Saturday 12 March 2016, 22:11

Perfumo, from lathe operator to football legend

"What's your day job, kid?"

"I'm a lathe operator."

"Well, stick to that, because you're not cut out to play football."

Misjudgements do not get much bigger than this one by River Plate youth director El Gordo Diaz, because the lathe operator in question, Roberto Perfumo, would blossom into a star after leaving the club as a free agent at the age of 17. A big star, one of the top centre-backs in Argentinian football history. Back in the days when nicknames meant something, the commentator Jose Maria Munoz dubbed him The Marshal of the Area. Perfumo endlessly lived up to this billing. The word "marshal" perfectly encapsulates the way he played, marrying dominance and elegance; he had boots of steel to halt opposition players and a silky touch when picking out his team-mates.

Diaz was not the only person who failed to spot his talent. Perfumo had previously been rejected by Lanus and Independiente. He was a left midfielder at the time and, like every Argentinian footballer born in the 1940s, had started out playing on his local dirt pitches. However, he had also found another way to learn his trade. As he told El Grafico magazine, "As a kid, I used to go to Racing's stadium to see the guys I admired do their thing, and then I'd try to emulate them on the potrero ."

It was none other than Racing Club who eventually identified his potential and he moved there in 1961. His lathe-operating days were history, although not before something had rubbed off on him. "I'd started as an apprentice at 13 years old. It's a job that requires a lot of precision, just like in the area," he once quipped with his trademark sense of humour. Precision enough to time his tackles phenomenally.

Pizzuti's masterstroke, a turning pointWhat Diaz had lacked in vision where Perfumo was concerned, Juan Jose Pizzuti showed in abundance. With two defenders out injured, the Racing coach shifted the then youngster back from midfield into the heart of the backline, partnering him with Alfredo Basile in a match against Ferro. "We were a shambles, the fans wanted to kill me. I told Pizzuti it wasn't going to work. The guy was insistent. 'You're going to play there, you're going to get called up to the national team and you're going to bring me back a ball from London when you go to the World Cup.'" That was in August 1965. That same December, Osvaldo Zubeldia named him in the Argentina squad: "I never budged after that."

Back in his midfield days, he had played in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, famously crying disconsolately after the 3-2 defeat by the host nation. As a defender, though, his contribution was momentous. He was outstanding at the FIFA World Cup England 1966™, where Argentina made it to the quarter-finals, and captained his country at Germany 1974. Nevertheless, like so many members of his generation, he was also a victim of the chaos that surrounded La Albiceleste.

"It was amazing the way the national team burned players out," he later told journalist Pablo Vignone for the book Así jugamos . "The organisation was an utter mess. There was no training or preparation; we weren't trained with the grit, drive and enthusiasm required."

This situation led to Argentina's one and only failure to qualify for the World Cup, when a 2-2 draw with Peru at Boca Juniors' Estadio Bombonera in 1969 prevented them from reaching Mexico 1970. "At the time I felt like quitting football and going somewhere faraway, where no one would know who I was," Perfumo later said.

The tango approach to footballThat day must rank alongside the defeat by Johan Cruyff's Netherlands in 1974 as one of the few moments when he was unable to make the impossible possible. Speaking of which, as a fanatical tanguero, he had adopted and adapted the motto of legendary bandoneon player Anibal Troilo, "Tango is easy or impossible." "Football is the same: easy or impossible," Perfumo used to say. And he made it look easy on countless occasions, like when he would effortlessly emerge triumphant from the pitched battles that unfolded in that period in the Copa Libertadores, in which he led Racing to glory in 1967 – an achievement they followed up by beating Celtic in the Intercontinental Cup.

Or when he became the first Argentinian football icon in Brazil by capturing four trophies with Cruzeiro. Or when he returned to River Plate at 32, which was considered a ripe old age in the 1970s, to help end the ignominy of their 18-year title drought. Having been crowned a champion with Los Millonarios three times, one day in 1978, now 36, he was on the way to play in a Superclásico and he realised that he was jealous of the people he saw relaxing in the park. That was when he knew the time had come to hang up his boots.

He tried his hand at coaching, but this clashed with his new-found penchant for "eating ravioli and having a nap" on Sundays. He enjoyed the quiet life for a while, getting into the textile business and spending ten years out of football. He resurfaced in the dugout in 1991, challenging for the title with Racing before guiding Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata to the Argentinian Football Association Centenary Cup crown in 1994. After that, though, he would once again prioritise "quality of life" and never coached again.

Journalism proved the ideal avenue for Perfumo to continue his love affair with the game. On top of his wealth of experience as a player, he could offer even deeper insight, drawing on his studies in social science. For more than 15 years, when The Marshal spoke and wrote, everyone sat up and took notice. Just like when the sad news broke of his death on 10 March 2016, at the age of 73, after suffering an aneurysm as a result of an accident.

It is just as well that Perfumo did not heed El Gordo Diaz's words.