Though the reason may not be obvious at first, this 5 February is a significant date in the history of world football, particularly with the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ looming large on the horizon. Still wondering why? Well, this Friday is the 100th birthday of ex-Argentina and Boca Juniors goalgetter Francisco Varallo, the only player still alive to have featured in the first ever FIFA World Cup Final.
“I achieved a lot of nice things in my career: I represented the national team and was Boca’s record goalscorer,” said the man of the moment. “However, in my whole life I’ve never felt such a bitter pain as losing that World Cup Final against Uruguay in 1930.”
Varallo’s first steps on the footballing ladder were taken at 12 de Octubre, a neighbourhood club based in the Los Hornos district, part of the Argentinian city of La Plata. Having quickly shown evidence of his talent, young Pancho decided to try his luck at local heavyweights Estudiantes, scoring an impressive 11 goals in three trial matches.
The board of 12 de Octubre refused to release the lethal front-runner, however, given their loyalty to El Pincha’s neighbours Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata. “They wouldn’t let me join a rival team, so I was forced to go for a trial at El Lobo (Gimnasia). They put me in the third team and we won our first game 9-1, with me scoring all nine goals. I was playing for the first team by the following week,” he told FIFA.com.
It was a risk, because there were no substitutions back then, but it was worth it. I wasn’t going to miss that game for anything in the world!
Nor did it take the cool-headed and fierce-shooting Cañoncito (Little Cannon) long to come to the attention of then Argentina coach Juan Tramutola, who called him up to train with the team set to travel to Uruguay 1930. Varallo did not disappoint, unleashing all his skill and determination to seal a spot in the Albiceleste squad.
Pancho went on to start all three of Argentina’s Group A encounters, opening his account in the 6-3 victory over Mexico which followed an opening 1-0 success against France. However, an injury picked up his side’s final group game, a 3-1 win over Chile, forced him to miss the 6-1 semi-final victory against USA and threatened his involvement in the Final.
“I was a young lad of 20 years of age and I was ready to take on the world,” said Varallo. “I tested the injury on the morning of the Final and I felt fine, so I decided to play. It was a risk, because there were no substitutions back then, but it was worth it. I wasn’t going to miss that game for anything in the world!”
Argentina got off to an ideal start, going into the half-time break 2-1 up thanks to goals from Carlos Peucelle and Guillermo Stabile – the latter’s eighth of the competition. “We ran out of steam, to tell you the truth,” said Varallo, on a second-half showing which allowed La Celeste to fight back and win the game 4-2.
“I aggravated my injury when hitting the bar with a shot that could have won it for us. I couldn’t even walk! From that point on they (Uruguay) started to get stronger and, with all due respect to my team-mates, we weren’t gutsy enough. How I cried that day. Even now when I look back it still makes me angry.”
That crushing disappointment may still smart, but Varallo's achievements have nonetheless earned him worldwide reknown, with the FIFA President - writing in the March edition of FIFA World - among those keen to pay tribute. "Despite all the changes around football, the game itself has kept its original character," wrote Blatter. "This is reaffirmed by Francisco Varallo, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday, for which I congratulate him with all my heart."
The following year the attacker made the switch to Buenos Aires powerhouses Boca, where he will forever be part of the club’s history after scoring over 180 goals, a record only recently broken by current Xeneize striker Martin Palermo. “Am I upset that he’s overtaken me? Yes, I am a bit,” said Varallo recently, proving his passion for the game remains intact.
“Do you know any goalscorers who like their records being broken? I’m happy that Palermo’s scoring goals because he’s a cracking lad, but I can’t say I enjoy the fact that he’s taken my record.”
His place in Albiceleste history is also assured after helping Argentina to victory in the 1937 edition of the Campeonato Sudamericano (now Copa America), before a persistent knee injury forced his retirement two years later at the age of 29.
Though Palermo’s feat clearly rankles, Pancho does have the consolation of a number of prestigious individual awards. These include being made an Illustrious Citizen of La Plata in December 1998, a FIFA Order of Merit award received in 1994 and a CONMEBOL Order of Merit award picked up in 2006.
And as well as his fiercely competitive spirit, Varallo clearly has not lost his sense of humour: “The only wish that I had yet to fulfil, apart from winning that Final in 1930, was to have a great-grandson. Now I have one and I’m sure that one day he’s going to overtake Palermo as Boca’s all-time top scorer.”
Clubs: Gimnasia La Plata (1928-1929), Velez Sarsfield (For their 1930 tour of the Americas), Boca Juniors (1931-1939).
Honours: 3 Argentinian league titles (1931, 1934, 1935), 1 Campeonato Sudamericano (1937), 1 runners-up finish at a FIFA World Cup (1930).