Juan Alberto Schiaffino is now 51, and it's 34 years since he was given the opening to launch a career which brought him fame as the world's most expensive footballer. Today Schiaffino lives on the outskirts of Montevideo, his native city, in a spacious villa out towards the airport.  “I’m not rich," he'll tell you. "But I'm not poor either."

Maybe that's because he's stayed out of football for most of the 15 years since he retired, after closing a glorious career with two years as a utility player at Roma in Italy. His steady determination to keep football at arm's length may also have something to do with the fact that his looks still belie his years.

Schiaffino is a well-enough-to-do business man. In fact, it was his business interests which cost him the chance, two years ago, to return to Italy and Milan - where he starred for six years - as coach.  The then president, Albino Buticchi, was looking for a new man to replace the Nereo Rocco - Cesare Maldini duo. He called a South American agent to sound out Schiaffino.

"It was tempting, so tempting," Schiaffino recalls. "But I had so many interests here in Uruguay. Also, there was some pressure here from people who wanted me to coach the national team. I took a fortnight's break to think it over ... and when I came back the chance had gone. Pity."

Not so sad, I think. Schiaffino could hardly have succeeded in a club which, as he must have realised from following their fortunes in the Italian Press and the club magazine Forza Milan, was about to be ravaged by internal wars of terrible proportions.  There was also the fact that Schiaffino's experience as a top club coach is minimal. He once spent six months in charge of Penarol a year ago, and at another time guided Uruguay for just two matches - one won, one lost. Now he limits himself to coaching a team of university students - "Nothing serious, just amateurs. I don't get paid a thing, but I enjoy it."

Schiaffino is a name from the great era of post-war Uruguayan football. Born on July 28, 1925, he was 18 when he joined the greatest of Montevideo clubs, Penarol - the team founded by the railway workers. That was 1943. The next year he made his first team debut; one more year and he was playing for Uruguay in the 1945 South American championship. Nine years later he had played in only 22 internationals.  But Uruguay's programme was limited. And those 22 games included two of the greatest of all time. The one was the last match of the 1950 World Cup Finals. Before 200,000 in Maracana, Brazil were the hottest of hot favourites. Yet they lost 2-1 to Uruguay, despite taking the lead. Schiaffino scored the Uruguayans' first goal and was at the heart of the move which saw Alcides Ghiggia score the winner.  He was now moving back. Having started as a goal-scoring centre forward his slight build and nimble footwork were better suited to a role as creator, and it was here that he was settled in the 1954 World Cup when Uruguay lost 4-2 to Hungary in the semi-finals.

The match went to extra time before the Uruguayans lost. Significantly it was only after Schiaffino was limping, badly caught by a late tackle that the Hungarians made their own the game which has been described as the greatest match ever played. Schiaffino was still with Penarol then. But not for much longer.  A couple of weeks later AC Milan paid a hefty fee for him. It was billed as the costliest transfer of all. In fact, though this was probably true, it now seems certain that the fee was way beyond the £72,000 popularly quoted.

Whatever the cost it proved money well spent. With Schiaffino a guiding light in midfield Milan won the championship in 1955, 1957 and 1959. In 1958 he scored a beautiful goal in an unlucky Champions' Cup Final defeat by Real Madrid and, thanks to his Italian parentage, he even played four times for Italy - the first time in a 2-0 win over Argentina just six months after that Uruguay-Hungary game.  Schiaffino possessed the ideal combination - all the skill and technique one expects of a star South American forward, plus the steely courage which  makes the Uruguayans among the most feared of rivals. He was skilled, but no show-off; hard, but never unfair. In 1960 Milan released him to Roma, where he filled in a variety of roles before quitting as a player in 1962 and returning home. Now he stands on the sidelines and watches, sadly, the demise of Uruguayan soccer. And, over the past few months, that demise - as he admits - has accelerated.

Inflation has savaged the league. Crowds are one third down on last year. Not long ago just 25,000 people in total watched the six matches of the Liga Mayor. It's a vicious circle. Because of inflation people can't afford to attend so often, so the clubs have to sell their stars abroad to survive, so the quality of the soccer deteriorates still further.  Recently several club presidents got together to call for urgent measures to resurrect soccer in a country where few players now can afford to be full-time professional. A country where the fans still recall the World Cup wins of 1930 and 1950 and expect that success to be repeated.  You can imagine the shock when Bolivia put the Celeste out of the 1978 competition!

Schiaffino, as you would expect, has his own views on that particular catastrophe; "We missed out because our coaches weren't interested enough in the opposition. The team went to Caracas, to play Venezuela, and was rubbish. Fernando Morena missed some unbelievable chances. And the game finished in a draw. That point cost us qualification, because we didn't take enough trouble to get things right. When it came down to it we had to go to places where the climate and the atmosphere and the food was different. We weren't prepared, we didn't know what or how our opponents would play, and so, out we go.

"In the 1950 World Cup, our victory over Brazil was a miracle. But this time we should at least have qualified! The year when the World Cup Finals are right next door, and we shan't be there. Incredible. Eliminated, by Bolivia and Venezuela of all people!"

Schiaffino mentioned Morena, the last of Uruguay's major stars. But even the Penarol centre forward is fast losing his appeal. After failing to hit form in the early World Cup games he asked Omar Borras, the university professor who stepped in after first Eduardo Hohberg then Raul Betancour had quit, to be left out.  So not only did the 25-year-old miss the last, pointless World Cup-ties, he also missed the friendlies against West Germany (lost 2-0) and England (drew 0-0). For those games Borras rejuvenated the squad, basing his team on the Defensor side who are emerging as the once-great rivals Nacional and Penarol slide into mediocrity.

Borras, 47, is confident that in the not-too-distant future Uruguay will be back in the forefront of South American soocer. After all, haven't the youngsters just won the South American youth title? Borras based his national team, as I said, on Defensor, but reintroducing the experience of 33-year-old Julio Montero Castillo, back in midfield after a couple of years in Spain.

“That’s part of the problem, the player drain. Montero Castillo was away seeking his fortune during the best years of his career when he might have been encouraging and enthralling the youngsters who are the regular first-teamers of today.”

Over the years the continuing exodus has stunted the growth of Uruguayan soccer. Centre half Michele Andreolo went on to win a World Cup-winners' medal with Italy in 1938, then in the 1950s Schiaffino, Ghiggia, Julio Cesar Abbadie, and Jose Santamaria were just the tip of the iceberg. Later still Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, Pablo Forlan, and Pedro Rocha left home - going partly because they could make more in Spain and Brazil, partly because their clubs needed the cash.  The situation hasn't changed. Schemer Baudilio Jauregui was brought home from River Plate last year - and will shortly be sold to Chile. Adding insult to injury, Nacional's young midfielder Dario Pereyra is bound for Sao Paolo, where Rocha – the greatest Uruguayan inside forward of the sixties - is taking Brazilian nationality to make room for the extra foreigner.

Mazurkiewicz is now home after a wasted 18 months in Spain, but he's having more and more trouble wit h injuries. Morena will soon follow his tracks to Spain, it seems. Indeed, the only reason he hasn't been sold long before is the peculiar arrangement under which he has played for Penarol for five years on loan from River Plate Montevideo. Any sale and the cash is split between the two clubs. Penarol have never been able to negotiate a large enough fee. Now, with Morena's star on the wane, they may be ready to cut their losses and accept a mere £150,000 from, it is whispered, Salamanca.

At least Penarol president Washington Cataldi will be able to justify the sale of Morena on cash grounds, even if his club's situation is not quite as desperate as that of Sebastian Bauza, president of Bella Vista, who recently warned: "If crowds don't go up in another two months' time we won't be able to pay our players any wages."

Schiaffino thinks he knows what's wrong, but he has few solutions to offer in a troubled land;  "Do you know, I think West Germany has more footballers than we have inhabitants? We are a country of three million people. Yet even our average players go abroad looking for better offers and easy money.

"Here the pay is low, few players can afford the luxury of going full-time and the mental attitude is all wrong. Players of barely 20 think they've made it. They try all the clever-clever stuff, everyone plays for himself... It's very hard to drive into their heads the need for team work.

"Even the public needs educating. They applaud the dribbles, the body swerves. And that's it. The players play up to the fans. Who can blame them? But what can the trainers do? They'll just have to get together to talk out the answers."

Looking ahead to next year, Schiaffino foresees a final between Brazil and Argentina, because he expects the South American giants to be more at home in the conditions and the atmosphere. Also, he was impressed by the potential of Brazil in the games against West Germany, England and Poland.

And Italy? Schiaffino has no doubt it will be Italy there next year, not England. "Italy will be in the first five. But that's all. There are too many Italians in Argentina for them to be able to play in a calm enough situation. At least, from what I've read, I understand they have made a lot of progress. I'm sure they'll be in Argentina. I've had a long talk too with Enzo Bearzot, the Italian coach. I don't think there's any doubt Italy will qualify."

Schiaffino was confirmed m his views by England's performance in the 0-0 draw with Uruguay in the Centenario stadium recently, “Uruguay are poor now. We all know it. But I just couldn't understand England. If they really want to go to Argentina why didn't they look interested? The team were slow in their build-up towards goal, didn't offer any variety in attack and seemed in the main to be afraid of losing. Where will that get them?"

What a parallel - Uruguay and England, two great soccer nations of the past fallen on hard times. There was something appropriate about that 0-0 draw. But when, after all is said and done, will these two countriesbe back where tradition demands?

Juan Alberto Schiaffino died in November 2002.  He was 77.

This article originally appeared in the September 1977 edition of World Soccer Magazine, 51 years young and still the best football publication available. 

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