, the stadium had fallen silent, and the delirium of moments before had been forgotten already.
Little by little, Uruguay imposed themselves on the match, driven forward from midfield by Varela. Nineteen minutes after Brazil's goal, Varela moved forward and sprayed a pass to the right wing, where Alcides Ghiggia received the ball before beating his man and putting in a cross for Juan Alberto Schiaffino to equalise.
Five years ago, Roque Maspoli, Uruguay's goalkeeper from 1950, denied that Varela's protests to the referee had been to buy time, even claiming a flag had been raised: "The goal was offside and the linesman had put his flag up -- that's why we were protesting, that's all." Varela's protests might have been gamesmanship but, nonetheless, they were supremely effective.
Varela's leadership didn't only remain on the pitch, though. He was as renowned for his solidarity with teammates as for his tackling and playmaking. In 1945, he was captain of a Penarol side that beat Argentine club River Plate. As a reward, the club's directors said they would pay each player 250 pesos -- with 500 for Varela. Varela's response? "I didn't play any more or less than anyone else. If you think I'm worth a 500-peso bonus, then you give everyone 500 pesos. If they only deserve 250, then so do I."
Given the reputation that Uruguayan football has today, it might surprise some to hear that Varela was also known for his fair play. He appears to have had a healthy sense of dry humour, too; once, when captaining Penarol, he is said to have protested an opposing foul (which wasn't called as such by the referee) by approaching the official and politely requesting that, if any of his own teammates committed such a foul, they be immediately sent off, because he -- Varela -- wouldn't tolerate any such play from his own players.
But Varela was never given his due by the Asociacion Uruguaya de Futbol (AUF). He was honoured by FIFA in the United States shortly before the start of the 1994 World Cup, but his life was marked by poor relationships with AUF and club directors. He once said that if he'd realised the association's suits would take the credit for the 1950 victory: "I'd have scored an own goal." The prize money he was given for that victory was only enough to buy a 1931 model Ford (which was stolen from him a week later).
A month short of five years after that World Cup win, by now a player-coach of Penarol (his former teammate Maspoli was the manager), Varela would play his final match, also in the Maracana, against America of Rio de Janeiro. Entering the pitch as a second-half substitute, Varela soon realised he wasn't up to the pace of the game and had himself subbed back off. America won 4-1. The result wasn't what he would have wished for, but it was at least a fitting stage on which to end his career.
"They spent the whole time throwing long balls at us, it was crazy," Varela said afterwards when asked about the Maracanazo. "We could have played [that match] 100 times, and that was the only time we would have won." He might have been self-effacing, but no one is going to dispute Varela's leadership skills.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and writes for ESPN FC, When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard and Howler. Follow him on Twitter @HEGS_com.