Legends of Rome: Alcides Ghiggia

Our Legends of Rome series continues on asroma.co.uk with a mercurial winger who was best known for scoring the winning goal for Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup.

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Alcides Ghiggia was born to a middle class family in Montevideo, Uruguay, on 22nd December, 1926. He had a privileged upbringing as a child and dreamed of being a pilot, but then discovered his natural aptitude for sport. He played both basketball and football as a youngster, but at a little over 5’ 6” he was too short to become a basketball player and so focused entirely on football. He began his career in the lower leagues in the mid-1940s before joining Peñarol (pictured on the far left below), who along with Nacional were Uruguay’s most popular clubs, in 1948. He formed a formidable partnership with Juan Alberto Schiaffino (who would later play alongside Ghiggia at Roma), and in 1949 Peñarol won the Uruguayan championship, having scored 62 goals in 18 games.

Ghiggia’s talent even at this early stage was obvious. Playing as a right winger, he combined his searing pace with a long, powerful stride, great balance and a deceptive strength that meant it was very difficult to win the ball off him as he dribbled mazily up the wing. He struck fear into opposing full backs as he was not only an exceptional dribbler but also had a superb vision and reading of the game. His talent and flair meant that he was already catching the attention of the Uruguayan national team, and a few months before the 1950 World Cup he was selected for the first time. Despite this inexperience, he was included in Juan Lopez’s squad for the finals. There were only three teams in Uruguay’s group, and France then withdrew before the tournament, meaning that Uruguay’s 8-0 win over Bolivia saw them qualify along with Brazil, Spain and Sweden for the second group phase that would decide the winner.

In the final group, Brazil blew away Sweden (7-1) and Spain (6-1), while Uruguay struggled as they edged past Sweden 3-2 and drew with Spain. No one expected them to withstand the Brazilian onslaught, but then the Selecao knew very little about Ghiggia as he was a virtual unknown prior to the tournament. He was making his mark though, as he had scored in all three of Uruguay’s games up to the last game with Brazil. Although there was no final as such, Brazil-Uruguay was essentially a final as the match would decide the tournament – Brazil would win with either a win or a draw, while only a defeat would see Uruguay crowned champions. Many thought Brazil were unbeatable, and one newspaper had even printed a photo of the Brazilian side with the headline ‘World Champions’ on the day of the game, such was the hosts’ confidence. Even the Uruguayan management staff shared the Brazilians’ views, telling the team on their way to the game to ‘at least try not to lose more than 4-0’.

Brazil took the lead shortly after half time through Friaca, but midway through the second half Ghiggia received the ball from Obdulio Varela, raced into the penalty area leaving his marker Bigode trailing behind him and slid in a cross for Schiaffino to equalise. Then, 13 minutes later, came the moment that would define Ghiggia’s life. With 79 minutes on the clock, he skipped past Bigode again and bore down on goal. The keeper, Moacir Barbosa, thought Ghiggia was going to cross it again and left a gap at his near post. It was a fatal error, as Ghiggia buried a low shot inside the post to silence the near 200,000 crowd. Uruguay were world champions. “It hurt me to see a full stadium so sad, to see such a great country become so inconsolable”, Ghiggia said later. “But at the same time, our country was experiencing its most glorious day ever”.

After the World Cup, Ghiggia was a world famous figure. He returned to Peñarol and won the Uruguayan championship again in 1951, but then during a Peñarol-Nacional derby the following year he punched a linesman after he had disallowed one of his goals. He was handed a lengthy domestic ban, prompting Roma’s sporting director Vincenzo Biancone to move in and profit from the situation. On 31st May, 1953, Roma president Renato Sacerdoti announced during a members’ assembly that Ghiggia would be joining. Pandemonium ensued. The World Cup champion arrived at Ciampino on 13th June where there were dozens of fans waiting for him, and he made his debut the next day in a friendly against Charlton Athletic in front of 55,000 supporters at the Olimpico. He was out of form and lacked fitness after his ban, but his class was immediately apparent as Roma ran out 4-2 winners.

It is not hard to imagine the impact of the arrival of a World Cup winner, given Roma’s situation at the time. After Serie A resumed after the war, the Giallorossi flirted with relegation every year until they were finally relegated in 1950/51. Promoted as Serie B champions the following season, it was imperative to re-establish themselves. Ghiggia’s arrival was the move that sparked their rebirth following relegation, and even though their league finishes remained mediocre the Giallorossi played some spectacular football with the likes of Dino Da Costa, Carlo Galli and Pedro Manfredini playing alongside Ghiggia. It was ‘Chico’, though, was the centrepiece as he frequently showed off his repertoire to the crowd’s delight. In fact, there was a big increase in the number of season ticket sales in the Tevere and Monte Mario stands, just so that fans could watch Ghiggia close up for half a game as he jinked and weaved his way down the right wing with tricks they had never seen before. He didn’t score many goals, but instead preferred to create chances for others to score with his pinpoint crosses and devastating dribbling.

Ghiggia remained a starter in the team throughout his time at the club, despite the fact that there were numerous changes on the bench. Mario Varglien, Jesse Carver, Gyorgy Sarosi (twice), Guido Masetti, Alec Stock, Gunnar Nordahl (twice) and Alfredo Foni all came and went during Ghiggia’s eight years in the capital, but he remained a mainstay in the team throughout and even became captain for the 1957/58 and 1958/59 campaigns. As well as his talent, Ghiggia was known for his friendly, affable attitude, as Giancarlo De Sisti recounts. “One day, when I was very young and had just come up from the youth teams, Ghiggia pulled me aside and said ‘let’s knock the ball about, just me and you. You’re one of the few I can do it with’. It was an unforgettable compliment”.

While people liked ‘Chico’ for his generosity off the pitch, he was also generous on it. He was a mercurial talent, capable of the very best as well as the worst, but while he had many strengths, tactical discipline wasn’t one of them. But, when Roma played the great Honved side of Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis in a friendly in 1956, Ghiggia was given strict tactical instructions to help his team negate the ferocious talent in the Hungarian side. On this occasion, he adhered to them and helped Roma to a 3-2 win, scoring one of the goals. The Olimpico went crazy. Similarly, when Roma played Milan on 8th December, 1960, Ghiggia again dug deep in difficult circumstances to lead his team on. Roma were down to 10 men due to an injury to Schiaffino, then went down to nine when Paolo Pestrin got injured. Alfredo Foni asked Ghiggia, the man famed for his dribbling ability, to play deeper and focus on helping out the defence. It was 2-2, with the entire second half to play against a Rossoneri side containing Cesare Maldini, Jose Altafini and Gianni Rivera. According to Il calcio illustrato, Ghiggia “took responsibility of the team and unexpectedly dealt with all the attacking pressure from the visitors”. The game finished 2-2 and the Milan directors were so impressed that they eventually went on to sign him.

Ghiggia was made Roma captain in 1957, taking over from Arcadio Venturi (who Ghiggia named his son after), and he says that the best game he played in during his time at Roma came in that year. It was the Rome derby, and Roma beat Lazio 3-0 with goals from Severino Lojodice, Dino Da Costa and Ghiggia. “The most beautiful thing that can happen to a player is to win a Rome derby”, Ghiggia said. “I loved the supporters and their passion, and I was happy because the fans were happy. Roma were the team of the people, Lazio’s supporters were the team of the well-off”. Shortly after taking the captaincy though, ‘Chico’ caused controversy when he was caught in compromising circumstances in a car with a 14 year old girl who later that year bore him a child. He was eventually given a two-month sentence for obscene acts in a public place. Ghiggia was something of a womaniser, and though he always spoke of his love of the city of Rome he used to complain that photographers followed him night and day – “mostly by night, of course” – on account of his private lifestyle and, as he put it, the “temptations” of the city.

On the pitch, Roma were unfortunately not as successful as the world champion may have hoped. During his time at the club, their best finish was third in 1954/55, and although Roma won the Fairs Cup in 1960/61, Ghiggia only played twice in the competition and had left by the time the final took place in the autumn. He had been close to leaving in 1960 when Roma were in talks with Nereo Rocco, who wanted to sell Ghiggia only to be rebuffed by Roma’s directors, but the following year new coach Luis Carniglia insisted that Ghiggia was no longer needed. After his impressive performance against the Rossoneri, he moved north to Milan – where Rocco was now coach – for their title winning season of 1961/62. Even though he only played four games for them, Ghiggia still qualified for a winners’ medal and returned to Uruguay that summer a title winner. By the time he returned to his homeland, all his World Cup winning team-mates had retired, but Ghiggia kept on playing thanks to his exceptional technical ability and physical condition. By the time he called time on his playing career with Danubio, he was nearly 42.

After retiring, Ghiggia worked in a municipal casino in Montevideo and as a manager of a supermarket, but he still had financial difficulties despite the earnings from his playing career, working after retiring from the game and his state pension later in life. He first had to sell one house he owned in El Pinar, then his second house in Montevideo, and finally his World Cup winners’ medal in 2002 (to much controversy in Uruguay). Even in his 80s, he still asked for up to $5,000 for television interviews to talk about his playing career and to hear reporters ask him to repeat his famous line, “Only three people have silenced the Maracana – the Pope, Frank Sinatra, and me”.

Ghiggia never forgot his time at Roma or lost his love for the club and the city. When Roma turned 80 and he was invited to the capital to participate in the celebrations, he proudly told Il Romanista that “Roma and I are the same age”. In 2014, when he was inducted into Roma’s Hall of Fame, he asked the club “please say hello to my friend Arcadio [Venturi]” and then added “as we used to say, forza Lupi!”. It was only this year that Ghiggia passed away, on 16th July, aged 88. His son Riccardo recalls that when Ghiggia was in hospital, he asked to have the Copa Libertadores game between International and Tigres put on. He died during half time, watching the sport that had been his life.

Ghiggia was a unique player, who loved the fans and who was loved by the fans. It was not only Roma fans who appreciated his remarkable talents – on one occasion when the Giallorossi played at the Moccagatta, he was given a standing ovation by the Alessandria fans in their own stadium. In his club history, Franco Dominici described Ghiggia as having “the natural majesty of a world champion”, and he remains one of only two players to have scored in every game of a World Cup finals. At a time when very few South Americans played abroad, the arrival of Ghiggia at Roma was a major coup for the Giallorossi, and during his eight years in the capital the mercurial Uruguayan gave supporters some unforgettable memories.

Honours: Fairs Cup (1960/61).

Legends of Rome graphics courtesy of forza27.com

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