One of the sweetest footballing moments comes when an outfielder has to don the gloves and finish a match in goal. It’s the kind of moment that only comes around once in a blue moon and it really is something special, something unique, something thrilling. But what about when the opposite occurs? What about when a goalkeeper is forced to play outfield? That only happens once in a red moon.
There have been a few examples of this over the years. Fabien Barthez and Shamal George spent time outfield during friendly matches. David James and Ray Wood even spent the closing stages of competitive fixtures upfront. However, nothing compares to the story of Oscar Wirth, who completed 90 minutes at centre-back in a 1986/87 LaLiga match for Real Valladolid.
Wirth, nicknamed Chino, had already enjoyed an interesting career by that stage. In the summer of 1986, aged 31, the Chilean goalkeeper joined Valladolid for the latest chapter of a journey that had already taken him to the four giants of his home country – Cobreloa, Colo-Colo, Universidad Católica and Universidad de Chile – and to England and Germany, as well as seeing him visit Spain as Chile’s backup goalkeeper at the 1982 World Cup.
At the Estadio José Zorrilla, problems with an international clearance meant he couldn’t feature in the opening rounds and, by the time he was eligible, long-time starter Carlos Fenoy had cemented his place for another campaign. So Wirth didn’t play a minute for most of the season, although there was nothing particularly unusual about that.
What was unusual was that Wirth’s debut came in a match that Fenoy took up his regular place between the sticks. It was 12 April 1987, the 35th round of the LaLiga season, and Valladolid were visiting Sevilla. They had a problem, though. Starting centre-backs Manolo Hierro and Enrique Moreno were both unavailable, as was starting left-back Juan Carlos. The only first-team defenders available for the trip to the Andalusian capital were starting right-back Juan Antonio Torrecilla, back-up left-back Javier Sánchez Vallés and back-up centre-back Pablo Martín Sáez. They were scraping the barrel.
In Martín Sáez, they at least had one natural centre-back. He wasn’t an option that oozed confidence, though, having only been used in four previous matches that league season for a total of 180 minutes. This, remember, was April.
The bigger concern was how to fill the other central defensive spot in coach Xabier Azkargorta’s back four. With so few options, Azkargorta – who already knew that he wouldn’t be staying on for the following season – decided to opt for his second-choice goalkeeper.
Given that there were three goalkeepers – Fenoy, Wirth and José Luis Rodríguez, who ended up on the bench in Seville – in the Real Valladolid squad that season, Wirth often played centre-back during training when they had 11-vs-11 practice games. Back in his native Chile, he’d played at right-back and at centre-back until he was 15, so this wasn’t a completely alien concept to him. Never, though, had he faced the prospect of playing as an outfielder in a Spanish top division match.
This wasn’t an easy fixture, either. Sevilla came into the match three points ahead of their opponents and three places higher in the table. Plus, they were playing at their fortress of the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. It would have been tough under any circumstances, but even more so in these ones, with a depleted defence anchored by their number 13.
It is true that there were some unusual circumstances to this stage of this particular season for these clubs. In 1986/87, the league opted to execute a split after 34 matches, separating into thirds. There was a championship third, a relegation third and an intermediate third, and the final ten matches of the campaign would be contested between the six sides in each section.
With both Valladolid and Sevilla in the intermediate section, these teams were essentially in footballing purgatory and really did have nothing to play for. In that sense, this could be viewed as a non-competitive competitive match. But it was still an official game with two points on the line.
And Real Valladolid won. With their two goalkeepers on the pitch, they defeated Sevilla 2-1 for their first away victory in seven months. Manolo Peña scored at the start of each half and Sevilla could only net one goal against the makeshift visiting defence through José Luis Benítez. This was quite a victory and the reserve shot-stopper was at the heart of it.
As Juan Méndez reported for El Pais: “Wirth shone as a centre-back. He organised the defensive line with leadership and with talent. He was always in position, though it’s true that he often acted more as a sweeper than as a man-marker. He dominated in aerial play and didn’t allow Sevilla strikers Ramón or Cholo, who have been good in front of goal recently, to get the better of him.”
El País also reported that some of the Valladolid fans were even calling for Wirth to be kept in that position for the rest of the season ahead of the other centre-backs. Years later, the Chilean also admitted that he’d been praised and encouraged to switch to centre-back when out and about in the city of Valladolid, where he also worked part-time as a physical education teacher.
From his point of view, what he did wasn’t all that extraordinary. “Every professional player should be able to play in various positions,” he told the press after the win in Seville. “I was aware of the difficult nature of the situation and aware of how difficult this was for the coach, who took a risk. I had prepared well, though, and I think I responded well to the call.”
There is complete agreement about that. Wirth responded well and put in a good showing at centre-back. Never again, though, did he have to play there in LaLiga. Finally, the Chilean was given the chance to show that he could perform in the position he had been hired for and he was given four turns of the gloves over the final couple of months of that strangely formatted LaLiga season – a 1-1 draw at home to Atlético Madrid, a 1-0 win away at Atlético, a 1-1 draw at home to Real Betis and a 4-1 loss away at Real Murcia.
There weren’t many more appearances for Wirth the following season, neither in goal nor in defence. Vicente Cantatore, who had actually been the man to bring Wirth to the club before leaving after matchday one of the 1986/87 season, returned to the dugout, yet this didn’t translate into much more game time for the Chilean, so good and in command was Fenoy.
In total, there were six occasions in that 1987/88 season – back to the simple 38-game format of playing each side once at home and once away – when Wirth was able to feature for Los Blanquivioletas. He enjoyed two wins and four defeats across those matches, bowing out of Spanish football with a 2-1 loss at the Santiago Bernabéu in the final matchday of that campaign.
Wirth then returned to South America, signing for Independiente Medellín in Colombia and later returning to Chile with Universidad Católica, with whom he reached the 1993 Copa Libertadores final – a 5-3 aggregate defeat to São Paulo. Overall, his career wasn’t a particularly noteworthy one. One day in Seville, though, made Oscar Wirth the man of the hour and will take up lots of space in the index of his biography. De.
By Euan McTear @emctear