HUGO ‘TOMATE’ PEÑA: the absurd death of a ‘flag’
I keep thinking back to that day!
Although almost four months have now passed.
I can’t get the images and feelings I felt at the end of that historic, fundamental match out of my eyes and heart.
The people of Boedo, the WONDERFUL people of Boedo, led us in triumph.
All of us.
Every single player was lifted skywards by our incredible fans.
They started in Parque Patricios, as soon as the game was over, and then the party continued at our home, at the Gasometro.
Their warmth, their embrace, the happiness in the eyes of the people of Boedo are already an indelible memory.
It all happened after a match in the Campeonato Metropolitano.
It was 24 August.
The match was played on the pitch of our cousins from Huracan.
The opponent was Tigre.
We beat them decisively and without appeal.
3 a 0.
I, who am a defender, scored the first goal, header, after not even four minutes of play.
From that moment, and throughout the match, the cry of our fans, of the WONDERFUL Boedo crowd, resounded like a mantra …
“Boedo no se va!” ” Boedo no se va” ! …
We’re not leaving … we’re not going to the Segunda Division.
Yes, because this match wasn’t for a trophy, it wasn’t the final of a cup or the decisive match for the title.
It was the match that could mean RETROCESSION for San Lorenzo.
The victory against Tigre served ‘only’ to remain in the First Division.
Any other result would have meant for San Lorenzo, one of the biggest clubs in all of Argentina, relegation.
And relegation, for this club and for the WONDERFUL people of Boedo, is simply not contemplated.
It would be a catastrophe.
And yet we did it!
To think I wasn’t even supposed to play this match …
I had a bad ankle.
After the game with River last Sunday, I couldn’t even walk.
“Tomate, you can’t make it. There’s no point in risking it,” our doctors told me.
No my friends!
I’m not skipping this game.
I can’t not be there.
I may not be 100 per cent, but I’ll do my part, you can be sure, even on one leg!
So I told them.
The ankle did not betray me.
And now I’m simply looking forward to another season!
We must do much, much more to return the unconditional love of our fans.
We must return to the top, to play for trophies with River, Boca, Estudiantes and Independiente.
The start of the championship is just over a month away.
Little does it matter that I’m recovering from a damn tibia fracture.
I’ve seen worse!
When the ball starts rolling again, I want to be there, I MUST be there.
Alongside my teammates and in front of our public, the WONDERFUL Boedo public that fills the Gasometer every week and that doesn’t deserve to suffer as they did last season.
We will have to make sure that it doesn’t happen.
Hugo “Tomate” Peña will never again play with the jersey of his beloved San Lorenzo.
Hugo “Tomate” Peña will never play a game of football again.
Fate took him away on 9 January 1980.
At only 29 years of age.
In an absurd, terrible, unreal … almost paradoxical way.
Hugo is in his house in Villa Devoto.
He is sitting on the sofa, watching television.
In his arms is his daughter, little Gabriela, three years old.
His left leg is immersed in a basin.
Inside is a solution of salts dissolved in hot water.
It is used to heal a fractured tibia from a few months earlier.
Everything can serve to speed up his recovery and allow him to return to the field with ‘his’ San Lorenzo when the competitive season resumes.
It is time for ‘Tom & Jerry’, little Gabriela’s favourite cartoon.
Hugo gets up from the sofa and presses the TV button to change the channel.
His foot is still immersed in the basin.
The electric shock hits him full force.
The scream is agonising.
His wife and neighbours from home rush in.
The little girl, unharmed, is still sitting on the sofa.
Hugo’s condition immediately appears desperate.
The ambulance ride to the nearby Sarsfield hospital is as frantic as it is desperate.
All to no avail.
Hugo ‘tomate’ Peña dies a few minutes after arriving at the hospital.
The news spreads with the speed of light.
The Boedo neighbourhood stands still, paralysed, incredulous, distraught.
At his funeral, thousands will accompany him on his final journey.
The ‘Tomate’ (the ‘tomato’ so called because of his very white skin that turned red like the famous vegetable at the first rays of the sun) was the most loved player by the ‘Ciclon’ fans.
Having arrived at the Gasometer a little over a year earlier, he immediately won the hearts of the San Lorenzo fans (of whom he had always professed himself to be an ardent supporter) for his elegance on and off the field, for his exemplary professionalism, for his ability to lead the defensive department by example more than by words.
Courageous, determined and loyal, he ‘dejava todo en la cancha’, which in those parts is perhaps the finest compliment for a footballer.
Hugo was an ‘atypical’ player for many reasons.
One of them was his love of studying.
He wanted to become an electrical engineer (the bastard irony of fate …) and on the day of his debut, with Argentinos Juniors against Lanus in 1970, he was still enrolled in Engineering.
In 1973, in view of his excellent performances with the ‘Bichos’, the two big names of Argentine football, Boca Juniors and River Plate, competed for him until the final hours of the market.
The Millionarios won by paying 70,000 dollars (a very important sum for the period) and with them Peña would play almost 100 games, becoming the leader of River’s defence.
The advent in 1976 of Daniel Passarella, the new ‘caudillo’ of the defence of the ‘gang’, pushed him to leave River for Chacarita and after a little more than a year he finally arrived at his beloved San Lorenzo.
His time in the Ciclon unfortunately coincided with one of the most troubled periods for the glorious Boedo club so dear to our Holy Father.
Huge economic problems forced San Lorenzo to sell all its best players (first and foremost Jorge Olguin, future world champion with Argentina in 1978), but it was precisely the passion, indomitable character and courage of ‘Tomate’ that made him become the idol of the WONDERFUL people of Boedo in just a few weeks.
Finally, it should be noted that during the match described at the beginning of the story with Tigre, Peña was subjected to continuous cortisone infiltrations throughout the week, one even a few minutes before taking the field, so bad was the condition of his ankle.
As said, San Lorenzo won and really saved themselves from relegation by the skin of their teeth.
… only to be relegated the following season, although every San Lorenzo fan says with absolute certainty that with ‘Tomate’ on the pitch that season it could never have happened …
Finally, a small curiosity, told to me a few weeks ago by my friend Federico Lopez Campani, an Argentine transplanted in Emilia, (and an inexhaustible source of anecdotes and stories for me) who at the time was a child and still lived in Argentina.
So great was the impact of Hugo Pena’s death and its circumstances that for a long time the children were reminded of what had happened to poor Hugo as a warning
“secate bien y no toques la tela descalzo o vas a terminar como el tomate Peña”
(dry yourself well and do not touch the television barefoot or you will end up like the tomate Peña)