According to the newspapers of the 1930s and 40s, he revolutionised the game, while those who managed to see him in the flesh have claimed he was right up there with Pele, Diego Maradona and Alfredo di Stefano. For many others, he was as big a sensation off the pitch as on it, winning no shortage of female admirers with his raffish moustache and slicked-back hair.

The player in question is none other than Argentinian entertainer Jose Manuel Moreno, a towering figure in the game’s golden early years and rightly remembered today as one of the greatest players of all time.

Nicknamed El Charro (The Mexican), Moreno achieved that status despite never appearing at the FIFA World Cup™ finals, and though younger generations never had the pleasure of seeing the great man in action, the odd piece of footage of him in his River Plate glory days can now be found on the internet.

Though his career took him to Mexico, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia, he played his finest football in the red and white of Los Millonarios, forming part of a magical line-up that became known as La Máquina, which, in the eyes of many, was a forerunner to the much-admired Netherlands team of the 1970s.

A childhood snub
Born in 1916, Moreno kicked a football for the first time in the Buenos Aires suburb of La Boca, not far from his home, and quickly fell in love with the local team, Boca Juniors. After being rejected by Los Xeneizes as a youngster, however, the determined Moreno swore revenge, and would exact it in the most emphatic way, by starring for arch rivals River Plate for many years.

Newspaper reports from the time talk of a hugely accomplished player blessed with great technique, an eye for goal and prodigious ability in the air, a description reflected by his haul of 156 goals for River in two separate spells spanning 12 years.

He took his first steps in the game on the Buenos Aires club’s 1934 friendly tour of Brazil. Though only 18 at the time, he had every confidence in his abilities. “Relax, boys,” he said before one match with Vasco da Gama. “We’ll put five past this lot. Just look at the guy who’s marking me. He’s so ugly. I’m going to give him the runaround.”

The intrepid teenager was true to his word, scoring a goal as River ran out easy 5-1 winners, though he would have to wait until the following year before becoming a regular presence in the first team.

Moreno’s emergence came at a time when the popularity of the game was spreading fast, particularly on the banks of the River Plate. Only five years had elapsed since the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay, a tournament in which Argentina had finished runners-up, and Moreno’s outstanding performances for Los Millonarios made him one of the biggest attractions in the sport, with fans flocking to the stadiums just to see him play.

“I was delighted when the AFA named me the greatest Argentinian footballer of all time, but I was also embarrassed to be ranked ahead of people like Moreno,” said Maradona in his biography Yo soy el Diego, an indication of the high regard with which the moustachioed magician is held in Argentina.

Equally at ease on either flank, Moreno was a celebrated mainstay of the fabled River Plate side that won four national league titles between 1936 and 1942, combining to great effect with other legendary names such as Juan Carlos Munoz, Adolfo Pedernera, Angel Labruna and Felix Lousteau and helping to forge the legend of La Máquina.

Nicknamed El Poeta de la Zurda (The Left-Footed Poet) thanks to his artistry on the ball, Moreno was also hugely popular away from the playing field, particularly in the clubs and watering holes of Buenos Aires, where he would spend many a night dancing the tango.

“It’s the best training you can do,” he once said of the famous Argentinian dance form. “You set the rhythm, step it up when you want, make all the movements and work your waist and legs.”

As hard as they come
As the fans fortunate enough to have seen Moreno in the flesh will testify, there was much more to him than a talent for kicking the ball. His sheer force of personality frequently manifested itself on the field of play, such as the occasion in 1947 when he raised his fists to greet a posse of Estudiantes fans who had run on to the pitch to remonstrate with the referee.

That same year he was hit on the head by a stone thrown by Tigre fans, prompting the River medical staff to rush on to the pitch to treat him. An irate Moreno was having none of it, however. “Give me one good reason why I should get treatment,” he told them in no uncertain terms. “So that lot can feel good and go round singing that they hit Moreno? No sir! The only time I get treatment on a pitch is when I have to be carried off.”

His character and talent quickly won him a place in the national team, one he would hold on to for 14 years. And though the Second World War prevented him from gracing the World Cup finals, he produced his very best football in the South American Championship, the forerunner to the Copa America. The winner of three continental titles with La Albiceleste in 1941, 1945 and 1947, he also recorded his name in the history of South American football by scoring the 500th goal in the competition in 1942 and being named the player of the tournament in 1947.

Before seeing out his career at Independiente Medellin in Colombia, he had the satisfaction of finally running out for Boca Juniors, the club that had rejected him as a boy. He died in 1978, just two months before his beloved Argentina won their first world title, an unfortunate twist of fate that not even the fleet-footed, tango-dancing Moreno could sidestep.