He was a Paraguayan

The greatest player you've never heard of? Ralph Hannah uncovers the story of a Paraguayan legend. 

Guess the player? He made his debut aged fifteen. He holds the Argentine record for goals scored in one season, forty-seven in thirty-four games. He is the joint highest scorer in Argentinian football history with 293 goals, yet he never represented his country. Alfredo Di Stefano who watched him growing up described him as circus artist, a compliment on his incredible ability to jump. It was echoed by legendary Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano who wrote “he had secret springs hidden in his body” and when he jumped “his head always rose above the hands of the goalkeeper”. In 1938 the Argentinian FA offered him a considerable sum of money to play for the national team in the World Cup – but he said no. Why? He was Paraguayan. This is the story of Arsenio Erico.

I admit to having heard nothing about Erico before I came back to Paraguay in 2010. But at the time he was in the news constantly. Some grainy footage accompanied black and white photos which were normally followed by his family, emotional, crying and celebrating. They were celebrating the return of Arsenio Erico, recently repatriated from the country of his death, Argentina, to the country of his birth, Paraguay. In a way it was fitting that in death, as in life there had been a tug of war between the neighbouring South American countries for Erico. It was a long tug of war, Arsenio Erico died in 1977. I went to visit his mausoleum, the aptly named “Salón Arsenio Erico” annexed onto the Museum of Paraguayan Football in the bowels of the national stadium, Defensores del Chaco.

“Why did it take so long?” I asked museum curator Jimy Irala. He replied with a shrug. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Paraguayan government even issued a law opening up the opportunity for Erico’s repatriation. “Was it his family in Argentina that stopped him from coming over?” I questioned Jimy again and this time he opened up. “No, it was the Argentinian government, they didn’t want him to come back” he said leaning against the museum entrance. “Why did they want him to stay?” “They loved him, he is an idol there.” Jimy stood up straight at this point and he spoke with pride, it isn’t often you hear of Argentinians idolizing any foreigners let alone Paraguayans.

He certainly was an idol and with good reason. In 1934, aged nineteen, he had moved to Buenos Aires to play for Independiente after catching their eye playing for a Paraguayan Red Cross XI that toured her richer neighbours to gain funds for the war back home (Paraguay was involved in the Chaco War against Bolivia from 1932-35). It proved an excellent signing, despite just twelve goals in his first season Erico scored twenty-two in eighteen in 1935 including six in one game against Quilmes. He bagged twenty-one the year later. But the best was to come in the next three seasons when Erico finished top scorer with forty-seven, forty-three and forty goals. He led Independiente to their first ever professional title in 1938 when they won the Argentine Primera, and helped them successfully defend it in 1939. When you take the bus from Asunción city centre to the Defensores del Chaco it trundles up Avenida Colón and passes a sports shop called “Saltarín Rojo” (who incidentally sponsor Primera División team Rubio Ñu). It is named after Arsenio Erico. In Argentina, the local press ran out of superlatives to describe him but the one that stuck was “Saltarín Rojo” or jumping red because of his tremendous heading ability.

In the museum there is a list of every player to have represented Paraguay as I worked down the alphabet to E I found two Ericos. Enrique Erico who played in 1922 and A.Ercio who made his debut in 1936. However it wasn’t Arsenio, it was his brother Adolfo. Tragically Arsenio Erico never played for the national team because he was a victim of his times. “Independiente didn’t want him to play for his country, so they didn’t release him for matches” explained Irala. “It’s not like today when FIFA can force clubs to let player’s play for their national team.” The greatest example of this came in 1941 when Erico, annoyed at Independiente’s refusal to give him a pay rise, headed back to Paraguay and put himself forward to represent Paraguay in the annual Chevallier Cup against Argentina (a two-legged competition that had started in 1924). Independiente appealed to the AFA (Argentinian FA) and got the tournament suspended. They didn’t get it all their own way though, Erico went back but made sure he got his pay rise.

He could have played international football, on the ultimate stage, if he had accepted the offer to play for Argentina in the 1938 World Cup . You could understand if he accepted because he would never have the chance with Paraguay. He was too young in 1930 when Paraguay competed in the first-ever World Cup and by the time they next qualified in 1950 Erico was thirty-five and had just retired. He wouldn’t be the first Paraguayan to do so either; in 1934 Constantino Urbieta Sosa who had briefly been Erico’s teammate at Nacional was playing for Godoy Cruz in Mendoza. The ‘crack’ accepted an offer to play for Argentina who had seen most of their players stolen by hosts and eventual winners Italy.

Of course Arsenio Erico’s story could have been so much different, in many ways he was lucky just to be playing football. In 1932 Bolivian troops, sponsored by an American oil company, entered the Chaco (one of the remotest regions on earth) looking for territory that was said to be rich in natural resources. The Bolivian army was much larger than her Paraguayan adversary who resorted to forced conscription in the ensuing Chaco War. Erico was one of thousands of young men called up and took the (day-long) train ride from Asunción to the front line. He could easily have been one of the (thousands) of casualties in what was nicknamed the war of thirst because it was so difficult to get water out to the soldiers in such a desolate war zone.

But Erico never spent a day in combat, despite reaching the front; he was sent back from Puerto Casado by a Commander Molinas to the Paraguayan Red Cross who enlisted him to their football team. They knew him from his early days at Club Nacional. The Red Cross team toured Argentina and Uruguay to raise funds for injured soldiers in the war. In total they played 26 games and took on many of the major clubs in both countries including River Plate, Boca Juniors and of course Independiente. Erico certainly caught the eye. According to a plaque in Club Nacional’s Estadio Arsenio Erico it was River Plate who first made the offer for Erico but it was in bitter rivals Boca Juniors’ changing rooms where a deal was agreed with the “Diabolos Rojos”. Independiente’s approach was at first rebuked by a lieutenant colonel in charge of the touring side who said he would denounce Erico as a deserter if he joined the team from Avellaneda.

Eventually a deal was struck involving the huge sum of 12.000 pesos (around £2000 in today’s money but considerably more in the 1930s) and Erico himself was offered 200 pesos a month plus a signing on fee of 5.000 pesos. He donated the 5.000 pesos to the Paraguay Red Cross, they could never have imagined their football tour to be so lucrative. On 6 May 1934, exactly a month after signing for Independiente at the Bombonera, Arsenio Erico made his debut against Boca. It was the start of a historical career in Argentina, though Arsenio never forgot his home.

Today Club Nacional’s stadium in Barrio Obrero (about a fifteen minute drive from the national stadium and just next to rivals Sol de América and behind Cerro Porteño’s ground) is called Estadio Arsenio Erico. The jumping red started and finished his career and the club and even had a spell managing the team in the 1950s. He was just eleven years old when he started playing for their junior team and four years later he made his debut, but arguably the only time Nacional fans (and most Paraguayans for that matter) saw him in his prime was when he opposed them. In March 1941 Independiente toured Asunción to face a selection of Paraguayan teams as was common in the pre-Copa Libertadores era. The only game Indi lost was agains Erico’s old club Nacional. But they confronted each other again in Independiente’s last game of the tour and Nacional fans, still high from the previous victory began to taunt their idol. Shouts in Guaraní of “Vyro-Reíco”, the closest English football chant would be “What a load of rubbish”, rained down from the stands.

Visibly annoyed, Erico took matters into his own hands and scored a hat trick earning Independiente a 4-3 victory. A lasting impression was left on Paraguayans and I doubt Erico was ever ridiculed by his native fans again. The curtain call on his playing career came in 1949, by then a Arsenio Erico was a battered and bruised thirty-four -year-old as he dragged Nacional in search of their fifth title. It was an unfair way for Erico’s career to end. With two games to go Nacional were two points (equivalent to one win in those days) clear of crosstown rivals Guaraní. But as Guaraní spanked River Plate 7-1, Erico’s club were on the receiving end of their own ‘paliza’ to Luque, 6-0, meaning the teams went into the final day level on points. Nacional drew against Sol de America (who they accused of receiving a financial incentive from their rivals – a practice still going on in 2011) while Guaraní coasted past the finish line beating Atlántida 4-0.

A couple of weeks after first meeting Jimy Irala I went back to the museum to thank him for his help. I popped in to see Arsenio Erico again draped in the Paraguayan and Club Nacional flags. I wondered what he would have made of the furore around his final resting place. The Paraguayan government issued a law in 1996 that gave way to the possibility of his return but it wasn’t until 2008 that the current government really pressured Argentina for his repatriation. A political scuffle entailed but once current President Cristina Fernandez assumed charge in Argentina the two governments shared ideology and the warmer relations ensured Arsenio Erico would return to Asunción. But in my view he wouldn’t have felt the need to be buried in Paraguay. In life his body had been in Argentina for most of his 62 years and his head had brought joy to tens of thousands of locals, but it hadn’t affected his heart. His heart never left Paraguay.

Ralph is a Londoner permanently residing in Asunción.  He writes a weekly blog at footballtoptens.wordpress.com and is on Twitter @paraguayralph – from May he will be contributing to Goal.com as the Paraguayan correspondent.