When one talks about the rich history of Latin American football, it can quite safely be assumed than one is normally speaking of the disproportionate amount of influence a country as small as Uruguay has had, the speed with which the beautiful game took off in the early part of the 20th century in Argentina or of course the way Brazilian football has mesmerised us in the later part.
In the northern part of the continent, particularly in Venezuela and Ecuador, the game has never really taken off to the same extent. Indeed as Ecuador’s debut World Cup appearance came as recently as the first competition of the 21st century in Japan and South Korea, and their record at the Copa America is largely dismal, one could be forgiven for taking 2002 as a kind of year X for the quintessential banana republic.
It also follows logically to assume that Ecuador’s finest footballer would be a product of the country’s recent emergence, most likely Antonio Valencia, whose meteoric rise from playing barefoot in the humble surroundings of his dusty hometown Nueva Loja on the border with Colombia to the glitz of gracing a Champions League final against Barcelona in a Manchester United shirt has captured the imagination of his countrymen. Valencia seemingly personifies the rapid rise of Ecuadorian Football, with his tough no-nonsense style, his indefatigable work-rate and his pinpoint crosses.
Ecuadorian Football as a serious entity is indeed largely a recent phenomenon and alongside Venezuela their evolution from perennial minnows to realistic World Cup contenders in a short space of time is as admirable as it is difficult to account for.
Amazingly though, a hugely influential Ecuadorian player, not only in his own country, but throughout Latin America, began his rise to fame some half a century ago. The curious hybrid name inscribed on the Municipal Guayaquil stadium on Avenida de las Américas leaves a lasting reminder of a phenomenal athlete: Alberto Spencer.
Spencer’s mother was Ecuadorian, but his father was a Jamaican of British origin who worked in Ecuador on behalf of the Anglo-Ecuadorian Oil Company, a subsidiary of what is now known as BP, a company whose presence in Ecuador continues to cause consternation, particularly among environmentalists to this day.
The fact that many fans in the English speaking world have never heard of Spencer can be explained by two important factors: Firstly, unlike Pelé, Spencer never graced a World Cup, which of course is the greatest stage for any footballer to be seen. Secondly, like many of the great South American players of his day, he never made the trip across the Atlantic Ocean to play for Europe’s top sides. Players like Di Stefano, who starred for Real Madrid, were the exception and not the rule.
The production line of South American players has always been prolific, the fundamental difference in Spencer’s era was that holding onto the players was possible, thus creating something akin to a level playing field between the two continents. Indeed, in the 60s, the South American teams could quite easily go toe-to-toe with their European counterparts and on many occasions came out on top in the annual Intercontinental Cup games.
Spencer was born in Ancón on the Santa Elena peninsula. He began playing football as a small kid with his older brother Marcos, who years later would bring him along to Guayaquil club Everest. Everest saw Spencer’s potential and immediately gave him his debut. Spencer quickly racked up a century of goals for Everest, and was spotted by Peñarol staff while the Uruguayan club were playing on tour in Ecuador. They immediately signed him, and he became a hugely important player in Peñarol’s all-conquering sides of the 60s.
He won an amazing seven league titles with Los Carboneros (the coalmen), along with three Copa Libertadores and two memorable Intercontinental Cup victories.
He scored both at home and away as the Uruguayans dismantled Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup final of 1966. This feat didn’t go unnoticed with Europe’s top clubs, and Peñarol soon found themselves resisting the entreaties of Inter Milan. Whilst playing for Los Carboneros, Spencer went on to score an amazing 326 goals, justifying Peñarol’s stubborn refusal to sell him. Spencer holds the incredible record of being the all-time leading goalscorer in the Copa Libertadores. Spencer’s haul of 54 goals is not insurmountable, but surely to be beaten it would require an outstanding South American player to ignore the lure of Europe, with all it entails financially and in terms of prestige, to concentrate on achieving in his own continent. At this juncture that seems unlikely, though maybe in the future this may change, particularly with the emerging Brazilian economy.
A great number of fellow professionals from his era regarded him highly, with Pelé in particular alluding Spencer’s heading ability being the finest that he had ever seen. Curious then, that in the latter days of Spencer’s life (in 2004), when Pelé came to draw up (or put his name to) a list of the greatest living 100 players, Spencer was shunned in favour of a bizarre mishmash of manifestly PC selections aimed at including each of the World’s continents like El Hadji Diouf of Senegal, Hidetoshi Nakata of Japan, Hong Myong Bo of South Korea and Mia Hamm of the United States ladies team.
In time honoured gentlemanly Spencer style, when questioned about the matter, he declined to criticise the selections. This dignified response lies in stark contrast to Brazilian Gerson, who ripped up the list on Brazilian television and launched into an extraordinary rant about his exclusion.
Spencer was the first Ecuadorian player to score against England at Wembley in 1964. No mean feat considering that Ecuador’s national side have never played at Wembley. He scored the goal whilst representing Uruguay as a guest, something he did on a number of occasions in friendlies, whilst stating clearly that he would never abandon the country of his birth. He made 11 appearances for his homeland Ecuador, and continues to be revered there.
Indeed as a labour of love to his homeland, Spencer returned in 1970 to finish his career at Ecuador’s most emblematic club Barcelona of Guayaquil, where he added an Ecuadorian title to his illustrious list of honours before finally hanging up his boots. Such was the esteem in which he was held back in Montevideo, he was sent by the Ecuadorian government to remain there as honorary vice-consul at the embassy. He brought up his children in the Uruguayan capital and held the place in great affection.
A pervasive Eurocentric view (of the football world at least) is ever more difficult to resist as the economic gulf between the clubs of the two dominant football continents is more apparent than ever. Neymar’s oft-reiterated commitment to remain at Santos until the Brazil World Cup, turned out to be a hollow promise as economic reality for the Brazilian club and the lure of Barcelona for the player won out.
Equally it is sad in many ways that a player like Messi, who so clearly continues a distinguished tradition of Latin American No.10s, was uprooted and taken away from his own continent at such a young age, never representing his hometown club at senior level.
Spencer too, of course, was uprooted from his beloved homeland the moment his talent was discovered by the giants of Peñarol, but Spencer belongs in an era of more idealistic era of Latin American Football, when (Southern Cone) clubs aspired to keep their best players in order to prove their supremacy against their ex-colonial masters, rather than aspiring to supply Europe with players to ensure their own survival.
Peñarol indeed twice proved their supremacy against Real Madrid and Benfica in the 1960s, with Spencer’s goals playing a pivotal role. Little wonder then, that some four decades on, supporters of Las Manyas still hold banners and chant the name of Alberto Spencer, beyond any reasonable doubt Ecuador’s greatest ever player.