José Manuel Moreno: More Than Worth The Trouble

Alex Caple

The IFFHS honoured players and teams in 1999 to celebrate 20th-century football. José Manuel Moreno featured on three lists: the third best Argentinian (behind Maradona and Di Stefano), fifth best in South America, and one of the 25 all-time greatest players. It’s incredible to think that everyone who saw him thought he could have been so much more.

“The greatest, better than Pelé, was Moreno. What mastery of the ball! What strength! What precision! What style! Pelé broke into a sweat; Moreno played in tails.”

– River Plate forward Walter Gómez

José Manuel Moreno is from an age of football where the stories and myths that gather around a player’s career can turn them into a comic book character. Moreno’s career embodied that as well as anyone, his off-field reputation nearly – but not quite – living up to that of his ability. He partied, he drank, he stayed up late – it was the life of the stereotypical waste-of-talent, only Moreno was also the best in the world.

That’s certainly not a unique thing, especially in South America. Take the two best of the 20th century for Argentina and Brazil, for instance. On one side you have Diego Maradona and Alfredo Di Stéfano, and on the other Pelé and Garrincha. Pelé and Di Stéfano are two of the most respected of all time; great professionals who held together great teams. Maradona and Garrincha, however, are two of the most loved; unbelievable talents without, really, any of the professionalism; Moreno was firmly in the latter category.

One of the most defining ideas of Moreno is the belief that he could have been regarded as good as Maradona if it weren’t for his private life being so erratic. It’s quite the statement, what with the comparison featuring a man who shot journalists with an air rifle and believed there was a conspiracy to catch him out for taking the drugs he was definitely taking – and then saying that he wasn’t held back as much as Moreno was.

Not that Moreno’s life was as crazy as Maradona’s. Moreno was more about not perhaps putting in as much effort as he could have done into being ‘professional’. He believed that dancing the tango was the best training a footballer could have (although, bizarrely, he was not alone in thinking this), he maintained that the worst game of his career happened because it was the only time he went to bed early, and “the time I drank milk I played badly” is a genuine quote.

“Yes, I like the nightlife. So what? I never missed a training session. Don’t tell me to drink milk; the time I drank milk I played badly.”

José Manuel Moreno

It’s the stories that help make the legend of Moreno. Given that this was a time before football was readily available on television, they’re a fantastical mix of true and fictional, blurring together to leave you unsure what ones to believe. One that is certainly true though is that the players at River Plate had to go on strike multiple times in order to get Moreno back in the side.

As it turns out, clubs tend not to enjoy the unprofessionalism and unreliability of players, and Moreno was suspended on more than one occasion. The rest of the team would then strike to assure his return, at one stage doing so for the rest of the season in 1939 (which would allow a young Ángel Labruna to get his chance in the side, eventually going on to become River’s all-time top goalscorer and the highest scoring Argentine ever).

If that one was true, perhaps the next was not. Regardless of anything, it was believed – a testament to who Moreno was.

“We were about to play Racing Club for the championship. Moreno had to be admitted to hospital for alcoholic intoxication. The doctor went to see him and said, ‘if he so much as gets on the pitch, he’ll die after twenty minutes.’ Moreno got ready to play. He went on the pitch, played the whole match – he was the best.”

– River Plate winger Félix Loustau

And who Moreno was, for all of the chaos off the field, was a sensational footballer. He had grown up a fan of Boca Juniors but was turned down after a trial with them. The young Moreno allegedly swore that they’d regret their decision, and whether he did or not, that would certainly become the case. He instead joined fierce rivals River Plate, making his debut in 1935.

The 1930s were a hell of a time for River. They’d earned the nickname ‘Los Millionarios’ in 1932 when they signed superstar forward Bernabé Ferreyra for a world-record fee, and Ferreyra would power them to success throughout the decade. It didn’t take long for Moreno to mature into a supremely talented strike partner for Ferreyra, and the two of them scored for fun as River finished as champions in both 1936 and 1937.

That would be the first great River side that Moreno featured in, but it wouldn’t be the greatest. Moreno was the star of La Máquina – the greatest River side, and arguably the greatest South America has ever seen. The front five of Munoz, Moreno, Labruna, Pedernera, and Loustau are considered to be the pinnacle of the Argentinian game and were once listed by Di Stéfano as the five greatest players of all time.

La Máquina played beautiful football to great success, passing into legend like no team ever before them and revolutionising football in South America. Moreno was the best of the lot, and helped River to more league titles in ’41, ’42, and ’47 (he’d disappeared to go and play in Mexico for three years in between).

His final year with River was in 1948, leaving to play in Chile for Universidad Católica and winning the title there in 1949. He played a year with Boca Juniors, his boyhood club, in 1950, and then continued his journeyman path before retiring in 1956.

José Manuel Moreno continues something of a tradition of incredibly charismatic, supremely talented South American footballers who enthralled players and fans, while also leaving people wondering what might have been. Moreno is widely considered to be one of the best players of all-time by those who saw him, with even Maradona expressing embarrassment when being voted ahead of him as the greatest Argentinian.The bottom line though is that here is a man whose career was held back by his private life even more than Maradona’s was – and that will never stop being

The bottom line though is that here is a man whose career was apparently held back by his private life even more than Maradona’s was – and that will never stop being incredible to hear.

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