Was Monti a coward?

SO was Luisito Monti, alias The Man Who Strolls, a coward as well as a bully? It seems a strange question to answer all these decades later, but it has been elicited by a remarkable interview published in France Football magazine with Pancho Varalla, 92 years old and the solitary survivor from the first ever World Cup Final, that of 1930 in Montevideo when Uruguay, the hosts, beat Argentina their eternal bitter rivals from across the River Plate, 4-2. So repeating their success in the Olympic Final of 1928 in Amsterdam, though that necessitated a replay. Varalla, scorer of two World Cup final goals in 1930, a small, quick, stocky goalscorer who had a decade in the national team, was tracked down running a lottery ticket shop in his native city where he initially made his name with the Gimnasiay Esgrime club, going on to greater things with Boca Juniors of Buenos Aires. He missed just one game, injured, in that 1930 World Cup.

Monti, of course, was much better known, and, you might say, notorious. He was a big, tough, ruthless centre half, not of the third back, stopper kind, dedicated merely to "blotting out," as they used to say, the opposing centre forward. No, he was one of the roving kind, a dominant force, not merely in defence, but also in midfield, ever ready to carry the ball into attack; and to deal hardly with the opposition.

Once, playing - as did Varalla himself - for Boca Juniors, in a friendly in Buenos Aires against the touring Chelsea team, it was recorded that he approached a Chelsea player, held out his hand as though to shake hands with him then, when the Chelsea man reciprocated, cold bloodedly kicked him.

When Argentina played France in the 1930 World Cup qualifying group, it was Monti who would eventually score the only goal from a free kick. But the French centre back, the fluent and elegant Maurice Pinel, remarked in later years that every time he got near to Monti, he received a blow of some kind.

Yet, when it came to the Final, Varalla insisted, Monti was so scared that he was virtually negligible. Let us paint in the background. Argentina and Uruguay as we know were rivals as bitter as only such close neighbours could be. In the streets of Buenos Aires on the eve of the World Cup Final, the crowds were chanting "Victory or Death!" In Montevideo, passions were equally inflamed. Monti, says Varalla, told him that he had received death threats. There seemed every chance that the Final would provoke extreme violence and rioting. John Langenus, the famous Belgian referee, the man of cap and breeches, demanded guarantees for himself and his linesmen. Troops ringed the ground. In the event, all would pass off peacefully, though you do wonder what might have happened had Uruguay lost, which they seemed likely to do when behind at half time, rather than won.

In the dressing room, said Varalla, Monti was in a state of panic, still afraid he might be killed and threatening that he would not play, but Varalla and the others talked him into doing so. Yet throughout the match, according to Varalla, Monti was still in such a state of terror that rather than being his usually dominant self, he was a passenger. A situation, according to Varalla, which was exacerbated when he himself was injured and thus condemned to limp on chewing, effectively condemning Argentina to play with nine men, since of course no substitutes were allowed in those days.

I have to say that I have not read or heard elsewhere that Monti was so ineffectual against Uruguay, but Varalla insisted that the Uruguayans played a ruthless, bruising game, with scant regard for the rules. Not that Langenus, a brave man was the kind of referee likely to turn a blind eye to such tactics.

Monti subsequently followed his compatriot, Raimondo Orsi, who had already left home and thus could not ply his speed and skills on Argentina's left wing in 1930, to Juventus, in Turin, where he was handsomely paid. Vittorio Pozzo, the commissario tecnico, or manager supreme of the Azzurri, welcomes both of them as so called Oriundi, meaning South American players of Italian descent, and thus entitled to Italian passports. Both were swiftly co-opted to the Italy team.

Pozzo told me that he was especially keen to use Monti to replace a genuine Italian in the elegant Roman centre half, Fulvio Bernardini, later to become such a successful manager with Fiorentina, Bologna and Italy itself. What Pozzo wanted was an attacking centre half in the mould of Charlie Roberts, a famous Manchester United and England player whom he used to watch as a poor student in the English Midlands, before the first World War, afterwards introducing himself and discussing tactics with Roberts. "Everybody says, clever Bernardini," Pozzo told the hapless Fulvio, "but you hold up the play."

Much less technical, much more robust, Monti, by contrast, was given to making long, sweeping passes, the kind that Pozzo admired. But the leopard had not changed its spots. Pozzo told me that Monti confessed to him, "When I see Sindelar, I see red." He was speaking of the celebrated, technically superb, Austrian international centre forward, nicknamed The Man of Paper, tall, slim and endlessly elusive. Once, in an Italy-Austria international, Monti punched him. When Italy played Austria in the Midanese mud in the semifinal of the 1934 World Cup, Monti is not recorded as having hit Sindelar, but Italy did have the better of it, 1-0. So to the Final in Rome when Italy, with much difficulty, beat the Czechs, 2-1.

The following November, Monti and the Italians came to Highbury to challenge an England team with no fewer than seven Arsenal men appearing on their home ground. After a mere 90 seconds one of them, the burly centre forward, Ted Drake, connected with the top of Monti's foot breaking a bone, leaving him in fearful pain, obliged to quit the field, telling Pozzo, "He kicked me deliberately!" which Ted would always deny, The rest of the Italian team believed it, however, and set about, in Pozzo's words: "retaliating," with feet and elbows. Eddie Hapgood, England's blameless skipper, had his nose broken. England eventually ran out uneasy winners, 3-2. Doubtless if Monti had stayed on the field it could have been very different.

He was beyond doubt, a thug, but a thug who could emphatically play football. Was he a coward as well? Did he really give up the ghost in the 1930 Final? Varalla at 92, 72 years later, is quite sure of it, but reliable witnesses would be awfully hard to find. So Monti played for two different teams in two World Cup Finals, losing the first but winning the second? He was always Pozzo's kind of player.