Francisco Varallo: Striker who was the last surviving participant of the 1930 World Cup final

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The Independent Online

Francisco "Pancho" Varallo, who has died at the age of 100, was the last surviving participant in the inaugural World Cup final in 1930. His side, Argentina, lost 4-2 to the hosts Uruguay in a brutal encounter that set the tone for the fierce rivalry between the two neighbours over subsequent decades.

Born in La Plata in Buenos Aires province in 1910, Varallo – also known as Cañoncito, "the Little Cannon", due to his exceptionally powerful and accurate shot – made a sensational debut for his first club, Gimnasia, in 1928, scoring all the goals in a 9-1 victory. The next year he helped them win their first and only national league title.

That brought him to the attention of the Argentina selectors and he made his national debut a month before the World Cup in the Copa Newton, a regular fixture between Argentina and Uruguay which would turn out to be a rehearsal for the World Cup final. It took him 11 minutes to open his account in a match that ended 1-1. It was the first of six goals he would score in 16 appearances for his country.

The 20-year-old went on to become the youngest player at the World Cup that summer, but his participation was a surprise. "I was not originally one of the first-choice players," he recalled. "Two teams travelled to Montevideo, the first team and a reserve team. I was in the reserves. To make the first team, as well as courage and ability, you needed a bit of luck. Shortly before the finals they had a poll to select the 11 players for the first game. I was chosen ahead of three of the great players of the time, Zito, Marazzi and Rillaga."

Group-stage victories over France, Mexico and Chile, followed by a semi-final win against the US, set up the final against the host nation. Argentina were by far the better side in the first half, but then crumbled in the second and, reduced to nine men, ended up losing 4-2. According to Varallo their cause was not helped by some underhand tactics. On the eve of the final the players were kept up all night by Uruguayan fans who surrounded their hotel, while one of their best players, Luis Monti, allegedly received death threats that left him "unable to relax, as if he was afraid." Varallo claimed that several other team-mates were intimidated by the hostile atmosphere at Montevideo's Estadio Centenario. "The only ones that didn't "shrink" were Carlos Peucelle, Guillermo Stábile, Pedro Suárez and myself," he said. "The rest were scared."

Varallo refused to seek excuses for Argentina's defeat, though. "There were a lot of external factors that influenced the result but we, the players, were the real ones responsible. I have to admit that the Uruguayans beat us because they were more alive and more courageous."

Knee problems which would eventually end his career had put Varallo's participation in the final in doubt. The doctor examining him, who happened to be the son of the Uruguayan president, warned him not to play. To his cost, Varallo ignored the advice. "I didn't believe him because he was Uruguayan. So, I went out on the pitch. But I shouldn't have. Ten minutes into the second half I was done for, I couldn't run any more. "Nolo" Ferreyra set me up with a perfect pass and I smacked it against the crossbar, and in doing so hurt my knee even more. In those days there were no substitutions, so I had to stand around on the pitch like a statue. I was young and impetuous and because I was so desperate to be there, I did whatever I could."

More than 75 years on, Varallo still viewed the defeat as his greatest disappointment. "It caused me a huge amount of pain and bitterness," he said. "I couldn't handle the fact that the Uruguayans were kissing their light blue shirts. I cried a lot. I was a very sensitive lad. Having played the way we did in the first half, I couldn't understand how we'd lost the match."

Following the World Cup, Varallo was transferred from his beloved Gimnasia to Boca Juniors for what was then a huge fee of 8,000 Argentine pesos. He made the move reluctantly, but, with Argentinian football on the verge of turning professional, it was the only way to ensure a career. Boca promised to help him avoid military service, something that Gimnasia were unwilling to do. He won three league titles with Boca (in 1931, 1934 and 1935), going on to become the club's all-time top scorer with 181 goals in 209 matches, a record that was only surpassed in 2008, by Martin Palermo.

In 1937, Varallo played for the Argentina side that won the Campeonato Sudamericano, the precursor to the Copa América, South America's equivalent of the European Championship, scoring three goals. However, he retired early, at the age of 30, as a result of a recurring knee injury. He went on to work on the backroom staff at Boca before returning to Gimnasia to take up a coaching role.

He continued living in the La Plata district of Buenos Aires, in the house that he had purchased using his original signing-on fee for Boca Juniors, until his death. His passion for the game remained undimmed and at 96 he was delighted to accept an invitation to watch a match at Boca's Bombonera stadium, although Gimnasia always remained his first love. In 1994, Fifa honoured Varallo with their Order of Merit. On the day of his death, Boca Juniors shut their doors as a mark of respect.

Dan Brennan

Francisco Antonio "Pancho" Varallo, footballer: born La Plata, Buenos Aires province 5 February 1910; died Buenos Aires 30 August 2010.