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Born: Thursday 20 September 1917, Paysandú, Uruguay
Died: Friday 2 August 1996 (aged 78)
Despite a long and successful club career which brought six league titles with Peñarol, Obdulio Varela is best remembered both in his native Uruguay and around the world as the inspirational captain of the team which stunned Brazil to win the World Cup in 1950. Captain of Uruguay for 13 years, he also appeared for his country in their defence of that title in 1954 and Uruguay never lost a World Cup match in which Varela appeared.
Obdulio Jacinto Muiños Varela was born in the town of Paysandú on 20 September 1917. Throughout his life he was popularly known by his mother's maiden surname of Varela rather than his father's surname Muiños. Throughout his life he lived in relative poverty, earning money as a child by selling newspapers in the streets. Leaving school as early as he could to pursue his dreams of being a footballer, Varela joined Deportivo Juventud in 1936 and learned his trade in the lower leagues in Uruguay.
Playing at centre-half, Varela's style was a forerunner of a modern holding midfielder. He got his chance to play at the highest level when he moved to Montevideo Wanderers in 1938. Helping the team to a fourth place finish in the league in his first season, he was called into the national squad for the 1939 South American Championship in Peru. His debut came in Uruguay's second match, a 3-2 win over Chile, but he did not appear in the decisive final game against the hosts which Uruguay lost to finish in second place.
At club level, Varela's time with Wanderers was only moderately successful. Between 1939 and 1942, they finished third in the league three times in four seasons but the leading clubs Nacional and Peñarol were just out of reach. He remained a crucial member of the national team however, becoming Uruguay's captain in 1941 as they finished second in the South American Championship again, before winning it on home soil a year later.
It was just a matter of time before he moved to one of the bigger clubs in Montevideo and early in 1943, Varela signed for Peñarol where he would spend the remainder of his playing career. His first season saw Peñarol miss out on the title to Nacional, but in 1944 the two teams finished level on points and a play-off was needed. After a goalless first match, Nacional led the replay 2-0 but Peñarol quickly pulled a goal back before Varela equalised with a penalty. A third goal minutes later gave Peñarol a 3-2 win and Varela a first league title.
Peñarol defended their title in 1945 and after finishing second to Nacional for three years in a row, won it back from their rivals in 1949. Varela's international career however came to be characterised by frustration through the mid-1940s as Uruguay were only able to finish fourth in the South American Championship in both 1945 and 1946. The chance to put that right would come in the World Cup in Brazil in 1950, a tournament in which Uruguay had not appeared since winning the inaugural tournament 20 years earlier.
Varela, firmly established as his country's captain, led the team into a bizarre first round group where the withdrawals of Scotland and Turkey left only a weak Bolivian team as opposition. Uruguay won 8-0 to cruise into the final round, which would uniquely be played in a round-robin format. Hosts Brazil were strong favourites for that group and won their first two games easily, while Uruguay on the other hand struggled. Varela's late goal rescued a draw with Spain, before they twice came from behind to beat Sweden 3-2.
The title would be decided by the final match between Uruguay and Brazil, who were odds-on favourites and needed only a draw. One newspaper proclaimed Brazil champions on the morning of the match, so enraging Varela that he bought numerous copies of the paper and encouraged team-mates to urinate on them. Even the Uruguayan FA seemed to have accepted the inevitability of defeat, but Varela had not, encouraging his team to be positive, ignore to 200,000 strong crowd and believe they could win.
Brazil dominated much of the game but did not break through until early in the second half. When they finally did score, crowd went wild but Varela saw a chance to turn the match in his team's favour. He spent several minutes arguing the validity of the goal, all the time knowing there was nothing wrong with it but giving his team chance to recover, the crowd time to quieten down and Brazil time to get nervous. The tactic worked, as goals from Juan Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia turned to match around. The match ended in near silence as Uruguay won 2-1 and Varela lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy. That night, he was in a bar with Brazilian fans and feared for his safety when he was recognised, but the fans congratulated him on Uruguay's success and stayed to drink with him.
Back in Uruguay, the early 1950s brought great success for Varela with Peñarol. They were champions in 1951, 1953 and 1954 with only a play-off defeat to Nacional in 1952 denying them a run of four consecutive titles. During that run Peñarol signed their first shirt sponsorship deal, angering Varela who refused to wear a shirt bearing the logo. Despite being well into his mid-30s Varela remained captain of Uruguay throughout those years and was able to lead his country into their defence of the World Cup in Switzerland in 1954.
Victories over Czechoslovakia and Scotland took Uruguay through to the quarter-finals, where they would face England. After he had seen his team lose an early lead, Varela put Uruguay back in front just before half-time but picked up a bad leg injury during the match. With no substitutes allowed he played on as Uruguay won 4-2, but was not fit for the semi-final against Hungary and without him Uruguay suffered their first ever World Cup defeat.
The match against England proved to be his final international and just a year later, Varela brought his playing career to an end. Working for a short time alongside team-mate Roque Máspoli as coach at Peñarol, he came on as a substitute in a game against Sud América but realised that he could no longer cope with top level football and decided to retire. In his retirement he rarely gave interviews and lived in relative obscurity. Obdulio Varela died on 2 August 1996, aged 84.
References (all accessed 22 February 2012):
- Published on Wednesday, 22 February 2012 13:45