"Eventually when the players have withdrawn, when time itself has finally consumed them, the ritual certainly will not be done" -- Jorge Luis Borges
When British sailors arrived in South America playing soccer they may or may not have imagined the extent to which the locals would adopt, adapt and develop their game. It was at the turn of the 20th century, and the game which may have at first appeared as an English eccentricity quickly became identifiable as the "national sport." The very first World Cup in 1930 was hosted in Uruguay because the country boasted winning Gold in the previous Olympic Games -- as Europe and the Southern Cone developed professionally, the French-funded FIFA took the view that an event exclusively for professionals should be staged, and Uruguay was chosen as host partly because it held the medal of best, and partly to mark the centenary of its independence from the European conquistadors.
Until Aug. 30 this year, one man who played in the final between Argentina and Uruguay had survived. Francisco "Pancho" Varallo, born in 1910, pioneer if ever there was one, died in August at the age of 100. He was an icon in more ways than one. Not only was he the last surviving player of the 1930 World Cup but until last year he was the record holding top goal scorer of legendary club Boca Juniors' professional history -- his career total of 181 goals only surpassed by Martin Palermo in 2009. (Varallo actually scored 194 goals for Boca including international competitions and friendlies).
Varallo held a very special place in soccer folklore; his hoarse voice would reel off names and moves, dates and games to journalists from all the over the world who would visit him in his home in La Plata, the city of his birth and death. He started playing with Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata, to whom he felt very loyal, he claimed, because they had saved him from military service. But he was persuaded to sign for Boca on the grounds that his father "has never seen a 100 peso note!" Thus the lure of professional motivations, as far back as all that ...
Younger fans have only heard of him in reference to Palermo. The latter has been about to beat the record for some time, and Varallo joked some years ago that if Palermo managed it he himself would return to the pitch at least once to score one more. Reportedly, at the massively attended funeral two weeks ago, Palermo -- also a native of La Plata -- wept.
It took less than one generation -- the first two decades of the 20th century -- for football to become definitively "criollized" -- criollo being the Spanish version of Creole; the mix of European and local leading to a local, if not native, identity. According to the writer Osvaldo Bayer, this was exactly what had happened with the offspring of the European immigrants. "The anarchists and the socialists were alarmed" writes Bayer. "Instead of attending assemblies and ideological picnics the workers gathered to watch football on Sunday afternoons." In 1917 the radical newspaper La Protesta condemned the "pernicious idiotization by means of the repeated kicking of a round object" and compared the game with religion stating:"mass and the ball: the worst drug for the peoples."
Soccer clubs started popping up in practically every neighborhood in the city despite the reservations of the intellectual left. Boca for example was founded in 1919, when Varallo would have been a nine year old kicking a ball in the vacant lots of La Plata. The speed of the spread even got to those who at first condemned it: the notion of a club as the pillar of the community has stood firm, to this day providing a sense of belonging and identity which far outweighs most other institutions.
Soccer's place in Argentina's historic memory is non-negligible; the early clubs, the first players, the grainy pictures of men in suits and hats aired over and over on TV are part and parcel of the emotional fabric with which the nation robes its sense of being. Fans often remember what they saw more vividly than what has been told to them, but the romance and the idolatrization of "our" tradition is handed down generation after generation; from grandfather to grandson. And thus, the golden eras of our game live on in a hybrid of tale and experience.
Varallo was used to negotiating with broadcasters and delivering his immaculate recollection ("I should have scored two goals in the 1930 Final but Stabile selfishly didn't pass it to me" is an oft repeated chuckle). Until about 15 years ago the journalist Diego Lucero (Uruguayan-born but based in Argentina) was another frequented source who bore witness to the disembarkment of the European nations who sailed to Uruguay for the first World Cup Finals; Lucero died in 1995 having covered every World Cup between 1930 and 1994 inclusive. Pressfolk who covered the same event between those dates can attest to the popularity of the old man in press centers.
Far from being household names, these men were symbols in a more private fashion. Referents for a niche group of those in the know -- over the following generations some names would stand out and remain, celebratory pointers to a bygone bohemia; mid-century River Plate's wonderful "máquina" for example, whose front line is cited by Alfredo Di Stefano as his stock answer to his favorite player of all time: "You know, they're always busting my balls with this -- 'pick a favorite, pick the best' -- that once I said 'OK, here's five names and then I'm saying no more: Muñoz, Moreno, Pedernera, Labruna and Lousta,'" reciting as if it were one name.
Di Stefano says he learned from watching men like Varallo play -- having grown up without TV it was only geographical proximity to Boca's training ground that exposed him to see how the real pros played the game.
The bicentenary of Argentina's independence from Spain coincides with the centenary of Varallo's birth. When the Europeans arrived in southernmost South America there were some people already there. Over the following centuries many of these tribes have died, -- one such case is that of the Ona people, so named by the Spanish conquistadors, their own name was Selknam. According to the anthropologist Anne Chapman this group represented the most ancient lifestyle of humanity, with 9000 years of tradition. The last of the Ona descendants, Virginia Choinquitel, died in 1999. At her funeral, the verses she herself had recited before departing were pronounced: "The wind takes me/following the footsteps of those who have left. The power of those who have left returns to me/ From infinity they have spoken to me."
The bells do not just toll for Pancho Varallo -- he, like the last Ona, represents the end of much more than his own life. With him goes a last participant and witness to the very origins of this game as industry. For so many of the emerging workers and consumers his testimony will be a distant memory as told by their forebears. And yet, Varallo's contribution to the eternal game of the soccer is immeasurable.