“Sale el sol, sale la luna, centro de Muñoz, gol de Labruna” – The sun rises, the moon rises, centre from Muñoz, goal from Labruna: this was the rhyme sung by fans of River Plate who witnessed la Maquina – The Machine. They were the greatest, the ultimate team, a side that played beautiful football like clockwork. Built around an all-conquering goalscorer and a forward said to be more gifted than Pele or Maradona, this was a team who had it all – elite football, world-class players, and all the hyperbole and exaggeration that came with it. la Maquina was Argentina’s best.
“You play against la Maquina with the intention of winning, but as an admirer of football sometimes I’d rather stay in the stands and watch them play.”
Ernesto Lazzatti – Boca Juniors no. 5.
River Plate had become a force in the 1930s after a couple of costly signings – becoming known as The Millionaires in the process. Nowadays it may be common practice, but back then it revolutionised South American football as River were powered to league titles by their staggeringly expensive forward Bernabé Ferreyra. Ferreyra retired in 1939 leaving his team in need of something new as they entered the next decade. They had thrived under a superstar, but now it was time for a team.
A year before purchasing Ferreyra, River had signed Carlos Peucelle for another large amount of money. He wouldn’t quite have the impact of Ferreyra on the pitch (although remarkably few would) but after retiring he took up a position as Technical Director. Peucelle would lay all the groundwork and draw up the blueprint for what would become the finest team the Argentinian game has ever seen
Peucelle hired Renato Cesarini to coach the side – a former River player who had been heavily influenced by the same manager as Peucelle: Emerico Hirschel (Cesarini also enjoyed a lengthy period as a player with Juventus, gaining such a reputation for scoring late goals that such a goal is still known to have been scored in the Zona Cesarini).
They had the director with the vision and the coach with the know-how, but la Maquina would go down in history in particular because of the players – specifically, their front five. A front five certainly sounds like a lot to build around, but this was right at the end of the 2-3-5 formation being so dominant – in fact, la Maquina pioneered the South American evolution into a W-M-like system similar to the one Europe would come to love.
And so a front five it was, and this was the greatest front line that South America has ever seen.
“Muñoz, Loustau, Pedernera, Moreno, and Labruna.”
Alfredo Di Stéfano when asked to name the five greatest ever players.
Juan Carlos Muñoz
— Peter Coates (@golazoargentino) May 6, 2017
Joining River in 1939, Muñoz would be the right side of la Maquina. He’s regarded as one of the finest players in Argentina’s history, but perhaps the least celebrated of the five.
— Alternativa Millo (@AlternativaMill) June 28, 2017
Loustau would debut in 1942 and play for River for 15 years. He would redefine the left-wing role, with the system making use of his ability to operate as what we now call a wing-back. Tactically, Loustau may have been the system’s most important player.
Adolfo Pedernera pic.twitter.com/yG931HqMzH
— Superb Footy Pics (@SuperbFootyPics) July 3, 2017
One of Argentina’s all-time greats, and an incredibly well rounded forward. Pedernera made his River debut in 1935, spending eleven years there before being tempted away by a big money offer. He was voted the 12th best South American player of the 20th Century by the IFFHS.
José Manuel Moreno
3 agosto 1916 nace en Argentina el delantero Josè Manuel Moreno, múltiple campeón con River Plate, en "La Máquina" pic.twitter.com/TFDVTdidLj
— Antonio Ubilla (@AntonioUbilla1) August 3, 2016
Moreno is the biggest story of the five, and you’d have to double the length of this piece to cover it all. Moreno was considered to be the most talented South American footballer to have ever lived, only for his private life to have prevented him from reaching his potential. That probably offers the best perspective on the forward, in that this is a country where Diego Maradona’s personal life apparently didn’t hold him back as much as Moreno’s did. Moreno did believe that the tango was the best training he could have, and his teammates had to strike on more than one occasion in order to get him back in the side after the club got sick of him – so there’s some more perspective.
— Circulo Central (@CCentral_ok) September 28, 2017
Moreno may have been the greatest talent of the five, but Labruna is the most legendary figure. He made his debut in 1939 as a 21-year-old (when the first team was on strike for Moreno) and would stay for 20 years. In that time he would become the clubs all-time record goalscorer with 293 goals – just two off the Argentine league record by Arsenio Erico (for a long time they were considered level, only for a reassessment of Erico’s total to put him two clear).
The five would be the backbone of la Maquina, their attacking, clockwork style defining the team. They’d go on to be remembered as the most incredible forward line in the history of South America, utilising a style of play that wowed crowds in a way that had never stuck in Argentina before.
Football in Argentina had largely been built around the idea of the individual playing for the joy of the game, deriding the mechanical play of the English game. And yet, in 1942, a 6-2 victory over Chicartia Juniors saw legendary Argentinian magazine El Grafico label them “la Maquina”. The front five played such fantastic football that the inevitable legends spread (one such story had mounted police pushed onto the pitch by the legions of fans trying to watch the great team, only for Loustau to dribble the ball under the horse’s belly before scoring. Possibly not the most believable story, but the fact that it spread tells you everything you need to know about the cult of la Maquina), building upon the legend and reputation that soon surpassed any previous team.
The legend of la Maquina is such that the team’s reputation far outweighs the actual success they had. The era of the historic quintet ran from 1942-1946 but River Plate were far from all-conquering over that time. They won the league twice, in 1942 and 1945 (they also won it in 1941, but Loustau didn’t debut until the following year), as well as the Copa Ibarguren in 1942, and the Copa Aldao in 1945 (again winning it in 1941). The lack of dominance by a side so talented led to them gaining another nickname: The Knights of Anguish. While the moniker was perhaps overly dramatic for what it was trying to say, la Maquina certainly gained a reputation for narrowly missing out on victories and trophies, something Muñoz attempted to explain.
“They called us ‘The Knights of Anguish’ because we didn’t look for the goal. We never thought we couldn’t score against our rivals. We went out on the pitch and played our way: take the ball, give it to me, a gambeta [dribble], this, that, and the goal came by itself.
“Generally it took a long time for the goal to come and the anguish was because games were not settled quickly. Inside the box, of course, we wanted to score, but in the midfield we had fun. There was no rush. It was instinctive.”
Another reason for the trophy cabinet being little more empty than it should have been for a team of this quality can be seen in one simple statistic: the front five who drove la Maquina only played together 18 times in five years. Combinations of the front line would play, but River Plate were only able to feature their star-team a mere 18 times. This legendary, revolutionary side wasn’t even seen at its best for half a season.
River Plate's "La Marquina", 1941: (L to R) Juan Carlos Muñoz, Jose Manuel Moreno, Adolfo Pedernera, Angel Labruna and Aristobulo Deambrosi. pic.twitter.com/U0p2tM0deI
— Samiran Mishra (@scoutdesk) March 8, 2017
Perhaps nothing more shows the power of legend in this era of football than la Maquina. The second World War left South America incredibly isolated, resulting in a style of football that went further and further down as aesthetic path. Unable to play against other styles, and with no television to show their skills, the joy of la Maquina spread among hyperbole and myth.
Not to take a single thing away from River Plate. La Maquina changed Argentinian football, inspiring greats and establishing a benchmark for team play that remains unsurpassed. Praised by contemporary fans and rivals while holding a legacy into the 21st century as the greatest – la Maquina holds a place in football that everyone who has ever played the game has strived to achieve.
It couldn’t last forever though. Pedernera left River in 1946, while Moreno had left in 1944 (although he would return in ’46 for a brief spell). The fabled front five were no more, and much like the retirement of Ferrerya had done before it, River Plate were left needing something new. They found it, too. River Plate would win the league in 1947 after a 21-year-old returned from a loan at Huracán to be Argentina’s top scorer in his first full season. The story of la Maquina may have ended, but Alfredo Di Stéfano’s was only just beginning.