Over in Uruguay, thanks in large part to the star-studded line-up of the senior national team, the beautiful game is enjoying a powerful renaissance. And in the nation that emerged victorious in the 1930 and 1950 editions of the FIFA World Cup™, one of the heroes of the latter triumph, Juan Schiaffino, remains a legendary figure in the history of La Celeste.

Recalled with respect and reverence throughout Charrúa football circles, mention of the player nicknamed Pepe - who had an Italian father and a Paraguayan mother - stirs highly contrasting emotions across the border in Brazil. Indeed, the name of this gifted inside-forward, also dubbed el Dios del fútbol (the God of football) during his time in the Italian club game, still sends shivers down the spines of Brazilian fans due to his crucial role in the unforgettable Maracanazo at Brazil 1950.

God didn’t want Brazil to beat us [on that day]. 
Schiaffino on Uruguay's 1950 World Cup triumph

“A huge silence descended [around the stadium],” said then Uruguay keeper Roque Maspoli, on the moments after Schiaffino beat Seleção custodian Barbosa to make it 1-1 in the deciding game of that World Cup. “In that instant, I knew the Brazilian players had been gripped by a fear of losing,” added the No1, whose feeling was proved right when Alcides Ghiggia popped up to strike Uruguay’s winner 11 minutes from time, to the utter shock and horror of the fans packing the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.

“God didn’t want Brazil to beat us [on that day],” said Schiaffino himself, a few years before he passed away on 13 November 2002. “They used to stick three or four goals past us whenever we played them in friendlies,” added a player whose subtle skills have, somewhat unfairly, been overshadowed in accounts of that 1950 triumph by the garra charrúa (Uruguayan grit) of captain Obdulio Varela.

“I’ll run around, once you start passing to my feet the way I give the ball to you,” was Schiaffino’s riposte to his skipper during said match, after Varela had urged a greater level of exertion from the attacker, who was subsequently crowned the tournament’s best player.

In total, spanning the 1950 and 1954 World Cups, Pepe made nine appearances for Uruguay at the global finals and scored five goals. Curiously, he would later pull on the shirt of the Italian national team, for whom he played in two qualifying matches for Sweden 1958.

Destiny plays its part
Born on 28 July 1925, as a young man Schiaffino worked in both a bakery and an aluminium factory prior to being called for a trial by Montevideo heavyweights Penarol. “I didn’t have a profession, so I’d just work here and there. But I wasn’t lucky [to make it as a footballer], that was my destiny,” said Schiaffino, whose determination and technical excellence saw him become an idol for Los Carboneros, before he went on to sign for AC Milan in 1954 for a then record transfer fee.

“I was fortunate enough to play for great teams, which makes things easier,” added Pepe, who was famed for his humility as well as his inch-perfect passing and eye for goal. “In my era the game was played more slowly and you weren’t as tightly marked. Nowadays there’s so much focus on fitness and fighting spirit that teams can’t play the kind of football you’d like to watch.”

Said by former AC Milan team-mate Cesare Maldini to have “a radar where his brain should be”, Schiaffino won three Serie A titles with the Rossoneri before ending his career at fellow Italian outfit AS Roma. Having firmly ensured his status as a footballing icon in his father’s homeland, Pepe headed back to Uruguay, where he spent the rest of his days.

The subject of a fierce debate between arch-rivals and neighbours Uruguay and Argentina over who was the finer player, Schiaffino or Albiceleste great Alfredo Di Stefano, the former’s goal in El Maracanazo and his selection in many experts’ top ten players of all time, mean his place in history is forever secure.