With the 53rd edition just around the corner, the Copa Libertadores de America is unquestionably one of the world’s most prestigious club competitions, its long and rich history having marked the careers of countless players down the years. One such individual is the Uruguayan Carlos Borges who, despite an impressive list of sporting achievements, had his most heroic moment far from the playing fields.
Borges, who turned 80 last week, earned his place in the annals of Libertadores history by scoring the first goal of the inaugural edition in 1960, while playing for Penarol against Bolivia’s Jorge Wilstermann. The man known as Lucho in his native Uruguay was not only a star performer for Los Aurinegros, he also enjoyed a distinguished career with the national team.
What is less well-known is that just a few years later, Borges courageously saved the life of a young boy in a shipping accident that would hasten the end of his professional career. FIFA.com has the full story.
An intelligent and opportune winger
Born on 14 January 1932, Borges came through the ranks of Montevideo giants Penarol, first representing them at youth level at the age of 14. By the time he turned 18 he was already a regular in the first team, where he would blossom into an incisive and skilful left winger with a keen eye for goal, two good feet and the ability to play on either flank.
His reputation would reach a global audience during the 1954 FIFA World Cup Switzerland™, when he hit a hat-trick in the Celeste’s 7-0 rout of Scotland in the opening round. Lucho added another to his tally with the opening strike in his side’s 4-2 quarter-final triumph over England, becoming the last Uruguayan to score four times at the FIFA World Cup until Diego Forlan went one better with five at South Africa 2010.
That Uruguay side, which featured, among others, Borges’ Penarol team-mates Roque Maspoli, Obdulio Varela and Juan Hohberg, would finish fourth in Switzerland. The team was largely unchanged two years later when they lifted the 1956 Copa America, their first continental title in 14 years, to which Borges contributed one goal.
In 1958 Lucho weighed in with seven strikes to top-score for Los Aurinegros en route to the league title, the first of five successive championships that marked the first ‘golden quinquennium’ in the club’s history. It was victory in the 1959 edition, however, that enabled the club to take part in the first edition of the Campeonato de Campeones, as the Copa Libertadores was then known.
Historic goal and move to Argentina
The opening game of the nascent tournament took place at Penarol’s Estadio Centenario on 19 April 1960 before a crowd of some 35,000. Borges’ historic strike came on 13 minutes and was described thus by the Uruguayan daily El Diario: "Hohberg advanced past midfield before picking out Cubilla up front with an exquisite pass. One on one with the keeper, the right winger struck his shot against the crossbar. First to the rebound was Borges, who saw his powerful strike come back off Rocabado, before dispatching it at the second attempt with a high drive past the keeper Rico."
Few recall that four minutes later Borges grabbed his side’s second, perhaps because team-mate Alberto Spencer hit the headlines with Penarol’s final four goals in that 7-1 drubbing of Wilstermann. As fate would have it, Lucho would not find the net again for the duration of the first edition, which his club would go on to win, beating Paraguay’s Olimpia in the final.
Borges signed for Argentina’s Racing Club in late 1960, not long after losing that year’s Intercontinental Cup to a Real Madrid side containing the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Paco Gento. In Argentina, the winger played a key role in helping La Academia claim the 1961 league championship, which would prove to be his last major title.
On 10 July 1963, when Borges boarded the steamship Ciudad de Asunción to cross the River Plate estuary to Buenos Aires, he could never imagined how the journey would enfold. It was around three in the morning when Lucho felt a huge impact and the ship suddenly began to list.
Recalling the tragedy much later, Borges remembered someone in his cabin shouting “Get up! We’re sinking.” Chaotic scenes greeted him on deck, where one crew member was trying to move passengers to the opposite side of the boat to balance it. An hour later, the situation became even more critical when an explosion erupted in the engine room.
As smoke and flames quickly spread, many jumped overboard into the dense fog, desperately searching for something buoyant to cling to. Borges was one of these, managing to stay afloat by gripping a wooden bench. It was then he heard a woman scream from the direction of the flames: “Please, please. Don’t let my boy die!”
Despite being unable to swim, Borges moved in the direction of the woman, who after dropping her child overboard was lost amid the smoke. The player found the child and helped him onto the bench, where they spent the ensuing hours adrift in the cold waters.
It was not until daybreak, when near frozen, that they were rescued by an Argentinian ship. After receiving first aid, Borges went in search of the child, to be told he was recovering well. The player waited with him until the boy was reunited with his father, although his mother would be one of the more than 70 victims of the tragedy, caused by the collision of the steamer with a sunken ship.
Upon arriving in Argentina, the ever-professional Borges reported for training for Racing, against the advice of his doctor. Shortly into the training session he fainted, before finally coming to his senses a couple of days later when he returned to Uruguay to recover.
And while at the time he rarely spoke about the tragedy, he later admitted that the trauma of what happened that night would haunt him for a long time. He would later try to rediscover his form with Platense, then a second-division side in Argentina, but he was never the same player again.
Borges hung up his boots in 1964 but has a rightful place in history, both for his sporting and humanitarian endeavours.