The great Arsenio Erico’s career record brooks no argument: two Argentinian league titles with Independiente in the late 1930s, the top goalscorer in the country’s championship for three seasons in a row, the leading scorer in the history of Argentinian league football along with Angel Labruna, and the greatest Paraguayan footballer of all time.

Dubbed El Saltarín Rojo (The Red Dancer) for his gracefulness on the ball, Erico was nothing short of an artist on the pitch. So balletic was he in his movements that he prompted the French novelist and playwright Paul Morand to exclaim “He’s [Vaslav] Nijinsky!” when he saw him play.

The most elegant of penalty-box predators, Erico was the only striker of the day capable of inviting comparisons with the great Russian dancer. In an age when front-men were known merely for their brawn and bustle and ability to break the net, the Paraguayan attracted widespread admiration for his poise and ability to shake off opponents with feline grace.

But what endeared him to the adoring Independiente fans more than anything else, more than his 293 goals and trademark moves, was his ability to seemingly defy gravity and hang in the air, a gift which further strengthened the Nijinsky comparisons.

“He had secret springs hidden away in his body. He was a sorcerer, leaping in the air without an ounce of effort, and his head always reached higher than the goalkeeper’s hands,” wrote the Uruguayan author and journalist Eduardo Galeano, one of South America’s leading wordsmiths, summing up the powers of a footballer who turned the game into an art form.

Adversity brings an opportunity
He was still very much in the process of honing those gifts when he made his Paraguayan first-division debut as a callow 15-year-old for Nacional in 1930. Born in the capital of Asuncion, the youngster had acquired a reputation in his local neighbourhood for his ability to juggle oranges with his gifted feet. Professional football was an entirely different challenge, however, as was playing at left-back instead of the advanced position in which he would make his name.

His elegant performances convinced his coaches to play him further forward before fate took a hand in his career in 1934. Paraguay was at war with Bolivia at the time, prompting Erico to join the country’s Red Cross select XI, which embarked on a fundraising tour of Uruguay and Argentina, as part of which they were scheduled to play River Plate in Buenos Aires.

Enchanted by the young striker’s skills, River’s directors had designs on signing him, but were beaten to the draw by crosstown rivals Independiente. After persuading the Paraguayan Ministry of Defence to free Erico of his obligations as a conscript in a country at war, El Rojo completed the signing of a player who would put them in the record books.

Independiente quickly became a major draw, with the magical displays of their new Paraguayan recruit pulling the fans in by the thousands, even for training sessions. His fame grew steadily until 1937, when he achieved nothing short of superstar status by scoring 47 goals in 34 games, a single-season record that stands to this day in Argentina.

Erico was just one member of an Independiente front-line that would change the face of the game in Argentina, and with it the fortunes of the club. With the Paraguayan tormenting defences in the company of Juan Vilarino, Vicente de la Mata, Antonio Sastre and Jose Zorrilla, El Rojo turned on the style week in week out to romp to the 1938 and 1939 league titles.

The first of those two wins was their maiden league title of the professional era, in which they had previously finished runners-up five times. Such was their superiority that year that Erico even gave up scoring to win a big cash prize offered by the cigarette brand 43 to any player who could hit exactly 43 goals during the season.

He reached the mark with two games to spare. To make sure of collecting the prize, which he shared with the rest of the squad, in those last two matches of the season he would either turn back or pass the ball to a team-mate whenever he found himself through on goal.

Those were not the only occasions on which he turned down the chance to score, as he once explained: “Whenever we were well ahead in a game and I found myself in the opposition six-yard box, I’d turn round and dribble back towards my own goal, with my team-mates pretending to chase me. It was just a bit of fooling around to entertain the fans who packed out stadiums to see us play.”

A man of many identities
Though the goals kept coming, he would win no further league championships in Argentina. After falling out with the Independiente directors, Erico returned home to help Nacional lift the 1942 Paraguayan title, only to go back to the Avellaneda club the following year.

By this time, however, torn meniscuses had undermined the abilities of the contortionist, who had acquired a seemingly end list of nicknames during his illustrious playing days: El Hombre de Goma (The Rubber Man), El Hombre de Mimbre (The Wicker Man), El Hombre de Plástico (The Plastic Man), El Mago (The Magician), El Virtuoso, El AviadorEl Duende Rojo (The Red Goblin), El Diablo Saltarín (The Dancing Devil), to name but a few.

He left Independiente for good in 1946, made seven appearances for Huracan and decided to return to Nacional once more, bringing the curtain down in his homeland on his 17-year career.

Strangely, the most talented Paraguayan to grace the game never made a single official appearance for his country. Too young to play at Uruguay 1930, his subsequent move to Argentina made him ineligible for La Albirroja under the rules of the time.

He died in 1977 following a retirement spent away from the football world, though few can doubt that Erico had already contributed more than enough to the game by the time he hung up his boots.