It was a sight the crowd in Buenos Aires’ Estadio Monumental would spend entire games anxiously awaiting: the moment Angel El Feo Amadeo Labruna would take off with the ball, head down, shoulders hunched, and invariably end his solo run with a goal.
The legend of Labruna, a colossus at a club not short of its giants, has been handed down from father to son, from grandfather to grandson, from seasoned Plateista to teenage moderate. There is very little footage of his many feats, but his aura lives on immortal amongst the River Plate faithful. He is a player and coach of legend, adding to his nine league titles won on the pitch with six won in his trademark blue jacket and grey trousers: one of his many quirks in the dugout.
“If I were made to choose between River and my life,” he once said, “I would choose River, because River are my life”. He fell in love with the club from his very first steps in its ground at the age of ten, when his father, Angelo, took him there for gymnastics. He also played basketball, but it was football, which he learned on the streets of his barrio like all the other kids in 1930s Argentina, that became his world.
He made his debut at the age of 18 on the back of a first-team players strike, turning in a good performance despite breathing difficulties - he had a sunken ribcage which hindered his lung capacity. It proved little impediment to him, a striker with pace, vision, intelligent movement and who was, above all else, lethal. He is the all-time top goal scorer in the Argentinian championship, a feat shared with Paraguayan Arsenio Erico, and also boasts the most goals scored in the River-Boca Superclásico.
“I have never seen a finisher quite like Angelito. For every 100 shots, he would slot away 99,” recalled Felix Loustau, his partner up front in what was, for many, the most spectacular team in the history of Argentinian football. Known as La Máquina (The Machine), it was a River side that dominated the 40s and, in its later version, also included a very young Alfredo Di Stefano.
In a golden age of Argentinian football, with a huge wealth of talent spread across its clubs, Labruna was also a headline-maker for the national side in South American competition, but there were to be no FIFA World Cup™ appearances for him during his peak years. Brazil 1950 and Switzerland 1954 came and went without La Albiceleste’s involvement, thus depriving the world from seeing the form Labruna was still displaying at River.
Joining world football’s top table therefore came too late in his career, when at the age of 39 at Sweden 1958 he became the oldest player ever to make his World Cup debut. Moreover, Argentina were knocked out in the first round and endured a 6-1 humbling by the former Czechoslovakia.
Labruna played his last match in the “sacred cape”, as he called the River shirt, in December 1959. He played a little while longer at some less-heralded clubs in Chile and Uruguay, as well as in Argentina’s lower divisions, before retiring and somewhat unsuccessfully trying his hand at various different trades.
Road to a return
More successful, perhaps fortunately, was his skill at betting on horse-racing, but Labruna missed football. He missed River, and River missed him more. Since his departure, Los Millonarios had not won a single title and gone years without a trophy, often just missing out on first place in the cruellest of fashions.
And while going about becoming a respected coach at other clubs, Labruna would get back to the dressing room and always want to know how River had done - a habit that produced the occasional faux-pas. “Once, in 1971, I was the coach at Rosario Central and I came up against River”, he said.
“We were winning 4-0 and at one point I found myself next to Beto Alonso, who was just breaking into the River team. I started to shout at him as if he were my own player: ‘Step up, start running and earn the shirt that I wore for 20 years. Where do you think you are?’”
Come 1975 it was 18 years since River had brought home any silverware, a ‘tragedy’ which led to Labruna and his beloved Millonarios being reunited. Having taken over as coach, he brought in Ubaldo Pato Fillol, helped develop a young Daniel Passarella, reinforced his defence with the experience and quality of Roberto Perfume, and started to really foster young talent. The results were there for all to see: two titles that year, another in ‘77, two more in ’79 and his final silverware as coach in 1980.
He developed Ramon Diaz, brought the best out of Leopoldo Luque, and helped the aforementioned Alonso, another giant and idol amongst the River fans, to really push on. Utterly feared by the Boca faithful, who Labruna would regularly mock whenever playing their ground, he was eventually sacked by River in 1981 for failing to achieve results in international competitions. He may have passed away on 19 September 1983 but, in the hearts of the River faithful their love for Labruna still runs deep.