In 1928 Uruguayan legend Héctor Castro led the light blue charge to Gold at the Olympic Games before becoming a World Champion a couple of years later.
Although international games had been established since the 1870’s, it wasn’t until 1904 that FIFA was formed. It took another 26 years before the dream of a World Cup came to fruition.
Uruguay was awarded the status of first World Cup hosts in recognition of the two Olympic Golds that their national side had won. Another important factor in awarding the World Cup was, no doubt, that the host country had offered to finance the costs of all the participating teams—thirteen in all.
The date is 30th July 1930. Uruguay’s capital city, Montevideo, is buzzing. The host nation are taking on their bitter rivals Argentina in pursuit of the ultimate football prize and the distinction of becoming the first ever nation to lift the Jules Rimet trophy.
Héctor Castro may not even have played at all in that first World Cup final had Uruguay’s regular big name striker Pelegrín Anselmo not suffered an injury in the semi-final victory over Yugoslavia.
It was up to the understudy to step into those big vacant boots and become the attacking focal point for his country. Despite rumours of being offered a huge bribe of 50,000 pesos for ensuring a home loss and a warning promise that he would never enjoy the pleasure of another sunset if Uruguay won, Castro was in no mood take his eye off the prize or to give in to threats. The rest is footballing folklore.
93,000 fans crammed into Estadio Centenario to watch this blockbuster of a game. With La Celeste hanging onto a slender 3-2 lead they broke forward. Héctor Castro headed home his side’s fourth, sealing victory for his homeland. Los Charrúas are crowned the first ever football world cup winners.
It was a fitting moment for Castro, whose goals bookended the tournament—he had also scored in Uruguay’s first game of the campaign. The unorthodox hitman has perhaps never received the recognition he deserved for his feat, given that the tournament was in its infancy, with many countries choosing not to participate. Indeed, it seemed that the game itself only took greater prominence after desolate Argentines took to the streets of Buenos Aires to riot in sheer disappointment at losing the final.
El Manco (the one armed) was born in Montevideo in 1904. At aged thirteen, Castro was involved in an accident using a chainsaw, amputating his right forearm. Not only resilient, Castro was also wily. He made good use of his residual limb on the football field, as a youngster, he realised that it could be used to his advantage, as leverage to climb and outjump defenders and even sometimes to craftily lash out on opponents when unsuspecting referees were not paying attention.
Aged 19, at what would be the beginning of a storied 15-year career, Castro joined Club Nacional de Football. He made an immediate impact and his club went on to win the domestic championship title that very season. It wasn’t long before the prodigious youngster was attracting the attention of the national team and he made his debut for La Celeste that same year. Despite a title-winning medal in his debut season, though, it was almost ten years before Nacional and Castro were able to celebrate another championship success, albeit in controversial circumstances.
The controversial 1933 Uruguayan Championship was eventually settled by Castro after the original league title playoff game against Club Atlético Peñarol had ended with huge drama. A goal was scored moments after the ball appeared to have gone out of play, reportedly rebounding off the physio’s medicine cabinet. Chaos ensued. Referee Señor Telésforo Rodríguez was hospitalised and three players from Nacional were sent off after assaulting him. The game was abandoned on 70 minutes due to bad light and, after months of wrangling, a behind closed doors game of twenty minutes was arranged at Estadio Centenario.
One of the Nacional trio sent off in the first game was reinstated but La Blanca still had to play the remainder of the game with nine versus eleven. To this day, the game is referred to as ‘9 contra 11’ by Nacional supporters.
The game finished 0-0, therefore a date and venue for a third game was agreed. A full six months after the controversial first game, a third playoff was played in November. This time enough was really enough as El Manco scored a hat-trick, levelling twice before notching a historic winner to lead his team to both a 3-2 win over their bitter rivals and Championship success. Castro’s status in the history of Uruguayan football was encased in concrete.
As a player, Castro lifted three Uruguayan titles (1924, 1933, 1934) before retiring in 1936. He made 231 appearances and hammered in 145 goals.
Castro played for Uruguay 25 times, rifling in 18 goals, and alongside an Olympic Gold and World Cup winners medal, he savoured further national success as Uruguay lifted the South American Championship in 1926 and 1935. He made the move into coaching and Uruguay’s golden boy helped Scottish manager William Reaside to championship success with Nacional in 1939 and went on to lift further domestic championships from 1940-43 and 1952, before managing the national side for a short spell in 1959.
One wonders what would be made of such a player in the modern game? Would he be revered as a disabled football star or legendary Paralympian rather than gracing the pages of the World Cup history books?
It wasn’t just his disability or his on-field heroics which made El Divino Manco stand out from the crowd. Castro became notorious off the pitch. Chain smoking, drinking, gambling and dangerous liaisons; his colourful lifestyle took its toll. He died of a heart attack in 1960, aged only 55. We may never see such a unique player reach such heights again.
In terms of the status of such a sporting icon in our modern day Castro would certainly be revered as a global icon, be highly prized by sponsors and his stock amongst the global public would reach stratosphere, but would probably not be on the playing on field alongside the elite superstars in the biggest and boldest arenas in the world.
He would not be representing the Charruas in the FIFA World Cup, Olympics and the Copa America in their current setups and would be celebrated and classed as a disabled football star and legendary Paralympian rather than a mainstream footballer. With his bad boy image, Castro would still be an amazing and revered sportsman but he would be restricted from playing alongside the big boys.
Castro is certainly not the only footballer who played football at the highest level with a disability but he is certainly the most high profile and stand out figure. Brazilian legend Garrincha had a shorter leg which was unnaturally curved. He also had a crooked spine. As a youngster I used to marvel at Gordon Banks, who lost the use of his right eye and then there was Scotland skipper Asa Hartford who represented Manchester City, Everton and West Bromwich Albion after overcoming and recovering from hole in the heart surgery and Victorio Casa who played until the 1970’s despite having his arm shot off by the Argentine army.
Baggies keeper John Osborne is known to have stopped pile drivers with his plastic knuckle and legendary Arsenal striker Cliff Bastin was deaf. In the modern day game, Real Zaragoza’s Álex Sánchez was the first professional player to be born with just one hand and Edgar Davids was diagnosed with glaucoma.
It’s just as well that Castro played football during a carefree era. In the modern game, he would most likely be coached out of the elite game whilst still a youngster and would be assured that it would be for his own good and to give him a chance of greater and sustained success at a level which was deemed by others to be appropriate to his needs. In terms of his needs, a lot of resources would be spent on ensuring he would have top coaches who would use the correct terminology and apply coaching skills to meet the needs associated with such an impairment. Castro would have specific training programmes designed for disabled footballers and though his football journey would be amazing it would most likely be a wholly different one.
I for one have always retained an interest in this fascinating historical figure and despite being such a hugely reverential and iconic figure there is little information or notable mentions of Castro within the chronicles of football history. But his achievements speak volumes and his short life is nothing short of fascinating. Football must celebrate the achievements and the legacy of legendary pioneers like Héctor Castro – We may never see such a unique sight and achievements again.
By Emdad Rahman.