Guillermo Stábile: the last of the great Argentine romantics

Guillermo Stábile: the last of the great Argentine romantics

Guillermo Stábile ran up the pitch, hoping for someone to pick him out. As the ball came sliding across the surface, the Argentine striker latched on to it deep on the right side of the box. Before anyone could react, he struck the ball across the face of the goal and into the bottom left corner. Despite the claims of offside from Uruguayan captain José Nassazi, Stábile had given Argentina a 2-1 lead minutes before half-time in the 1930 World Cup final.

Their South American neighbours would eventually go on to score three goals in the second half due to a change of ball and become the first world champions. Nevertheless, his first half goal had made Stábile the first recipient of the World Cup Golden Boot with eight goals in four matches, a total bettered only four times since. That has been his claim to fame in footballing legend, but it is far from Stábile’s greatest accomplishment.

Born in 1905, Stábile grew up in Parque Patricios, a region in Buenos Aires undergoing social and housing regeneration during the early 1900s. From an early age his talent was apparent as he joined local youth club Sportivo Métan. By 1920, he had shown enough promise to be picked up by Club Atlético Hurácan, and by 1924 he was promoted to the first team.

At the time, Hurácan was in its most successful phase having won the Primera División in 1921 and 1922. Stábile’s introduction to the team, initially as a right winger, would inspire the club from his local neighbourhood to two more league titles, in 1925 and 1928.

Known as the ‘Infiltrator’ for his goal-scoring ability, Stábile quickly established himself as a fan favourite with a 102 league goals in 119 appearances over six years. Despite these scarcely believable statistics, Stábile was unable to get into an Argentine national team considered among the world’s best at the time. They had won four South American Championships in the 1920s alone, as well as silver at the 1928 Olympics, which was the premier international competition of the time. Going into the 1930 World Cup, Stábile managed to secure a spot in the squad but, in an era without substitutes, wasn’t expected to play any matches.

Following a narrow 1-0 victory over France in their opening match, Stábile was awarded a place in the team due to one of the strangest turns of luck. Established legend Roberto Cherro, whose 1930 Primera División goal-scoring record would remain in tact for over seven decades, backed out of the tournament citing nerves.

Stábile started against Mexico in the second group match and did not disappoint. He scored the first, third and final goals in a 6-3 demolition job, becoming the first hat-trick scorer of the World Cup. He followed up this performance with impressive braces against Chile in the final group game and the USA in the semi-final.

Stábile signed off the summer with the aforementioned goal against Uruguay, which would not be enough to secure the trophy for La Albiceleste. It would also prove to be his last match for the national team, as his extraordinary performances had alerted Europe to his incredible talent. In an era when cross-continental scouting was near impossible, Stábile’s decision to leave Hurácan for Genova 1893 – now known as Genoa CFC – in 1930 ended his brief but spectacular Argentina career. The closest Hurácan have come to winning the league title since his departure was their victory in the 1973 Metropolitano league.

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The Infiltrator started his Italian league career as brightly as he had finished his Argentina one, with a debut hat-trick against league leaders Bologna. However, it all went wrong from there.

Although Stábile continued to perform at a high level, serious injuries to his tibia and fibula in 1931 and 1933 derailed his playing career. It is rumoured that Mussolini himself wanted to appoint Stábile to the successful Italian national team for the 1934 World Cup, but his injuries killed that possible opportunity.

His career fizzled out with his previous devastating form a distant memory, as he unable to revive it following a year-long spell at Napoli in 1934-35. On the bright side, he was able to study coaching and management techniques during his long injury layoffs, and was even granted the title of co-manager during his second season at Genova.

In 1936, his Italian sojourn came to an end when Red Star Paris, the club of the legendary FIFA president Jules Rimet, offered him a player-manager position. It is believed in some quarters that Rimet himself was involved in the appointment. Following a successful three years, which culminated in promotion to the top tier in 1939, the new idol of Paris returned to Argentina weeks before the outbreak of World War Two.

In 1940, he took up the managerial position at his boyhood club, Hurácan. Although he was unable to replicate the success the Parque Patricios club had achieved in the 1920s, his impact was significant. Under his tutelage, the club survived the economic costs of the creation of the Estadio Tomás Ducó and new training facilities, which were completed in 1947. Additionally, his careful management of youth players saw the emergence of some of the country’s best players, including Alfredo Di Stéfano in 1946.

When Stábile finally decided to move on during the 1948-49 season, Hurácan finished last and only retained their Primera División status through a playoff victory. At the other end of the table, Stábile had finally found a club to match his ambitions as his new team, Racing Club de Avellaneda, won the league title. This was their first Primera División title since 1918 and their first league title since they won the dissident Asosiación Amateur championship in 1925.

Stábile repeated the trick in 1950 and 1951, making Racing Club the first Argentine team to win the tricampeonato, or three in a row. However, as impressive as his management career at the club level had been, his true achievements came with La Albiceleste.

Even with political tensions heightening in the 1930s, Stábile had intended to stay in France. That was until the national team came calling in 1939. Maintaining his position until the summer of 1960 – not including a year-long hiatus in 1959 – the Infiltrator proved to be an expert commander to the seemingly endless crop of Argentine talent. In all, he won six South American Championships – the forerunner to the Copa América – and a Pan American Championship. His victories can be split into two styles; the first based on River Plate’s famous La Maquina in the 1940s and the second on Los Carasucias in the 1950s.

La Maquina (The Machine) was the nickname given to the improbably talented and ruthlessly efficient team assembled by River Plate between 1940 and 1947. The players primarily associated with the nickname were Juan Carlos Muñoz (39 league goals in 184 matches), José Manuel Moreno (156 in 256), Adolfo Pedernera (131 in 278), Ángel Labruna (293 in 525) and Félix Loustau (101 in 365). They won four league titles, three domestic cups and three Campeonato Rioplatenese, held between the winners of the Uruguayan and Argentine leagues, in their seven years together.

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Stábile made full use of this already established frontline to lead Argentina to victories in the 1941, 1945, 1946 and 1947 South American Championships. The latter three were especially important as it made Argentina the first – and only team to date – to have won three Copa Americas in a row. The 1947 title is also significant because it is the only tournament Alfredo Di Stéfano ever won at international level. His Argentine career record of six goals in six tournament games is almost as good as that of his former manager.

By 1949 an Argentine players’ strike severely depleted the league’s ability to compete. Many players, including Di Stéfano, left the country in search of better wages. While the practice of leaving for Europe was common among Argentine players – such as 1927 Copa winner Raimundo Orsi who left Argentina to win the World Cup with Italy in 1934 – the strike was a serious drain on talent.

As such, Stábile’s national team withdrew from the 1949 and 1953 editions of the South American Championship. When La Albiceleste returned, they picked up where they left off with wins in 1955 and 1957, sandwiched by a bronze in 1956. Overall, Stábile had won six of the eight South American Championships he had contested, a momentous statistic by any standard.

These victories had come about through the creation of a new, improved frontline consisting of Antonio Angelillo (11 goals in 11 Argentina games), Omar Sívori (nine in 19) and Humberto Maschio (12 in 12), with help from right winger Omar Corbatta (18 in 43). Their nickname of Los Carasucias (Angels with Dirty Faces) was a nod to their physical resemblance to the characters of the 1938 Humphrey Bogart film. It was also a designation, with a slightly masochistic racial undertone, presented to them after the attacking trio’s departure for more lucrative European contracts following the 1957 South American Championship. Their decision to leave could not have come at a worse time for Stábile, who was preparing Argentina for their first World Cup appearance since 1934.

Ominously held in Sweden, who had knocked Argentina out 24 years earlier, the 1958 World Cup was meant to be a delayed showcase of Stábile’s abilities. Instead, it came to represent his worst nightmare.

Following humiliating 3-1 and 6-1 defeats to West Germany and Czechoslovakia respectively, La Albiceleste were sent home with their tails between their legs. Stábile resigned in shame, but his team gained some redemption by winning the 1959 South American Championship.

He eventually returned in 1960 to help Argentina win the Pan American Championship, only to resign once again. He lived out his last years as the director of the Argentine National School of Football Management, as Argentine football fell into a depression. Since Stábile‘s retirement, the national team have only won six major tournaments.

In 1954, Stábile was assigned the task of scouting the World Cup that was to be held in Switzerland. He concluded that the European teams had become so obsessed with tactics and orders that they had forgotten to allow their players the freedom to play. He remarked that he would never be able to implement such a strategy in Buenos Aires, as the strength of his countrymen was their natural skill.

This report is a perfect epitaph on the career of a forgotten great. Guillermo Stábile will never be remembered for proposing a tactical revolution; he was far behind his contemporaries in that regard. Instead, he should be remembered as the last of the great football romantics – a man who broke a staggering number of records believing that football should be played for fun.

By Tarutr Malhotra  @sixthfebblog

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