In memory of Francisco Varallo
"Eventually when the players have withdrawn, when time itself has finally consumed them, the ritual certainly will not be done" --
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.
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
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
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"
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
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
The bells do not just