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When Juan “Tano” Fazzini described football as “a lie”, he was being as complimentary as he possibly could. Rather than calling into question the morality of the sport, he was celebrating the skill and ingenuity that allows artistry of the highest order to flourish. Taken out of context, of course, the respected radio, newspaper and television journalist’s angle could just as easily have been used to characterise 20th-century social, economic and political discourse in Argentina.
Placed in a conversation about the mythical River Plate side of the early 1940s, however, there can be no doubt that it is purely a celebration of the freedom, creativity, boldness, dashing showmanship and style that has enraptured generations for decades.
Juan Carlos Muñoz, José Manuel “El Charro” Moreno, Adolfo Pedernera, Ángel Labruna and Félix Loustau inspired an entire club, a city, the national population, and yet only played 18 matches together. Their brand of football was visionary, unique and seemingly unbeatable, and yet River would more often than not win by the slenderest of margins.
They were espoused in a time of financial crisis and evolutionary rule, yet were defined by an entirely revolutionary concept. They would become labelled as the Caballeros de la Angustia – Knights of Anguish – for the frustration they sometimes engendered in their adoring faithful, and yet before then, they were known as La Máquina.
Perhaps there is some of Fazzini’s lie in the duplicity of their beautiful genius. When Ricardo Lorenzo, a Uruguayan journalist working for the institutional El Gráfico sports newspaper, watched River Plate demolish Chacarita Juniors 6-2 on 12 June 1942, he was so fascinated by the intricate synchronism of the interchanging players that he labelled them a machine. In British sporting parlance, the reference would suggest a brutal, mechanical, hard-working efficiency – but this was something else entirely.
“There are two types of machines,” explained Jonathan Wilson to Scroll. “There’s the rudimentary mill; and then there’s the watch, which has real aesthetic beauty to its mechanisms. I guess that’s what we get from La Máquina – the idea that this is a beautifully fragile mechanism, with lots of minute, individual parts which all fit together brilliantly.”
Allowing space for virtuosity within a finely-tuned system seemed anathematic to traditional football theorists of the time. Like the vast majority of cultures around the world, football gained a stronghold with a significant influence from British emigrants who brought the sturdy W-M formation and rigid rules with them. In fact, the system was still widely used as a starting template well into the last century, except there was a unique interpretation that came with it.
When Hungary’s Mighty Magyars – one of the most pioneering and progressive football teams in the sport’s long and storied history – arrived at Wembley in 1953 and tore through an England side that had never previously lost at home to a nation from outside the British Isles, they did so by ripping up the strict positional concepts that had dictated English play for almost a century. There are clear parallels to be drawn between the way in which Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and Nándor Hidegkuti decided their own movements, and how Pedernera, Labruna and Moreno danced to their tune.
Where there could be said to be nuances between the two iconic sides were in the impish thirst to entertain, almost at the expense of the result: “There were five forwards, but Adolfo wasn’t [Martín] Palermo, or [Fernando] Cavenaghi,” as Fazzini described. “In the W-M, he dropped behind the front line; he was [Juan Román] Riquelme. El Charro Moreno was Pelé or Maradona in black and white. The first World Cup in colour was in Mexico, and look – Pelé, Gérson, Jairzinho, Tostão, Rivelino. They were five, but they changed positions, like La Máquina.
“What happened was they all ran the same, and they knew when to run. Most wingers nowadays run about 14km a game; I’m sure Charro only ran eight. They used surprise, and disorientated their opponents marking them. Football is not running; football is surprise. In that era, they practised the speed of the ball. We are products of social, political and economic factors; we try to make things better. In that time, those pibes tried to be better.”
The caricature of the pibe is central to the Argentine psyche. Literally it means boy or lad, but it carries a self-taught fearlessness born from the street that goes far beyond mere age and maturity. It is not a linear concept; it is a natural, innate expression of individual character, and as such is unsurprisingly attached to the most treasured figures in Argentine football.
This singular character developed from a blossoming sense of achievement and pride that was imbued in the country. In James A. Fitzpatrick’s 1932 Travel Talks film ‘Romantic Argentina’, he calls Buenos Aires a “man-made city”, because its monuments, squares, sweeping streets and awe-inspiring grandeur “owe their existence entirely to the genius of men, who received little or no support from the natural beauties of nature.” Influences from Europe and beyond can be seen in the architecture and layout of the city, but the combination of them are unmistakably born from the mind of a pibe.
This was a period filled, on the surface at least, with a splendorous exuberance and colour. The Palermo Jockey Club was one of the richest in the world at the time and hosted race meetings with extravagant purses where the social elite thrived. It was illegal for a man to be out in public without a jacket, with a five peso fine for transgressors who failed to meet the standards of etiquette. There was even a famous artist known as Benito who would attract pigeons and paint their feathers in all colours of the rainbow; their mere white and grey covering simply weren’t expressive enough.
The country’s story over the last couple of centuries has been fraught with disruption, catastrophe and gleaming promise in equal measures. The swathe of indulgence abounding in the early part of the 20th century that splashed lavishly across the cosmopolitan boulevards of Buenos Aires masked a fragile elitist veneer that would soon come crashing down amidst the global financial crisis in 1929 to herald La Década Infame – The Infamous Decade.
Hipólito Yrigoyen had overseen a period of immense economic growth in the country during his presidency from 1916 to 1922, as he moved to nationalise foreign trade by drawing up plans for a central bank and placing stricter control on foreign interests in the railway network. During the First World War he maintained a stance of neutrality, but encouraged the boom in overseas trade by supplying materials and canned food to the United States and Britain. His belief in a strong national identity that took control of its own affairs resonated with the people.
Football’s role in this atmosphere cannot be understated. The iconic sports newspaper El Gráfico was established in 1919 to capture the enthusiasm for the sport that previously had been crammed into single-page reports rounding up results from boxing, rowing, rugby and other pursuits. Argentina’s first radio commentary came on 2 October 1924 as La Albiceleste beat Uruguay 2-1 in front of a reported 52,000 fans at the Estadio Sportivo Barracas, as listeners were treated to the sounds of Cesáreo Onzari scoring direct from a corner.
Amid the rise in national pride and booming business, it was only natural that the wild popularity of football exploded. Noam Chomsky and French academic Marc Perelman have espoused the view, however, that sport can act as a control of the masses, a tool to be used by those in power to distract the people from real issues. There may be some element of truth in this.
In 1904, Julio Argentino Roca was the first president to attend a match, and he established the Copa Roca between Argentina and Brazil. According to Maximiliano Susán, who played for La Albiceleste at that time, Roca held a morally dubious conversation with his national team’s players at half-time in one such clash against their neighbours. “Lads, we have to be diplomatic. Brazil is celebrating the anniversary of the Grito de Ipiranga [as the country’s declaration of independence in 1822 became known]. It is not fair that they lose the match; we have to let them win. Do it for the peace of the Americas, lads!”
When Juan Domingo Perón rose to power in 1943, he set aside considerable state funds to support clubs in building redeveloped or new stadia to cope with the increased demands, including River Plate’s El Monumental. Another club to receive funding for their home was Racing Club, whom Perón was said to have supported, and who named their new stadium after their state benefactor.
One of the key tenets of Peronismo demanded that all citizens were valued the same, and to that end they were granted the same access to the sport they loved. Parks and facilities were expanded, and towards whatever ends the General may have been moving, the means allowed football to flourish like never before in Argentina. It suddenly became the undisputed sport of the masses.
There were those that were incensed by what they saw as a move towards weakening the power of the elite, and a military coup deposed Yrigoyen in 1930. As the industries that had thrived during the war naturally slowed and a mass exodus from the countryside flooded to the cities to find better opportunity – Buenos Aires swelled by over double its population between the start of the war and 1935 – the first shanty towns sprang up in the poorer neighbourhoods.
A year after the coup, two events occurred that would shape River Plate moving forward. Firstly, football became professional. Before this stage, there was a habit known as amateurismo marron (brown amateurism) whereby clubs would subtly leave 10 or 20 pesos in players’ shoe boxes as illegal payments. With the conversion to professional football, a certain level of legitimacy was given to playing as a career.
The second event of significance was the arrival of Carlos Peucelle. This would be the key moment that would begin to shape what would be La Máquina, as River Plate analyst and life-long follower, Pablo Maggio, explains to These Football Times: “Peucelle, from the shadows, would impregnate the first team with the concepts of mobility on the pitch and short passes, both coming from the Danubian School. Renato Cesarini was the coach, but Peucelle was the strategist. Not content with leaving his mark on the first team as a player until 1941, his knowledge of lower divisions allowed all the homegrown players to reach professionalism with the system already adopted.
“The essence of ‘individual virtuosity’ was the inflection point within the gear of La Máquina to achieve imbalance in front of the rival goal. They stood out for being an attack that closed out games when they wanted, dedicating much of the time to entertaining the fans with movements full of dribbles and multiple combinations.”
Cesarini was involved in that first game under radio commentary back in 1924 as a forward for Chacarita Juniors, and would go on to win five consecutive Scudetti with Juventus in the early 1930s. His enormous capacity for knowledge of the game gave him endless respect from players and coaches, so it is a measure of Peucelle that his playing philosophy was taken on board.
What they needed were the pieces to turn their ideas into reality, and none were more central to the way they wanted to play than Adolfo Pedernera. Félix Frascara, the founder of the Circulo de Periodistas Deportivos, described why: “In a game where the ball should be everything, he made the ball a secondary thing.” Peucelle himself claimed the true creator of La Máquina was Doña Rosa, Pedernera’s mother.
Pedernera made his debut at 16 under the mythical Hungarian Imre Hirschl – the first foreign coach in Argentine football – and would go on to score 170 career goals as ostensibly the central figure in the customary five-man forward line of the day for River. He would later follow the golden trail to Colombia to play for the Blue Ballet of Millonarios alongside the legendary Alfredo Di Stéfano, who had grown up idolising Pedernera. His heart belonged to River, though: “They meant everything for me. At River they gave birth to me; at River I grew up; at River I became a man.”
The feeling was entirely mutual, given his utter dedication to entertain the masses crowded into the stands. “La Máquina had a special relationship with its fans,” continued Maggio. “They played for their public. Of course they played to win, but their goal was to entertain their fans with dribbles, combinations, luxuries. We can say that they were the predecessors of Dutch Total Football. The fans trusted them because they knew that the result would always end up being favourable. Going to see La Máquina was like going to the theatre or to see a symphony; the game was exquisite and elegant. It was undoubtedly the golden age of River Plate and the time where its fans most enjoyed the successes.”
With Pedernera as their centrepiece, the frontman to their rock group, he naturally received a fair swathe of the fans’ affection. He cemented his status as a man of the people by helping establish the first players’ union in Argentina, Futbolistas Argentinos Agremiados, to help ensure that his peers were suitably rewarded now that they were contracted legally to the clubs, even though as the most illustrious star he was already paid handsomely himself.
Then again, depending on whom you ask, the real star was Ángel Labruna. Statistically he stands out for the most precious commodity of all – goals. Other than his last 12 months as a player, he spent the rest of his career wearing the famous sash, and duly ended up as their all-time top goalscorer.
Officially he was credited with 293, which puts him level at the top of the Argentine league goalscorers’ list alongside the legendary Paraguayan Arsenio Erico. According CIHF, however, one goal he scored against Gimnasia on 26 October 1941 was not included in the official total. On top of this, he remains to this day the top scorer in Superclásicos with 22 goals in just 16 games against bitter rivals Boca Juniors.
Either way, nobody could dispute the instinct of Labruna in front of goal. As a teenager he joined River’s setup, where he played basketball to such a distinguished level that he had to make the choice between which sport to continue. With the implementation of professionalism in football, he knew it offered a better potential salary, so to the future gratitude of River fans he chose the path that served him so well.
After his eventual departure from River in 1959, the club went 18 years without lifting a title. Labruna tried to remove himself from the sport by running a hotel, a second-hand car dealership, a tyre shop and a pizzeria, but all his business ventures fell flat. When he inevitably returned to River as manager, he would win six more trophies to end the drought. It is on Labruna’s birthday that El Dia del Hincha de River (The Day of River Supporters) is celebrated.
According to River’s Uruguayan forward Walter Gómez, though, it was José Manuel Moreno who shone brightest: “The greatest, better than Pelé, was Moreno. What mastery of the ball, what strength, what precision, what style! Pelé broke into a sweat; Moreno played in tails.” Moreno was reputed to have led a lascivious lifestyle in the night spots of Buenos Aires and sometimes turning up drunk to matches.
He claimed that his passion for dancing tango at milonga clubs was key to developing his wondrous balance with the ball at his feet. Those who watched him would be hard-pressed to disagree; his balletic gambeta grace, sexual swagger, good looks and supreme artistry made him the perfect splash of style for the era. However true or not those reports are, they didn’t stop him from being named the fifth-best South American player of all-time by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS), behind Diego Maradona, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Pelé and Garrincha.
The fact that the most iconic member of the La Máquina is a serious debate is fitting given their almost complete interchangeability on the pitch. They were a team of the people, and very much for the people, so it shouldn’t be surprising to find a lack of clear consensus on who stood out. That was the point: in their own individual ways they were allowed to shine within a most precise mutual understanding, while operating at a sublime level as a collective.
Later on, Di Stéfano himself would emerge and effectively take the place of his idol Pedernera, and the machine would seamlessly roll on, but it remains one of Argentine football’s great idiosyncrasies that a quintet revered above all other could only count 18 matches played together. Their impact was not measured in silverware – too many trophies were lost against stronger opponents – but by the powerful connection they made with the people.
At a time when the country was simultaneously rediscovering its innate character and watching the constructs around it crumbling, football – and above all La Máquina – was the channel through which Argentina expressed herself most completely, as Maggio explains: “Football, already established and consolidated as a popular passion, could not be immune to such a mess [as the Infamous Decade]. That passion was neatly fed and exacerbated from the big newspapers in the hands of the oligarchy, which did not deal so much with bread but with the circus.
“Players soon realised their prominence and demanded the preferential treatment that at that time was monopolised by tango dancers and stars of the radio, theatre and the nascent film industry. Two countries, two styles, two ways of life, were defined and confronted: visible Argentina and invisible Argentina. Visible Argentina was the stentorian, superficial, elitist and wealthy minority; the other, the majority silent, taciturn, hungry and humiliated.
“The footballers – without wanting to think about it – formed part, as instruments of the system, of the Argentina of privilege. But football always found its sustenance in the mass that remained at the other end of the social rope.”
It mattered little that not long after the breakup of River Plate’s fabled side of the 1940s came the longest trophy doubt in the club’s history; if anything, the flawed genius of the collective satisfied their fans more. It gave them permission to explore the complete depths of their flair, to establish what it meant to be Argentine, and to do it all in their own way. Many systems were broken; La Máquina was the one they could depend on.
By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint
Art by Ben Farr @benfarr_illustration