Very few people can say that they saw the beginning of FIFA World Cup™ history, let alone say that they were a part of it. Such though is the huge claim to fame of former Argentinian international Francisco Varallo, the only surviving player from the 1930 FIFA World Cup final in Montevideo. Varallo, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday, was only 20 when he took part in that historic match at the Estadio Centenario, which Argentina eventually lost 4-2 to their Uruguayan hosts.
After the World Cup, Varallo went on to spend eight years of glory with Boca Juniors, where his record as all-time top goalscorer in the club’s professional era, with 181 goals in 210 matches, remained unbroken until current shooting star Martín Palermo finally overtook the legend’s tally in 2008.
The older generation still talk of Varallo’s powerful shots, his instinct for goal, and his great temperament. His generosity is also apparent in the lack of memorabilia to be found in his La Plata home when FIFA World paid its visit. All of the pictures and objects in his home are recent – there is not a single football memento. “Dad is extremely generous,” his daughter explains. “He gave everything away. If a journalist came to visit, he would give him his photos. He gave his shirts to friends… He didn’t keep anything. When the Boca Juniors museum asked for donations, he didn’t have anything to give them…”
In this abridged version of an exclusive interview for FIFA World, which will appear in full in the magazine's March edition, Varallo gives his thoughts on the last eight decades of international football, and the dramatic transformation of the sport in general.
FIFA World: What are your memories of the first FIFA World Cup?
Francisco Varallo: It was like a dream come true. Argentina had a fantastic team and I had only played one match with them, two months before the World Cup. I was just a boy and I was in awe of players like Luis Monti, Manuel Ferreira, Guillermo Stabile… In those days the coaches barely spoke, and it was the most experienced players who decided on the starting 11. On the day of my debut against France, I asked the captain, Ferreira, how I should play, and he replied: “Play the way you know how, do what you want.” And things worked out well for me.
Argentina were just 45 minutes away from becoming the first world champions.
I injured my knee during the match against Chile, so I didn’t play in the semi-final against the USA because they were saving me for the final. I was in pain and I shouldn’t have played in the final, but when you want to give your all for your country… I played my heart out in the second half and I could feel it in my knee. We were down to ten men, and as the match went on, another was injured, and another. There were no substitutions then: we were left with eight players on the pitch. But they beat us fairly and squarely, what can you do. Eight against 11 had no chance; it was in the second half that the Uruguayans beat us. We were well beaten.
Over the last 80 years, many aspects of football have evolved. What were training and nutrition like in your day, for example?
In the 1930s, we trained three times a week or less. But I used to also train by myself, because I was very perseverant. When I was in La Plata, I used to go running in a park, and in Buenos Aires they would let me practise on my own on the pitch at the Boca ground. I kept training up until a few years ago; I was always moving and I enjoyed it.
As for the food, there were no nutritionists or anything of the sort. Stabile’s only recommendation was that we shouldn’t eat salami sandwiches. I always ate very well, a variety of things. I had a typically Argentinian diet, with a lot of meat. And before a match I would ask for seconds. Roberto Cherro used to ask me: “Panchito, how come you eat more than the rest of us?”, and I would explain “If I don’t, I won’t score any goals.” The food we ate was healthy and gave us energy; there was no alcohol or smoking. There were no fizzy drinks, and people didn’t eat as much pasta as today. It must have been a good diet because I’ve still got my own teeth. Some of that is down to genetics, of course, but I was never fat and I maintained my muscles. I also never had a medical check-up during my career. The advances that have been made in that area are fantastic. I never fully recovered from the injury I sustained at the World Cup in Uruguay. Nowadays, players recover in no time from operations – it’s extraordinary, they walk out of surgery!
What was a footballer’s life like?
I grew up in a middle-class family, with my parents and three brothers. We never went hungry and we all had the opportunity to study. There was no such thing as holidays. Back then, people used to go to the countryside or to Buenos Aires, which was quite an outing, with all the theatres and galleries. I started going to Mar del Plata in the 1930s, when you had to travel along 400 kilometres of dirt road. I used to swim there, I loved the sea. Playing for Boca made it possible for me to buy a car. I always liked speed. I drove until I was into my eighties and I never wore out the brakes! It took me four hours to get to Mar del Plata. Of course, back then there wasn’t such a crazy number of cars on the roads.
You clearly have a remarkable memory. Are you aware of your important place in the history of the FIFA World Cup?
I find it incredible that young people know who I am. When I was in France, people from Germany, Poland, England, Switzerland ... they all wanted to meet me, with a lot of passion and respect. They still send me letters to my house. And some even send presents. They are unforgettable gestures that make me very happy. And it’s all thanks to football! Here in La Plata, everybody knows me: old folks, young people, children...they all say hello to me. I was named an ‘illustrious citizen’. Now that I’m old, more tributes are being paid to me than before. It seems I’m still important!