Jamie McGregor meets the daughter of a legend.
It's a Friday afternoon in the corridors of the Universidad de la República in Montevideo. I'm in the Humanities Faculty, reminiscing a little about my own student days as I watch young Uruguayans with radical ideas rush to a class they're already late for. I'm here to meet Latin American literature teacher Pilar de León but we've haven't met to discuss Borges, Allende or Marquez. I've met with Pilar to discuss another teacher, a man famous to Uruguayans of a certain generation but not widely known outside his homeland. José Ricardo De León, known as El Profe, was one of the most famous Uruguayan football managers of all time. He was also Pilar's father.
He was a man who split public opinion with his style of play. As Pilar says, “people either loved him or hated him”. Those who definitely loved him were the fans of Defensor Sporting Club. In 1976 he led the modest Montevideo club to their first ever national championship title, holding off Peñarol to win by one point. While it was a special moment in the club's history, it was also a watershed moment in Uruguayan football for it was the first time since the establishment of a professional league in 1932 that a team outwith Peñarol and Nacional had won the league.
“It was his biggest triumph as it inspired all the other small teams in the country, it made them believe that they too could challenge the big two”, explains Pilar.
The enormity of a team outwith the big two winning the league in Uruguay can not be stressed enough. Of the 79 championships played to date, only on 10 ocassions has the league been won by a team other than Peñarol or Nacional. Indeed later that evening I took in Defensor's home match with Danubio. The match between two of the few clubs outside the top two to have won the league gives it the status of clasico in Uruguay. There's no doubting the atmosphere was good but there can't have been more than 4,000 people in Defensor's tiny ground for the match. A day later I was in the national stadium watching Peñarol who despite officially being the visitors made up 99% of the much larger crowd.
So how did he do it? Well, it didn't happen overnight, that's for sure. “It was six years of hard work before the championship arrived,” Pilar says. “He needed time to implement his system at all levels of the club”. It's exactly this system that makes De León a controversial figure.
Football in Uruguay is played in a certain way, one which doesn't always put flowing, attacking football first and foremost. De León was accused of taking this to a whole new level with what some critics labelled anti-football. It's a criticism that hurt De León but one which Pilar acknowledges had some truth, “he wanted to attack but sometimes he prefered to defend first”. That being said, the system brought results and as De León would say “I'm not here to teach the players ballet, I'm here to teach them how to win”.
It was this idea of having a philosophy, a system and teaching it in great detail to his players that earned De León the nickname, El Profe. “His players loved him, they would do anything for him” explains Pilar. “He was a huge man and when he spoke, everyone listened”. Interestingly, De León used one of the most attacking sides of all time as the inspiration for his system. Eager to learn from others, De León attended several World Cups and was fascinated by the total football of the Dutch. In particular he saw the effectiveness of pressing the player on the ball and wanted his teams to employ a similar system.
As a player, De León was a defender so perhaps naturally his focus was first and foremost on keeping it tight at the back. One of his most famous training drills involved the defense defending a goal with a chair instead of the a goalkeeper. When done correctly, De León said it was impossible for the attackers to get a shot at goal. This defense heavy approach is what brought accusations of a Uruguayan Catenaccio or anti-football but for De León it was a form of total football. “In my father's team, every player had a role to play, the most important thing was the collective, there were no individuals”. The debate over how exactly to label his system followed De León throughout his career. Eventually he tried to answer the question himself by publishing a book entitled, My Revolution, Anti-football or Total Football? While De León argues in favour of total football he finishes by leaving the decision up to the reader.
Whatever term you choose to use, there's no denying it brought incredible success in 1976. After such a triumph, there must have been offers from other clubs, in particular the big two.“My father had made it clear he was a Nacional fan so Peñarol was never an option. Eventually he did manage Nacional but it didn't work out as he was never given enough time. At Nacional you have to win straight away, there is no time to implement a system from top to bottom like at smaller clubs”. And what about the national team, I ask. In those days there was a dictatorship in Uruguay and lets just say he wasn't a suitable candidate”. It seems De León's political philosophy, like his footballing one, focused more on the collective than the individual and was probably considered too left-wing by the those in power at the time.
El Profe never managed to recreate his success of 1976 again but his place in history remains. On 14 February aged 86, he passed away. In some way his legacy lives on in the numerous ex-players of his who have become managers themselves. One such example is Hugo Gallego who described De León as misunderstood like all geniuses. The fact that pressing is still so heavily used perhaps vindicates De León somewhat. “Unfortunately only people of my generation remember him. A lot of the younger generation, even Defensor fans, don't really know who he is and what he achieved, however, we are trying to change that. My sister and I are getting together a collection of his medals to donate to the football museum in the national stadium.” The Uruguayan footbal museum in the Estadio Centenario is one of Montevideo's best attractions but it arguably focuses too much on the national team and not enough on club football. After all, what is there to say except that Peñarol and Nacional have won almost every championship? Hopefully the donation of El Profe's collections will help to give De León's triumph the place in history it deserves.
Jamie is the editor of IBWM's favourite Spanish football website, Spanish Football.Info