Ask your typical football fan of a certain vintage to put together a list of the best central defenders in the world around the mid-1970s and odds are the names will include luminaries such as Beckenbauer, Krol, Schwarzenbeck, Scirea and Gentile. There might be other contenders from Spain, England and Yugoslavia, too, but you can be sure it will be an all-European group at the very least.
And yet further afield there was a central defender playing at the very peak of his game during this era, a player good enough to be voted South American Player of the Year three times in succession between 1974 and 1976. That player was the Chilean Elías Figueroa
Born near the port city of Valparaiso in 1947, Figueroa started his early career with Santiago Wanderers and by the age of 17 had already been called up for the Chilean Youth team. At 19 he progressed to the full national side in which he would become a fixture for the next 16 years, and a year later he was in demand with the Uruguayan giants Penarol.
The Montevideo club was one of the major forces of the South American game at the time and Figueroa joined an all-star team that included Matosas, Rocha, Abadie and international keeper Mazurkiewicz. There he won successive Uruguayan titles in 1967, 1968 and 1969 and was voted the league’s best player for the first two of those years.
Even greater success followed when he transferred to join Brazilian club Internacional Porto Alegre in 1972. He led his new side to five regional titles and two national titles in 1975 and 1976, embellishing his growing reputation yet further in the first of those finals by heading a late winner against Cruzeiro.
After a decade abroad, by 1976 Figueroa was keen to return home to Chile with his wife and two children and signed a contract with Santiago-based club Palestino. This was no gentle wind down towards retirement for him, however; his influence helped his new club to a domestic cup win in 1977 and a title the following year. True to his reputation Figueroa was voted the best player in the league in both those seasons.
After three years at Palestino, the sweeper spent a brief spell in NASL with Fort Lauderdale Strikers then one final season back home with Colo Colo before retirement.
In mitigation for those who might have been dismissive about the quality of South American defenders during the 1970s, there were not that many talented contenders around. The art of defending was one that had been subjugated by the blunt force trauma of the notorious Argentinian and Uruguayan defenders who had made careers on the back of violent intent rather than footballing ability.
In this context Elías Figueroa was a revelation: a cultured sweeper with style, fine technique on the ball and an unusual penchant for clean play – he was sent-off on just one occasion during his 18-year career. His human qualities were considerable, too. This was a natural leader who was given the captaincy of every club he played for and who racked up no end of individual awards for his consistent excellence. To this day he’s considered the best foreign footballer to have played in both Uruguay and Brazil.
Perhaps the greatest legacy that Elías Figueroa left was the re-figuration of the role of central defender in South America for the next generation. The chaos of the past decade had made it a profoundly unfashionable position for young players to aspire towards playing and this refined man – he also wrote poetry and made a record of carnival songs – demonstrated that it could once again be a role in which skill and talent could prosper and inspire.