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Uruguay’s World Cup mastermind

Glaswegian railway worker John Harley moved to South America as a draughtsman, but became a football legend.


This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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Hewie’s first Scotland cap came in a 1-1 draw with England at Hampden on April 14, 1956. He played well that day and set up a goal for fellow debutant Graham Leggat. After that he won ten straight caps the following year, helping his adopted nation qualify for the World Cup and scoring a penalty in a 4-2 win over Spain.

Uruguay was still pinching itself. Almost a year on from pulling off one of the greatest shocks in World Cup history when they defeated Brazil at the Maracanã to claim the 1950 title, the 45,000 fans at Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario were still rubbing their eyes in disbelief.

Yet this was not a dream. Uruguay had lifted the World Cup for a second time, joining Italy as two-time winners. Spool forward to June 19, 1951, and to the stadium where Los Charrúas had won the inaugural World Cup in 1930, and the country was paying homage to the man who had sown the seeds of this success. His name? John Harley, a railway worker from Scotland.

When John Harley was born in Glasgow on May 5, 1886, nobody could have imagined that he would shape the style of Uruguayan football in such a way that the South American nation would go on to claim double World Cup success. Back in 1886, nobody even knew what a World Cup was. Like many Glaswegians entering the workforce at the turn of the century, Harley made his living on the railways, working as an engineer in Springburn, which was a global hub of locomotive production at the time.

At the age of 20, he would swap northern Glasgow for South America, taking his talents, and his football boots, to Argentina, where he worked as a draughtsman on the new railway lines being constructed along the Río de la Plata.

After initially working for the Bahía Blanca Railway and then for the North Western Railway, Harley made his way to the capital city, where he joined up with the Buenos Aires Western Railway and, more significantly, with the company’s football club Ferrocarril Oeste. As this was back in the era of amateurism, it was not uncommon for workers to play for their employers’ team on a part-time basis. Ferrocarril Oeste were one of the better railway sides; they played in the amateur second division when Harley arrived and were promoted to the first division in 1912. By then, the Glaswegian would be long gone, having been headhunted by a rival from across the Uruguayan border.

In October of 1908, Ferrocarril Oeste played two matches – one home and one away – against Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club, which would cease to be such a mouthful when it was renamed as Peñarol in 1913, thence going on to become one of the most successful clubs in the continent. The Uruguayans won both of the friendly matches, defeating their Argentine counterparts 4-0 and 1-0, but the standout player was not wearing the black and gold of Peñarol. According to the Uruguayan newspaper La Tribuna Popular, “John Harley was, without doubt, the best player on the field”.

As a result of Harley’s performance, Peñarol player and future coach of the team José Piendibene urged the club’s hierarchy to sign the Scotsman. They duly did, offering him a job with the Central Uruguay Railway. Harley was initially hesitant, but he was persuaded to give Montevideo a try for at least a few months. He never looked back.

Nicknamed Juan, Harley settled into his new surroundings with ease and was the club’s captain before long, demonstrating leadership and sportsmanship (even once deliberately passing a penalty wide of the goal because he felt it had been incorrectly awarded). In his role as captain, Harley would little by little evolve the playing style of his club and, ultimately, of his adopted country – for whom he became player-manager, representing Uruguay in internationals from 1909 to 1916.

“He was not physically imposing, but he had complete tactical expression,” Peñarol historian Luciano Álvarez wrote of him. “He was a short player and was a little bow-legged, but he had the ability stop rival forwards without having to move much at all, after which he would simply pass the ball to his best-positioned teammate.”

That may sound routine for modern day football fans, but at the beginning of the 20th century it was not at all normal for players to play a short pass. As Jonathan Wilson explained in his article Glasgow, 1872: The Birth of Tiki-Taka (in Nutmeg Issue 1), the early English approach to the game was either chasing long balls or making a beeline for goal and dribbling until tackled. Having been taught the sport by British immigrants, the majority of whom were English, Uruguayans had adopted this same approach, but the former Springburn railway worker began to alter that and, according to his Peñarol teammate Juan Pena, “was the man who taught us to bring the ball down and to link our play together”.

He consigned long aimless kicking and chasing to the tactical dustbin, and taught his colleagues to work as a team and to pass the ball from one player to another. It was something the Uruguayans were more than happy to do as they were not nearly as obsessed with the agricultural muscularity of the sport as the English immigrants who had introduced them to it. “Uruguay’s style of play – full of short passes and movement, invention, and wizardry – was immediately seen as being much more attractive than the muscular style of the day,” the BBC’s South American football expert Tim Vickery has written of a mode that pleased the Uruguayan participants as much as it did the spectators.

As well as introducing the novel concept of the short pass, Harley altered Uruguay’s tactical shape, particularly with his reinventing of the centre-half position – known locally as the ‘centrojás’. He was the one who made it the important and revered role that it would go on to become in Uruguayan football.

He imported the Scottish 2-3-5 system of the time, but his formation contained some basic revisions in order to reflect the increased desire to pass the ball. The Harley 2-3-5 included one of the earliest variations of the ‘false nine’, with one of the centre-forwards – which would be the indefatigable Piendibene in the case of Peñarol – dropping deeper in order to link up with the midfield, rather than permanently hanging around the penalty area in anticipation of a long ball. The centre-half – who would take up the central position of the midfield three – would play a similarly fluid role, not dissimilar to that of a point guard in basketball. Harley, who made the position his own, would be the link between defence and attack and between left and right, always available and always finding a pass, bestriding the pitch like an early 20th-century Xavi. Many legendary Uruguayan players would follow in the Glaswegian’s footsteps, but he was the true centre-half pioneer.

“Harley became the national side’s first centre-half and brought Scottish erudition to the passing game,” Álvarez has said of Harley, summing up in one sentence the two main evolutions he imported to the Río de la Plata.

By helping Peñarol secure the 1911 Uruguayan league title, Harley’s modifications delivered some initial success, but the real impact of his remoulding of the Uruguayan mindset would not fully bear fruit until after his retirement. When Harley hung up his international boots in 1916, just around the time of the inaugural Copa América tournament – or South American Football Championship as it was labelled at the time – he ceded his centre-half position to Juan Delgado, who was “the first heir to Harley”, as Álvarez wrote in his history of Peñarol, the club Delgado would transfer to in 1916.

Even before the continental tournament, Delgado had already worked with the man three years his elder during Harley’s time with the national team, playing one match each at centre-half in a two-game series against Brazil that same summer of 1916. They played alongside each other on some occasions, with Delgado learning from the Glaswegian up close as the left-sided or right-sided midfielder alongside the national team’s adopted Scottish centre-half. In Harley’s absence, Delgado took over the reins and would start in the centre of the pitch in each of Uruguay’s three matches on their way to winning the first ever Copa América, a success that hinted at what was to come.

Further Copa América glory came in 1917, 1920 and 1923, before the nation tasted intercontinental success at the 1924 Olympic Games. In that year, Uruguay became the first South American side to play a major tournament in Europe, as they made the voyage across the Atlantic to compete in Paris, with José Vidal having inherited the centre-half position by that stage in the national team. It was “chess with a ball” as renowned Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano described it. Or as future L’Equipe editor Gabriel Hanot recalled, “they displayed virtuosity in receiving the ball, in controlling it and in using it wonderfully”. Harley’s methods were still in use and still proving successful.

It should be noted, however, that Uruguay maintained a certain physicality throughout this time of transition. This would prove important when it came to defending their Olympic gold in 1928 against neighbours Argentina and in defeating the same cross-border rivals in the World Cup final of 1930.

Argentina were similarly beginning to apply skill and passing to their football, but Uruguay had retained their inherent fighting spirit of ‘Garra Charrúa’ – which refers to the ferocity of the native Charrúa Indians – and with that combination they were able to out-pass and out-muscle their Argentinian counterparts in the 1928 and 1930 finals to savour a pair of sherbet-sweet triumphs.

Harley may never have been the strongest of players, but his Uruguayan disciples were able to find the balance between aggression and subtlety, one which players such as Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godín are still perfecting in the modern era and one which experts are adamant contributed to Uruguay’s maiden World Cup success.  As Jed Davies explains in his book Coaching the Tiki-Taka Style of Play, “when Uruguay dominated the world of football under Alberto Suppici in the 1930s, they did so by being aggressive in defence, but also by championing technique with the ball and relying on a quick short passing game.”

Although global football as a whole had evolved tactically by the time the 1950 World Cup came around, Harley’s legacy continued to have an impact at that tournament in Brazil. The point guard-esque centre-half was still the most important Uruguayan on the pitch, with captain Obdulio Varela  the man to have taken over from Lorenzo Fernández, who had inherited the position from Álvaro Gestido, who had done so from José Vidal, who was the successor to the first Harley heir Juan Delgado.

There had been a similar progression taking place in the dugout, with the 1950 coach Juan López Fontana having learned from Suppici, who in turn had played against Harley for Nacional over the years before implementing many of his old foe’s teachings in 1930. Harley influenced some players more directly, having spent time as coach of his beloved Peñarol in 1942. 

“The influence Harley had on our methods was decisive in terms of radically changing the technical and tactical approach to Uruguayan football,” explained César L. Gallardo, who will go down in history as the commentator who gave voice to the narration of Uruguay’s famous 2-1 win over Brazil in the 1950 tournament’s final match. “So whenever someone speaks about the Uruguayan tactical school,” he continues, “we should remember the inescapable influence of Harley and we should remind ourselves that he was the man who brought the short pass to Uruguayan football, something which carried us to top of the sporting world.”

That is exactly the gratitude the nation aimed to display by honouring Harley during that June 1951 Rampla Juniors match at the Estadio Centenario. As well as being presented with a gold medal that afternoon, a book containing the signatures of more than 5,000 sportspeople was gifted to the railway worker who shaped the Uruguayan football played during the first half of the 20th century.

Walk through the Montevideo British Cemetery today and you’d struggle to notice the grave of the Scot who went on to become the catalyst for Uruguayan football’s glory years. Look at the highlights reel of Uruguay’s two World Cup wins, on the other hand, and Harley’s legacy jumps off the screen.

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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