Place of birth: Montevideo (12 November 1940)
Playing position: Central midfielder
Career: Danubio F.C. (1956 – 1959); Club Atlético Peñarol (1959 – 1973)
‘Ever-eternal in the middle’, the phrase is delivered with passion by Maximiliano Ortega as he recalls the poem he wrote when Pablo Cortázar made his debut with a Peñarol shirt. The veteran journalist of Diario El Pais is also a renowned poet and author of the recently published Gaucho eterno – Biografia de Pablo Cortázar. Not to mention a life long supporter of Peñarol de Montevideo.
Outside Uruguay little is known about the midfield dynamo. Nowadays, any South American boy who manages to keep the ball in the air for more then 3 seconds has an internet video collection and a legion of European scouts chasing him. Pablo Cortázar comes from a different age, he played most of his career in Peñarol de Montevideo. Recorded footage of his skills are seldom find. His best known international appearance is the 1965 Intercontinental cup victory (Peñarol – Barcelona in two legs) and a less than lustre 1966 World Cup. Therefore we mostly have to rely on written reports and testimonies from people who actually saw him play.
Ortega is not only one of those lucky few, he actually wrote several articles about Cortázar throughout his career. His writing portraying a more vivid Cortázar then any video recording could provide. According to him, Pablo
“Combined precise silky passing, authoritative tackling and an endless breath. Furthermore, he was a graceful player, like a Gaucho settled on his horse, his eyes continuously focused on the horizon, searching for purpose. Pablo was an artist that always worked for the team while enchanting the viewer. He preferred to play it cool and linear, although he could fill the playing field with the richness of his football.”
A real 21st century box-to-box we might add. Cortázar seems to combine the best qualities of an anchor-man with the creative features of a Maestro.
“You see, his art was in solving the equation of the pass: creating space with the ball, like an explorer finding new trajectories for others to roam. His was the obsession with the pass, thus revealing his unselfish nature, because it seems to be undisputed that the pass is the ultimate expression of solidarity in football.”
Maximiliano Ortega talks about Pablo with relentless passion. As a player, Cortázar was the paragon of unselfishness, which, according to Ortega, was the main reason why he never moved abroad from Peñarol. He remarked in setting other players up to score. Sometimes after a physics defying long pass from deep in his own midfield. Other times with a subtle assist a few yards from the penalty area.
Moreover he developed a move that became, although it was later much imitated, a trademark of his style:
“His creativity in the field was unique. He wasn’t pleased with just doing the right thing, he wanted to do it in style. Since the early games of his career he showed an ability to do the sombrero. An art he mastered to perfection: He concealed the tip of his foot underneath the ball, when the opponent charged he would lift it over him with the slightest and almost imperceptible touch. He hold back the move until it was already too late, fooling everyone. On ocasion he did it repetitively to the same adversary. The crowd was already expecting it and he would do it sometimes, maybe most of the time, just to please them.”
Ortega can barely avoid the smile while talking about Cortázar. His face hardly being able to conceal a they don’t make them like they used to expression.
Cortázar spent his entire career in Uruguay. Peñarol acquired the promising 19 year old midfielder from the ranks of a small club from Montevideo called Danubio. With Peñarol he would go on to win several national championships, but important as those maybe be, Peñarol and Nacional de Montevideo have an almost undisputed domain over the remaining competition. National titles notwithstanding, the high points of his career have to be the two Copa Libertadores da América wins in 1964 and 1965 and the aforementioned Intercontinental Cup win in 1965 against a formidable Barcelona side.
His career achievements are nothing to be ashamed of but, it’s fair to say, lack the global scale impact that World Cup performances bring. According to Maximiliano, he produced outstanding performances with “la maglia celeste”, but never on a big occasion with global media coverage. It was rather unfortunate that he only played the 1966 World Cup in England. An injury kept him away in 1970 and in 1962 the Uruguayan team wasn’t able to qualify. To make matters worst the 1966 World Cup saw a less than impressive performance from Cortázar and his team mates.
Nevertheless, his legend in Uruguay was indomitably bolstered by an unforgettable 1-0 win in the Maracana against Brazil. It was the 3rd and 4th place playoff of the Copa América 1969. Cortázar put on a masterly performance and received a unique standing ovation from the Brazilian fans (all one hundred thousand of them).
Fernando Veríssimo was a field reporter at the time for newspaper O Globo, he recalls an enthusiastic competition in which Argentina would eventually win the trophy. Brazil was clear favourites to win the 3rd place play-off, being more experienced than the Uruguayans and off course having the home advantage of a stadium packed with a roaring crowd. Turns out there was someone in the Urugayan team who appeared immune to the surrounding atmosphere. In the words of Fernando Veríssimo the Brazilian journalist:
“Well, he played that game with such ease, with no more concerns than he would have playing around in his own back yard. I think he was really enjoying himself actually. He seemed rather keen on lobbing the Brazilian players, besides that he must have created a dozen goal scoring opportunities for his team mates. I have no problem admitting that if it wasn’t for a particular inspired night of the Brazilian goalkeeper, it could’ve end up in a 3 or 4 goals trashing.”
Referring to the standing ovation, Fernando Veríssimo says:
“The Brazilian crowd saluted a brother that night. When the game ended, he was a fellow countryman, the random incident that he wasn’t born in the same country, was not going to stop us from acknowledging that. Someone who plays with that kind of passion and love to the game, with that kind of respect towards the crowd deserves to be loved back. As if the crowd had recognized his genius and felt he was a Brazilian playing in a Uruguayan shirt.”
Pablo Cortázar delighted South American crowds for several more years, until eventually he retired at the age of 33. It is impossible to know how much of the mystified Cortázar we experience through Veríssimo or Ortega is actually true. Still, we gladly embrace the suspension of disbelief that is required from us to be able to see Pablo Cortázar, after all, it would be such a pity not to.