Arsenio Erico: the legend who bridged Paraguayan and Argentine football

Arsenio Erico: the legend who bridged Paraguayan and Argentine football

“ERICO WAS DIFFERENT from everyone, from everything that I saw. A remarkable player. All that encompasses, without exaggeration, the five letters in the word crack. For me, a circus juggler, an artist. Sorry, a great artist.” Alfredo Di Stéfano

One of the best players in Real Madrid’s history giving you that kind of praise must have meant that you were a phenomenon. And that’s exactly what Arsenio Erico was. Perhaps the greatest Paraguayan player of all-time, he was something special: powerful, quick, a brilliant finisher and with a touch of gold. It was apparent that he was going to become special from a young age.

At a time of death and turmoil, Erico was a shining light and a brilliant aversion from the troubles of the Chaco War. Born on 15 March 1915 in Asunción, he was of Italian descent from his father’s side, and his talent for football was immediately apparent as he grew up. All the males in his father’s family had played for Nacional, including his father, so football was in his blood. He eventually signed for Nacional, too, at the age of 11.

One of the biggest clubs in Paraguay, Nacional were always challenging for titles in the amateur days of the Paraguayan Primera División and, having developed many young players before, they were considered the perfect place for Erico to hone his talents and mature into the player he destiny pointed towards.

As war broke out, it could have derailed Erico’s chances of making it to the top. Instead, it benefited him. The Chaco War broke out over something so petty to most yet so important for some: a dispute between two oil companies – one Bolivian, the other Paraguayan – over some territory with a lot of natural resources, and resulted in a number of young men being sent to the fight.

Arsenio was originally going to be one of those fighting on the Paraguayan side, but he was saved from the clutches of war by Commander Molinas. Allegedly a Nacional fan, Molinas recognised Erico’s footballing talent and sent him to the Paraguayan Red Cross football team.

The team was set up to raise funds for the soldiers on the battlefront by playing a series of exhibition games against other sides from South America. They played a number of games and were moderately successful, but Erico’s performances caught the eye of the some of the bigger clubs they played against, especially those from Argentina. River Plate, Boca Juniors and Independiente were all interested in the young phenomenon.

River made the first move, but Independiente swooped in at the last minute, offering the youngster double the money. The deal amounted to 12,000 pesos for Nacional – where he was still listed on their books as a youth player – 200 pesos a month for Erico, and a 5,000 peso signing-on fee. That might not seem like a lot – even by European standards at the time – but in South America, it was an exorbitant sum of money. Erico donated the signing-on fee to the Paraguayan Red Cross, which was more than what they had made from their time on the road.

Erico would then embark on the most successful period of his career, where he would become a legend revered by an entire country – a period in which he would get more nicknames than some strikers have goals, all of them positive. The one that was used the most was ‘Red Jumper’, given to him due to his uncanny ability in scoring headers in the red Independiente. As former Boca striker Francisco Varallo said, “Erico’s best weapon was his jumping. He beat goalkeepers and scored goals with his head. He was impossible to mark.”

He was an instant hit with the Independiente fans, wowing them with his goal-scoring prowess and his match-winning ability, as well as his humble, affable and gentleman-like personality. In the context of his wider career, though, the 12 goals he scored in his first 21 appearances would be considered a lukewarm achievement at best. It was going to be the last time before 1942 – when he was injured – that Erico would score less than 20 goals in a season in the Argentina Superliga. Indeed, seven seasons of continued brilliance and consistent scoring were to come.

The period between 1937 and 1939 was undoubtedly where Erico was at the peak of his powers, as he plundered a scarcely believable 132 goals in 96 games in the Superliga. Terrorising defences with his power and finishing, he looked unstoppable as he led Independiente to two league titles in 1938 and 1939. A quote from Erico highlights just how dominant they were in those two seasons: “Whenever we were well ahead in a game, and I found myself in the opposition six-yard box, I’d turn round and dribble back towards my own goal, with my teammates pretending to chase me. It was just a bit of fooling around to entertain the fans who packed out stadiums to see us play.” With the fans’ interests at heart, he was the epitome of the people’s player.

The year 1938 was also when he truly entered into Argentine folklore. A well-known tobacco company, Cigarillo, offered a large sum of money for any player who could score 43 goals in one season. As expected, Erico was the first player to do so, reaching the target with two games to spare. Instead of being given the prize there and then, he was told that the season had to end with him on a tally of exactly 43 goals, so he proceeded to miss some easy chances over the course of the next couple of games to ensure that his tally stayed put. Wit, determination and pure talent – what was not to like about this guy?

Another highlight of 1938 was when he was approached by the Argentina national team to lead them out at the World Cup, and he was offered a tidy sum of money to do so. Instead, Erico reiterated his loyalty to Paraguay and refused La Albiceleste’s offer. This, coupled with the fact that Paraguay never played in a major international tournament during his career, meant that one of the best players in history never played a competitive international game.

While rebuffing Argentina may have hurt his international career, it did nothing but help his legendary status, elevating his fame in his native country and making sure that he was idolised by a generation of Paraguayan boys at the time.

Erico couldn’t rest just yet, though. He had promised his father as a youngster that he would win the Paraguayan league title, and, after elongated discussions with the Independiente directors in 1942, it was agreed that he would move back to the club he had left at the tender age of 15. He duly delivered on his promise as Nacional secured a title win courtesy of his extraordinary goalscoring feats, bulldozing their way past every other team in the league. It was yet another medal to add to his cabinet, one which would surely have made his family proudest.

Erico was back at Independiente in 1943. His return coincided with a hugely decreased scoring rate, managing 12 and 17 goals respectively over the next two seasons. His age was starting to show and he was slowly but surely declining. In 1945, it seemed like he had regained his old poise and skill as he wowed the citizens of the Estadio Libertadores for one last magical season, managing to score 20 goals in 30 games and almost leading Independiente to the title. It would be the last season of his career in which he truly resembled his old self. A meniscus injury in his left knee limited him to just four goals in his final 19 appearances.

Independiente decided it was time for their club legend to leave. He had obviously regressed, and as much as sentiment was valued at the Buenos Aires club, El Rojo’s directors wanted to secure at least a small fee for him while they still could. He switched to Huracán for a brief one-season spell which was badly hampered by injuries, and he scored no goals.

Old and tired, Erico moved back to Nacional, this time as player-manager, though he wasn’t half as successful as he was in his playing career, and was soon sacked. He managed one more team, Club Sol de América, who he led to a second-place finish in 1957, before calling time on his football career and retiring in peace.

After marrying in 1960, tragedy struck. At a time when medicine wasn’t quite as advanced as it was now, doctors decided the best course of action to cure Erico of his recurring meniscus problems was to amputate his left leg. Instead of helping, it caused him blood complications, which led to him having a fatal heart attack on 23 July 1977. One of the greatest footballers of all time had passed away.

The day after his death, there was a River Plate vs Independiente game where a beautiful show of togetherness from both sets of fans honoured Erico, as they chanted in unison, “We feel it, we feel it – Erico is with us.” At a time when there were few roads between Argentina and Paraguay, on a cold working day in the military dictatorship of the former, Independiente shouldered all of his funeral costs, burying Erico in Buenos Aires, an act which would start a long-standing dispute between the nations that loved him for decades.

Sometime after his death, it was decided that Nacional’s stadium would be renamed in his honour. After decades of trying to bring his body back home, Paraguay finally succeeded in 2010 so he could finally rest amongst his countrymen. The fact that Argentina wanted to keep his body and fought for that right was, in a strange way, a source of pride for many Paraguayans, who were often considered inferior to their South American neighbours. Arsenio Erico, Paraguay’s greatest footballer and the highest-scoring player in Primera División history, bridged that gap like no-one before. 

By Youssef Amin

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