What Argentina has given to the world of football cannot be quantified: historic, mystical, crumbling stadia; a colourful and noisy ticker-tape wielding fan culture, one that often straddles both sides of the law; and two of the greatest exponents of the beautiful game in Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.
The Copa Libertadores clash between Boca Juniors and River Plate in late 2018 drew an unprecedented level of press interest from mainstream international organisations that usually ignore South American football. For all of this, a huge debt is owed to a man from Glasgow’s working-class Gorbals.
Alexander Watson Hutton was born in June 1853 and later studied philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, from which he graduated with a second-class degree. He left for Argentina, arriving in 1882, and two years later he founded the Buenos Aires English High School (BAEHS), a bilingual institution where physical education was a key pillar of the curriculum.
Watson Hutton was far from alone as a foreigner in a distant land, as Argentina was hugely shaped by immigration in the late 19th century. Following independence in 1816, the Argentine government sought to fill the large, sparsely populated land with “enlightened” people – a code for white Europeans. The majority of the intrepid newcomers arrived from Italy, and to a lesser extent Spain, but the British population was estimated at 45,000 in 1890. The Brits created businesses, hospitals, newspapers and English-language educational institutions, a community which Watson Hutton was a part of.
In 1893, Watson Hutton helped establish the Argentine Association Football League (AAFL), with five teams competing for the inaugural title. He created a team for former BAEHS students in October 1898 and entered it into the league. When school names were banned from simultaneously acting as team names – considered to be a form of advertising – the team officially became Alumni Athletic Club in 1901, and a legend was born.
Watson Hutton’s club dominated the first decade of the Argentine game, winning 10 of the first 12 league titles of the 20th century, interrupted on only two occasions by great rivals Belgrano Athletic Club. The team carried all the traits associated with British footballers at the time: they played as a unit, displayed fair play and gentlemanly conduct, and were energetic and physical. However, they also appealed to the masses and were renowned for their entertaining and ultimately winning brand of football.
His other contribution to the Argentine game came in the form of his son, Arnoldo, Buenos Aires-born in 1887. The 15-year-old made his Alumni debut in 1902 and, in 1910, would become the league’s top scorer, his prolific form leading to an international call-up from Argentina.
Whilst Alumni were sweeping all before them, the cinco grandes – Boca Juniors, River Plate, Independiente, Racing Club, and San Lorenzo – were in the nascent stages of their development, all owing their creation, in some form, to immigrants. The universal language of football had created a bond for these people, giving them a new form of belonging thousands of miles from their homes. The colours of their new team became their national flag, their barrio became the new territory to defend and support.
Although the British introduced the game to Argentina, over time the criollo and immigrant population would increase their domination and subsequently take over the game in South America’s second-largest country. The rules were changed from English to Spanish and the Argentine Football Association (AFA) hispanicised its name in 1912. The names of star clubs and players gradually became increasingly Latin, and the British influence waned as the game spread throughout the burgeoning immigrant and Argentine-born population.
Alumni were officially dissolved in April 1913, two years after playing their last match, due to several problems, some of which were financial. In the very same year, Racing became the first criollo-created Argentine champion, completing the takeover and signalling the end of the British era. During the next decade, the other four members of the big give would join Racing in winning their first league championships.
Alexander Watson Hutton died in 1936, just as the new professional era in Argentine football was in all its glory, featuring packed crowds, goal-fests and free-flowing football. This decade is synonymous with the romantic notion of La Nuestra, a period when Argentine football finally found its identity in its own right, displaying a style of football that, whilst borrowing from the English version of the game, was perceptibly theirs.
Given the perilous present state of Scottish football, it’s ironic that a man from the Gorbals in Glasgow would be credited with introducing the sport into Argentina. Widely acknowledged as the father of Argentine football, and buried in the British Cemetery in Chacarita, Buenos Aires, Watson Hutton’s contribution to Argentine and, to a greater extent, world football cannot be underestimated. He paved the way for the ticker tape, the colour, the deafening crowds; and he paved the way for the likes of Messi and Maradona. That is the grandest legacy anyone could wish for.
The fact that Alumni, with 18 domestic trophies to their name, are still the fifth most decorated Argentine club despite having been out of existence for more than a century, points to their, and ultimately his, immense success and enduring legacy.
By Dan Williamson