When looking back at the South American teams of the 1960s, their brutality is what lingers most in the mind. The Intercontinental Cup matches between Racing Club and Celtic in 1967 and Estudiantes and Manchester United in 1968 captured the attention of the British public, becoming famous for the violence exhibited rather than the quality of football. Amidst the chaotic scenes that the early years of the Intercontinental Cup evoked, one South American club set their legacy as one of the continent’s powerhouses and it was a decade of unrivalled success for Uruguay’s most successful club, Peñarol.
Since the club’s inception back in 1891 as the Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club, the team has become synonymous with quality and success in Uruguayan and South American football. Peñarol had been one of the dominant forces in Uruguayan amateur football and even embarked on a tour of Europe as early as 1927, playing 19 matches in just 80 days, including against Bayern Munich, FC Barcelona, and Atlético Madrid.
As Uruguayan football turned professional during the 1930s, Peñarol and their historic rivals Nacional traded titles back and forth, with 13 victories to 14 in favour of Nacional in the 27 championships held between the first professional season in 1932 and the beginnings of Peñarol’s run to the highest echelons of South American football.
In much the same way that Real Madrid established themselves as the leading force in European football with their dominance of the early years of European Cup, Peñarol’s success in the initial years of CONMEBOL’s answer, the Copa Libertadores, built their reputation as perennial winners and a side capable of playing highly attractive football.
As the winners of the 1959 edition of the Uruguayan Primera Division, the Manyas were the representatives from Uruguay in the inaugural version of the tournament alongside Bahia of Brazil, Jorge Wilstermann of Bolivia, Millonarios of Colombia, Olimpia of Paraguay, San Lorenzo of Argentina and Universidad de Chile. Perhaps fittingly, it was the Uruguayan team who were to contest the first match of the Libertadores, hosting Jorge Wilstermann at the impressive Estadio Centenario.
Had the match against the Bolivian champions turned out differently, the story of Peñarol may well have followed a different path. As it turned out, a quite incredible 7-1 victory set the tone for the decade for the side, allowing their stars to flourish on the highest stage.
The impression of Uruguayan football is strongly based around the principle of defensive solidity and Garra Charrúa, battling with tenacity in the face of being an underdog. The concept worked for the national team during their early history, helping lead to the two World Cup titles they can lay claim to. But for Peñarol, their style was built around the incredible attacking talents of left winger Carlos Borges, right winger Luis Cubilla, and the star man, Ecuadorian striker Alberto Spencer.
Borges scored the opener after just 13 minutes, becoming the first-ever goalscorer in the tournament, and added a second before half-time with Cubilla and Spencer each getting their names on the scoresheet before the interval. Spencer found the back of the net a further three times in the second half, becoming the first hat-trick scorer and all but securing Peñarol a place in the semi-finals. The return leg in Bolivia’s capital La Paz was a closer affair, with a Cubilla goal securing a draw for the Uruguayan champions, ensuring a match-up against Argentina’s San Lorenzo.
After two draws, 1-1 in Uruguay and 0-0 in Argentina, Peñarol and San Lorenzo were to play a playoff match to decide the winner, with Peñarol offering San Lorenzo $100,000 to allow the game to be held in Montevideo after the Valdivia earthquake forced a change of venue. The Manyas appeared to be headed to victory after Spencer’s early strike, but a red-card for José Griecco brought pressure and an 86th-minute equalizer brought the tie level once again. Digging deep into the Garra Charrúa spirit, Spencer responded with his second of the game in the 89th minute, sending Peñarol to the final.
Both legs of the final, contested against Paraguay’s Olimpia, were close ties and settled by late goals. Peñarol won the first leg at home 1-0, thanks to Spencer’s seventh goal of the competition and gave the Uruguayan’s the edge going into the second leg. An early goal had the two sides headed to a playoff but the team were not to be denied, with Cubilla netting his third of the tournament and crowning Peñarol as the first official South American champions.
Back on the domestic front and Peñarol kept up their winning ways, losing just once during the 1960 league season to secure their third title in a row, although it was a close title race with a playoff match being needed to separate Peñarol and challengers Cerro, a match won 3-1 by the Manyas.
The European and South American federations had conceived of the idea of trying to find the world’s greatest club side and arranged for the champions of both continental competitions to meet to crown a winner. After Peñarol’s successes, they were given the task of defeating Real Madrid’s superstar side led by Alfredo di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás. At their home stadium, the Uruguayan champions matched Los Blancos, battling hard for a 0-0 draw, but the quality of the Madrid team showed through at the Bernabéu, with Di Stefano and Puskas combing for three goals inside eight minutes, with a final result of 5-1 to the European champions.
A league and continental double certainly represents a good start to a decade, but Peñarol were just getting started. Despite losing Carlos Borges to Argentinian side Racing Club, the league title was secured once more in 1961, again just losing once across the entire season, winning the title being won by three points from arch-rivals Nacional.
Back in Libertadores action, Peñarol were given a potentially tricky tie in the first round, being matched up against Peru’s Universitario. All fears of an early exit from the tournament were quickly dispelled in the home leg of the tie, with the Uruguayan’s cruising to a confident 5-0 victory.
Signed as a replacement for Borges, the result will have been particularly pleasing for Peruvian Juan Joya, scorer of two goals and a player developed at Universitario’s bitter rivals, Alianza Lima. A 2-0 win in Peru for Universitario was not enough to overturn the deficit, with Peñarol advancing courtesy of goal difference.
In a rematch of the previous year’s final, Peñarol faced Olimpia, although the tie was much more comfortable this time around. The Manyas won both legs, 3-1 at home and 2-1 in Paraguay to progress easily to a second final in as many seasons. With goals in the Libertadores being harder to come by for Spencer this season, vital goals from wingers Joya and Cubilla served to highlight the attacking potential that the side possessed.
Having only scored twice in the four previous matches, Spencer was to step up once more in the tightly contested first leg against Brazilian side Palmeiras, again scoring a late goal in the first match to give his side the advantage. Uruguayan striker José Sasía scored a mere two minutes into the return match and, despite a Palmeiras equalizer, Peñarol successfully held on to the draw and placed themselves at the top of South American football once again.
Heading back across the Atlantic to contest in the Intercontinental Cup for a second successive year, hopes were high amongst the squad, knowing that the talents of Spencer, Sasía, Cubilla, and Joya were a match for any side in the world. Awaiting them were a Benfica containing one of the greatest players to ever grace the game in Eusébio and led by the legendary Hungarian manager Bela Guttmann, who would go on to manage the Uruguayan side the following season.
With travel considerably more difficult than it is for modern footballers, home advantage in these continental or international matches played a significant role, as was proven by the outcome of the clash between the two continental champions. Benfica edged their home match 1-0, before heading back to Uruguay where they were soundly dismantled 5-0, with goals from Sasía and a brace from each of Joya and Spencer.
The pivotal playoff game was to be played just two days later at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, and although the game was a lot closer, two goals from Sasía saw the South American’s emerge victorious, establishing themselves amongst the greatest teams in the world.
The 1962 season saw another league title added to the trophy cabinet, a fifth in a row and again with just a solitary defeat, meaning Peñarol had played 54 matches in their domestic league across three seasons, winning three titles and losing only three times. Having made it to the finals of the Copa Libertadores again, the Manyas were giving the impression of being a truly unstoppable force in the South American game.
In what is still one of the greatest ties in Libertadores history, the Uruguayan’s were matched against Brazilan outfit Santos, a team containing the attacking talents of Pepe, Coutinho, and of course, Pelé. Both teams were victorious in their away leg, a 2-1 win for Santos and a 3-1 win for Peñarol, but it was the Brazilians who ultimately triumphed with two goals from Pelé leading Santos to a 3-0 victory and dethroning the Uruguayans as the best side on the continent.
Whilst 1963 saw the side lose their grip on the league title, being edged out by Nacional, and falling at the semi-final stage on the continent, 1964 brought a return to the top of the Uruguayan game. Losing only five times across four seasons domestically is an impressive record, but Peñarol decided to up the ante, managing to go through the entire season without losing a single match, scoring 42 times and conceding only 11 times across 18 fixtures and winning the title back from Nacional by a comfortable 12 points.
The Uruguayan title was once again secured in 1965, with just a solitary defeat and the team reached a fourth Libertadores final in five seasons, reaching the final in each of the years they had participated, ultimately falling short to Argentina’s Independiente. Although Nacional would regain the domestic title in 1966, Peñarol progressed to a higher goal, winning the continental competition for the third time.
The final of 1966, contested against River Plate of Argentina, once more headed to a decisive playoff match at a neutral location after both teams claimed victory at their home stadiums. Held at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Chile, the match has been ingrained into the psyche of Peñarol supporters throughout the subsequent generations.
The Argentinians, perhaps adapting to the neutral venue better, raced into a two-goal, half-time lead thanks to efforts from tournament top scorer Daniel Onega and Jorge Solari. River Plate seemed in control and comfortably headed towards a first Libertadores title.
The Peñarol players began the second half with the intentions of getting into the faces of their counterparts and intimidating their way to success. Los Millonarios appeared to have surpassed the worst of the reply, but once Spencer confidently volleyed home after 67 minutes, the complexion of the tie changed. Just five minutes later, midfielder Julio Abbadie fired home from just outside of the area to bring the tie level and sending the match into extra-time.
With the comeback seemingly providing extra energy to Peñarol and taking it from River Plate, the extra period was comfortable for the Uruguayans, with goals from Spencer and Pedro Rocha, the key cog in the midfield and one of Peñarol’s and Uruguay’s greatest ever players, securing the third title in dramatic circumstances. The victory also provided the side with the chance to avenge their Intercontinental Cup defeat to Real Madrid.
In what was to prove this generation’s final hoorah on the international scene, the Peñarol squad took the game directly to their counterparts, producing a confident display of attacking football, with the players allegedly asking their opposition if they had brought their own ball to play with as that one was theirs. Two goals from Spencer secured a 2-0 victory in Montevideo and efforts from Spencer and Rocha completed the same scoreline in the return fixture in Madrid, allowing the team to fully avenge the 5-1 humiliation they suffered in 1961.
Despite the fact that Nacional had won the 1966 league title, Peñarol’s 15 game unbeaten run to end the season was the catalyst to one of the team’s greatest ever achievements. Having already managed the entire 1964 season unbeaten, the Manyas managed to complete the incredible feat not once, but twice in a row, going both 1967 and 1968 without losing a single game in league football.
They started the 1969 season with three wins and two draws and with hopes of completing a truly remarkable run of three straight seasons undefeated, but a shock 2-0 defeat to Liverpool Fútbol Club ended the run after a brilliant 56 matches.
In the nine seasons between 1960 and 1968, Peñarol had managed to win seven Uruguayan titles, only losing eight times across 162 games, three Copa Libertadores titles and two Intercontinental Cups and truly established themselves as one of the greatest club sides in the world at the time.
Boasting the outstanding attacking talents of Carlos Borges, although for just one season of this run, Pedro Rocha, Juan Joya, Luis Cubilla, José Sasía, and Alberto Spencer, who remains the leading scorer in Copa Libertadores history with 54 goals in just 87 matches, Peñarol would have been a match for any side in the world.
Although the club has struggled to make a similar impression on the South American game since, a brief rejuvenation during the 1980s aside, they remain one of the most passionately supported and successful clubs in the history of the game, from anywhere in the world. A title bestowed upon them by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics, Peñarol are more than worthy of the title South American club of the 20th century, an honour earned largely thanks to this remarkable run of success during the 1960s.
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