Argentina contested the inaugural World Cup final in 1930, against their neighbours Uruguay, who were tournament hosts. Uruguay won 4-2 in a fiercely contested match which sowed the seeds for an enduring rivalry. More than three quarters of a century on, only one man who played in that match is still alive - Francisco Varallo. Now 100, the former Argentinean striker shares vivid and fascinating recollections of that tournament.
What do you remember about the 1930 World Cup?
We were in Group 1, with France, Mexico and Chile. The first game [against the French] was the hardest one. We should have scored about eight goals, but the ball just wouldn’t go in. We didn’t have much luck that day. I hit the post twice, so did ‘Nolo’ Ferreyra. The French keeper was phenomenal. And then with five minutes left we got a free kick. Luis Monti told me to take it. I said, to him, “No, you take it.” He did, he scored and we won; which was just as well. We then hammered Mexico, I think we scored six and I got one. [Argentina won 6-3] Then also beat Chile and then the USA in the semi final.
And then came an unforgettable final against the Uruguayans…
I remember it like it was yesterday. But some strange things happened… Monti shouldn’t have played in the final. You could see he was unable to relax, as if he was afraid. The night before the game he received death threats.
Several players were overwhelmed by the cup final atmosphere. The only ones that didn’t ‘shrink’, as we say here, were Carlos Peucelle, Guillermo Stábile, Pedro Suárez and myself. The rest were scared. In the second half their supporters were throwing stones at us, they were all het up. I have to admit that the Uruguayans beat us because they were more alive and more courageous than we were.
The [Uruguayan] fans insulted us from the moment we set foot in Montevideo. They knew perfectly well that the final would be between them and us. That’s why they made noise outside our hotel so we wouldn’t be able to sleep and why they hurled all kinds of abuse at us during training sessions. But I didn’t let it bother me. I gave my all. As I always did.
Did lots of Argentina fans travel to Uruguay for the final?
It was impressive. There were thousands of fans who crossed the River Plate by boat. The atmosphere was spectacular. When we walked out onto the pitch in the Estadio Centenario we had goose bumps.
You had a knee injury, so why did you play?
I had a fitness test before going to the stadium. It hurt but the son of the Uruguayan President, a man called Campisteguy took a look at it. He said I wasn’t fit to play. But I didn’t believe him because he was Uruguayan. So, I went out on the pitch. But I shouldn’t have. 10 minutes into the second half I was done for, I couldn’t run any more. ‘Nolo’ Ferreyra set me up with a perfect pass and I smacked it against the crossbar, and in doing so hurt my knee even more. In those days there were no substitutions, so I had to stand around on the pitch like a statue. I was young and impetuous and because I was so desperate to be there I did whatever I could.
I was not originally one of the first choice players. Two teams travelled to Montevideo, the first team and a reserve team. I was in the reserve team. To make the first team, as well as having the courage and ability to play in such an important tournament, you also needed a bit of luck. Shortly before the finals they had a poll to select the 11 players for the first game. Luckily I was chosen ahead of three of the great players of the time, Zito, Marazzi and Rillaga. The votes were cast by the directors of the association. I remember that the director of Gimnasio, my team at the time, asked the director of Independiente if he would “vote for the young lad Varallito.’ His vote swung it. Incredible, no? But that’s how I won my place at the World Cup.
Did you expect Argentina to win?
Without falling into the sins of vanity or pride, we were the best team. Although, to tell you the truth, the Uruguayans beat us fair and square in the final. As I said, a few of my teammates lacked character.
You were winning comfortably at the end of the first half. What went wrong?
They deserved to beat us. The thing was that we ended up with just nine players and many of them were scared. At half time some of them even said that the best thing to do would be to let them win… But I didn’t want to get shot of the ball and the Uruguayans went after me. One player, ‘Manco’ Castro tried to paralyse our goalkeeper, Botasso, when he went for a cross… When Botasso was injured, someone else had to go in goal. There were a lot of external factors that influenced the result but we, the players, were the real ones responsible for us losing the game.
Was that the worst moment of your career?
Yes, it caused me a huge amount of pain. I was very bitter when I got back from Montevideo. I couldn’t handle the fact that the Uruguayans were kissing their light blue shirts. I cried a lot. I was a very sensitive lad. But having played the way we did in the first half, giving it our heart and soul, I couldn’t understand how we’d lost the match. It was incredible. We had it in the palm of our hand. Even now, I believe that if we had played them another three times, we’d beat them each time.
It’ll be a thorn in my side until the day I die. It’s sounds like I am making it up but all these years have gone by and the bitterness is still there, it just doesn’t go away.
How were you welcomed back in Buenos Aires?
There were lots of fans waiting for us at the port. We couldn’t believe it. We had lost the final but the reception they gave us made us feel like we were champions.
What are the main differences between football in your time and today?
Today the players are athletes, all they do is run. Before, players were brave, they got stuck in, they had guts. We put our hearts into it. With professionalism, no one cares if they play for River Plate one day and Boca Juniors the next.
Do you still enjoy watching football?
I watch it a lot on television. The other day I went to the Bombonera to see Boca, my old team. It was very emotional, like I’d come alive again. I hadn’t been at a game for 14 years.
What is your formula for longevity?
(Laughs) there’s no magic formula. I’m lucky, God gave me an iron constitution. I have a few problems with age, of course, but I cope. I hope I can live a few years more.