ALBERTO SPENCER: the greatest player you’ve never heard of

South America has long been a cradle for many of the world’s most celebrated footballers. Names such as Pelé, Maradona, Messi and Di Stéfano trip from the tongue, and there are so many others who would comfortably fit alongside such exalted company. It is, however, probably true to say that the fame such luminaries of the game have enjoyed was made possible by either competing in World Cup tournaments, joining top European clubs, or both. Would any of those stellar names be so well-known without those circumstances being in place?

If, instead, let’s say for example an outstanding forward was born in one of the less internationally successful South American countries, and hence was denied an opportunity to play in the global extravaganza of a World Cup tournament, or was denied the chance to cross the globe and earn the money available and fame at one of Europe’s premier clubs, would that make him a lesser player, or merely a lesser-known one?

Alberto Pedro Spencer Herrera, forever known as Alberto Spencer, was born in Ancón on the Ecuador’s Santa Elena peninsula on 6 December 1937. Whilst his mother was Ecuadorean, Spencer’s father was a Jamaican of British origin who was in the country as an employee of the Anglo-Ecuadorian Oil Company, a subsidiary of the organisation now known as BP. His British heritage would later lead to a number of attempts to bring the player to Britain in order to represent the country of his father, but the moves came to nought. Had fate took a different turn though, who can say how the world would now look upon the name of Alberto Spencer.

Like so many children of his era, playing football in the local streets was a popular pastime. For this particular boy, however, the sport would be his passport to fame and glory. Spencer’s elder brother, Marcos, took him to the Everest club, based in Guayaquil, to demonstrate his younger sibling’s ability to the staff there. It took little to persuade the coaches that this young kid had amazing potential and they took him on board. He would make his debut for the first team at the tender age of 15. In six years with the club, he would score 101 goals in just 93 games, and the rest of the clubs in the country inevitably sat up and took notice.

In July 1959 Peñarol, one of the top clubs in Uruguay, were on tour in Ecuador and played a game against Barcelona SC, where Spencer was now on loan. It was time for his big break. Now into his early 20s, the promise of his teenage years had been converted into the gold standard currency of goals and the Uruguayan club’s manager, Hugo Bagnulo, was impressed enough by Spencer’s performance in the game to recognise the value he could add to his team. He instructed scout Pibe Ortega to sign the player for Peñarol as soon as the game was completed. The deal was struck and the legend of Alberto Spencer was born.

Already hugely successful, Peñarol’s new acquisition would turn the club into one of the most fearsome outfits in South American football and deliver a period of domination across the continent and beyond. Spencer brought with him the priceless contribution of goals. A natural finisher of the highest order he not only had that innate ability to be in the right place at the right time to finish off moves, but his all-round ability also meant that he could conjure up chances – and the goals that followed – from seemingly innocuous situations. The gift of being ambidextrous meant that beating a defender on either side was equally comfortable to him, and there was no ‘safe side’ that defenders could seek to shepherd him down.

On top of that, he had searing pace and the boundless energy of a natural athlete. Tall enough, although not necessarily towering, he was prodigious in the air, a springing leap and powerful neck muscles leading to many a headed goal. The great Pelé himself was once moved to say that, “Someone that headed better than me was Spencer. I was good, but he was spectacular heading the ball. In general, he would do it with a burst, but without actually sprinting.” It’s some accolade, but one born more out of respect than hyperbole. Spencer’s new club would be the beneficiary of such attributes.

In his first season with the club, Peñarol won the Uruguayan Primera División, losing just a single game, and amassing 44 goals across the 18-game season. Their greater success though would come in the Copa Libertadores, a tournament for which Spencer would develop a particular liking. It was the first year that CONMEBOL had organised such a tournament, the South American equivalent of the European Cup. Securing the initial title would be a major coup for whichever club prevailed.

Peñarol defeated Bolivian champions Jorge Wilstermann, and Argentine side San Lorenzo before a tight victory over Paraguay’s Olimpia in the final to claim the inaugural title. Spencer was the top scorer in that season’s competition, and by the time he retired would become the all-time record scorer with 54.

The only blot on the Peñarol copy book was a defeat to Real Madrid in the first Intercontinental Cup. Following a 0-0 draw in Montevideo, Los Blancos crushed the Uruguayans at the Santiago Bernabéu, scoring five times, as the greats of that outstanding team – Di Stéfano, Puskas, Gento and Herrera – all helped themselves to goals. A late strike by Spencer was a meagre consolation. Hardly downbeat in defeat, club president Gaston Guelfi he bullishly declared: “Next year we’ll be champions of the Americas again and then we’ll beat the Europeans in the Cup. Peñarol will be world champions.”

The following season was another one of domestic dominance for Peñarol, and Spencer would finish as the league’s top marksman with no less than 18, equating to a goal in each and every game. The Copa Libertadores competition that year would again see Peñarol prosper, seeing off Lima’s Universitario and old foes Olimpia to set up a final against Brazilian giants Palmeiras en route to retaining the coveted trophy. With the first leg of the final heading to a goalless draw, Spencer answered the call with an 89th minute winner. It meant that the 1-1 draw in the second leg in São Paulo was sufficient for Peñarol to retain the trophy.

The Intercontinental Cup was still in its infancy, and the format of the competition had clearly not been fully thought through. Rather than aggregate scores deciding matters, in the event of each team winning a game in the two-legged tie, points were awarded on the result on each game, two for a win and one for a draw. It was a format that initially looked likely to deny Peñarol the trophy. Pitched against Portugal’s Benfica, a 1-0 defeat at Estádio da Luz, hardly looked secure, and in the return, the paucity of that victory was ruthlessly exposed. A five-goal victory, with Spencer scoring twice, was more than decisive. The less then well thought out rules meant however that, despite the drastic imbalance in goals, both victories carried equal weight and a deciding play-off would be required.

In front of some 60,000 fans in Montevideo, Peñarol went ahead early through José Sasía, before Eusebio scored his first goal in international competition to equalise from the penalty spot. Sasía would settle the issue though just ahead of half-time with his second strike. Guelfi’s pledge had been honoured. Peñarol were champions of the footballing world, and although he had not scored in the play-off game, Alberto Spencer had been a key driver in that triumph.

In 1962, Peñarol maintained their stranglehold on the domestic league securing their third title in a row. This time their margin over Nacional – again the bridesmaids – was doubled to six points and Spencer was once again the league’s top scorer with 16. The Copa Libertadores would produce mixed fortunes though. A more bloated tournament, with two clubs representing each country, saw Peñarol, as holders, only introduced at the semi-final stage, where they would, ironically face compatriots and perennial league runners-up Nacional. There seemed little inferiority complex in the first leg as Nacional ran out 2-1 winners. In the return, a brace by Spencer contributed to a 3-1 victory, and as the play-off game ended level at 1-1, goal difference was used to settle the encounter. Peñarol prospered with Spencer’s two goals making the difference between progress and elimination.

In a strange match-up with Brazil’s Santos, who included the incomparable Pelé in their line-up, both clubs lost the home legs. Initially Santos triumphed 1-2 in Montevideo, with Spencer’s strike outweighed by two from the visitors. Then, at the Estádio Vila Belmiro, another double by Spencer saw Peñarol triumph 2-3. On neutral turf at the Estadio Monumental, Buenos Aires, Santos triumphed 3-0 with a brace from Pelé. For the first time, Peñarol were compelled to pass on the title of South American champions. On an individual note though, even though he had only played in two rounds of the competition, Alberto Spencer was the tournament’s joint top scorer.

The 1963 season proved to be a fallow one for Peñarol. After slugging it out in the league across the season, Nacional eventually took the title by a single point. The two clubs had ripped up the league between them and the club in third place was a full nine points behind the runners-up. It’s certainly not unconnected that Spencer also had a relatively poor year. He missed three games and his league total of nine goals was only slightly higher than half of the toll of the previous year. Finding the back of the net was less of a problem for both Peñarol and Spencer back in the Copa Libertadores opening round, and this time there was a homecoming for the Ecuadorean striker.

Peñarol were paired with Spencer’s first club, Everest and although, perhaps with emotions getting the better of him, he missed out in a five-goal romp for the Uruguayan club in Guayaquil. Back in Montevideo things were back to normal. In a 9-1 victory, Spencer scored five times. Peñarol would lose out to Boca Juniors in semi-final however and were compelled to contemplate that it would now take a major push if they were to regain the South American title and the hegemony they had enjoyed in the first couple of years of the tournament.

The league had a much more familiar look about it at the end of the season in 1964. Peñarol had this time dismissed all comers fairly comfortably. An absence from the season’s Copa Libertadores – champions Nacional took the single berth available that year – may have helped to ease the number of games the club had to play. If so, it reaped domestic dividends for Peñarol. Winning 16 out of 18 games and drawing the remaining two was an outstanding performance and took them a dozen points clear at the top. Conversely, Spencer had his worst season ever with the club, although his goals to games ratio was stunningly good. Injuries curtailed his first-team appearances, limiting him to just six games. He did however net six goals in that time, equating to a goal per game and echoing his strike rate in 1962.

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The league was retained the following year, although Nacional ran Peñarol much closer, cutting the gap to five points, and Spencer was back among the goals scoring a dozen times in the league to propel the club to the top. He was however absent for that year’s assault on the Copa Libertadores. In his absence, Peñarol found their way to the final, but were soundly beaten in a play-off by Argentina’s Independiente. It had now been some years since Peñarol had dominated the South American championship. The following year though would bring back the glory times for the Montevideo club, and the man scoring the vital goals would be Alberto Spencer. The league title would escape their clutches with Nacional prospering again. Peñarol would be frying bigger fish.

Another change to the Copa Libertadores saw two teams from Uruguay competing, and Nacional joined Peñarol. Placed in a group with two clubs each from Bolivia and Ecuador, the Uruguayan clubs finished first and second in their section. Somewhat surprisingly, across the ten game group fixtures, where Peñarol would score twenty goals, Spencer only netted twice. Less surprisingly though, in both cases, they were the key goals that decided games. For the semi-final group, Peñarol and Nacional were joined by the Chileans of Club Deportivo Universidad Católica.

Things started badly in the section, with Peñarol losing the opening game to a single goal in Santiago. From there though, their form picked up and Peñarol won all three of their remaining fixtures, topping the group and heading for the finals. Spencer’s absence from the scoring sheet across the four games though suggested to some that perhaps his powers were on the wane, or that other teams had found an effect way of neutralising the striker. He would confound such suppositions.

Facing Argentina’s River Plate in the final games, Peñarol secured a 2-0 victory in Montevideo before travelling to Buenos Aries. In front of 60,000 passionate Argentine fans in the Estadio Antonio V. Liberti, the Uruguayan club looked to be in control, leading twice before being pegged back; the second goal for the visitors coming from Spencer. A draw would have seen the championship going back to Peñarol, with Spencer’s goal again looking decisive, but a strike for the home team from Ermindo Onega finally turned the game in River’s favour and a play-off would be required.

Two days later, the sides met again at the neutral ground of the Estadio Nacional, Santiago. Past the hour mark, all seemed up for Peñarol with River leading 2-0. The first goal came after 27 minutes, when a ball was pulled back for Daniel Onega to fire home. The strike from the player who would go on to become the tournament’s leading goal-getter that year, sparked excited celebrations on the sidelines as staff and coaches leapt into the air. Then, just ahead of the break, a long punt downfield by the Argentine goalkeeper saw a Peñarol player lose possession to Jorge Solari. The midfielder scampered forward and fired in a shot from just outside the area. It deceived goalkeeper Mazurkiewicz and crashed into the top of the net. If the celebrations following the first goal were excited, these were ecstatic. As well as staff from the Argentine bench flooding on to the pitch, photographers gathered around the players to grab the images of the team now surely destined to lift the trophy. The downcast demeanour of the Peñarol players offered tacit acceptance of the seemingly inevitable.

With time running away though, a quick free-kick into the Argentine box found Spencer and the ace marksman, displaying enviable balance and poise, volleyed home. Peñarol were still trailing though and celebrations were muted. One Peñarol fan did manage to get onto the pitch and whilst taunting the River players, Spencer quickly grabbed him and escorted from the field, clearly thinking there was still time to get level.

Six minutes later, Peñarol were indeed back on terms. A tackle on Spencer on the edge of the area saw the ball break to Abbadie who fired high into the net. Now came the full celebrations. Players, staff and photographers filled the pitch. It was a totally different game now. For all that though, there were no more goals until full-time and a period of extra-time was required to separate the teams. The next goal would be vital, and at such times Peñarol would look to their talismanic striker. He wouldn’t be found wanting.

Just three minutes were left of the first period of extra-time when a cross came in from the Peñarol right flank. Rising around twelve yards from goal, Spencer validated Pelé’s assessment of his aerial ability powerfully nodding the ball inside the far post. From two goals down, thanks largely to Alberto Spencer, Peñarol now led. River Plate had shot their bolt, and when Pedro Rocha nodded Peñarol’s fourth goal with time almost done, it was merely the icing on the cake. It was the return of the kings of South American football, and their crown prince was Alberto Spencer

A few months later, Peñarol were pitted against Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup. After Peñarol’s victory in 1961, first Santos and then Internaztionale of Milan had dominated the competition, winning twice each. The Italians’ crown had now slipped though, and with Real Madrid regaining the European Cup after beating Partizan Belgrade, it would be the Spaniards facing Spencer and his team-mates for the world crown in a repeat of the 1960 final when Los Blancos had destroyed Peñarol at the Santiago Bernabéu. It was time for revenge.

As had been the case six years earlier, the first leg was to be played in South America and the Uruguayan club knew that they couldn’t afford to have another goalless draw if they were to be victorious. Alberto Spencer was on the case though, and goals after 39 and 74 minutes by the home team’s star striker sent the Uruguayans across the Atlantic in positive mood. Their confidence wasn’t to be misplaced.

Although now an entirely different Madrid team – shorn of Di Stéfano, Gento, and Puskas et al – from the one encountered by Peñarol six years earlier, it was still a formidable home line-up and the early pressure suggested that the tie was far from over. Peñarol fought back though and Spencer had the ball in the net after a fumble by home goalkeeper Betancort. The referee, however, deemed that the forward had fouled the goalkeeper and ruled out the strike.

A goal wasn’t far away though, and when a clumsy Spanish challenge in the box resulted in a spot kick on the half-hour, Rocha netted to put Peñarol three goals clear. On 42 minutes any lingering doubts were extinguished when Spencer played a wall pass on the edge of the home area, before accelerating clear and clipping the ball past Betancourt for a delightful finish. In the second period, Madrid pressed but the well-organised Peñarol defence held on without undue concern. Peñarol were once again the top club on the planet, and three of their four goals had come courtesy of Alberto Spencer. It was the zenith of the club’s achievements, and although further league success would follow, the club would never hit such heights again.

The success against Madrid had also brought the exploits and talents of Spencer to a wider audience. Just a few months short of his 29th birthday, European clubs were taking notice of Alberto Spencer. In particular, at Internazionale, legendary Argentine manager Helenio Herrera had his Grande Inter team in full swing, and the Ecuadorean was seen as the ideal player to relaunch the Nerazzurri bid for European dominance. Oil tycoon Angelo Moratti was then head of the club and he was keen to follow the advice of his massively successful coach. Both resolved to bring Spencer to the Giuseppe Meazza.

Peñarol resisted the initial approach from the Italian club, but when they returned later with an increased offer, Moratti was confident that he would swing the deal. He was rebuffed. Peñarol insisted that Spencer was not for sale at any price; such was his perceived value to the club. Inter were sent home with empty hands and a still full cheque-book. Alberto Spencer was going nowhere.

In the following two years, Peñarol secured the league title. Firstly, by six points from Nacional in 1967, before repeating the feat in 1968. On both occasions, Spencer topped the goal scoring table, but time and tide wait for no man, not even exceptional athletes and his time in Montevideo as the club’s prime goalscorer was ebbing away. In the 1968 Copa Libertadores, Spencer would score ten goals whilst Peñarol lost in the semi-final to Palmeiras.

In 1969 Peñarol lost out to Nacional in the title chase, and Spencer wouldn’t lift another league title with the club. Late in that same year, with Spencer just a few days ahead of his 32nd birthday, Peñarol triumphed in the Supercopa de Campeones Intercontinentales, played between the four South American winners of the Intercontinental Cup. Spencer would net twice across the six games the club played.

The 1970 title went to Nacional again, seemingly confirming the shift in power between the two Montevideo clubs. Spencer would notch a dozen league goals, and in the Copa Libertadores, Spencer’s seven goals would help to take Peñarol to the final, but they would lose out to Estudiantes.

It would be the Ecuadorean last season with the club. In 1971, he travelled back to his home country and rejoined Barcelona SC where, now in his mid-thirties he would help the club win the Serie A title, scoring 12 goals in 20 league games. Although he played a couple of league games the following season, his last hurrah came in the competition that he had graced with so many goals. Playing for Barcelona he scored in the Copa Libertadores to bring his total goals in the tournament across his career to 54. No-one has scored more, and when considering the calibre of players to have competed and excelled on that stage, it’s an outstanding achievement. He would also score in excess of 500 goals for his teams across all competitions, including 326 for Peñarol.

For an Ecuadorean who spent so much of his life in Uruguay, it’s perhaps less surprising than would otherwise be the case that he played on the international stage for both countries – not moving from one to the other registering a change in nationality, but representing Ecuador from 1959 to 1972 and, during the same period, turning out four times for La Celeste as a ‘guest’ player in friendlies. His single strike in those games for Uruguay came at Wembley against England. With him being the only Ecuadorean player to score at Wembley against the Three Lions, add in the fact that the Ecuadorean national team has never played at the stadium, and there’s an intriguing quiz question just waiting to be picked up.

After retiring in 1973, Alberto Spencer moved to Montevideo and in 1982 was made an Honorary Consul of Ecuador stationed in his adopted home city. He suffered a heart attack in September 2006 and passed away in November of the same year. Now with the story complete, perhaps it’s time to reconsider that question. To be ranked among the greats of the footballing world, does a player need to have achieved fame in a World Cup or play for a top European club? The tale of Alberto Spencer suggests that such may not necessarily be the case. So, move along there Pelé, Maradona, Messi and Di Stéfano, you need to find a seat alongside you for Alberto Spencer.

By Gary Thacker for the SOUTH AMERICA series

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