The innate mystique, fanaticism and spontaneity that we associate with South American football are traits intrinsic to its rather unique identity. Players such as Pelé, Garrincha and in more recent times, Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez are just some of those who typify the on-field soul and psyche of the continent’s affinity with the beautiful game.
The tale of the origins and provenance of football on the continent is not one necessarily rooted in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, dusty windswept streets of Montevideo or the many barrios of Buenos Aires. It is, however, one attributed to the great number of European emigrants, particularly those from Great Britain, who descended upon its shores throughout the 19th century. For some, football may be considered as Britain’s greatest gift to the continent, however, in the case of Argentina, the Irish influence during the game’s formative years is certainly of notable significance and the contribution of the Irish-Argentine community cannot be overstated with regard to the country’s early footballing development.
The image of legendary captain, Diego Maradona, holding aloft the World Cup trophy following La Albiceleste’s victory at the 1986 tournament in Mexico is considered by many as the pinnacle of Argentina’s love affair with the beautiful game. Maradona is, without doubt, the finest representation and the ultimate embodiment of Argentine football, but 84 years prior, it was an Irish-Argentine, Juan José Moore, who led the team onto the field for their first-ever international match.
Emigration from Ireland to Argentina primarily took place between the 1820s and late 1860s, occurring sporadically thereafter and all but halting following the lamentable incident known as The Dresden Affair, where, in 1889, several Irish emigrants perished on their voyage across the Atlantic due to extremely poor conditions aboard their vessel. Curiously, in contrast to most stories of Irish emigration of the 1800s, for the most part, the majority of Irish who emigrated to Argentina were not from typically impoverished regions. In fact, the bulk of emigrants arrived from the midland counties of Longford and Westmeath (it is approximated that these two counties account for 60-70% of all Irish-Argentines), counties which, during that period, had a wealth of agricultural resources and much less economic and social deprivation in comparison to rural areas of Connacht or Munster. Other counties such as Offaly, Wexford and Cork also contributed high numbers. Most Irish settled in Buenos Aires Province, where their extensive agricultural expertise would be utilised to work the vast Pampas, whilst a small number would be city-bound, predominantly finding work at the capital’s port.
The Irish were already somewhat revered in Argentina, after all, it was a Mayo native, Admiral William Brown, who helped establish the Argentine Navy and played an integral role in defeating the Spanish forces during the bloody War of Independence (1810-1818). Clearly, an Irish footprint had already been left on the nation’s history and this was a theme that would continue, not only in Argentina but throughout the continent of South America, most notably, in Chile, where another man of Irish kin, Bernardo O’Higgins, would successfully lead Chilean forces to independence from Spain in the third decade of the 19th century, further establishing links between the small island of Ireland and the broad lands of South America.
Historical records indicate the first game of football played in Argentina took place in Buenos Aires in June 1867. The game was organised by British immigrants and the host venue was none other than the grounds of the Buenos Aires Cricket Club. As one may expect, the British influence on the developmental years of football in Argentina was huge and the diaspora helped spawn a number of clubs during this period. British schools, in particular, acted as a mechanism to teach children the rules of the game and were undoubtedly a massive catalyst for the sport’s rising popularity. One cannot offer a brief history of football in Argentina without mentioning the instrumental role played by Scottish Professor, Alexander Watson Hutton, founder of the Buenos Aires English High School. He is considered as the “Father of Football” in the nation and his influence in the early years of the game is unrivalled; along with some of his former students, he would go on to found the now infamous football club Alumni, who would prove to be a dominant force in the early decades of league competition.
The first football league in Argentina was contested in 1891, it was originally known as the “Association Argentine Football League”, however, this league ceased after just one season and it wasn’t until 1893 that the aforementioned Watson Hutton founded another league competition, giving birth to Argentina’s current system. (NB. The league of 1891 is considered as the natural predecessor to the current iteration but the AFA do not officially recognise the champions of 1891 as Primera División winners)
If you’re inquisitive enough to read through the names of teams who competed in the first few league competitions, you will come across Lobos Athletic Club. The story of Lobos is where the most tangible association between the Irish diaspora and Argentine football begins.
The club was founded in 1892 by Irish-Argentines in the city of Lobos, an agricultural stronghold, 100km south-west of Buenos Aires. The surnames of those who founded the club are distinctly Irish; McKeon, Moore, Dolan, Joyce, Geoghegan and Garrahan to name but a few and it’s not much of a surprise to learn that many had previously attended Watson Hutton’s Buenos Aires English High School in the country’s capital.
During the infancy of the Argentine Football League, Lobos managed to develop a competitive side and narrowly missed out on winning the title on two consecutive occasions, finishing runners up in both 1898 and 1899. On reflection, the culmination of the 1898 season is certainly the most agonising. Both Lobos and Lomas finished the season level with 20 points apiece and competition rules stated a play-off was required in such circumstances. Heartbreakingly, Lobos were defeated 1-0 iand Lomas were crowned champions. The following season Lobos would fall short again, finishing two points behind Belgrano, affirming their newfound status as the Bridesmaids of the Primera División. Intriguingly, in that very season, Lobos would gain the distinction of being the first Argentine team to tour internationally when they played and defeated the Uruguayan clubs of Albion and Peñarol in Montevideo. Following the second fixture, the team had to be transported back to Argentina by a Royal Navy warship as political unrest and revolution raged in Uruguay. Whilst the anecdote may appear moderately comical on the surface, it is more so indicative of the erratic and volatile nature of South American society during the 1900s.
Unfortunately, Lobos’ spell in the league was to come to an abrupt end, when, for the 1900 season, league rules stipulated that the playing fields of competing clubs could not be any further than 50km from Buenos Aires. Unable to compete in the league and with no alternative solution, many of the Lobos players went on to play for Watson Hutton’s Alumni club, experiencing unprecedented success in the early 1900s. Furthermore, three of the former Lobos players who went on to ply their trade with Alumni would take part in Argentina’s first ever international match, when they faced Uruguay in Montevideo on 20th July 1902. Walter Buchanan, Carlos Buchanan and Juan José Moore all lined out for the Albiceleste, with Moore being named the very first captain of the Argentine national team. The side also featured two other players of Irish descent in Eduardo Patricio Duggan of Belgrano and Edward Morgan of Quilmes, they went on to emphatically defeat the Uruguayans 6-0.
The sudden halt to Lobos’ participation in the AAFL would not signal the end of Irish-Argentine representation in the league. Another club deeply rooted in the Irish-Argentine community of Buenos Aires would soon debut in its top tier; Club Atletico Porteño, founded in 1895, initially as Club Atletico Capital, by a group of Irish-Argentine students from Buenos Aires, would take up the mantle. Surnames of the founding members included; Geoghegan, Dillon, O’Farrell, Kenny and Gahan, common names of the Irish midlands. Legend has it, some of the founding members attended a race meeting at the Hipódromo Argentino de Palermo and bet the membership kitty they had amassed on a horse named “Porteño”, a huge outsider. Of course, the horse won, providing them with a sizeable windfall and, in-turn, they decided to name the club after the winning horse. Club Atletico Porteño was born.
Porteño’s participation in the Argentine Football League commenced in 1899 when they competed in the newly formed second division, only gaining promotion to the top flight in 1907. Porteño settled in well to life in the top tier and gradually developed a side fit to contend for the title. In 1910, they finished runners up, four points adrift of a magnificent Alumni side, however, the following season, they finished level on points with the mighty Alumni, forcing a play-off. Sadly, much like their Irish-Argentine brethren, Lobos, in 1898, Porteño were defeated in the play-off and had to settle for the runners up spot. It is also pertinent to note, that at this juncture in the club’s history, the Irish names that once constituted a sizable portion the starting 11 had all but disappeared.
In 1912, a split occurred in Argentine football, principally due to widespread financial disgruntlement which resulted in a number of teams withdrawing from the AFA governed league. Subsequently, a new splinter league comprised of dissenting teams was formed and a breakaway governing body, the FAF, was established. Porteño would compete in the new FAF league alongside the likes of Estudiantes de La Plata and Independiente. In its inaugural season, Porteño and Independiente finished level on 20 points each with Independiente boasting the greater goal difference, nonetheless, a play-off was once again required to determine the championship winners. The game was poised at 1-1 when, in the dying moments, a dubious refereeing decision resulted in Independiente being awarded a corner instead of what they believed was a legitimate goal. Angered and dismayed by the apparent injustice, the Independiente players left the pitch in protest, leading to the abandonment of the game and, thus, Porteño were crowned champions in the most controversial of finales. The scorer of Porteño’s goal was Pedro Rithner, brother of the legendary Argentine international goalkeeper, Juan José Rithner, who, incidentally, was in goal for Porteño on that fateful day; despite neither their surname or forenames suggesting it, they are purported to have strong Irish ancestry, potentially some of the last players of Irish heritage to line out for the club.
In 1914, Porteño would be champions for a second and final time, they finished the campaign three points clear of Estudiantes, avoiding any controversy this time around. In 1915, the AFA and FAF leagues would re-unify and Porteño would enter a period of decline, suffering relegation in 1928 and eventually discontinuing their participation in the league system in 1929, two years prior to the advent of professionalism in Argentina. Irrespective of their footballing extinction, their two FAF league triumphs are officially recognised by the AFA, therefore, Club Atletico Porteño, a club founded by Irish-Argentines, can proudly state that they are two-time champions of the Argentine Primera División, the greatest honour in the domestic game. The club is still in existence but it has left the days of Association Football firmly in the past and now Porteño focus solely on Rugby Union.
In the years that followed, the Irish-Argentines continued to have some level of impact on both society and to a much lesser extent, football. Eldemiro Julián Farrell, a military general, with strong ties to Co. Longford, would become de facto President of Argentina in 1944 during one of its many military regimes. He was succeeded by the democratically-elected and widely acclaimed “man of the people”, Juan Perón, in 1946. As Farrell’s dictatorship was coming to an end, a young footballer by the name of Alfredo Di Stéfano was making waves with Huracán whilst on loan from River Plate; he would go on to become a legend of Spanish giants Real Madrid.
Di Stéfano was one of the stars of the sensational Los Blancos side of the 1950s and early ’60s, winning five European Cups and a plethora of domestic honours. His exploits in Europe cemented his status as one of the all-time greats. As absurd as it seems, he openly professed his links to the Emerald Isle towards the end of his life, stating his mother’s family were of Irish descent, reputedly from Mayo.
In a hypothetical situation, provided he was born 30 years later, one wonders if the persuasive charm of Jack Charlton could’ve tempted The Blonde Arrow to tog out for The Boys in Green, albeit, he probably would have had a tough task in displacing the industrious Tony Cascarino in Big Jack’s starting 11, nevertheless, we can joke.
The story of Argentine football is such, that it has been eulogised and chronicled by great writers including the renowned Latin American novelist Eduardo Galeano and the multi-award-winning British journalist and author Jonathan Wilson. It is admired and treasured by countless football fans across the globe and the stars it has produced are venerated like gods. Undeniably, it will continue to captivate and enchant the masses for many years to come, for ultimately, it has all the qualities of a Shakespearean classic; poetic, heroic, deceitful, tragic and evocative, yet peculiarly, somewhere in the deep expressive lyricism and complex narrative of Argentine football lies an Irish act.
Sean Monaghan is a member of the Society for Irish Latin Ametican Studies with a huge interest in Irish football and is a founder of Libero Futebol, a fanzine dedicated to the beautiful game, particularly its history and culture. Twitter: @liberofutebol