The Genius Of Enzo Francescoli

19th September 1993, Rio De Janeiro. The national teams of Brazil and Uruguay run out on to the hallowed turf of the Maracanã stadium to play a Russian roulette encounter for a place in the next summer’s World Cup. La Seleção has not won a World Cup for 23 years and a loss may mean missing out on the next tournament altogether – an unprecedented event. Surprise underdogs Bolivia have amassed 10 points in five qualifying matches, the same total as Brazil and Uruguay – and it would take a brave man to bet on them not getting at least a point from their last match against Ecuador. Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira knows the gravity of the situation and has ended his spat with star striker Romário. Uruguay’s hopes revolve around their own fantasista, the spindly maestro Enzo Francescoli.

The day will belong to Romário who draws first blood by heading in a cross from Raí, then scoring a second after springing the offside trap. Brazil wins 2-0. Bolivia earns a draw. Uruguay misses its first World Cup since 1982. The Uruguayans are devastated and coach Luis Cubillla seeks a figure to vent his rage on. Trying to forge a team built on nationalistic fervour, Cubilla’s relationship with his overseas stars is already strained. He singles out Francescoli who had a torrid evening and reportedly says: “That man is a traitor to his country, so take away his passport!”. His words have a scathing impact on Francescoli and he would later admit that he broke down in tears in a corner of the iconic stadium.

23 July 1995, Montevideo. A lot has changed since that fateful day in Rio. Brazil are now world champions. Their squad for the Copa América has no Bebeto or Romário, although the latter’s bête noire Edmundo brings attacking potency. Brazil also feature Dunga, Claudio Taffarel, Aldair, Roberto Carlos and Jorginho. Uruguay is looking to keep intact its incredible record of having won every international tournament that has taken place on the country’s soil.

After the half-hour mark, the Brazilians silence the home crowd as Tulio puts them ahead. That lead lasts until six minutes into the second half when Pablo Bengoechea bends in a delightful free-kick. The match isn’t a great spectacle and there are no more goals. As the penalty shoot-out ensues the Brazilians feel confident – they won the World Cup a year back on penalties after all and eliminated Argentina via the same route in this tournament’s quarter-finals.

Francescoli takes the first kick. His run is slightly awkward as he aims to the right bottom corner. Taffarel dives the right way but the shot is perfectly placed. Francescoli’s celebration is a release of immense tension. Four kicks and four successful conversions later, Uruguay’s unheralded 35-year-old ‘keeper Fernando Alvez parries Tulio’s weak effort. Uruguay refuses to wilt under pressure and as soon as Sergio Martínez’s fifth kick hits the net there’s delirium. The players pile on each other, many fans rush onto the pitch.

A few minutes later life comes full circle for Enzo Francescoli when he lifts the huge Copa América trophy, something few had envisioned during the catastrophe of 1993. Winning that match against the world champions will be remembered as one of his great moments and added another shade to a spectral career in which he was one of the finest footballers of his generation.

Enzo Francescoli was born on 12 November 1961 in the Capurro area of Montevideo. His father, Ernesto was a great lover of Peñarol and a part-time footballer himself. Along with his brother Luis, a young Enzo learned his football skills on the streets before becoming a star for his school San Francisco De Salles. As an upcoming talent, he soon attracted the attention of scouts and was courted by both Peñarol and River Plate. However, Francescoli chose to continue his fledgeling career with his successful college team.

Montevideo Wanderers

In 1976 he made his breakthrough with childhood friend Gustavo Raúl Perdomo playing a big role. Perdomo was a member of the Montevideo Wanderers youth team who was set to play a match against Francescoli’s school team. Perdomo informed his coach about his friend and asked him to keep an eye on his explosive talent. Francescoli’s team lost, but the boy was impressive, prompting coach José María Martiarena to secure his signature.

Wanderers was hardly a glamorous outfit and its youth team ran a tight ship, meaning a young Enzo often had to play in different positions due to lack of players. Francescoli was still in school so he would sometimes have his classes on Saturdays and turn up late for matches. However, such was his importance that his coaches started games with just ten players so that he could arrive and immediately join the action. He made a senior debut with Wanderers in March 1980 against Defensor Sporting, helping his team to a 5-0 win. With the young prodigy in the ranks, Wanderers had its best season in almost half a century to finish as Primera División runners-up, then  followed that with a third-place finish in 1981. By that time it was clear that Francescoli was too gifted a talent to remain with this modest club – River Plate had already been following his progress and he was even linked with the Italian giants AC Milan.

After just a year of professional football, he earned his first taste of the international scene with the Uruguayan U20 team. He was one of the standout performers at 1981’s U20 South American Championships in Ecuador, scoring against arch-rivals Brazil and Argentina on the way to Uruguay winning the title. As champions of South America, the Uruguayan U20s next destination was Australia for that year’s U20 World Cup. After easing through the group stage with a perfect record, Uruguay surprisingly lost to Romania in the quarter-final. Despite that disappointment, it was a fantastic first year of international football for the ever-present Francescoli.

In 1982 he made his debut with the senior team in the unlikely location of Calcutta in India. The All India Football Federation had started an invitational tournament called the Nehru Cup which involved teams like Uruguay, China, and the Italian Olympic team. Just as had happened at youth level, Francescoli’s debut with the senior team also went smoothly. Uruguay won the title with him playing a starring role. Next stop, the Copa América.

The 1983 Copa was played over multiple locations and over the course of several months. Uruguay won its first two home matches but their chances of reaching the semi-final were jolted after a 2-0 loss to Chile. A narrow victory over Venezuela was enough to take them into the semi-final, however. Unimpressed by his team’s performance, coach Omar Borras decided to inject some young blood and started Francescoli against Peru in the two-legged semi-final. This tactical move immediately paid dividends as the 21-year-old played a decisive part, propelling Uruguay to a 2-1 aggregate victory and a spot in the final against Brazil.

Brazil had dazzled the footballing world at the World Cup the previous year. The squad didn’t have the inspirational Tele Santana as coach nor stars like Zico and Falcao available, but they did still boast players of the calibre of Éder, Junior and the majestic Socrates along with Vasco Da Gama’s goal machine, Roberto Dinamite. For the first leg Uruguay’s strategy was simple: try to hamper Brazil’s fluid style with high pressing and clattering tackles while using fast counter attacks to open their often fragile defence. Francescoli played the number 10 role perfectly, combining with the tenacious Carlos Aguilera and dropping back to open up spaces for teammates to break into.

In the 40th minute he found the net, but the goal was controversially chalked off and a freekick awarded instead on the edge of the box. Undeterred, Francescoli stepped up and curled his kick past Leão in Brazil’s goal. There could hardly have been a better way to score the first goal for your country. Ten minutes before the final whistle right back Victor Diogo started and finished a move to make it 2-0. A week later, Francescoli and his teammates held their nerve in front of a Socrates-powered Brazil and a 95,000 crowd to secure a stalemate in Brazil and so clinch Uruguay’s 12th Copa title. Francescoli played just half the matches in his first Copa, but that was enough to win him the award of the tournament’s best player.

Fresh from his Copa success, Francescoli moved to the next level as River Plate finally snapped up the player they had scouted since his teenage years. Following protracted negotiations, the final transfer amount was set at $310,000 with an additional 20% payable to Wanderers from any profit on future sales. River lacked the requisite resources so paid $50,000 up front and the rest through instalments endorsed by the Bank of Naples.

Los Millionaires had suffered a torrid 1982 finishing 10th in the Metropolitano Championship and 6th in the Nacional Championship, so the River Plate fans were understandably enticed by the prospect of one of the continent’s brightest young talents wearing their famous red and white shirt. When Francesoli’s flight touched down in Buenos Aires in April 1983, more than 200 fans had gathered to welcome him to River Plate. Four days later he made his debut against Huracan.

In an interview to El Grafico given soon after joining River, Francescoli said: “For all that was published about me, many people thought that if Francescoli got the ball he could win the game on his own, and the truth is different. I come to join a team and not to have a team attached to me. River will improve as a whole and not by any individuality”. His words were prophetic. His new team finished a lowly 18th in the Metropolitano championship and were only saved from relegation because of a format revamp. Francescoli himself took time to adjust to his new surroundings.

He finally hit form in the second half of 1984 and a partnership with River Plate icon Norberto Alonso blossomed. Los Millionaires reached the final of the Nacional championship where they lost 4-0 to Ferro Carril Oeste over two legs. In the Metropolitano, Francescoli tore apart opponent defences and finished as 24 goal top-scorer with River improving their table position to fourth. 1984 proved to be yet more rewarding for Francescoli when he won the South American Footballer of the Year award.

Even by Argentine standards, the 1985 Campeonato Nacional was hopelessly complicated with 32 clubs divided into eight zones. Francescoli’s team faltered in the Campionato, but there was personal recognition as he was selected the Argentinian Footballer of the Year – the first time a foreigner had won the award.

The dual Metropolitano-Nacional format of championship was scrapped and the 1985-86 season saw Argentina’s Primera División conducted in a more conventional European-styled format. Under coach Héctor Vieira, River developed into a juggernaut mowing down everything in their path and winning the league title with a ten-point cushion. Midfield general Américo Gallego was an inspirational leader while Oscar Ruggeri, Nery Pumpido and Nelson Gutiérrez ensured the meanest defence in the league. In attack Francescoli was at his clinical best, finishing as top scorer again with an incredible 25 goals in 32 matches. One of his most cherished performances was a brace scored during a 5-4 goal-fest against Argentinos Juniors.

Francescoli scored arguably the greatest goal of his career in February of 1986. The Polish national team had embarked on a tour of South America to prepare for the World Cup and were leading their friendly game against River when a cross was floated in from right-wing. Oscar Ruggeri beat a Polish defender in the air and headed it towards Francescoli, the Uruguayan controlled it with his chest and as the ball rose, he went airborne and connected with a thunderous overhead kick. Before the Polish keeper even moved a muscle, the ball had arced in a perfect parabola and hit the back of the net. Francescoli was something of a specialist with this type of goal, but even by his standards, this was an impossibly perfect execution.

With a first league title in the bag, Francescoli travelled to Mexico for his first World Cup tournament. As defending South American champions there was some expectation that Uruguay would make a mark, despite the tough group that saw them drawn with West Germany, Scotland and Denmark. The two-time winners started with an encouraging draw against the Germans. In the next match, Francescoli scored his first World Cup goal from the penalty spot to general indifference with Denmark dishing out one of the tournament’s most famous performances and scored six times. A nervy and brutal draw with Scotland ensured undeserved progress to the second round where Argentina, containing many of Francescoli’s River teammates, ended Uruguay’s campaign with a 1-0 victory. Although he had his moments, neither Francescoli nor his team managed to come close to living up to their billing.

Francescoli’s brilliance in Argentina had attracted interest from European clubs. FC Nantes from Ligue 1 tried to sign him but instead, he transferred to newly-promoted Racing Club de Paris. Racing Club was not a traditional powerhouse but was being lavishly financed by racing car manufacturers Matra. An expensive and ambitious team was assembled featuring players like Maxime Bossis, David Ginola, Pierre Littbarski and Rubén Paz.

Francescoli found the net 14 times in his debut season in France and was fourth in the list of league top scorers, but it was a poor season for his new club with a lowly 13th placed Ligue 1 finish. His next two seasons in Paris followed a similar pattern in which his form was way ahead of that of his teammates. With 18 goals in 57 matches, he was Racing’s top scorer in both those seasons and further endeared himself to the fans with goals against local rivals Paris Saint-Germain. However, Matra Racing (as the club was now labelled) finished a modest seventh in the 1987/88 season and nearly suffered relegation in the following one. Without any tangible success and with crowds remaining stubbornly low, it was difficult for Matra to sustain its spending spree and it wasn’t surprising when Francescoli moved to Marseille in the summer of 1989.

Les Olympiens had won the Ligue 1 title the previous season after a gap of 17 years. Bankrolled by Bernard Tapie, Marseille was well on its way to assembling one of the greatest teams in French club football history. Francescoli joined a star-studded squad which featured Jean Pierre Papin, Abedi Pele and Chris Waddle. He was well acclimatised to the French game and quickly became an important player for Marseille. His combination with Papin yielded 41 goals with Francescoli scoring 11 of them and he played in every match of his debut European Cup campaign, his contribution a major part in Marseille reaching the last four where they were knocked out by Benfica.

Francescoli’s successful stint in France had made him one of the most loved foreign players in Ligue 1 and among his many admirers was a young boy of Algerian descent named Zinedine Zidane. Zidane was so enamoured by Francescoli’s playing style that he made the Uruguayan his idol. For all his many achievements, one of Enzo’s greatest regrets was the lack of success in the World Cup. He came into Italia ‘90 after a superb season with Marseille hoping to improve on the disappointing showing of 1986. Uruguay qualified from their group thanks to a win over South Korea and a draw against Spain, but yet again their campaign ended in the first knockout round with a 2-0 reverse against hosts Italy.

Serie A was the best league in the world at that time so it wasn’t surprising when it welcomed Francescoli to its ever-growing collection of world stars after that World Cup. His destination in Serie A was Cagliari rather than one of the more traditional giants, but he was a high profile signing for the Sardinian club and hundreds of Cagliari fans greeted him on arrival, showering him with scarves and chanting his name. In a league filled with world-class teams, Cagliari were always underdogs and thus relied on a counter-attacking style. Francescoli was used in a deeper midfielder role and like many players who thrived on creative freedom, he suffered somewhat within the limitations imposed by the tactical chessboard of Serie A.

During his first two seasons he played 67 matches and scored just 10 goals with the team usually mired in relegation battles. Fans stood by their star player and  Francescoli acknowledged this in a 1992 interview, “when I put the Rossoblu shirt on, I feel the same emotion as when I am wearing the Celeste shirt”. His third season was his best in Serie A as he scored 7 goals in 32 matches and was the inspiration for a Cagliari side that finished above Sampdoria, Roma, and Napoli to qualify for UEFA Cup. He was soon on the move again, this time joining Coppa Italia winners Torino. In Sardinia, Francescoli would later be included in the Cagliari Hall of Fame as well as their greatest ever XI, a reflection on how admired he was by the club’s fans.

His lone season in Torino was underwhelming as Il Toro finished in mid-table. For Francescoli, the early 1990s were not just frustrating at club level but also in international football. Luis Cubillla had fallen out with his international stars and left Francescoli out of the 1991 Copa America squad, then benched him in the 1993 edition. Such was the level of animosity that despite being arguably the best player in his country, Francescoli didn’t play a single match for Uruguay between June 1990 and July 1993. This was followed by that international career nadir when Uruguay failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

In a bid to resurrect his career Francescoli, now well into his 30s, returned to his spiritual home at River Plate. In September 1994 he made his second debut for River and scored from the spot in a Supercopa Libertadores match against Nacional. River fans were treated to some of the best performances from their idol in the 1994 Apertura Campionato. With Francescoli as top scorer, Los Millionaires lifted the Apertura title without losing a match. He continued to impress throughout the season running up an impressive haul of 23 goals in 39 matches. The following year the Uruguayan virtually matched that record again.

Back in contention for the national team, Francescoli carried the same form into the Copa América. Turning back the wheels of time, he scored twice in the group stage and paved the way for Uruguay to top their group. Their victims in the quarter-final were Bolivia while an extremely talented Colombian team was swept aside 2-0 in the semi-final. And so it came down to yet another pivotal match in Francescoli’s career against Brazil. This time he not only managed to lift the title as captain, but he was also voted the player of the tournament, exactly 12 years since achieving the same accolade as a rookie – a remarkable feat. He also clinched the title of South American Player of the Year, edging out both Diego Maradona and Edmundo.

He bowed out of international football following that Copa América success to focus exclusively on club football. The 35-year-old led River to one of their greatest seasons with wins in both the Apertura championship and the Copa Libertadores. Francescoli was the wise old head in an exciting attack alongside young prodigies Hernán Crespo and Ariel Ortega. Powered by this potent triumvirate, Los Millionaires scored 28 goals on the way to becoming champions of South America for the second time in their history. The Uruguayan also participated in his first Intercontinental Cup against a Juventus side which included Zidane. Juve won the title and the French maestro sought out his idol after the final whistle to swap shirts.

1997 was Francescoli’s last great season and proved to be a landmark year for his club. As captain he played an active part in River winning both Apertura and Clausura championships and they completed a unique treble in December of that year by winning the last edition of Supercopa Libertadores. Francescoli retired from football in 1998 with a career full of impressive numbers: 220 goals in 572 club matches; River’s seventh all-time top scorer with 137 goals from 217 matches; 17 goals in 73 international matches for Uruguay; three-time Copa América champion.

However, Francescoli’s greatness cannot just be measured by statistics or the amount of silverware. His true greatness lies in how he mesmerized fans with his style and panache during his career.

At his best Enzo Francescoli was poetry in motion and his stylish play earned him the nickname of “El Principe”, the Prince. His technical ability, close control, first touch and dribbling were all peerless and like many of the most gifted footballers, Francescoli seemed to have that uncanny ability of always appearing to have an extra second to make a decision.

He wasn’t lightning-fast but there was a certain languid grace about his movements – he often gave an impression of gliding over the turf with the ball at his feet. Francescoli benefited from his great versatility and could play as a winger, supporting striker, attacking midfielder or even as a central midfielder. At club level, especially in South America, he was a prolific goalscorer but one with a great passing range and a vision for through balls. Francescoli wasn’t physically imposing and his slender frame earned him his second nickname of “El Flaco”, the skinny one.

The essence of what Enzo Francescoli meant to fans is perhaps best captured by the flowery lyrics of “Inmenzo”, a song dedicated to him by Argentine songwriter and River fan Ignacio Copani: “Enzo takes his talent as a spear, without using brute force or fear, however the opponent recedes, defeated, when the prince, advances.”

SOMNATH SENGUPTA

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