When River Plate decided to smash the transfer record for Bernabé Ferreyra in 1932, they set about a revolution at the club that would define it to this day. The prolific striker, famed for having a shot so powerful that it was the fear of all Argentinian goalkeepers, Ferreyra was the first true star of Argentinian football. An undoubted star. The star of his generation, and arguably the first in Argentinian football. Big enough to even have a song written about him.
River Plate, now one of the biggest two teams in Argentina, were not the stars of today back in 1932. They were one of the five Grandes, but had by then only lifted an Argentine Championship once – and this at a time when disagreements over organisation and professionalism twice led to there being two different leagues to win.
Now, the best way to fix that problem these days is undoubtedly to spend an absolute ton of money – and it happened to be the same back then. Los Millonarios were born in a period of two years, first in 1931 when $10,000 were spent on Carlos Peucelle, a right winger who would go on to become an Argentinian great over the next ten years. While $10k was a lot to spend on a player, they were far from done.
Bernabé Ferreyra began his career at just 14 years old, playing for his local side Jorge Newbery in Rufino. He was eventually signed by Tigre, a much larger club from Buenos Aires, and there he established himself as a phenomenal goalscorer, bagging over a goal a game (that would be a pattern here).
Tours were very common for South American clubs back in the first half of the 20th Century. Such an isolated continent meant that the best way to sample other countries football, and to truly test yourselves, was to go and find it. The drawback, however, was that few teams had squads capable of playing a few dozen games in a small amount of time, so the practice of loaning players was common. Velez Sarsfield began a Pan-American tour in 1930, and Ferrerya was loaned to them by Tigre for free – it would be the beginning of the end for him there.
38 goals in a mere 25 games followed, and Ferreyra was becoming a star. Suddenly stories were spreading about the fearsome goalscorer with a shot so powerful that it literally took goalkeepers into the net with it. El Mortero de Rufino – The Mortar of Rufino was here.
‘My brothers kept telling me I had to have the strongest shot in town. They made me kick the ball from morning to afternoon, every day. They used to encourage me, shouting “Harder! Even Harder!”‘
One goalkeeper is alleged to have asked Ferreyra to let him know what way he was going to shoot, just so he could get out of the way. Are the stories necessarily true? Who knows. Does it matter? Definitely not.
There’s a lot of romanticism from the era before television, with the mysterious auras of the greats being carried across the globe through outlandish stories told by those who caught a glimpse. One definite truth is that Bernabé Ferreyra was a phenomenon – and River Plate could use such a player.
$35,000, a transfer record; a fee so large that it wouldn’t be broken for nearly twenty years. No wonder River Plate became known as Los Millonarios (The Millionaires). But whether that money was money well spent would be decided on the pitch. Fortunately, for both club and player, there was no need to worry.
Two goals on his debut was a hint that things were good, but Ferreyra just didn’t stop scoring. So dominant was he, that a reward was being offered to the first goalkeeper who could stop him. Nineteen games later and Huracán’s Cándido de Nicola was paid out for achieving the feat.
— Id. Riverplatense (@idriverplatense) June 19, 2017
He scored 43 goals in all that season, finishing as top scorer. The big one was the league championship, though. Things went down to the final day, with River trailing Independiente at the top by a point. This is Argentinian football, so the fact that shenanigans followed isn’t the most surprising thing in the world, although they were somewhat lighthearted.
Independiente went behind against their rivals, Racing, but so did River to San Lorenzo – as things stood, the title was Independiente’s. So while the matches played out, both trailing, Independiente took a more leisurely approach to things. The final whistle finally blew, the boards both read defeats for the title rivals. However, as Independiente celebrated their victorious season, the man in charge of keeping the scores up to date flipped a ‘1’ on to River’s score. They had, in fact, equalised a while ago – that man was allegedly a River fan, quite enjoying Independiente’s ignorance. A play-off would be needed.
San Lorenzo’s stadium was the ground for the play-off, and it was done and dusted quickly. River Plate won 3-0, Ferreyra scoring (naturally), and the huge amount of money spent was justified after just one year.
Two more league titles would follow – in 1936 and 1937 – before Ferreyra retired from the game in 1939, aged just 30. An intense career had taken its toll on him, leaving him unable to continue.
“I prefer to retire from football before football retires from me”
His River career ended with an astonishing 187 goals in 185 league games, making him one of only three players in the history of South American football to finishing with more goals than games (Peruvian Valeriano López and Brazilian Arthur Friedenreich being the other two). He remains the third highest goalscorer in River’s history and the only one anywhere near the top with under 200 games.
— La Página Millonaria (@RiverLPM) March 13, 2016
Ferreyra decided against coaching, instead leaving football and briefly trying to become an actor. He died in 1972 at the age of 63.
For River Plate, however, Ferreyra had only been the beginning. They had been lifted to the top, and while Ferreyra may have been the star, it was the other expensive signing, Carlos Peucelle, who would help start another revolution. They’d been led by a star, but now it was time for a team – River would build La Máquina.