European football sits at the heart of the contemporary world game and that’s where any player with ambitions to establish a reputation will have to prove himself. This wasn’t always the case.
In decades past for every Di Stefano who followed the well-trodden path to one of Europe’s giants, there was a Pelé who only played football on European soil when touring with his club side Santos or representing his national team at World Cups.
Political, contractual, financial or even just personal: the reasons why many brilliant South American footballers never played outside their home continent are diverse and often complex, but unlike today it didn’t mean that they weren’t the equal of their peers across the Atlantic because of it.
There remains a residual suspicion towards such players however, as if their lower-profile in Europe means their achievements in South America are somehow diminished. Take Ecuadorian striker Alberto Spencer, one of the greatest of all South American forwards and a holder of notable scoring records to this day, yet his name registers barely a flicker of recognition among most European football fans.
Spencer made his name as a prolific scorer for the Montevideo giants Penarol and Ecuadorian side Barcelona in the Copa de Libertadores during the 1960s and early 1970s. His 87 appearances in the continent’s most prestigious competition yielded 54 goals, a total that’s unlikely to ever be matched. For good measure he scored six goals in Intercontinental Cup Finals and only Pelé has managed a higher number.
Alberto Spencer was one of 13 children born to a Jamaican father and Ecuadorian mother. He took his first steps in the game with provincial side CD Everest and it was while on loan to the Ecuadorian Barcelona he caught the eye of Penarol in a friendly, duly signing for the Uruguayans in July 1959.
Fast, two-footed and unusually strong despite his wiry shape, Spencer’s greatest talent was the heading ability that earned him the nickname of ‘Cabeza Mágica’ (magic head). His technique was exceptional and even Pelé himself spoke in admiration of how he managed to header the ball so powerfully without having to take a big run up to the ball.
Over the next 11 years he was an integral part of three Libertadores-winning sides and two Intercontinental Cup winners. Domestically he won seven titles with Penarol and was the league’s top scorer on four occasions.
So essential was he to the club’s cause that numerous other players were sold off so they could afford to pay Spencer enough of a salary to keep him out of the grasp of Italian predators. He departed Penarol in 1970 after 11 exceptional years and spent a couple of seasons back with Barcelona before retiring, adding another 17 Libertadores appearances and six goals to his total in the process.
A less conventional aspect to his life was his international career which saw him representing both his country of birth (11 times) and his adopted country (five times), often alternating between the two. This confusing situation put paid to his chances of playing for Uruguay at the 1966 and 1970 World Cups, and an opportunity to show his skills on the widest of stages – and impress his European doubters – was lost.