Obdulio Varela: the legend of Uruguay’s greatest leader

Obdulio Varela: the legend of Uruguay’s greatest leader

It may have been Alcides Ghiggia who silenced the Maracanã in the 1950 World Cup final, but it was Uruguay’s captain who was not only the inspiration that day, but the irresistible force of nature that drove his team and his nation to World Cup glory.

Obdulio Varela, a physically imposing, combative holding midfielder, may not have struck the final, fateful blow to Brazilian hopes that day, but he was the architect of their downfall, the leader of a talented team who went into the bearpit of the Maracanã as outsiders and emerged victorious. Without his iron will, his guile and devilry, his sheer force of personality, the idea that Uruguay could have won the 1950 World Cup is unthinkable.  

Even allowing for the trauma inflicted on Brazil by Germany in 2014, the pain administered by Varela and his teammates – not just on a football team, but on a desperate and heartbroken nation – was one nation’s greatest sadness and another’s greatest joy.

Known as the “Black Chief”, Varela was a classic deep-lying midfielder, renowned as much for his leadership as he was for his relentless tenacity. Given his imposing physique, it is little surprise he was adept at handling himself physically, but he was equally adept as the pivote, linking play between the defence and midfield creators, and firing in the occasional fierce long-range goal, as he did against England in the 1954 World Cup quarter-final. But it was as a shield to the defence, the daunting guard of the backline, that Varela was in his element.

He remains one of the biggest sporting heroes in Uruguay, and one of the finest captains in international football history. He led by example in word and deed, always having his teammates’ back, always fighting their corner and always earning their utter devotion. And yet his exploits are often overlooked by the wider world.

Born in Montevideo in 1917 and developing his battling style on the dusty portreros of the Uruguayan capital, Varela’s playing career began as a teenage centre half at Deportivo Juventud, away from the top division of Uruguayan football. Within two seasons, though, he had debuted in the top-flight with Montevideo Wanderers and had earned international honours for Uruguay. But it was when he moved to capital giants Peñarol in 1943 aged 26 that his career really began to reach its peak.

He became captain, leading his side to domestic and continental successes. Having faced River Plate in 1945, a performance in which Varela’s dominant and hugely impressive display helped his team to a crucial victory, the club’s directors offered a reward for all the players: 250 pesos for each man, but 500 for Varela. “I didn’t play any more or less than anyone else,” he told them. “If you think I’m worth a 500-peso bonus, then you give everyone 500 pesos. If they only deserve 250, then so do I.”

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His leadership was never more apparent than on 16 July 1950 in Rio’s Maracanã. The final, decisive group match of the 1950 World Cup saw Uruguay taking on what had been a rampant host up to that point led by their obdurate 33-year-old captain. Brazil had stormed their way to the denouement in fine style with a bag full of goals, meaning that they only needed a draw against Uruguay to claim a first world title – an outcome all of Brazil felt was their inevitable destiny.

But Uruguay were used to battling against the odds. A small nation, squashed between two giants – in economic and social terms, as well as footballing – Uruguay and its people developed a fighting spirit – garra – that has seen them compete on a number of fronts with their more overbearing neighbours. 

In football, they were the world’s finest in the 1920s and early 1930s, winning the first World Cup in 1930. Having not competed in the next two tournaments, the 1950 edition in Brazil was Uruguay’s next appearance following their maiden victory. In their eyes, they were still defending their crown and an unbeaten World Cup record. They saw it as their title that was on the line in Rio that day, and for all Brazil’s bravado and arrogance, Uruguay had their own sense of entitlement and belief.

They also had a fine team built on the foundation of Varela’s Peñarol, with two of the other most significant characters of the final, Juan Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia, playing their club football alongside the skipper. And yet the tournament had begun in strange circumstances for Uruguay. Drawn into a group of three following the withdrawals of first Scotland and Turkey, the replacement European entrant, France, also withdrew. Uruguay were left only with Bolivia to face, who they breezed past 8-0 after a week of doing little but watching the rest of the group stage unfold.

La Celeste may not have made it to the tournament at all, however, according to Varela. “We came close to not going at all,” he said. “There was great confusion. Most people thought that we were done for, that we did not stand a chance. Thinking back, I am not even sure that was the best squad one could make up at the time.” Their squad had been selected, prepared and despatched in haste – hardly the ideal preparation for an assault on the world title.

In the final group, it took them a while to get going after their lethargic start to the tournament. Uruguay had to battle to save a draw in their opening game with Spain, with Varela scoring the vital late equaliser. They then had to come from behind again against Sweden, trailing with just 13 minutes to go before a late rally secured a 3-2 win. Brazil, in contrast, had won 7-1 and 6-1 against the same opposition, meaning their pre-final confidence wasn’t entirely misplaced, if a little inappropriate.

The mocking complacency of the hosts is well reported but portrays the degree to which they were favoured by most to win out comfortably. The pressure of expectation caused by the endless stream of politicians, dignitaries and media heralding Brazil as victors before the game had even begun was having two significant effects.

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Firstly, it put the Brazilian players under intense pressure, where expectation had become a demand, and to fail to deliver would be damaging to the country in a whole host of ways. Just as importantly, though, it had served to stoke the flames in the Uruguay squad. For a man such as Varela, it was the type of situation his qualities were ideal for. As the apparent odds became increasingly stacked against them, he took centre stage, carrying his all-too-willing colleagues with him to immortality.

Amidst the host of premature pronouncements of victory, there was the cover spread in Rio sports newspaper O Mundo, which pictured the Brazil team under the headline “Here are the World Champions”. When Manuel Caballero, the Uruguayan consul in Rio, arrived at the team hotel on the morning of the final holding 20 copies of the newspaper, the story goes that he put them down in front of Varela, saying: “My commiserations to you gentlemen. It seems you are already beaten.”  

Varela took all 20 newspapers to the toilets and spread them around the urinals before telling his teammates to go in and show what they thought of the foolhardy announcement. No further motivational talk was required, with the Uruguayans’ determination rising in sync with the Brazilian team’s fear and trepidation. 

At the stadium, while Brazil had resorted to arriving early to barricade themselves in their dressing room in order to have a relatively peaceful lunch away from the endless stream of dignitaries demanding access to the soon-to-be world champions, the Uruguayans could have suffered their own fearful moments given the carnival going on in the stands above them.

If you imagine the prospect, one that no other set of players has faced before or since, of walking out in front of 200,000 people all wanting, indeed expecting, you to be little more than sacrificial lambs, the bit-part in their greatest triumph. Such a crowd, so much larger than anything we can really comprehend in footballing terms nowadays, must affect even the strongest of minds.

Varela surely knew this, but he was a captain not just for his playing example but for his words too. “That is why I talked to the lads quite a lot in the changing rooms. And later, inside the tunnel, I told them: ‘Go out calmly, do not look up. Never look at the stands. The match is played below’.” And that is just what they did, including walking past the samba band playing the celebratory song, hailing the home victory that had yet to be achieved. This was a team who refused to be bowed by the occasion, who wouldn’t submit to the role all of Brazil expected of them.

The match itself began with Brazil attacking from the off, seeking the early advantage they had built in their previous final round games. Had they found a breakthrough, perhaps things would have been very different, but as it was, Uruguay held on and then Varela swung the momentum their way with his next major intervention.  

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Brazil defender Bigode was suffering a torrid time against the speedy Ghiggia and was resorting to fouling to keep him at bay. Following one such foul, Varela chose the moment to keep Bigode in check. Racing in, he made to give the Brazilian a ruffle of the hair, only to give him a sharp cuff round the ear instead. With Bigode visibly rattled, Varela wandered off, clenching his shirt in his fist as if celebrating a little victory. He had sent a message, he had rattled an opponent already struggling, and he had got away with it. More than that, it signalled Uruguay belatedly establishing a foothold in the game. 

In the second half, Brazil did finally take the lead thanks to Friaça’s goal. Again, Varela stole centre stage, stifling Brazilian joy, disrupting their momentum, and both settling and inspiring his colleagues in one go. He picked up the ball following Friaça’s goal and, walking deliberately slowly with the ball tucked under his arm so nobody else could get it, went to remonstrate with the referee about a non-existent offside. The protests even included demanding a translator come onto the pitch to assist the English referee amidst Varela’s endless outbursts.  

He knew the goal was perfectly valid but he had managed to delay the restart so long that the boisterous crowd had settled into quiet confusion. Where they had been whipped up into a delirious frenzy following the goal, the exuberance was dampened, and the fear of Uruguay being overwhelmed by celebratory excitement had passed. In drawing out his protests, he had silenced 200,000 joyous Brazilians, taking all of the heat out of the situation, allowing his teammates to settle themselves to the task ahead.  

Ghiggia later recalled: “Obdulio was screaming at everyone and had the ball under his arm. I approached to collect it and restart the game, but he immediately shouted at me, ‘We either kick up a fuss or they will kill us!’”

“The whole stadium was insulting me,” was Varela’s own recollection. “But I did not fear … I had endured all those struggles on pitches without a fence, where it was kill or die, so I was not going to get scared there, with full guarantees! I knew what I was doing.”

The silence swiftly turned to frustrated shouts of abuse, which was music to Varela’s ears. As he took his place for the restart, and the silence had turned to boos and abuse, he still had time to rally his team. “Let them shout. In five minutes, the stadium will seem like a graveyard, and then only one voice will be heard. Mine! Now it’s time to win the game.”  

Shortly after, Schiaffino scored an equaliser following a move begun by Varela playing in Ghiggia, and nine minutes from the end, Varela again fed the ball to Ghiggia on the right who danced around Bigode once more and scored at the near post. This time the stadium was silenced for good, and Brazil entered the torture of their greatest sporting tragedy. Even Jules Rimet, the FIFA chief, was unnerved by the funeral atmosphere at full-time. “The silence was morbid,” he said. “Sometimes too difficult to bear.”  

Rimet had to present the trophy, but amidst the chaos there was no room for ceremony. “I finally found Obdulio,” he said. “I gave it to him without letting anyone else see.” Rimet’s pre-written speech praising a Brazilian victory got no mention.

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Varela, a modest man despite his on-field presence, was graceful in victory. “It was just chance. We might have played them 99 more times and we would have lost every match. That’s the thing with football. Sometimes the unexpected plays a role, things that are beyond all reason, beyond all logic. The more I think about all that, the more I am sure that it was a match that we won with our minds, not based on skill.”

The Uruguayan FA dignitaries were less modest, awarding themselves gold medals for their “efforts”. Only after a public outcry were the players given silver medals and a small financial reward. Varela had enough to buy a 1931 Ford, only for it to be stolen a week later.

Ignoring the pleas of the Uruguayan officials not to venture out into Rio on the night of the final, Varela spent that evening drinking with shellshocked Brazilians in a Rio bar. “I was sad about the suffering of the people with that defeat they did not deserve,” he recalled. “I sat at a bar and I started to drink sugarcane hoping that no one would recognise me, because I thought that if they did, they would kill me. But they recognised me straight away and, to my surprise, they congratulated me, they hugged me and many of them stayed to drink with me into the night.” 

Varela would continue to star for Peñarol and would return to World Cup action as Uruguay failed to defend their crown in 1954. His final club match came the following year, appearing off the bench in a match with Rio club America, back in the Maracanã of all places, at a time when he combined his playing role with a coaching one.  

In that final appearance, he quickly realised that time was catching up on him and he could no longer maintain the pace required at that level. He had himself substituted back off and abruptly called an end to his playing career. If that realisation was a disappointing one, there must surely have been solace in the fact that his career ended in the same arena which bore witness to his finest hour.

As fitting as that was, he was never fully given the respect he felt he deserved by the Uruguayan FA, the association’s administrators basking in the glory of 1950, seeking to take credit themselves. If he had realised this would be the outcome of that fateful final, he once commented, “I’d have scored an own goal.”

Like many footballers of the time, he made little money from his career, living out a modest life until his death in 1996 aged 78, but he remained loved and respected by Uruguayan football fans like few others. The hero of a nation who had done more than most to deliver their finest hour.

By Aidan Williams @yad_williams

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