Triumph of the Slaves of Nyanza – Central Español’s Wonder Season
Domestic football in Uruguay is under the stranglehold of a couple of clubs. It is rare for them to face stern resistance. However, that is exactly what happened in the 1980s. And that incredible fight was orchestrated by a small club. It’s the story of that club, Central Español, our Uruguayan Black Swan, presented to you by Debojyoti Chakraborty at Goalden Times.
Football clubs are a dime a dozen in Uruguay. One is more likely to encounter a new club than a new person at cafés or street corners. Such is the love of the game in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital, which is also the breeding ground for most of these clubs. In fact, no team outside the capital has ever been able to win the Uruguayan Primera División—the nation’s top level football league since 1900. Peñarol and Nacional are the two giants in Uruguay, having won the league an astonishing 94 out of 114 times. It’s very rare for any club to break this duopoly. However, that is exactly what happened in 1984.
From Cemetery to Central
There is a Central Cemetery in South Montevideo’s Palermo neighborhood. A club next to it was known as the Central Football Club. On 5 January, 1905, the two neighbouring clubs of Solís de Boccas and Soriano Polideportivo were to play a match against each other. It wasn’t an ordinary match—it was being held to decide the fate of these two clubs. Financial problems had compelled the clubs to merge into one, and the winner of this match would go on to own the administrative control of the newly formed entity. Soriano won the crucial game 2-0, giving birth to the Central Spanish Football Club. The club colours were red, blue, and white in remembrance of a famous group of blacks and lubolos from the neighborhood of La Facala of Flores Island and Tacuarembo: “The Slaves of Nyanza”. 
Football was not so popular in those days, and, like any other newly formed club in the early twentieth century, Central had its share of problems as well. Its first ground was far away in Punta Carretas. Many of the club’s supporters and even players had to travel via boats from Palermo to reach it. This continued for a few years and Central had to shuttle between a few other temporary base camps. In 1908, Central was invited by the Uruguayan Football League to participate in second division matches. They were promoted in their first attempt, after beating the National B team in the last match by 3-1.
Nothing noteworthy happened in the club’s early years, and the best Central could manage was to finish third in the Primera División in 1920. But Central made headlines in 1922, when, together with Peñarol and other clubs, they joined a schism that divided Uruguayan football into two bands of clubs, managers, directors, and fans.  The Association of Uruguayan Football (AUF) was challenged by this rebel group formed under the name of Federation of Uruguayan Football (FUF). FUF organized several unofficial and unrecognized matches against Argentine dissident teams, mainly from Avellaneda – Racing and Independiente. World Cup was still a few years away and the Olympics was the most prestigious football tournament in existence. Amidst ongoing chaos in the domestic front, Uruguay won the gold medal in the Paris Olympics in 1924. With an eye to defend the title in the next Olympics, then Uruguayan President José Serrato united these two streams in 1925.
Central did not have anything to boast about for the next 60 odd years. They kept on hovering aimlessly in the lower levels, sometimes getting promoted to the Primera División without achieving anything significant. Something significant, however, did happen in its administrative front. A group of Spanish football lovers—Spanish Migrations Institute—wanted to set up a club in Uruguay. Instead of establishing a brand new club, they reached an agreement with Central. As a result, from 1971 the club was renamed the Central Español Fútbol Club, or simply Central Español. To celebrate this new venture, the club embarked on a 48-day-long historic tour, playing 16 games in Latin America and Central America.
Rise to Primera División and the Team
Meanwhile, Uruguayan football was being dominated by the usual suspects—Peñarol and Nacional. The first time a third club won the league after the tournament’s inception was in 1976. In a way it was quite similar to the Spanish La Liga that has always been dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona. Central was still languishing in the second tier, and it was not until 1983 that they got promoted to the Primera División. The ascent was achieved under the supervision of Roberto Fleitas. Fleitas would later go on to lift the Copa América, Uruguayan Primera División, the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup (all club honours were won with Nacional). But he dealt a major blow to Central Español as he resigned that year before the start of the new season. An able replacement was the demand of the hour, and in came Líber Arispe. The club was being run on a shoe-string budget and it was not possible to strengthen the squad by infusing big names. So, in all honesty, the target for the club that season was to avoid relegation. But Arispe had set his sight on something bigger.
The foundation in defense was laid by star defender Obdulio Trasante. His partnership with shot-stopper Héctor Tuja was instrumental in Central winning the promotion back to top tier. This pair had to have another fantastic season if Arispe’s big dreams were to come true. To add some steel to the team, seasoned campaigner and ex-Montevideo Wanderers captain Miguel Berriel was roped in. Attacking responsibilities were shouldered by José Ignacio Villarreal. He was released by Peñarol at the start of the season — labelled a flop. Arispe, though, saw glimpses of magic in him and took a gamble.
Full squad for the season included the following players:
Héctor Tuja, Julio Garrido, Javier Baldriz, Carlos Boats, Obdulio Trasante, Miguel Berriel, Tomás Lima, Wilfredo Antúnez, César Pereira, Fernando Operti, Miguel Del Rio, Oscar Falero, Abel Tolosa, Uruguay Gussoni, José Ignacio Villarreal, Fernando Vilar, Fernando Madrigal, Vicente Daniel Viera, Ruben Borda, Daniel Andrada, and Pablo Silva.
Story of that Season
Central had a pretty poor start to the campaign. On the first day, they lost to Bella Vista by 2-1. A win against Miramar Misiones gave them some respite, but back-to-back stalemates against Danubio and Rampla Juniors undid all the good work. The same pattern followed in the next set of matches. A thumping 4-0 victory against C.A. Progreso was overshadowed by draws against Cerro, Peñarol, and then defeat to Nacional. Central entered the first break during the busy league schedule with only eight points from eight matches. Things were far from comfortable at this stage.
Central did not resume their league campaign with any new found vigour, drawing blanks against Defensor. But from the next round, a massive turnaround started. Sud América, Montevideo Wanderers, Huracán Buceo, Bella Vista, Miramar Misiones—all of them faced a rejuvenated Central team and succumbed to defeat. But as is the cut-throat nature of the league, the club then came up against strong resistance. Three consecutive draws against Danubio, Rampla Juniors, and C.A. Progreso seemed to derail their campaign. But a crucial 1-0 win against title contender Peñarol, and then a solid display to snatch a point from another fellow title rival Nacional ensured that Central entered the second break in the league fixture in a much better shape. Nineteen points from a possible 24 during the two breaks—was Arispe’s dream about to come true? Note that they conceded only three goals in this period, claiming nine clean sheets—a truly incredible achievement!
Central started the last lap in the best possible way. Defensor were brushed aside by a margin of 4-1, Sud América were beaten in a nail-biting 5-4 thriller, and Montevideo Wanderers were neutralized in a composed 1-0 display. Central had arrived on the last match day of the season on the back of a fifteen-match unbeaten streak. Winning the league was no longer a dream—it was very much a possibility.
Only Peñarol, who had only lost a single match during the campaign, could challenge them. But they drew blanks against Montevideo Wanderers and presented a golden opportunity to Central Español. Central started their last game on 30 September, 1984 against Huracán Buceo—fully aware of the fact that victory would land them the ultimate prize. All of Palermo gathered in the Parque Palermo to behold history unfold. It was full house—a total of 6,113 tickets were sold for 360,700 peso.  In the 36th minute of the first half, Villarreal put Central ahead through a spot kick against his old club, but the visitors equalized midway through the second half. A draw looked like the only possible outcome of the match. That would have left Central and Peñarol with equal points. But a far inferior goal difference would have resulted in an ultimate loss for the former. Villarreal, though, had other plans. With seven minutes left in the play he netted the hazañoso (heroic) goal—his eighteenth goal of the tournament. He raised his leg almost close to the goalkeeper’s head, and then sent a thunderbolt just underneath the bar. Central had won the league, and Villarreal had achieved immortality in the heart of Central supporters.
That campaign was a historic one. Not only did Central win their maiden league title, they did so right after winning the Segunda División. They remain the only club in Uruguay to achieve this feat till date.
If we look back at their triumphant journey, we can see that Central had an incredibly tight defense throughout the season. Tuja and Trasante marshalled their defensive unit really well, and Central lost only two matches throughout the campaign—conceding only seventeen goals in the process. Villarreal owned every team that campaign. He netted eighteen of Central Español’s total season tally of 39—almost 50%, averaging 0.75 goals every match,and becoming the highest goal scorer of Primera División.
If we analyse the table above, it is apparent that Central did not exactly set the stage on fire. They could not defeat Danubio or struggling teams like Rampla Juniors in two attempts. They conceded four in a match against Sud América—a team that eventually finished at the eleventh spot. Moreover, most of their wins—seven out of thirteen—came by the slimmest of margins. They scored far less than their two biggest competitors—Peñarol and Nacional. But where Central excelled was in coming through at crucial moments. They struggled to start off with, but consolidated brilliantly midway through the season— culminating in an excellent finish. Their head-to-head win over Peñarol also proved decisive in the end.
What happened next
Trasante was poached by Peñarol in the next season and no wonder they won back-to-back league titles. However, he failed to make a name for himself in the international arena as his time with the national team was limited to only five caps. Berriel passed away prematurely at 30 when he was diagnosed with an infection in 1987. Villarreal remained a one-season wonder. He was never again able to find his goal scoring boots, and his international career was also limited to four appearances from the bench.
Central’s fortune also went southwards after that historic season. They finished at a disappointing eighth the following year, and were relegated within ten years. It has since been a topsy-turvy time for Central fans. Till date their club has faced more relegations and promotions than anyone else in the top two tiers of Uruguayan football.
Their success in 1984 was seen as a new dawn in Uruguayan football. Like Defensor did in 1976, Central was once again able to break the monotony of the league by snatching it from the jaws of Peñarol and Nacional.
Even though Peñarol again won the next two editions, several smaller clubs were inspired by Central’s triumph and dared to dream big. Defensor, Danubio, C.A. Progresso, Bella Vista—everyone played their parts in denying the two giants the league till 1992. Unfortunately, the two-horse race prevailed again after this slight hiatus.
Central holds a special place in Uruguayan football. A proud Central club supporter once proclaimed: “Neither Peñarol nor Nacional can achieve this, they will first have to go down to the Segunda and then see if they win the Primera … We are unique. ” 
 Felipe Arocena, Kirk Bowman, Lessons from Latin America: Innovations in Politics, Culture, and Development, University of Toronto Press, 5 August 2014, p 169
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