ELIAS FIGUEROA: More stubborn than fate
“Tomorrow my parents will be in the stands.
And I already know that my mother will cry for the whole ninety minutes of the match.
Not so much for the occasion itself.
… which isn’t something that happens every day anyway!
Tomorrow, in fact, at our camp in Valparaiso with my teammates from the Santiago Wanderers junior team, we will face Brazil!
Yes, you heard me right.
The World Champion Brazil, the one of Pelé, Didi, Garrincha and Zagallo.
The Brazil that four years ago in Sweden enchanted the World with its game and its unmatched talents.
My mother’s weeping, however, has much deeper reasons than the simple emotion of seeing her 15-year-old son play against the strongest team in the world.
According to the doctors, I could never play football.
A few years ago, when I was not yet eleven, I caught polio.
I stayed in bed for a whole year.
“Ma’am’, the doctors told my mother, ‘maybe your son will be able to walk normally again one day, but sport is a closed subject for him’.
For my parents, what mattered was that I had survived and could have a normal life.
Not for me.
I wanted to play football.
I wanted it desperately.
I already stood out among my peers.
I was taller than average but moved with agility, I was already kicking with both feet and I loved hitting the ball with my head.
“No, no way!” I told myself every single day.
“I’ll go back to playing football.” I was sure of that. The only one who was…
I had to start walking again.
Just like a child.
By the age of 13, however, I was back playing in the team of my ‘barrio’, Alto Florida.
At 15 I joined the Santiago Wanderers, the strongest team in Valparaiso.
And tomorrow I will play against Brazil.
I play in midfield and my coach has already told me that I will have to watch out for Didi’s movements, trying to limit him and not let him play calmly.
Will you think about it the day after tomorrow in my city’s newspapers?
“Midfield duel between Didi and young Figueroa”..
… eh yes mum, you can really have a good cry!
Elias Figueroa played an excellent game to such an extent that many Brazilian players complimented ‘the kid with the number 8’ at the end of the match for his physical prowess, his technique and his great personality.
His talent was so obvious that two seasons at a high level with Santiago Wanderers were enough to earn him first a starting place in the Chilean expedition to the 1966 World Cup in England and then to become one of the most sought-after young players in all of South America.
A fierce auction broke out for him. Huracan and Independiente competed to the tune of pesos for the talented Chilean, but when it seemed all was set for the ‘red devils’ of Avellaneda (Figueroa had already passed his medical examinations), a blitz by Penarol (with a private plane from Buenos Aires to take him to Montevideo) achieved the goal: Elias Figueroa will play with the ‘Carboneros’, joining an exceptional team that at that time includes in its ranks some of the strongest players of the time such as the legendary goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkievicz, Ecuadorian striker Alberto Spencer, midfielder Pedro Rocha and defender Pablo Forland, father of Diego, the great striker of Manchester United and Atletico Madrid among others.
When he arrived at Penarol (a name derived from a Montevideo ‘barrio’ founded by an Italian named Crosa, a Piedmontese emigrant originally from Pinerolo after whom the barrio was named), the ‘Aurinegros’ were even reigning World Champions, having defeated none other than Real Madrid of Amancio, Gento and Pirri in the Intercontinental Cup final.
Figueroa is the final piece in the jigsaw that transforms Penarol into a team that was unapproachable at the time.
Two consecutive championships won with an unbeaten record of 56 consecutive matches (lasting exactly two years!) without defeat and the triumph in the Supercopa Sudamericana.
In this tournament in the final against Pelé’s Santos, Elias Figueroa played a sumptuous game, showing off all his enormous talents.
An impeccable sense of position, the ability to come out of his own area with the ball on the foot and become the team’s first playmaker, as well as his enormous ability in the air, which make him a constant danger in the opponent’s penalty area on set pieces.
For three years in a row he was voted best footballer in the Uruguayan league and his fame is now known throughout South America.
And not only.
In 1971, however, Penarol went through a severe economic crisis.
The Montevideo club is practically forced to ‘sell off’ its best players.
There is a plethora of clubs that want Figueroa.
One of them is Real Madrid.
Figueroa, however, chooses Internacional of Porto Alegre.
Today it would seem a crazy or at least curious choice.
In reality, at the time the Brazilian league was probably the most competitive league on the planet, and not only because of the presence of all the great members of the wonderful Brazilian World Champion team at Mexico 70.
Even the economic offer was higher than that of the ‘Merengues’.
In Brazil he becomes an absolute idol.
He is immediately given the captain’s armband and winning the Gaùcho Championship becomes almost a formality for Internacional.
In the meantime, Chile reached the play-off match for qualification for the World Cup in Germany.
Opponent is the Soviet Union, backed by Dynamo Kiev, one of the strongest teams on the continent at the time.
The first leg was a siege by the Russians but Figueroa played another impressive game, closing all the gaps and proving once again to be ‘El Dueno de l’area’, the master of the penalty area.
It ended 0-0, an excellent result ahead of the return match.
… return match that would turn into one of the most farcical and ridiculous pages in the history of the sport.
With Chile having been under Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship for a few months, the Russians refused to set foot in the country and FIFA came up with the ingenious idea of putting Chile on the pitch against … nobody.
But it was in 1975, in the final of the Brazilian Championship, that Figueroa became ‘Semidio’.
Internacional’s rival was Cruzeiro of Belo Horizonte.
In Internacional, alongside Figueroa, there are excellent players such as midfielder Paulo Cesar Carpeggiani, striker Valdomiro and, above all, a very young back director of whom wonders are said: his name is Paulo Roberto FALCAO.
Cruzeiro had several Brazilian nationals in its ranks, such as full-back Nelinho, and forwards Roberto Batata and Palinha.
The match is balanced and hard-fought.
At the tenth minute of the second half there was a free kick for Internacional on the right, a few metres from the goal line.
Valdomiro kicked it and the ball arrived in the centre of the Cruzeiro penalty area.
In the huddle of players jumping to get to the ball, there was one who jumped higher than all the rest, heading the ball into the corner of the goal defended by Raul.
It is indeed him: Elias Figueroa.
But the moment he takes off to strike a header, something happens that will consign this goal to the legend of Brazilian football.
A ray of sunshine, filtered through the clouds at that very moment ‘illuminates’ that historic moment, which consecrates Internacional as champions of Brazil for the first time in its history.
It will forever be, for everyone, ‘El gol iluminado’.
In Brazil, Figueroa became an authentic idol and his figure went far beyond that of a ‘simple’ footballer.
Always present with his beautiful wife Marcela at official events organised in the city and a prominent figure in the local ‘jet-set’.
But it is on the pitch that Figueroa gives his best.
He was named ‘Best Footballer in South America’ for three consecutive seasons between 1974 and 1976, preceding footballers of the level of Rivelino, Zico, Francisco Marinho, Kempes, Alonso, Cubillas or Brindisi.
In 1977 he decided to return to his homeland, but not to play for one of his country’s greats (Colo Colo, Universidad de Chile or Universidad Catolica) but for the ‘small’ Club Deportivo Palestino.
For Internacional of Porto Alegre, it is a huge blow to absorb.
Not only does it mean losing their most important player, but Figueroa, sold to a big European club, would have delighted the ‘Colorado’ cashier.
Instead Figueroa (and especially Mrs Marcela) insist on returning to their homeland.
They have to give up a lot of money, but the decision is unshakable.
At the small club of the president, Don Enrique Atal, it seems unreal to be able to include the strongest defender in South America in their team.
The results are immediate and surprising.
Palestino immediately wins the Chilean Cup, and scoring the decisive goal in extra time is, of course, Elias Figueroa.
But it is what happens in July of that 1977 that not only rewrites the history of Chilean football but also makes one realise, if one still needed to, the impact of this extraordinary footballer.
Club Deportivo Palestino began a series of 46 consecutive matches in which no one managed to defeat Figueroa and his teammates. This series is the best ever in Chilean football. Of course, in 1978 the Chilean championship also arrived and the following year little Palestino even reached the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores.
These were four marvellous seasons that would rewrite the history of Club Deportivo Palestino and confirm the absolute quality of this defender with sublime skills and a complete football repertoire as few times seen in the history of the sport.
At the age of 35, the sirens of ‘Soccer’, the football of the United States of America, also lured Figueroa who moved to Fort Lauderdale, where he would play alongside great champions such as the German Gerd Muller and the Peruvian Teofilo Cubillas, reaching the championship final then losing to the New York Cosmos of Pelé, Chinaglia and Beckenbauer.
But Chile, his beloved Chile, remains the priority.
They have to qualify for the World Cup in Spain, and the rush from the United States to play qualifying matches threatens to sap Figueroa’s freshness.
At that point something peculiar happens, almost ‘South American’ in the most admired meaning of the term.
Colo Colo, the country’s most important team, even finds sponsorship from National Television to bring Figueroa back home (and into the ranks of the ‘Albos’!) in those first and decisive months of 1982.
Chile qualified for that World Cup but came out of it in an undignified manner in the first round, with three defeats in three matches.
Figueroa, the oldest player in that edition and despite several physical problems, will be one of the few happy notes of the Chilean expedition.
However, the twilight of a football career of the highest level, which has the only fault of having made him a demigod in Latin America and … almost a stranger in Europe.
His farewell match will be celebrated on 8 March 1984 between a Chilean selection and one from the ‘Rest of the World’.
70,000 spectators will fill the stands of the Estadio Nacional to pay their well-deserved respects to this great champion who, as the famous Brazilian poet and writer Nelson Rodrigues said of him, was ‘as dangerous as a Bengal tiger and as elegant as an Earl in a dinner jacket’. He was, in short, the ‘perfect defender’.
ANECDOTES AND CURIOSITIES
From an early age Elias Figueroa had to live with serious health problems. First diphtheria, which gave him heart problems, and then a severe form of asthma.
A normal life seemed impossible for him, but his parents’ decision to move to the city of Quilpuè (still called the city of the sun because of its excellent climate) was decisive.
Elias became a normal child again … with an ‘out of the ordinary’ talent for football.
At the age of 11, however, another terrible piece of news arrived for little Elias, who in the meantime had already displayed his prodigious talents in the small local team: polio.
Figueroa remains bedridden for over a year.
He heals, but when he does, he practically has to learn to walk a second time.
But he is a strong and courageous kid and then there is the ball, which is a real obsession for him.
When, at the age of 15, Santiago Wanderers, one of the most important Chilean teams, offers him a try-out, Elias does not let the opportunity pass him by.
Not only that.
He was included in the junior team where he would stay for … one day! Before being attached to the Juniores the following day.
A few weeks passed and Elias Figueroa, at 15 years of age, made his professional debut in the first team of Santiago Wanderers.
Not everything at first goes as hoped.
Elias Figueroa is moved from midfield to the centre of defence where he proves to be immediately comfortable, but there ‘El Maestro’ Raul Sanchez plays and for Figueroa there is often the bench.
He is loaned out for one season to the small Club Union La Calera from the Valparaiso region.
Here Figueroa not only establishes himself definitively as a defender of absolute value but also earns the nickname ‘Don’ (usually reserved for prestigious personalities of a certain age) after a sumptuous performance by the small Union in the home of the mighty Colo Colo.
It would be the famous radio commentator Hernan Solis who would say of him ‘today we saw a 17-year-old boy playing with the maturity and confidence of a veteran of a thousand battles. That is why, from today, I cannot help but call him ‘DON ELIAS FIGUEROA’.
In that match, the story goes that during a clearance in his own penalty area Figueroa came off the ball after two consecutive tunnels to two different Colo Colo players …
To qualify for the 1974 World Cup Chile had to play the ‘famous’ play-off match against the Soviet Union. The return match, as many know, was never played. The USSR refused to play the return match in the Chilean National Stadium, which had been the scene of Pinochet’s terrible coup a few months earlier and where hundreds of opponents of the regime were imprisoned. The first leg, however, was played regularly and was one of the best performances of Figueroa’s career.
The Soviet Union had players of absolute value in their team. Above all, the young Dynamo Kiev striker Oleg Blokhin.
Despite virtually non-stop pressure for the entire 90 minutes, the Chilean defence held up splendidly and Figueroa was the absolute star.
… not least because it was he, with a tackle as robust as it was legal, who put the strong Russian striker out of action for the rest of the match.
A defender like Figueroa, who more than once said: ‘In my penalty area enters whoever I say’, has also sometimes had to ‘step up’ against equally determined opponents.
His Fort Lauderdale side played against Jacksonville Tea.
A very normal game in which the Lauderdale Strikers are winning clearly and with apparent peace of mind.
At a certain point, however, Jacksonville’s number 9, Bob Newton, decides that he has had enough of being constantly anticipated by this Chilean defender.
With the ball 50 metres away he elbowed Figueroa in the face.
The Chilean defender loses consciousness and four teeth.
After two days in hospital he is discharged, with 40 stitches in his mouth, twenty internal and twenty external.
“And I am happy that my wife didn’t leave me! I looked like a monster from a horror film’! recalls Figueroa today with a sense of humour.
Figueroa has always been grateful to Penarol and Uruguayan football for making him grow exponentially as a defender.
‘I always think that coming out of defence worrying about passing the ball to a teammate is worth a hundred times more than simply kicking the ball as far as possible. But in Penarol I learnt that you also have to impose yourself physically when you need to … because in that league the forwards play hard and if you don’t adapt you’re finished.”
“The toughest striker I ever met was Argentine Luis Artime when he played for Nacional. He seemed easy to mark, he didn’t try so hard to look for the ball or break through. For 89 minutes you could hold him. He could play a whole game without hardly touching the ball. Then all he needed was a second and he would decide the game with a goal of his own. Against these, who I call the ‘ghosts’ of the penalty area, there are no instructions or rules.”
In Brazil, a land where football is a religion, Figueroa as mentioned became a cult figure.
One day he is even immortalised completely naked in the Internacional locker room and his picture the next day is published in a very famous local magazine.
Figueroa is obviously not happy about this and feels obvious embarrassment.
After a few days almost segregated at home and as far away from the spotlight as possible, he decides with his wife to go out and go to a restaurant, one of the most discreet and secluded in the city, and all as anonymously as possible.
As soon as they enter, the owner of the restaurant, a corpulent and friendly Italian lady recognises him and starts clapping her hands to attract the attention of all the customers. ‘Sir that handsome man we saw naked a few days ago in the paper is coming in. Finally someone who cares about making us women happy too!!!”
… Figueroa says that the blush on his cheeks lasted for the duration of the dinner …
It is often said that where we are born is the place where it is most difficult to be respected.
Figueroa discovered this on his own skin. As said, the Chilean defender does everything to return to his country. The president of Internacional wants no part of it. He even puts a blank cheque in front of him. “You put the figure Elias. But don’t leave’.
No way. The call of his country is too great. Elias feels indebted after years abroad.
On arrival at the airport there are thousands of people waiting for him.
Figueroa steps out, visibly excited … and what is the first question a journalist asks is ‘Elias, did you come back to Chile because you feel finished as a footballer? …
… ‘I would have liked to punch him!’ the good Elias still recounts of that episode today.
In 1981, one of the most peculiar and best-remembered episodes of Figueroa’s career occurred.
At the end of a friendly match against Argentina, a photographer asked Maradona to come closer to take a photo with Figueroa. ‘Let him come here!’ was Maradona’s prickly reply.
Then the photographer goes to Figueroa asking the same thing.
… only to receive the exact same answer: “Let him come here!
Needless to say, that photo was never taken …
Finally, the ultimate dedication from Pelé, whom Figueroa faced more than once, limiting the great Brazilian striker like no other. ‘Figueroa is the best Chilean footballer ever and the greatest defender in the history of South American football’ … coming from someone who played with Carlos Alberto and Djalma Santos, this is no small thing …
Author’s note: The first part told in the first person is obviously created by me and are not the words of the great Elias. It is just a way to testify even more to my admiration for this fantastic footballer who is not as well known in Europe as he deserves.