Don Tomas Fernandez gazed down furiously at his 12-year-old boy’s shoes. Incessant kickabouts on the jagged, makeshift pitch around the back of the local church, which father had asked son not to partake in, had rendered them abraded, unusable for mass or school.
The pittance Tomas earned during the economically challenging 1920s in Peru struggled to put food on the table for his humble home’s ten inhabitants, yet alone new shoes on the second-youngest of them. What had been a request now became a demand: young Teodoro was inexorably forbidden from playing football.
Obsession nevertheless overruled obedience. “I began sneaking out of the house and playing barefoot,” Teodoro later recalled. “We played on rough land and my feet would often sustain cuts and injuries, but I kept quiet and endured the pain because all I wanted to do was play football and I knew my parents couldn’t find out.”
But that they ultimately did, with the blame lying exclusively with his precociously thunderous right boot. One day, indeed, it unleashed the ball with such violence that it smashed through one of the church’s walls!
Teodoro explained: “My mother cried and then she became furious. I tried to reason with her that I wanted to become a footballer like my elder brothers, but she insisted I forget about it, that even if you did make it, you couldn’t make a decent enough living out of playing football.”
When Teodoro was sent to Lima to study in 1930, the 16-year-old never truly planned on focusing academically. He barely had the chance to read the first chapter of one of the books he had been handed, however, before the maiden chapter in a fairytale football career began.
That February, Arturo Fernandez, an uncompromising defender for minnows Ciclista Lima, went for talks with Universitario, an upstart club that had just won the Peruvian championship. The 24-year-old, like many negotiating players, had a request. It was not, however, a plea for a higher salary or to be deployed in his preferred position. It was, instead, for them to cast their eyes over his kid brother. Consequently, a devoted, divine marriage between Teodoro Fernandez and Club Universitario de Deportes was born.
Indeed, the forward, who was better known as Lolo, was the solitary marksman on his debut in November 1931 and, over the next 22 years, averaged almost a goal per game and seized seven Peruvian championship top scorer awards before hanging up his boots following a game against arch-rivals Alianza Lima, to whom he was an unparalleled plague, in 1953. Naturally, the 40-year-old signed out by firing home a hat-trick in a 4-2 victory (Fernandez remains the 29-goal top scorer in El Clásico de los Clásicos). Moreover, the stupefying prolificacy of El Cañonero (The Cannon) was paramount to Universitario conquering the country on six occasions.
“It is difficult to imagine there was a better player in the world at the time,“ said Luis Ferreira, Fernandez’s former team-mate. “Lolo was unstoppable: he was a wonderful passer, tremendously brave, great with his head and possessed the fiercest shot I have ever seen. It was so powerful that it would often break [goal] nets! Nobody will ever surpass him as La U’s greatest player.”
The consensus was that nobody would ever outrank him as the finest all-time Peruvian until Teofilo Cubillas exploded onto the scene in 1966. Fernandez thumped home six goals in two games before La Rojiblanca controversially withdrew from the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in 1936; he inspired them to Bolivarian Games gold two years later; and he finished as the Copa America’s leading marksman as his country stunned Uruguay in the 1939 final (Peru have since lifted the trophy only once, in 1975).
World War II, coupled with the Peruvian Football Federation’s decision to withdraw from qualifying for Italy 1934, Brazil 1950 and Switzerland 1954 and to not enter the France 1938 preliminaries, meant Fernandez was never afforded the chance to play at the FIFA World Cup™. He did, nonetheless, showcase his infallible class to wider audiences during a Peru-Chile XI tour to Europe from September 1933 to March of the following year, scoring a magnificent 48 goals in 39 games against the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Celtic.
Loyal to Universitario
Naturally, such form provoked lucrative offers. Ones from RC Paris, Penarol, Racing Club and San Lorenzo were all rejected. Colo-Colo put a blank cheque in front of Fernandez. He did not even entertain the prospect of putting a figure on it and leaving his beloved Universitario.
“Money didn’t matter to Lolo,” explained Placido Galindo, his former team-mate and the club’s ex-president. “He just loved playing football and wearing the cream jersey [of Universitario]. He was one of the greatest footballers ever, but he was such a likeable, down-to-earth person. He could have earned a fortune elsewhere, but he earned immortality here at La U.”
Fernandez’s legend at his only club may be infinite, but his life came to an end 15 years ago to this day, to tears aplenty in Lima. How grateful those Peruvians were that his mother’s tears, after his wall-breaking escapade some 70 years earlier, had not prevented Lolo embarking on a truly exceptional career.