Obdulio Varela is a FIFA World Cup™ legend. Known as El Negro Jefe (The Black Chief), he captained Uruguay to glory in the Brazil 1950 Final - the much-celebrated Maracanazo - when the fabled determination of Los Charrúas proved too much for the flamboyant but brittle hosts.
It was a tournament in which the abrasive midfielder led by example. Barking out instructions and exhortations to his team-mates in his commanding voice, he exerted a huge psychological influence in the decisive win over A Seleção, one of the most famous encounters in the history of the competition. Four years on from that 2-1 victory at the Maracana, Varela led Uruguay to fourth place at Switzerland 1954. Tellingly, La Celeste did not lose a single FIFA World Cup match with him on the field.
A hunger for glory
Only revealing the more disarming side of his character for his family and closest friends, Varela earned his first pesos at the age of eight, selling newspapers on the street. “Newspapers only print two facts: the price and the date,” he was often heard saying.
When he was 15 he left school to embark on his footballing career, quickly demonstrating his drive and strength of character at Club Deportivo Juventud, where he starred in central midfield. Moves to Montevideo Wanderers and Penarol then followed. He wore the skipper's armband at both clubs, a privilege he also enjoyed with the national team between 1941 and 1954.
Not untypically for the times, however, his successful career did not bring him financial security. Like many other greats of that era, Garrincha among them, Varela was born, lived and died in poverty, without ever knowing the riches that have come the way of his successors in the game.
He wore the feted sky blue of Uruguay on more than 50 occasions, the crowning moment of his illustrious career coming on the afternoon of 16 July 1950, when he played an integral part in the greatest triumph in Uruguayan footballing history. The story of that day has been told many times. Hosting their maiden world finals, Brazil’s driving ambition was to lift their first FIFA World Cup Trophy in front of their adoring fans at the Maracana.
Going into the last match in the final four-team pool needing only a draw against the Uruguayans, the Brazilians were supremely confident of fulfilling their dream. Even their opponents were fearful of what might happen, so much so in fact that members of the national FA purportedly asked the team to do what they could to avoid losing by six goals. “Four is acceptable,” they are believed to have said.
Refusing to accept the match was a foregone conclusion, Varela told his team-mates to forget what they had heard and to focus their efforts on winning the game. Lining up in the tunnel, waiting to step out in front of a capacity 170,000 crowd, the captain had one last message for his team-mates.
“Put all those people out of your minds, don’t look up,” he urged them. “The game is played down on the pitch and if we win, nothing’s going to happen, just as it’s never happened before. Those people don’t count.”
The skipper’s motivational words seemed to do the trick, with Uruguay holding the hosts in a goalless first half. Yet, two minutes after the restart, Friaca put the favourites ahead and seemingly on course to the victory everyone expected - everyone except Varela that is.
“When they scored, Varela ran 30 yards to get hold of the ball and argue with the referee about a non-existent offside,” recalled the late Roque Maspoli, Uruguay’s goalkeeper on that unforgettable afternoon.
Years later, in one of his infrequent interviews, the vociferous Varela explained the reasons behind his outburst: “I knew they would go on and thrash us if we didn’t cool the game down. All I wanted to do was delay the restart.
"I took the discussion as far as it would go, to the point that they had to get an interpreter so I could talk to the referee. The stadium fell silent and that’s when I knew we could win the game.”
What followed went exactly as the cunning Varela had planned. With Uruguay suddenly growing in confidence, the skipper took control of the midfield and Juan Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia scored late goals to turn the game around and silence the masses. Against all the odds, La Celeste had won their second world title.
Varela collected the Trophy from FIFA President Jules Rimet in a hastily concluded ceremony, with no official presentation or speeches being made. The celebrations of the winning team that evening also produced a fascinating anecdote, with the captain excusing himself to slip out into the Rio de Janeiro streets, filled with still-dazed Brazil fans.
“There was such sadness among the fans I decided to go into a bar and have a drink with them,” he recalled years later. “When they realised who I was I thought they were going to kill me. Fortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong. They congratulated me and we had a few drinks together.”
Returning to the team hotel at dawn, Varela felt at ease with the world. Like the rising sun that greeted him that morning, the legend he had helped create would shine eternal. And today, over 13 years after his death, his inspirational achievements remain undimmed.
57 appearances, 9 goals
Copa America winner 1942
FIFA World Cup winner 1950
Fourth - FIFA World Cup 1954
1937 - 1943 Montevideo Wanderers
1943 - 1955 Penarol
Uruguayan championship - 1944, 1945, 1949, 1951, 1953, 1954
Obdulio Varela died on 2 August 1996 at the age of 78. Regarded as one of Uruguay’s greatest-ever sporting heroes, he received a ceremonial funeral paid for by the state.
A number of books have been written on the life of Obdulio Varela by authors on both sides of the River Plate, among them the celebrated Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and the Argentinian scribe Osvaldo Soriano.
Obdulio Varela was never on the losing side in his FIFA World Cup career, winning six of the seven matches he appeared in and drawing the other.
Varela could only afford a 1931-registered car with his bonus for winning Brazil 1950. The vehicle was stolen a week after he bought it.
Obdulio Varela received the FIFA Order of Merit at USA 1994, two years before his death.