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Born: Monday 6 December 1937, Ancón, Ecuador
Died: Friday 3 November 2006, Cleveland, United States of America (aged 68)
Position: Centre Forward
Undoubtedly Ecuador's greatest ever player, Alberto Spencer's greatest claim to fame is his long-standing record as the leading goalscorer in the Copa Libertadores. Having never played in the World Cup finals, he remains relatively unknown globally but remains a greatly respected figure in both Ecuador and Uruguay, having spent his entire club career in those countries and represented both at international level.
The son of a British Jamaican, Spencer was born in Ancón in Ecuador on 6 December 1937. He grew up playing football in the fields near his home, before joining local side Los Andes as a teenager. When he was 15, his brother Marcos took him along to the club where he played, Circulo Deportivo Everest. They soon signed up the younger Spencer as well and it was with Everest that he first made his name in senior football.
A pacy centre-forward who was equally confortable shooting with either foot, perhaps Spencer's greatest attribute was his ability in the air where no less a figure than Pelé described him as one of the finest headers of the ball he had ever seen. Having broken into the first team at Everest in the 1955 season, he spend the next few years scoring goals at a prolific rate. With Ecuador due to host the South American Championship in December 1959, Spencer broke into the national team just in time to star in that competition.
He played in all four of Ecuador's games, scoring the equalising goal in their final match against Paraguay which eventually brought their only win of the tournament. Spencer had attracted the attention of Uruguayan side Peñarol, one of South America's leading clubs. He signed early in 1960, scoring a hat-trick on his debut in a friendly against Argentinian side Atlanta, going on to play a starring role in an extremely successful season for the team.
The first two seasons of his career with Peñarol were remarkably similar. The club won the Uruguayan league title each time, with Spencer finishing as leading scorer in 1961. Both seasons also brought runs to the final of the Copa Libertadores, firstly against Olimpia of Paraguay and then Palmeiras of Brazil. On both occasions Spencer scored the only goal in the first leg, before 1-1 draws in the return games gave Peñarol the title.
After the first of those successes, Peñarol had lost the inaugural Intercontinental Cup to Real Madrid, being beaten 5-1 on aggregate despite Spencer's consolation strike in the second leg. A year later however, they fought back from a first leg defeat against Benfica to claim the global title for the first time with a fantastic 5-0 victory in the second match, Spencer contributing two of the goals.
He was leading scorer in the league again in 1962 as Peñarol won yet another title, their fifth in a row stretching back to before Spencer joined the club. They reached the final of the Copa Libertadores again, with Spencer scoring in both games against Brazilian side Santos. However, after one win for each side a play-off was required and it was Santos who came through that match in Buenos Aires to take the title away from Peñarol.
Peñarol lost their title to rivals Nacional in 1963, but won it back a year later and Spencer's performances led to the Uruguayan national team calling him up as a guest player. He scored in a 2-1 defeat to England at Wembley in 1964 and Uruguay hoped to persuade him to become a fully naturalised citizen ahead of the 1966 World Cup in the same country. Spencer however turned down the offer, believing that his loyalties lay with Ecuador and that his home country needed him more.
Spencer could easily have been playing in that World Cup for Ecuador, as they came closer than ever before to qualifying for the finals. Having won their first two games against Colombia, they had two chances to qualify against Chile. A win at home would have sealed it and Spencer gave his country the lead, but Chile fought back to draw 2-2. A point in Chile would then have been good enough but despite Spencer's equaliser, Chile won 3-1 to force a play-off on neutral territory. Ecuador lost that match in Lima 2-1 to miss out on the World Cup, the closest Spencer would ever come to the tournament.
Peñarol won yet another league title in 1965 and a year later, reached the Copa Libertadores final again, this time against River Plate of Argentina. In one of the tournament's most famous finals, Peñarol won the first leg 2-0 but despite another goal from Spencer, lost the second match 3-2. As in 1962, a neutral ground play-off was needed, this time in Santiago. Peñarol trailed 2-0 at half-time but Spencer inspired an incredible fightback. He scored the first goal to get his team off and running and after they forced extra-time, scored again to put them in the lead. Peñarol eventually won 4-2 to claim their third Libertadores title.
Perhaps Spencer's finest hour came at the end of 1966 in the Intercontinental Cup against Real Madrid. Six years on from their thrashing in the 1960 final, Peñarol won both legs 2-0 to take the title for the second time, with Spencer scoring three of their four goals. His performances attracted the attention of leading clubs in Europe, most notably Internazionale, but Peñarol were able to keep hold of their star player.
After losing the league title to Nacional again in 1966, they won it back in style in 1967 with Spencer finishing as the leading scorer in the competition for the third time in his career. Another title followed in 1968 and although Peñarol fell to Estudiantes in the semi-final of the Copa Libertadores, Spencer scored a remarkable ten goals in 14 games in the competition. He remained at Peñarol for another two seasons, although without adding any more silverware as Nacional claimed league honours each time.
Ahead of the 1971 season, Spencer returned to his native Ecuador to see out the final years of his playing career with Barcelona SC. He scored 13 goals in 18 games as Barcelona claimed the league title, as well as further extending his goalscoring record in the Copa Libertadores during a run to the semi-finals. That proved to be the last significant season of his career, as he played just a handful of games in 1972 before retiring at the age of 34. Spencer retired with 54 Copa Libertadores goals to his name, a total which has never been matched.
In retirement, he returned to Uruguay to work at the Ecuadorian embassy. He always retained great affection for Montevideo, and chose to raise his children there. In later life he suffered from heart problems for many years and in September 2006, suffered a heart attack during a checkup with his cardiologist. He died two months later in Cleveland, USA, at the age of 68, but had lived long enough to see Ecuador finally qualify for the World Cup in both 2002 and 2006.
References (all accessed 12 November 2012):
- Published on Monday, 12 November 2012 22:15