There have been a number of tremendous talents to have crossed the Río de la Plata and grace the Argentinian Primera División. Jack Tilghman picks out his top ten Uruguayans….
Uruguay and Argentina, despite many political differences and a fierce rivalry on the field, are two nations forever linked by their geographical location and cultural similarities. Most importantly a shared love of tango, yerba mate, asado, dulce de leche, and most importantly, fútbol. The love of for the beautiful game can be seen in the stands, where Argentine and Uruguayan supporters create an atmosphere unlike anywhere else in the world, particularly in the two major clásicos in each country, Boca Juniors vs. River Plate in Argentina and Peñarol vs. Nacional in Uruguay.
The contributions of Uruguayans in Argentina has been massive. No other country has given so much to football in Argentina, making the compilation of the best players to cross the Río de La Plata extremely challenging. While making a list of the top players from Colombia was difficult, the majority of players from that nation did not start moving to Argentina until the 1990’s. Compiling this list required the comparison of players across many eras, no easy feat.
In the end, the list is mainly personal, and is based mainly on what players have accomplished in Argentine football. This means a Juventus legend like Paolo Montero misses out as he played just 14 games for San Lorenzo. It also means that a world star and two-time European Golden Boot winner Diego Forlán finishes behind the likes of Sergio Manteca Martínez and Polilla Da Silva, two players virtually unknown to a European audience, as he did not manage to win a trophy or finish as top scorer, despite having a very good record at Independiente.
Narrowly missing out on the top ten are two well-travelled iconic strikers, Sebastián El Loco Abreu (San Lorenzo, River Plate, Rosario Central) and Santiago Silva (Newell’s Old Boys, Gimnasia, Vélez Sarsfield, Banfield, Boca Juniors, Lanús, Arsenal)
It was impossible to choose between these two journeyman forwards. Although El Loco enjoyed far more success abroad and with the Uruguayan national team, in particular his famous panenka penalty against Ghana in the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup, Silva was one of the true stars in Argentine football ouring the first 15 years of the 21st Century.
Abreu made three stops in Argentina during his globetrotting career, representing a total of 24 clubs, and helping both San Lorenzo and River Plate to league titles during his time in Argentina.
While Silva twice finished as the league’s top scorer , including the 2009 Apertura where he helped Banfield to the only league title in their history, forming a lethal attack with James Rodriguez and countryman Papelito Fernández. He was also one of the key men as Vélez won the league title in 2011 and reached the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores before spells with Fiorentina and Boca. At Lanús, Silva helped El Granate win the 2013 Copa Sudamericana under coach Guillermo Barros Schellotto. He would also have a brief spell with Arsenal Sarandí and a return to Banfield, before moving to Chile during El Taladro’s financial crisis in early 2017.
El Loco Abreu had two spells with San Lorenzo, managing to score 42 goals in 72 games, winning the 2001 Clausura. His time at River is perhaps best remembered for the club’s catastrophic collapse against his former club, losing a two-goal lead despite a two man advantage, but his goalscoring record for the club was impressive, particularly at the international level, where he scored a hat-trick against San Martín of Peru and grabbed a late headed equalizer against Club América in the Estadio Azteca.
Even during the night of River historic capitulation, it was Abreu who smashed home a penalty that appeared to put River into the quarterfinals. After a brief spell in Israeli football, the Minas native was back at River, though only able to play in the Copa Sudamericana, where he scored a double in the Centenario against one of his many former clubs, Defensor Sporting.
In 2013, Abreu returned to Argentina with Rosario Central, often featuring of a bench player. He did however have the pleasure of eliminating River in the Copa Argentina, celebrating wildly after scoring the winning penalty, as he had left the Millonarios on less than good terms.
10 – Diego Forlán Independiente
The best player at the 2010 World Cup never actually played club football in his homeland until he joined Peñarol at the age of 36. Instead, Forlan followed in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather Juan Carlos Carrazzo by crossing the Río de La Plata and joining Avellaneda giants Independiente as a youth player.
Although Forlan was unable to bring any championships to El Rojo, he left his own stamp on the club, scoring 39 goals between local and international competitions in 91 matches. The only regret for many in the red half of Avellaneda is that rather than return to his first club, Cachavacha chose to play for Internacional de Porto Alegre and in Japan before his experience in Peñarol.
9 – Rubén da Silva River Plate, Boca Juniors, Rosario Central
Like his compatriot Gabriel Cedrés, da Silva has the distinction of being one of the few foreigners to have played for both of Argentina’s giant clubs: River Plate and Boca Juniors. Interestingly however his most successful spell in the Primera was not with either of the Buenos Aires behemoths, but with Rosario Central, where he helped them become the first club outside the province of Buenos Aires to lift an international trophy with the 1995 Copa CONMEBOL and finished as top scorer in the 1997 Apertura.
This is not to say that da Silva’s spell at the big two was a failure by any means. He first moved to River in 1989, helping them lift the 1989-90 Primera Division title before moving to Spain to play for Logroñes. After just one season in La Rioja, he was back at River, finishing as top scorer of the 1993 Clausura as River lifted the title under Daniel Passarella. His move to Boca was less successful, causing outrage from River supporters and skepticism from the Boca faithful, before his move to Rosario gave him the freedom to return to the top of his game.
7 – Carlos Sánchez Godoy Cruz, River Plate
A naturalized Argentine who at one point flirted with the Argentina National team, Carlos Sánchez took a the less beaten path to make our list. After leaving his boyhood club Liverpool in Uruguay, El Pato did not simply cross the Rio de La Plata to join a Buenos Aires club, but travelled far west to the wine region and the city of Mendoza to play for Godoy Cruz.
It was with El Tomba that Sánchez introduced himself to the Argentine public helping the modest outfit qualify for the Copa Libertadores for the first time before scoring the club’s first ever goal in the continent’s top club competition in a 2-1 victory over Liga de Quito in 2011. It was in that same season, that Sánchez helped the Mendocinos to a historic 4-1 demolition of Boca in La Bombonera, scoring the fourth goal himself and assisting another.
It was perhaps thanks to this brilliant performance that Boca’s arch rivals, River Plate, first turned their attention to the right sided player from Montevideo. Although many may have viewed turning down Libertadores and First Division football to play in the second division a massive step back, Carlitos knew that playing for River Plate, even after the club’s unprecedented relegation from the top flight, was a the perfect way to truly launch his career, and he couldn’t have been more correct.
Although it was not always easy, Sánchez would eventually consolidate himself as an idol in Nuñez, which would earn him a long overdue call up to the Uruguayan national team at the age of 29. He was a key man in the club’s triumphant return to the first division, assisting the opening goal in the Nacional B to compatriot Juan Manuel Díaz, and scoring in his second match, a 3-1 victory over Independiente de Mendoza.
Manager Matías Almeyda played Sánchez in a more advanced role as a right sided midfielder, the classic number eight position in Argentina, and Sánchez became a fan favorite, specializing in arriving in the box and long range goals.
Back in the first division, Sánchez became one of River’s key players, scoring a spectacular double against his former club Godoy Cruz in El Monumental. Although he continued to score goals, Sánchez lost ground with the arrival of Ramón Díaz, who would eventually loan him out to Mexican club Puebla to make room for Colombian winger Carlos Carbonero.
After a year in exile, Sánchez returned to River with Marcelo Gallardo now at the helm, and never looked back. He began scoring goals from the outset, both in the domestic league and in the Copa Sudamericana that River would eventually win, defeating arch nemesis Boca in the semi and Atlético Nacional in the Final. The following year, Sánchez scored in both legs to give River a 2-0 aggregate victory over San Lorenzo to lift the Recopa Sudamericana. In the Copa Libertadores, he continued his brilliant form, scoring a sensational scissor-kick goal against Tigres in the group stage.
In the round of 16, el Pato surprised everyone when he went for the ball after River were awarded a penalty against Boca with seven minutes to go. He had begun to take penalties while in Mexico, but most River fans had never seen him take a spot kick, and nerves were frayed. Carlitos however did not let down the home fans, slotting the ball into the bottom corner as Boca keeper Agustín Orion went the wrong way.
In the quarterfinals, Carlitos scored the opening goal in a thrilling 3-0 victory over Cruzeiro in Bello Horizonte, overturning a 1-0 how defeat just a week earlier. In the Final itself, a 3-0 victory over Tigres, Sánchez was again on target from the penalty spot cementing his place in River history. He helped the club win the Suruga Bank Trophy, again on target from 12 yards. Although the ultimate dream of winning the Club World Cup was cut short by Lionel Messi’s Barcelona, Sánchez left River for Monterrey, but with an amazing history written in the club, scoring 28 goals from midfield and winning an array of trophies from the Nacional B to the Libertadores. No River fan will ever forget Sanchez, whose younger half-brother Nicolás De La Cruz now plays for the Millonarios and has fans dreaming of seeing the two play together one day.
7 – Carlos Goyén Independiente, Argentinos Juniors, Atlético Rafaela, Talleres de Remedios de Escalada
One of the best goalkeepers in Independiente’s storied history, Goyén began his career in his home country with River Plate before el Rojo’s directors brought him to Avellaneda. In a team already stacked with the likes of club legends Ricardo Bochini and Jorge Burruchage, Goyén was key in the team’s 1983 league title.
The championship holds a special place in the hearts of the Independiente faithful, as not only did their club lift the trophy, but arch nemesis Racing descended to the second division for the first time in its history, finishing dead last in the league table and the newly created promedios (points average) to determine relegation.
The league triumph earned Indpendiente a spot in the 1984 Copa Libertadores where they would be crowned champions for the record seventh time, Goyén keeping a clean sheet in both legs of the Final as Independiente won 1-0 on aggregate over Brazilian giants Grêmio.
The biggest test was yet to come, the 1984 Intercontinental Cup Final against Liverpool. Although the English reds dominated possession and pressured the Independiente goal throughout, Goyén was firm, finishing his most memorable match with the club with another clean sheet keeping out the likes of Ian Rush and Kenny Daglish.
After his time in Avellaneda where he played 193 games in the Argentine league and 17 more at international level, he moved to Junior de Barranquilla before returning to Argentina. He would finish his career playing for Argentinos Juniors, Atlético Rafaela, and Talleres de Remedios de Escalada where he would retire in 1995.
6 – Sergio Manteca Martínez Boca Juniors
Famous for his celebrations hanging from the fencing that separates the supporters from the field of play, Manteca quickly endeared himself to the Boca support by scoring against River in his first match against the Millonarios in 1992, on his way to helping Boca win the 1992 Apertura.
Twice he finished as top scorer in the league in 1993 Apertura and the 1997 Clausura, and in total managed 87 goals in 164 matches for the Xeneizes. Although his time at Boca was not as trophy laden as he would have liked, he did have the pleasure of playing alongside such Argentina legends as Diego Maradona, Claudio Caniggia, and Juan Sebastián Verón.
On the international stage, Manteca helped Uruguay to their famous 1995 Copa América triumph on home soil, netting the decisive penalty against Brazil in the Final and following his time at Boca, Martinez would play briefly with Deportivo La Coruña before finishing his career for Nacional in his country of birth.
5 – Rubén Paz Racing Club, Godoy Cruz
A classic number 10 or enganche, Paz formed part of the great generation of Uruguayan players in the 1980s, many of whom crossed the Río de La Plata to ply their trade in Argentina, including with the likes of Francescoli, Alzamendi, Carrasco, and Tano Gutiérrez.
After a brief spell with Racing Paris, Paz joined Racing Club de Avellaneda in 1986 where he would become one of the clubs all time great players and idols. With the ex-Internacional de Porto Alegre man pulling the strings, Racing ended a 21-year trophy drought by beating Cruzeiro in the Final of the 1988 Supercopa Sudamericana, a tournament where only past winners of the Copa Libertadores were invited.
That same year, the magical left footer was named South American Footballer of the Year. After a season in Italy’s Serie A, then the top league in the world, with Genoa, the Artigas native was back with Racing for two more seasons until 1992. Although a domestic trophy eluded him, he still dazzled the sky blue half of Avellaneda week in week out, with a 2-1 victory over Independiente in 1988 having particular importance. With the match still scoreless, a long goal kick from Pato Fillol made it all the way to Ruben who cut in from the right onto his left foot, eluding a defender in the process, and firing a low shot into the bottom corner before running to the Racing fans behind the goal and climbing up onto the fencing in complete ecstasy.
A dead ball specialist, Paz is often considered one of the best free kick takers in the history of the Argentine league, scoring a wide variety of goals, including this gem against Gimnasia:
Late in his career, at the age of 37, Paz joined Godoy Cruz of Mendoza to play in the Nacional B, but without a doubt he will be remembered and idolized on the western side of the Rio de La Plata for his time at Racing.
4 – Antonio Alzamendi Independiente, River Plate
Antonio Alzamendi is a special case not only for being one of the best ever Uruguayan players to cross the charco, but for being one of the few players, regardless of nationality, to be held in equally high esteem by the fans by two of Argentina’s traditional ‘big five’ clubs, in his case River Plate and Independiente.
In a 2012 interview with ESPN’s Pura Quimica program Antonio was asked to choose between the clubs, to which he replied it would be like choosing between your mother and father, a response that would have had both fanbases chuckling.
Independiente was however his first club, helping them win the 1978 Torneo Nacional scoring 75 goals in four seasons for El Rojo. It was however with River that the man from Durazno is best remembered, helping the Millonarios shake the tag of gallinas, or chickens, by winning the Copa Libertadores for the first time in 1986.
It was Alzemendi who scored against Boca Juniors, eliminating the Xeneizes in the group stage, and helping open up River’s path to the Final against América de Cali, where River would run out 3-1 aggregate winners, earning a ticket to the Intercontinental Cup.
It was in that competition, against Steaua Bucharest, that Antonio scored what many consider to be the most important goal in River’s history. River were awarded a free kick around midfield that Beto Alonso took quickly, playing the Uruguayan clear on goal with a brilliant through ball. His initial shot was saved by the Romanian keeper, but El Hormiga (the ant) made no mistake from the rebound, heading home to make River de facto World Champions.
3 – Walter Gómez River Plate
More than 30 years before Enzo Francescoli would debut for River Plate, becoming an undisputed club legend and fan favorite, another Uruguayan stole the hearts of the faithful at El Monumental, Walter Gomez.
A native of Montevideo, Gómez reached prominence in the late 1940s for giants Nacional, helping them to two league titles and scoring over 100 goals. An unfortunate suspension caused the young Gómez to miss a shot at immortality with his national team at the 1950 World Cup, but it did not prevent River president Antonio Vespucci Liberti from traveling to reach a one million pound transfer fee with Nacional to bring Gómez across the pond.
Quickly the ex-Nacional man became the key in a River front line that featured members of the famed Máquina side of the 1940s: Felix Loustau and River’s all time top scorer and great ever idol: Angel Labruna, who laid on an assist to Gómez in his River debut against Newell’s in Rosario. His legend began to grow as he scored an unbelievable four goals in just 21 minutes against Lanús. Arch rivals Boca were also a favorite victim, scoring against them in a 3-1 victory in 1952 and famous 3-0 thrashing two years later:
His prowess in front of goal allowed him to reach 76 goals for the club, a record for a foreigner until Francescoli, and the adoration of the thousands of fans in El Monumental who created a special chant for him: “La gente ya no come por ver a Walter Gómez…” (The people no longer eat to go see Walter Gómez).
In five seasons at River, Gómez lifted the Argentine league title three times before deciding to try his skills on the old continent, moving to Palermo in Italy. His footballing odyssey would also take him to Colombia and Venezuela, but after retiring he made his permanent home in Argentina in the municipality of Vicente López, often making appearances in his beloved Estadio Monumental.
2 – Ricardo Pavoni Independiente
Not only the greatest defender to cross the river, Ricardo Pavoni is the most decorated Uruguayan in the history of Argentine football, having won 12 titles with Independiente: Five Copa Libertadores, three local titles, 3 Copa Interamericanas (a now defunct cup between the champions of the Copa Libertadores and the champions of the CONCACAF region), and an Intercontinental Cup, against none other than Juventus in 1973.
The left back began his career in his home city of Montevideo with Defensor Sporting before joining El Rojo in 1964. In all competitions, Pavoni played 493 matches for Independiente scoring 57 goals, none more important than his winner against São Paulo in 1974. After each side had managed to win on home soil, a decisive third match was scheduled in Santiago, Chile. When Independiente were awarded a penalty, it was the Uruguayan stalwart who picked up the ball and took the responsibility. He fired his shot down the middle as the Brazilian keeper dove out of the way and Independiente were yet again champions of America.
1 – Enzo Francescoli River Plate
There was never any doubt who come out number on our list, as not only has no Uruguayan scored more goals in Argentine football than El Príncipe, but neither has any Uruguayan, and very few Argentines for that matter, received as much love, admiration, and respect as Enzo Francescoli, Zinedine Zidane’s boyhood idol, eventually naming his son after the Uruguayan great.
After starting his career with Montevideo Wanderers, Enzo made the move across the Río de La Plata in 1983 as a virtually unknown in Argetnina, even though he had helped Uruguay to the 1983 Copa América title, scoring a free kick against Brasil in the Final.
Although River fans were originally very skeptical about the arrival, Francescoli quickly changed their minds, finishing as the top scorer in Argentina in 1984 with 29 goals, including three against Boca in a 4-1 victory in El Monumental.
Although the Millonarios fell short of winning any silverware, his exploits earned him the South American player of the year award in 1984, and Argentina Player of the Year in 1985. It was in the 1985-86 season, that Enzo elevated himself from top player, to an idol amongst River Plate supporters. During a glamour friendly with Poland in Mar del Plata in January 1986, el Principe netted a hat-trick, including a majestic overhead bicycle kick, or chilena, to seal River’s 5-4 victory:
Just a few weeks later, back in the Argentine tournament, River was involved in another 5-4 thriller, this time against Libertadores holders Argentinos Juniors, with Francescoli again netting a hat-trick.
Finally, on the 9th of March 1986, River beat Vélez 3-0 in Nuñez to clinch the league title, with Enzo on target with his league leading 25th goal of the season. Although the Montevideo native would be sold before River would win the Copa Libertadores that year, he would get another chance a decade later. After a successful time in Europe with Racing Paris, Marseille, Cagliari, and Torino, Enzo returned to River in 1994 still at the peak of his powers at the age of 32. He announced his return with a free kick goal against Ferro in a downpour and went on to yet again finish as Argentina’s top scorer, including a goal against Boca in a 3-0 thrashing in La Bombonera.
After helping Uruguay win the Copa América for the third time in his career, this time on home soil, Enzo was again named South American Player of the Year, but his greatest accomplishment would come in 1996 as he captained River to the Copa Libertadores title for the second time in the club’s history.
Following the continental triumph, River went on to win 3 league titles in a row and the 1997 Supercopa Sudamericana, a tournament that featured all past Libertadores winners, beating São Paulo 2-1 in the Final over two legs. His storied career with River final came to an end in 1997 and such was the outpouring of affection towards the elegant playmaker that River made him just the second player in history, following Norberto Alonso, to be honored with a despedida (farewell), or testimonial match as River took on Peñarol in front of a sold out Monumental.