19 September 1993, Rio De Janeiro. The national teams of Brazil and Uruguay sprint on the hallowed turf of the Maracanã stadium in a Russian roulette for a place in the next summer’s World Cup. La Seleção has not won a World Cup in 23 years and a loss may mean missing out on the tournament – an unprecedented event.
Plucky Bolivia had amassed 10 points in five matches, the same as Brazil and Uruguay. It would take a brave man to bet on them not getting at least a point in their last match against Ecuador. It is likely that a few Seleção fans nervously remember the fateful day of Maracanazo. Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira knows the gravity of the situation & has thus ended his spat with star striker Romário. Uruguay’s hopes revolve around their own fantasista, the spindly maestro Enzo Francescoli.
The day will belong to Romário who draws first blood by heading in a cross from Raí and then scores a second after springing the offside trap. Brazil wins 2-0. Bolivia get a draw. Uruguay misses their first World Cup since 1982. The Uruguayans are devastated & coach Luis Cubillla finds a figure to vent his rage. Trying to forge a team on nationalistic fervour, Cubilla’s relationship with his overseas stars is already strained. He singles out Francescoli, who had a torrid evening and reportedly says, “That man is a traitor to his country, so take away his passport!”.
His words have a scathing impact on Francescoli, who has his own version of Maracanazo on that day – he would later admit that he broke down into tears in a corner of the iconic stadium.
23 July 1995, Montevideo. A lot has changed since that fateful day in Rio. Brazil are now world champions. Their squad for 1993 Copa América has no Bebeto or Romário, although the latter’s bete noire Edmundo brings offensive potency. Brazil also has Dunga, Claudio Taffarel, Aldair, Roberto Carlos and Jorginho. Uruguay are looking to keep intact their incredible record of having won every single international tournament that took place on their soil.
After the half-hour mark, the Brazilians silence the crowd as Tulio puts them ahead. That lead lasts till six minutes of the second half when Pablo Bengoechea bends in a delectable free-kick. The match isn’t a great spectacle and there are no more goals. As a tie-breaker ensues Brazilians perhaps feel confident – they have won the World Cup a year back on penalties and eliminated Argentina via the same route in the Copa quarter-finals.
Francescoli takes the first kick. His run is slightly awkward as he aims to the right bottom corner. Taffarel guesses it correctly but the shot is perfectly placed. Francescoli’s celebration is a release of gargantuan tension. Four kicks and four successful conversions later, Uruguay’s 35-year-old unheralded ‘keeper Fernando Alvez parries Tulio’s weak shot. Uruguayans refuse to wilt under pressure and as soon as Sergio Martínez’s fifth kick hits the net there’s delirium. The players pile on each other, many fans rush onto the pitch.
A few minutes later life comes to a full circle for Enzo Francescoli when he lifts the huge Copa América trophy. Few had envisioned this during the catastrophe of 1993. Winning that match against the world champions will be remembered as one of his great moments. It added a brighter shade to a spectral career which saw him become one of the finest footballers of his generation.
Enzo Francescoli was born on 12 November 1961 in the Capurro area of Montevideo. His father, Ernesto was a great lover of Peñarol and was a part-time footballer. Along with his brother Luis, a young Enzo picked up his first set of football skills on the streets before becoming a star for his school San Francisco De Salles.
As an upcoming talent, he soon attracted the attention of talent scouts and was courted by Peñarol and River Plate. However, Francescoli chose to continue his fledgling career with his successful college team.
In 1976, he had his breakthrough with childhood friend Gustavo Raúl Perdomo playing a big part. Perdomo was a member of the Montevideo Wanderers youth team who was set to play a match against Francescoli’s school team. Perdomo informed his coach about his friend and asked him to keep an eye on his explosive talent. Francescoli’s team lost, but the boy was impressive, prompting coach José María Martiarena to secure his signature.
Wanderers were hardly a glamorous outfit and their youth team ran a tight ship, meaning a young Enzo often had to play in different positions due to lack of players. Francescoli was still in school so he would sometimes have his classes on Saturdays and turn up late for matches. However, such was his importance that his coaches started games with just ten players so that he could arrive and immediately join the action.
Francescoli made his senior debut with Wanderers in March 1980 against Defensor Sporting, helping his team win 5-0. With the young prodigy in their ranks, Wanderers had their best season in almost half a century, finishing as runner-up and followed it with a third-place finish in 1981. By that time, it was clear that Francescoli was too explosive a talent to remain with his modest club – River Plate had already been following his progress and he was even linked with AC Milan.
It took him just a year of professional football to get his first taste of international football with the Uruguayan U20 team. He was one of the standout performers at the 1981 U20 South American Championships in Ecuador, scoring against arch-rivals Brazil and Argentina on the way to sealing the title.
As champions of South America, the Uruguayan U20s next destination was Australia for the 1981 U20 World Cup. Uruguay soared through the group stage with an all-win record then surprisingly lost to Romania in the quarter-final. Despite that disappointment, it was a fantastic first year of international football for Francescoli as he was ever-present in Uruguay U20 team.
In 1982, he made his debut with the senior team in an unlikely location – Calcutta, India. The All India Football Federation had started an invitational international tournament called the Nehru Cup involving teams like Uruguay, China, and the Italian Olympic team. Just like at youth level, Francescoli’s start with the senior team also went off smoothly. Uruguay won the title with him playing a starring role. Next stop, the Copa América.
The 1983 Copa was organized in a scattered format and played over multiple locations. Uruguay won their first two home matches but their chances of reaching the semi-final were jolted after a 2-0 loss to Chile. However, Uruguay squeezed out a narrow 2-1 victory against Venezuela to reach the semi-final. Unimpressed by his team’s performance, coach Omar Borras decided to inject some young blood and started Francescoli against Peru in the two-legged semi-final.
This tactical move immediately paid dividends as the 21-year-old played a decisive part, propelling Uruguay to a 2-1 aggregate victory and a spot in the final against Brazil.
Brazil had wowed the fans all over the world in the World Cup the previous year. They didn’t have the inspirational Tele Santana as coach or stars like Zico and Falcao. But they still boasted of Éder, Junior and the majestic Socrates, who joined forces with Vasco Da Gama’s goal machine Roberto Dinamite.
In the first leg, Uruguay’s strategy was simple. They tried to hamper Brazil’s fluid style with high pressing and cluttering tackles while using fast counter attacks to open their often fragile defence. Francescoli played the role of a ‘10’ perfectly, combining with tenacious Carlos Aguilera and often dropping back, taking on multiple defenders to open up spaces for other attackers.
In the 40th minute he had found the net but the goal was controversially chalked off for a freekick on the edge of the box. Undeterred, Francescoli stepped up and bent his freekick past Leão in Brazil’s goal. There could hardly have been a better way to open one’s account in international football. Ten minutes before the final whistle, right back Victor Diogo started and finished a move to make it 2-0.
A week later, Francescoli and his team held their nerves in front of a Socrates powered midfield and 95,000 crowd to secure a stalemate in Brazil to clinch Uruguay’s 12th Copa title. Francescoli played just half the matches in his first Copa but that was enough to win him the award of the best player of the tournament.
Fresh from his Copa success, Francescoli moved to the next level as River Plate finally snapped up the player they had scouted since he was a teenager. After protracted negotiations, the final transfer amount was decided to be $310,000 and an additional 20% to Wanderers from future sales profits. River lacked enough cash so they paid $50,000 and the rest was done through installments with an endorsement from the Bank of Naples.
Los Millionaires had suffered a torrid 1982, finishing 10th in Metropolitano Championship and 6th in Nacional Championship. The River fans were understandably excited at the prospect of one of the continents brightest young talents putting on their red and white shirt. When Francesoli’s flight touched Buenos Aires in April 1983, over 200 fans had already gathered to welcome him to River Plate. Four days later he made his debut against Huracan.
In an interview to El Grafico after joining River Francescoli said, “For all that was published about me many people could think that Francescoli grabbed the ball and he could win the game on his own, and the truth is another. I come to join a team and not to have a team attached to me. River will improve as a whole and not by an individuality”.
His words were prophetic. River finished a lowly 18th in Metropolitano and were saved from relegation only because the format was going through a revamp. Francescoli himself took time to adjust to his new surroundings, having moved out of Montevideo for the first time in his life.
After another slow start, he finally hit form in the second half of 1984 and his partnership with River icon Norberto Alonso blossomed. Los Millionaires reached the final of Nacional where they lost to Ferro Carril Oeste 4-0 over two legs. In the Metropolitano, Francescoli tore apart opponent defences, top-scoring with 24 goals as River improved their table position to 4th. 1984 proved to be further successful for Francescoli when he won the South American Footballer of the Year award.
Even by Argentine standards, the 1985 Campeonato Nacional was hopelessly complicated with 32 teams were divided into 8 zones. The tournament also included a unique double-elimination format and teams were divided into separate winners and losers sections in each phase.
River went to the final phase of the losers section before being eliminated by eventual runners up Vélez Sarsfield. Francescoli’s team faltered in the Campionato but there was personal triumph being selected as Argentine Footballer of the Year – the first time a foreigner had won the award.
The dual Metropolitano-Nacional format of championship was scrapped and the 1985-86 season saw Argentine División Division conducted in a more conventional European-styled league. Under Héctor Vieira, River became a juggernaut, sweeping everything in front of them and winning the league title with a ten-point cushion.
Midfield general Américo Gallego was an inspirational leader while Oscar Ruggieri, Nery Pumpido and Nelson Gutiérrez ensured they had the meanest defence in the league. Upfront, Francescoli was at his clinical best, finishing as top scorer thanks to an incredible 25 goals in 32 matches. One of his most cherished performances was a brace during a 5-4 goal-fest against Argentino Juniors.
In February 1986, Francescoli scored arguably the greatest goal of his career. The Polish national team had embarked on a tour of South America to prepare for the World Cup. They were leading against River when a cross was floated in from right-wing. Oscar Ruggieri beat a Polish defender in the air and headed it towards Francescoli. The Uruguayan received it with his chest and as the ball bobbed up, he went airborne and connected it with a thunderous overhead kick.
Before the Polish ‘keeper moved a muscle, the ball had traced a precise parabolic arc and nestled into the net. He had become a bit of a specialist with such goals but even by his lofty standards, this was impossibly perfect execution.
With his first league title in the bag, Francescoli arrived in Mexico for his first-ever World Cup. As defending South American champions, there was great expectation of Uruguay even though they were clubbed with West Germany, Scotland under Alex Ferguson and Denmark.
The two-time winners started with an encouraging draw against the Germans. In the next match, Francescoli scored his first World Cup goal from the penalty spot. Unfortunately, it faded into insignificance with Denmark dishing out one of the tournament’s most famous performances and scoring six times. A nervy draw with Scotland ensured progress to the second round but Argentina, containing many of Francescoli’s River teammates, ended Uruguay’s campaign with a 1-0 victory. Although he had his moments, neither Francescoli nor his team managed to meet the pre-tournament hype.
Francescoli’s brilliance in Argentina had attracted European clubs. FC Nantes from Ligue 1 tried to sign him but he was instead sold to newly-promoted Racing Club de Paris. Racing Club were not a traditional powerhouse but had recently received a cash injection from racing car manufacturers Mécanique Aviation Traction. They assembled an ambitious team with players like Maxime Bossis, David Ginola, Pierre Littbarski, and Rubén Paz.
Racing Paris rarely performed with consistency in the league and eventually finished 13th after picking up just 36 points in 38 matches. It was, however, a good first year in Europe for Francescoli who found the net 14 times and was fourth in the list of league top scorers.
Uruguay were looking to make up for their World Cup disappointment when they travelled across Rio de la Plata to defend their Copa América title in Argentina in June 1987. As holders, they got a direct pass to the semi-final against hosts and world champions Argentina. Playing in front of 75,000 fans at La Bombonera, Uruguay played a rough and feisty game, blunting Diego Maradona while securing a smash and grab 1-0 win.
In the final, they met Chile, who would match them in a no holds barred approach. One of the most ill-tempered finals of all time saw four players get sent off, two from each team. One of these four was Francescoli who was ejected on 27th minute and played little part in his team successfully defending the title.
Francescoli’s next two seasons In Paris showed a familiar pattern where he was too good for his team. With 18 goals in 57 matches, he was Racing’s top scorer in both seasons and further endeared himself to the fans with goals against rivals Paris Saint-Germain. However, his team finished seventh in 1987/88 and almost got relegated in the season that followed. Without silverware, it would have always been difficult to sustain their spending spree so it wasn’t astonishing when Francescoli moved to Marseille in 1989.
Just before joining Marseille, Francescoli reunited with his national squad in a bid to complete a hattrick of Copa América titles. Uruguay looked well on course to achieve that feat as they qualified from the group stage and then defeated Paraguay and Argentina in the final stage.
Francescoli yet again played his part in Copa – scoring twice in four matches. The title decider game against Brazil, at the Maracanã on the very date of Maracanazo. Destiny, however, was kind to the 148,000 Brazilians at the stadium as Seleção, powered by the irresistible combo of Romário and Bebeto, eked out a 1-0 victory and won their first Copa in 40 years.
Les Olympiens had won the Ligue 1 title in 1988/89 season after a gap of 17 years. Bankrolled by Bernard Tapie, Marseille were well on their way in assembling one of the greatest teams in French football history. Francescoli joined a star-studded squad which also contained Jean Pierre Papin, Abedi Pele, and Chris Waddle.
He was well accustomed to French football and immediately became a vital player for Marseille. His combination with Papin yielded 41 goals with Francescoli scoring 11 of them. He played in every match of his debut European Cup and had a major part in Marseille reaching the last four, where they were knocked out by Benfica.
Francescoli’s successful stint in France had made him one of the most loved foreign players in Ligue 1. Among thousands of his admirers was a young boy of Algerian descent named Zinedine Zidane, who like Francescoli, was learning the game on the streets of Marseille. Zidane was so enamoured by Francescoli’s playing style that he made the Uruguayan his idol.
Indeed, at his best Enzo Francescoli was poetry in motion and his stylish play had earned him the nickname of “El Principe”, the Prince. His greatest strengths were his technical ability, close control, and dribbling. Like many gifted footballers, Francescoli seemed to have that uncanny ability of always appearing to have an extra second to make a decision. His first touch was sublime.
He wasn’t a jet-heeled footballer but there was a certain languid grace about his movements – he often gave an impression of gliding over the turf with the ball in his feet.
Francescoli had the gift of versatility and could play as a supporting striker, an attacking midfielder or even as a central midfielder. At club level, especially in South America, he was a prolific goalscorer. He also had a great passing range and a vision for through balls. Francescoli wasn’t physically imposing and his slender frame earned him his second nickname of “El Flaco”, the skinny one.
Many footballers could struggle with such a physique but he turned it to an advantage and used it to score a significant number of overhead kicks. Despite his apparent lack of strength he rarely struggled with fitness problems and enjoyed a long career.
For all his achievements, one of his greatest regrets was perhaps the lack of success in the World Cup. He came into Italia ‘90 after a superb season with Marseille, hoping to improve on the showing of 1986. Uruguay qualified from their group thanks to their win over South Korea and a draw against Spain. Yet again, their campaign ended in the first knockout round after a 2-0 reverse against hosts Italy.
Serie A was the best league in the world at that time so it wasn’t surprising when Francescoli shifted his base to Italy after the World Cup. His destination in Serie A, Cagliari, was perhaps surprising. He was a high profile signing and hundreds of Cagliari fans greeted him on arrival, showering him with scarves and chanting his name. In a league filled with world-class teams, the Sardinians were always underdogs and thus relied on a counter-attacking style. Francescoli was used in a deeper midfielder role and like many players who thrived on creative freedom, he suffered on the tactical chessboard of Serie A.
In his first two seasons, he played 67 matches but managed to score only 10 goals and Cagliari were perennially fighting bloody relegation battles. Despite his failings, fans stood by their star player. Francescoli acknowledged this and said in a 1992 interview, “when I put the Rossoblu shirt on, I feel the same emotion as when I am wearing the Celeste shirt”.
His third season was his best in Serie A when he scored 7 goals in 32 matches and was the linchpin for a Cagliari side that finished above Sampdoria, Roma, and Napoli to qualify for UEFA Cup. He was soon on the move again, joining Coppa Italia winners, Torino. In Sardinia, Francescoli didn’t win many matches or score a lot of goals but he was worshipped by Rossoblu faithful. He would later be included in Cagliari Hall of Fame as well as their greatest ever XI.
His lone season in Torino was underwhelming as Il Toro finished 8th and were knocked out by lowly Ancona in Coppa. For Francescoli, the early 1990s were not just frustrating at club level but also in international football. Luis Cubillla had fallen out with his international stars and kept Francescoli out of the 1991 Copa squad and benched him in the 1993 edition.
Such was the level of animosity that despite being arguably the best player of his country, Francescoli didn’t play a single match for Uruguay between June 1990 and July 1993. This was followed by the nadir of his international career when Uruguay failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.
In a bid to resurrect his career Francescoli, now well into his 30s, returned to his spiritual home at River Plate. In September 1994, he made his second debut for River, scoring from the spot in a Supercopa Libertadores match against Nacional. River fans were treated to some of the best performances from their idol in 1994 Apertura Campionato. With Francescoli top-scoring Los Millionaires lifted the Apertura title without losing a match. He continued to shine throughout the season, tallying 23 goals in 39 matches. The following year, River didn’t win much silverware but Francescoli notched 23 goals in 38 matches.
Back in contention for the national team, Francescoli carried the same form to Copa América. Turning back the wheels of time, he scored twice in the group stage and paved the way for Uruguay to top their group. Their victims in the quarter-final were Bolivia while an extremely talented Colombian team was swept aside 2-0 in the semi-final.
And so, it came down to yet another pivotal match in Francescoli’s career against Brazil. He not only managed to lift the title as captain but was also voted as the best player of the tournament, exactly 12 years since achieving the same as a greenhorn – a remarkable feat. He also clinched South American Player of the Year, edging out Diego Maradona and Edmundo.
After the Copa América, he announced his international retirement and was now completely focused on club football. The 35-year-old then led River to one of their great seasons, winning both Apertura as well as Copa Libertadores. He spearheaded an exciting albeit inexperienced attack comprising of Hernán Crespo and Ariel Ortega.
Powered by the triumvirate, Los Millionaires scored 28 goals to become champions of South America for the second time in their history. He also participated in his first Intercontinental Cup against a Juventus side which contained Zidane. Juve won the title and the French maestro sought out his idol after the final whistle to swap shirts.
1997 was Francescoli’s last great season and proved to be a landmark year for his club. As captain Francescoli played an active part in River winning both Apertura and Clausura championships. They completed a unique treble in December that year by winning the last edition of Supercopa Libertadores.
In 1998, Francescoli retired from football. In his club career, he amassed an impressive 220 goals in 572 matches while achieving iconic status in both River Plate and Cagliari. He is River’s 7th all-time top scorer with 137 goals from 217 matches. For Uruguay he scored 17 goals in 73 matches and was the absolute king of Copa América, winning it three times.
However, Francescoli’s greatness cannot just be measured by statistics or the amount of silverware. His true greatness lies in how he mesmerized fans with his style during his career.
In the moments of brilliance where he bamboozled both his opponents and left the spectators drooling. The essence of what Il Principe meant to fans is perhaps best captured by the flowery lyrics of “Inmenzo”, a song dedicated to him by Argentine songwriter and River fan Ignacio Copani, “Enzo takes his talent as a spear, without using brute force or fear, however the opponent recedes, defeated, when the prince, advances.”