Tuesday 12 May 2020, 14:00

The engine driver of La Máquina and El Ballet Azul

  • Adolfo Pedernera was central to iconic River Plate and Millonarios sides

  • Alfredo Di Stefano’s hero pioneered the ‘false nine’ position

  • He passed away 25 years ago today

“Obdulio, are you frightened of the Brazil forwards?” a reporter asked Uruguay midfielder Obdulio Varela ahead of the FIFA World Cup Brazil 1950™ decider and the hosts and overwhelming favourites.

“Frightened?” came the reply. “I’ve played against Adolfo Pedernera and there’s nobody like him.”

It was a response that showed the esteem in which the great Pedernera, the man they called El Maestro, was held by the players who had to face him.

Though he died 25 years ago today, the Argentinian forward’s outstanding contribution to the game has not been forgotten, nor has the central role he played in two of the finest teams South America has ever seen: La Máquina, the fabled River Plate side of the 1940s, and El Ballet Azul, the name given to the richly talented line-up he subsequently formed part of at Colombian club Millonarios.

The inimitable Alfredo Di Stefano, among the shrewdest judges of them all, rated Pedernera one of the best players he had ever seen, having idolised him as a fan at the Estadio Monumental and then played alongside him briefly there and for nearly four years in Bogota.

It was at the Monumental that Pedernera acquired legendary status and became the scheming mastermind of La Máquina, a revolutionary, star-studded team that featured five forwards capable of swapping positions and popping up in places where the opposition least expected them. Pedernera’s attackling cohorts were Juan Carlos Munoz, Jose Manuel Moreno, Angel Labruna and Felix Lousteau, and those that saw the quintet in their pomp said they could win matches at any time they pleased. The brand of football they espoused made them, in many ways, the precursors of the hugely gifted Netherlands side of the 1970s spearheaded by Johan Cruyff.

Pedernera was the Cruyff of that much-celebrated River team, one shaped by its coach Renato Cesarini and his assistant Carlos Peucelle, who later revealed that the person responsible for coming up with its entirely appropriate nickname was none other than Pedernera’s mother Rosa.

Opinion is still divided as to whether Peucelle or Cesarini should get the credit for enabling Pedernera to give free rein to his creative talents, which were already very much in evidence when he made his debut for the Buenos Aires giants as a 16-year-old in 1935. A Huracan youth product, the teenage Pedernera was fast on his feet, a skilful and fearless dribbler and, could strike the ball with either foot. He dominated the left flank like no-one else could, dreamed up passes that no-one else saw and had a vision of the pitch that no-one else possessed.

The youngster had won two Argentinian league titles and two cups when Peucelle and Cesarini became to Pedernera what Pep Guardiola would later become to Lionel Messi at Barcelona, switching him to a more central and withdrawn role and inviting him to alternate between driving into the box to finish moves off and sitting back to direct them. The year was 1941 and La Máquina was born, and with it the so-called 'false nine'.

With Pedernera in the role of maquinista (engine driver), River won three more league crowns and three more cups, while the Argentinian national team also benefitted, landing two South American titles thanks in no small part to their schemer-in-chief. Sadly for the rest of the football community, the Second World War robbed them of the chance to see Pedernera at his peak.

A fractious relationship with Labruna and River president Antonio V. Liberti led to Pedernera leaving the club in 1946, his fortunes taking a dip in the next three years before a player strike over wages led to him becoming the first of several Argentinian footballers to offer their services to Colombian football. A celebrity across the continent, he was welcomed by a crowd of five thousand people at Bogota Airport, and his arrival gave Millonarios just the exposure they and the newly founded Colombian league were looking for.

Pedernera also had a big hand in the mass exodus of Argentina’s finest players northwards. Though he demanded and made a lot of money from the game and enjoyed the Buenos Aires nightlife to the full, he never forgot about his colleagues, and helped found the Futbolistas Argentinos Agremiados (Union of Argentinian Footballers) in 1944. Set up to defend the country’s players, it had a leading role in calling the 1949 strike.

He was similarly adored in Colombia, his performance on his debut prompting one newspaper to write of him: “He is a phenomenon, an artist, a master passer and the epitome of intelligence. With him, everything is possible.”

Where Pedernera went, others followed. The influx of great foreign players to Colombia, among them Di Stefano, marked the start of a golden era in the country’s footballing history, one that became known as El Dorado. Its influence on the style of the Colombian game can still be felt today.

Pedernera was the first dancer in Millonarios’ Ballet Azul, which won four Colombian league championships between 1949 and 1953 and a Mini Club World Cup title against leading South American and European teams.

After taking on player/coach duties in 1950 his influence remained huge, and it was as a coach that he further cemented his place in the history of Colombian football, guiding the national team to the FIFA World Cup for the very first time at Chile 1962.